Six years ago, on May 11, I came to an unknown city with nothing more than an offer letter to join work at a multinational corporation. I was seeking job opportunities in India; I wanted to return to my homeland from the Gulf, having only begun my professional career. A family friend introduced me to a promising portfolio and work environment, four months after which I bade goodbye to the tranquil and retire-worthy sultanate of Oman. While looking up career openings, I was open when it came to the location and the scope of my job. So, accepting employment in Chennai was no big deal. However, apart from the family friend who helped me get into this IT enterprise, I was neither familiar with the radius of the city nor its people. And so, receiving a culture shock when I landed is an understatement.
Everyplace I went to the native tongue caught me off guard. My trials with the local language were thwarted in an intimidating yet straightforward one-liner – your Tamil is different. It felt like I was getting caught red-handed in some daredevil act. Like, my attempt to speak Tamil wasn’t boding well with the locals, a madcap venture they saw as one no less than committing a criminal offence. At first, it was the dialect, then the pronunciation, and then the intonation each of which catapulted me two paces backwards whenever I wanted to take one step ahead. Even today, I don’t feel confident with Tamil; my command over the language isn’t any cleaner, clarified or eloquent. I shy away from speaking it in public, seeking refuge in the same excuse I had covertly created upon freshly arriving in the city in 2011 – my Tamil isn’t that great.
My colleagues at the workplace were the first of my friends in the city. But, there was only so much I associated with them over five working days. I hardly spent any weekends with them; almost never. The accommodation I had to finalise within two weeks of my arrival didn’t help. Tamil dominated my roommates’ conversations, television channels, and daily meals. I couldn’t communicate with them in any way they resonated with and also, failed to follow their ordinary and harmless exchanges. The unknown realms at all nooks and crannies felt like an overload, and it started getting the better of me. Be it the language, the daily lifestyle or the eating habits, I didn’t connect with an origin of such kinds because my upbringing is seeded in a different atmosphere belonging to cities in Western, Eastern and Northern India. Every single day, Chennai bestowed me with sightings and sensing unlike the previous, and an inexperienced one at that. While my roommates seemed content in their dailies, I struggled to adjust to my surroundings. Set aside weekends, I could not spend any other time looking for places to rent or explore the surroundings close by. And so, I began seeking shelter in a space I felt the most comfortable in then – my office.
I avoided coming back to my accommodation unless it was time for the last shuttle to leave the workplace facility. Maggi and my laptop were dinnertime solaces after I reached by half past ten, a time by which most of my roommates had either retired or left for working night shifts. I felt creepy cooking for myself in a kitchen that coated and refurbished in grimy floor tiles, slabs, stovetop and gas burners. It was surprising to discover no rodents sneaking or goofing around with such filth to chaperone. Even the exhaust fan in here dispensed rolls of dirt cakes, and there was only so much endurance I could sustain to boil a packet of noodles every night. I failed to communicate to my roommates of the unhygienic living we were inhabiting.
Despite the momentary and exclusive struggles, I didn’t despise the city. I couldn’t; it gave me my bread-n-butter, after all. But, nothing more. At least not for the first three-quarters of the year. I earned time-off from work on December 30 and 31 the year I joined. And I spent that New Year in Chennai, alone.
In February 2012, while the last of the little traces of winter this seaport receives ebbed away, I travelled to the Western Ghats in Karnataka in a company of thirty-five others. A colleague from work had introduced me to a non-profit trekking organisation. Upon enrolling into it, I came across people – a variety of them. Like-minded, able-minded, sound-minded, dissimilar-minded, different minded and some unmindful. I found friends while in the company of these thirty-five, a circle I could make plans with outside of work. Back then, I couldn’t have asked for more, however, and apparently, that wasn’t all. The sociocultural backgrounds we came from, the nature of jobs we were into, the individual interests we as a collective group had (apart from travelling), couldn’t have been more contrasting. But they took me in their stride without so much as a question about my background. They accepted my poor grappling of the local language, and that they will need to Peter vittu-fy if I had to understand them. From this group of thirty-five and outside of my friends’ circle, I found a boy to my liking. We got into a relation. When I left for a vacation from my job back home to my parents, I missed him. He did too. As I returned two weeks later, the feeling of being unacquainted with the city coupled with the unpleasantness of having to return to my accommodation turned me sour. I felt unsettled in that temporary phase of desperation. When I expressed my irritability about it to my lover, he reminded me of him being a part of the same city I was whining about. It was enough to shut me up.
As time passed, the traffic congestion from my accommodation to office increased. So did the frequenting with my friends. I went to the cinema theatre and was introduced to contemporary film stars in the Kollywood movie industry. It was an experience like I hadn’t had before. Or, it was just the bunch of people I was with. The boy I’d taken a liking to and was in a relationship with broke it off. We’d had fun when together, but it was time to fall out. And apart. Our needs were different, so were our priorities. All too soon, he flew out of the country for an official assignment in a foreign land, and I started being around my circle of friends all the more.
Within this bunch of friends, I met another boy. And I fell into another relationship. Only, neither of us ever called it one. Per se, we didn’t date, we didn’t court, and we didn’t go out. We weren’t doing anything except, we saw each other. We met whenever we wanted to. Whenever it worked with the two of us. My accommodation started becoming bearable. But the commuting time now was long and dreary, curtsied by the traffic. This boy was a resident of Chennai, living with family. He got me homemade food. He took me to parks and zoos. He got me detergent packets when I ran out of it for my laundry. He got me some more homemade food when I was sick and taking leaves at work. He took me to the doctor. His mother inquired about my well-being when I was unwell. He got me piping hot dosas with finger-licking sambhar and coconut chutney on the sides – at first of his accord, and then, every time I asked for it. Anbu kadai dosas had transpired as my dinner starting a week later. He met me after work when I’d had a long or a low day, despite him reaching home. He took me out for dinner at such of those times even if that meant looking for an open eat-out after eleven in the night, only to drop me back afterwards. After I figured I could no longer manage the daily commute of such distance to and fro from work, he took me house-hunting. We spent two consecutive weekends from morning until evening looking at houses; I had some lessons learnt, so I eyed my potential roommates as well this time. I don’t know if I had it in me to live and manage alone then. I don’t even know if it was him or sheer luck, but I found a place of stay where I could gossip late into the night with my new roommates. My hours in office decreased as my repertoire of friends in the city shot up. In here, there came in a cook who did dishes per my taste. Although I was yet coping with the language, the town nonetheless began to seem welcoming. When I went for a vacation from work back home this time, I still felt alienated upon my return. As I whined about it in a moment of weakness, this boy reassured me all was okay. He didn’t bring my attention to the fact that he was a resident of the same city I was cribbing and carping about.
That October of 2012, I married him. And we went house-hunting once more. Only to live together this time. By then, Chennai was transforming into a city I liked being a part of; yet no further.
Work began hitting a low after three years. I got promoted with some amount of dirt staining on the linen’s inside, but the step-up didn’t feel fulfilling. Something seemed amiss. The old circle of colleagues I was once around had fast dissipated each carrying their course of lives, only to reunite if ever chance and choice permitted. The task portfolio I looked into was now managed by a new set of hands, a pair that couldn’t have been more dissimilar and discouraging from the previous one. While my vivacity had swerved a complete U-turn, the reason I had first come to the city was fast slipping from my hands. Ebbing away into the horizon. With time, I figured there was little I could do about it. In fact, there was little I wanted to do about it because it was in this city I realised of my attraction in creatives. I wanted to sing. Write. I began to explore Chennai’s boundaries by myself, as I discovered my areas of interests. I got into music circles, singing classes, and writing abodes that connected me with like-minded people. With my interest soon waning from the IT enterprise I was employed in, I was trying to establish my ground, my mojo. And the city was handing me it all, as it always has, unconditionally.
With time, I only understood that the city of Chennai was befriending me in a way that no other had. It was lending me itself in ways I hadn’t seen was coming. It was granting me all that I sought, and way beyond. A teacher whose wavelengths and ideologies I look up to and the one from whom I learn singing. Nightclubs and discotheques alongside some strong and remembrance-worthy souvenirs from each of those late evenings and early mornings. Events, functions, gatherings and concerts for dramas, theatre, musical performances, spiritual rituals and comedy clubs. There is nothing this city doesn’t have. If I wanted to be a part of something, all I had to figure was a set of people to match the need. Or, wait to discover my mojo to travel solo.
Travelling from Chennai has been nothing short of a boon; into the woods, the wild, the islands, local, national, and beyond the country’s mapping boundaries. Be it luxury or pauper style travelling, road trips or backpacking, sleeper-class journeys or coupe sojourns, Maharaja-styled seats or the Dreamliner way, there isn’t a page left unturned. The end of every one of my travel tales have had me sulking, but Chennai has only welcomed me with warmth and an embrace every time I have returned from a trip. It took me time to soak into the city’s pulse, its vibe, and its rhythm. But I wasn’t complaining about any of it. I have never had. After all, it has given me all the time I have demanded.
My job and the corporate sector in due course lost my respect and purpose. The shell no longer appeared radiant. With the internal conflicts, mind games and politics most invested their time in, I found the lustre of my work tapering off. It all seemed like a pitiful waste of energy. Although it was that very pole of a magnet which had brought me to Chennai in the first instance, it now felt like I was trying and attracting like poles with that magnet. The career path repulsed me. It was boring sitting in the cubicle, typing on the keyboard anything other than work deliverables. I felt disgusted with the vain money-making and money-churning process. Chennai took me to its grits when I did what I know I wanted to. Calling it quits. Not only from my job but also from leading a corporate-dominated lifestyle. Chennai accepted it with a face, for it relies upon a spirit and psyche of its own. At the bottom of it all, it is likely to cost a lot to shackle the core of this city, for it is unlike any other, I have been in or lived in thus far. I only had to choose to accept what this quaint little, secluded town offered me; moreover, trust in its bestowals. And it became my spine. Just like that. It transfigured into my backbone, a glory I bask in today. It accepted me for who I was. For what I was. Needless to mention, four years later after I came to the city, I began to like it. By 2016, I had become somewhat friendly with the city’s geography, landscaping and topography. I spoke enough Tamil to bargain with roadside vendors in the city market. In turn, Chennai allowed me liberty enough to rely on its public transport system no matter where I went, day or night. 6 AM or 11 PM.
Till date, I don’t rely on any Ola or Uber. But I thrive and flourish in the city’s commuting system. It has never failed me, or my trust. Unlike the former.
Last week I was visiting Bengaluru on account of the long weekend. I was convalescing from a bout of cold, body pain and general symptoms of being under the weather. Although the trip was meant to unwind and take my mind off a few mental preoccupations, a purpose I considered consummated by the end of my vacation, the sight of the city outskirts couldn’t have appealed more in the wee hours of the morning I had returned. I felt uplifted by some force unknown as the Basin Bridge junction came looming into view at 4:40 AM. I was shaken awake with a couple of sharp raps on my shoulder. The train wasn’t moving; it had held its ground, awaiting the signal to pull itself through the last leg and reach us to our destination – the Chennai Central train station, a distance that otherwise was five minutes away. I discerned the faint whistling of the engine as I noticed the inky heavens pave the way to first wake-up calls of the cuckoos and the crows. As the driver gently tugged its followers, chugging metal on metal in the slow motion of a rhythm, I glimpsed the platforms of the Central station. It was a warm morning, and yet I felt goosebumps on my arms. As I stepped out with an airbag and a shoulder bag I grinned like a Cheshire cat, unmindful of the prospective stares from the coolies and the active platform salesmen.
Nothing had changed about the city or in the way it greeted me this time. It was all the same – the warmth, the wide-open arms, the familial cuddle, and the ultimate sense of belonging. A clutch-and-cling I was able to reciprocate this time in all sincerity and entirety.
For I was home. At last.