late August 1998
The sights, sounds, and scents multiply along my daily walk of Chennai’s streets between our comfortable third floor apartment (locally called “flat”) and seminary campus. How grateful I am to live off-campus; getting away from the walled-in community enables spiritual health. A fifteen-minute walk provides benefits unmeasurable. Encounters with people. Time to think—either to anticipate or review events scheduled and impromptu. Formation of a sense of belonging, although a foreigner among the city’s six million. Seeing in order to believe—traffic patterns, scooter loads, trash pickup scheme, or kindness shared. The total experience, including frustration, makes crossing cultures worthy.
Inconvenience may matter or go unnoticed. The distance between locations requires thinking through what is needed for an entire day; not often would I choose to walk the route twice. If a steady rain begins on leaving the back gate of campus, splashing will be inevitable. Sidewalks exist about a third of the way. The fold-up umbrella comes out of the shoulder bag, and I double-check that other items remain secure and dry—wallet, library books, reading glasses, folders. Heat may on occasion slow down the pace. But after three months of temps hovering around a hundred degrees, what difference might five to ten more make? Thanks to an Indian friend in the States, my straw hat, broad rimmed, provides shade. And a litre of bottled water, like underwear, goes everywhere I do.
Not near the city’s center, our walking area is fairly residential. One morning, I decided to count traffic, bikes first—only those on-coming. After reaching seventy-five within a block, I gave up. Next, I met or was passed by five hundred vehicles within eight minutes. Each mode of transport has some means for announcing “I’m here”—each bike a jingling bell, each truck or lorrie and car a horn, each three-wheeled auto-rickshaw the squawk of squeezed rubber attached to a circular horn. Hear the din? Not all those devices suggest patience. A certain ‘pecking order’ accompanies traffic too—the bigger, the more authority. For those on foot, beware: clout is slim.
What some vehicles haul adds to the scene. One bike had a passenger straddling the back wheel and holding upright an eight-foot ladder. A bullock cart might lumber along, its cargo almost too heavy for its rubber tires. The skill with which a wife rides sideways behind her husband, driver of a two-wheeler or scooter, reveals an amazing sense of balance. She might be holding an infant while another child stands in front of the driver dad’s legs.
Our daily route passes a large school compound (called Bains), for younger boys and girls of kindergarten through secondary age. Most students are delivered on bicycle, motorcycle, cars, vans, or auto rickshaws. Once I counted nine children and their school bags ‘spill’ out of an auto rickshaw; three adults might be a ‘crowd’ in the same space. Bicycle rickshaws have their area in which to queue too. Fortunate for them, a repairman for rickshaws brings his tools to the near-by corner, being there with no overhead concern.
Surrounding the block-long, square schoolyard is an eight-foot high wall. At one corner of the compound is a round-about intersection, the traffic scheme for which seems vague. One option is for a driver to enter the area and then look. A sign nearby suggests “halt and go”; once I noticed a police vehicle halt. On the compound’s front side—a four-‘lane,’ fairly busy thoroughfare—vehicles other than motorcycles ‘line’ up for student delivery or pick-up. Several policemen appear at school opening and closing times to try to direct the chaos. Nearby an eight-foot square shop sells plates of rice with curry and other ready-to-eat snacks, adding to congestion and those willing to mingle or stare. Along one side of the compound, where no gates exist for students, diverse activity takes place. For some men, it becomes an unmarked rest or relief area. Supposedly also for walking, I avoid stepping over those who sleep and try not to notice those who urinate. Where else might drivers or bikers passing by ‘go’?
At times, the sense of chaos ‘overload’ produces a voluntary sigh. Morning food hawkers or afternoon fish sellers gain the attention of residents, while produce on the flat bed of a banana cart reveals the havoc made by a relentless sun. Next, I notice a man with his treadle sewing machine or a couple with their flat cart on which they iron shirts, adding live coals to their heavy iron. Traffic moves on the left side, confusing my instincts of where to expect it or in which direction to look first. Only a couple rats catch my attention; I understand their skittered moves. Traffic also jams and a crowd on foot may form near the gate of a palatial house where commercial movie production takes place. Not only alert to wheels of all description rolling by, the space on which to walk clearly has its risks. Although motorcycles or occasionally a car may be parked on a short section of sidewalk, motorized traffic usually stays on the road. A sight that comes to mind each time I pass one residence driveway is of a sleeping family. Just before 8 a.m., there on the cement lie a fairly young woman and man. Their bodies form a diamond shape, with a less than year-old child on the ‘mound’ between them—all sound asleep.
In addition to uneven surfaces, obstacles to walking include puddles after a shower, construction or animal refuse, and general trash—whether cut branches, paper or plastic bag debris, decaying food, or whatever. The garbage truck—an open truck ‘manned’ by one guy who scoops the stuff into a bamboo basket to hand it up to another who dumps it onto what is likely already a precarious load—comes by once a week. ‘Rag pickers’ are those who, with a fairly large bag strapped over one shoulder, ‘sort’ through the swept piles or three-foot, cement cylinders intended for holding what accumulates, to retrieve items of worth. Those who ‘sweep’ the street’s edge the day before amaze the observer. Not only do they work with brooms that demand a constant bend-of-the-back, some more dexterous operate a broom in each hand simultaneously. One sweeper woman and I always greet each other, our hands reverently coming together at face level despite broom or items held. Her genuine smile momentarily erases any grave concern.
On reaching Landon Towers, the elevator door may be left ajar at another floor, so the melody of measures from “Fur Elise” plays on unnoticed. In that case, the stairs work fine up to third. With the double locks opened, shoes removed, and western shorts replacing an Indian shawar chemis outfit, the privacy of space called ‘home’ invites.