on a date in chennai

I have often given the advice that the way to cope with big bureaucracy in India is to adopt the gait and manner of the big animals in India - elephant, camel and buffalo. Steady. Unruffled. Metronomic.

Here was my chance to prove it. 

Our shipment of goods from New Zealand (mainly my books) are stuck at Customs in Chennai. After Barby made an unsuccessful visit last week, we are off again with a smile on our faces, determined to enjoy our date to Chennai. 

It starts with a train trip. My first one back in India. It is a double-decker train. Yippee. At the Bangalore Cantonment station we are greeted with a board on which to match the coach number on our ticket with the place on the platform at which to stand. With only two minutes in which to board and with a clutter of colour in saris ahead of us, struggling to heave themselves up onto the train - we make it in time.

It is a six hour trip. Between me and the window is a beautiful woman discovering Angry Birds. I am pacing myself through Dancing in the Glory of Monsters which tells the story of the wars in Congo. Knowing that refugee camps housed 1000 people in a space the size of a football field makes being an unruffled elephant in India much easier. On arrival, we find our way to the YWCA Guest House. The two single beds adrift from each other are, as usual, a little short and a little hard - but the subsequent merger allows me to be the diagonal to which I have grown accustomed. 

We rise ready to tackle the day. The promised arrival of a car at around 9.00 does not materialise until 11.00 - but finally we are on our way to an area called George Town (where, in the Invercargill version, I had been a pastor). Our agent, Kasturi, takes us through a room with a sea of desks and mountains of paper and on into a little office. 

We sit there. No explanations. He comes and goes for brief encounters. A signature here. A photo there. We play Angry Birds and read Monsters. On one occasion he is accompanied by lunch, with an almost christological announcement on the packaging. This breathes hope into the day, as we still have no idea what is happening...
At close to 4pm, and with government offices closing at 5pm, Kasturi enters the room with the curl of a smile on his face. ‘Come on, now we can go and see the Deputy Commissioner’. Off we go, walking in the third lane of the traffic coming toward us – as the footpath is fully occupied with extraneous items. Into Custom House we go. The reception area has three elevators. A cavernous hole exists where one once was. A second is out of order. The third seems stuck at the third floor, with the arrow pointing up, and a small crowd awaiting its arrival which appears to be far from imminent. With time against us, I suggest that we walk to the third floor instead. The offer is accepted! Into a packed corridor we walk. Oh dear! But I am greeted with an outstretched arm of a warm uniformed man - and a belly that reached me not so long after his hand. On it was fastened a buckle the size of a number plate from which gleamed the words ‘India Customs’. I could see I was in safe hands. 

He gave me his chair. He ordered tea. I love this India. Warm and hospitable. I feel ashamed of my childhood when so often I allowed people in these situations to be the enemy, rather than the friend. We start chatting – except I just can not understand him. The array of odd questions, coming out of nowhere, did not help. 'Are you RC or CSI?’ This is a question about religious affiliation, not TV viewing habits. A little later, after 4-5 efforts, it was ‘What is your salary?’ 

When the predictable ‘how many children?’ came, I had my opportunity to show-off photos to the entire corridor. For a brief moment in time Micah-worship rivalled the Sachin-worship which has gripped this nation. Headlines proclaiming 'God-bye' are not spelling mistakes, as for so many he is 'The Light of Their World'.

Finally, the door opened. I was about to enter the office of the Deputy Commissioner himself...
In I go - but I can hardly see the man. The room is huge. The desk is expansive. And when his mobile phones keep ringing and interrupting, I conclude that this is one important man. But once again he is warm. After a few questions, a few flicks of the hand, a few wobbles of the head –  we had the signature. The deed was done. I think. I'll believe it when my books are on my shelves. I thanked Kasturi profusely for his help. To which he responded, 'No, sir. We are not helping you. This is our service.'

It is almost 5pm. Move over bureaucracy. Start your engines. It is time for the date after the date. ‘C’mon let’s go to the beach’. The famous Chennai beach is wide and long. We overshoot the start and walk back along the beach, with the sun setting behind us, colouring everything just how I like it. The camera on the smartphone gets a workout. [NB: Don’t miss the towers of floodlights at Chepauk, the cricket ground - the only thing I knew about 'Madras' in my childhood]. 

We walk along the beach, then through a lane of little shops the width of the beach. Being world famous in my family for long urban walks in India, off we set again – this time in and through Chennai. Rural train trips and urban walks are the only way to see the real India. After a wee while(!), it is dark and we are in the midst of clogged traffic. It is time to eat. The moment overtakes me. No more elephants and camels. It is time to be raja and rani (king and queen). Plus, so much has been happening in our lives (and we hadn't celebrated my birthday, five weeks earlier, because we had spent it in a Catholic convent on a staff retreat). Rationalising reasons for a little luxury is such fun.

A check on google for 'best restaurants in Chennai', as we walk, reveals that we were not far from the Taj Coromandel hotel. What a delightful confluence of our India and Kiwi identity (NB: 'Coromandel' is a favoured holiday destination in NZ).

WOW. When we arrive at Taj Coromandel, we realise that it is not fit for rajis and ranis, but rather for a greater glory - IPL cricketers. This must be where they stay?! Sure enough, within minutes the waiter, Lokesh, has his mobile phone out showing me photos of him standing Tussaud-like, next to every Kiwi IPL cricketer that has ever graced this country. Jimmy Franklin is his favourite. 'We are good friends'. Lokesh and I get on well - until I realise that he never asks to have his photo with me. The food is sumptuous. All the usual suspects. Dosa. Aloo Jeera. Tandoori chicken. Naan. Sweet lime soda. Lokesh keeps bringing things we didn't order ... and it all amounts to NZD50.  

Our travels through not one, but two, dates in Chennai has almost taken us in a complete circle. We duly complete the circle, returning to the YWCA, and finding our beds still merged - this horizontal hypoteneuse was out like a light. 

nice chatting



Anonymous said…
Nice one, Bob. I loved reading this blog. You write so well!
We look forward to the news of the arrival of the books, etc.
Love from us, Boz
Derek Tovey said…
Thanks Paul for this! It reminded me of soooo many experiences I had in Pakistan from the banks to the Government Offices! Frustrating as it is at times, it's also very refreshing to live in the world without time. - Congrats to be appointed to the Global Preaching! Bless you both. Lea
not a wild hera said…
WHAT a fun post! Compulsory reading for anyone heading to Asia :)
Paul Windsor said…
Thanks, Boz, Lea and tkr - oh, what eclectic friends I have!

It was fun.

I understand(!) that our local agent cleared our things on Thursday - so maybe it will be this week. The 5 weeks has extended to 12 and I've managed to teach an entire module without my books - but I don't think anyone has noticed (least of all me, which is a worry), so I shall keep it a secret.

Popular Posts