My Chennai sojourn

Posted by Bhavana Upadhyaya

I love my former city, Albuquerque — like that incredible love which did not end in marriage but remains in your heart as a sigh. Even today, I find myself tossing, yearning for her sight, an embrace.

Chennai is my arranged marriage, fixed by destiny. And like that first year of marriage, I wince uncomfortably, worried and tense. Slowly, ever so slowly, I begin to rock into that companionship.

But as somebody who is still in love with the other, I watch with a certain dispassion the city breathing and smile…

Life unfolding in Chennai bus:

(I love Chennai buses. They are rich with stories, images and lessons. Some of my lessons from the Chennai bus)

I. How do you know there is a festival in Chennai? By jasmine flowers. The number of women wearing jasmine flowers in their hair in a crowded Chennai bus is directly proportional to the presence and significance of a festival to most of the community. So there was a festival in Chennai today…

II. Lessons in Crowded Chennai Bus: When you pass money for ticket for passenger at one end of the bus to the conductor at the other end: listen intently for which bus stop (active listening), pronounce name correctly (Chinese whisper), remember who sent how much money for which stop (memorization), send correct balance through (math), conflict negotiation when you don’t send the right amount/ticket to the right person, innovation (when conductor runs out of change, ask two people to collaborate and buy ticket together)!!!!

III. Today in a crowded Chennai bus, a young woman unable to find suitable hold, held on to my arm through her journey. This is my first experience of being an actual “pillar of support” to anyone:)


I. One needs to lose weight in Chennai : Not for health or beauty but so that you can squeeze into overcrowded share auto, move past milling bodies in a crowded bus to alight at your stop on time, to slip through crevices & gaps in an interminable road partition, and deftly swing through chaos at shopping blocs to be able to place your order:)

II. Today I used the washroom at American Library and lo, like in Matrix, I entered into United States, right into the washroom of my department in University of NM–same arrangement and size of stall, one slightly longer for disabled and women with babies, same position for toilet roll, same set of washbasins and soap, handtowels and a disposal bin below–I smiled and felt at home till my eyes spotted a poster – “please do not wash your vessels here.” Grin — the story of the American loo in India:)

Sweet Moments:

I. I love auto rides. This evening my auto driver was a versatile guy whose conversation topics ranged from preventing alcoholism with compassion, through cynical realities of marriage all the way to Vedic mathematics and numerology. At the end of the ride, I told him that for the first time I did not want to get down but rather go on another long ride–talking and conversing with this extraordinary man. He smiled and replied—“Aah, it gives me happiness when my passengers are happy; it is not just money, you know.” My salute to the unknown gems on the Chennai street!

II. Never been a fan of garish Ganesh pandals with blaring disco music but there’s something utterly beautiful about loudspeaker sounds of hesitant, mixed-up chants from 20 odd lil’ girls, seated on a tarpaulin sheet, all dressed-up before a towering but cuddly elephant-face Ganesh in a crowded roadside pandal in Chennai.

And then there are moments I long for my former city and sigh.

I watch the ponytail grass sway with the breeze–this way now, that way next–gracefully and without losing her structure or sense of being. At some level I begin to understand what detachment is–an ability to adapt and let go while being firmly planted within.

(Bhavana Upadhyaya blogs at

  • Suchismita Srinivas

    Interesting post..

  • Rachna Parmar

    Isn’t it true of the South — the jasmine flowers, even the orange ones! I have been to Chennai only once or twice and that too in transit. You bring the city alive for me. And that washroom experience was hilarious :) >

    • Bhavana Upadhyaya

      Rachna, everyday living here is hilarious–the city keeps me so alive and smiling so often. It keeps me away from television:)

  • Jayashree Srivatsan

    Hi Bhavana

    Tell me about jasmine flowers. The past three times I went back home I landed at Chennai Airport in the late hours at night…or the wee hours of the morning and was totally surprised to see fresh jasmine adorning the hair of the lady officials at the immigration desks :)

    • Bhavana Upadhyaya

      Hahaha!!! I dont know how they manage to find the flowers so early in the morning:) In btw, have you noticed how there photos of Gods and Goddesses near the security area–like when you are screened and patted down, in a corner of the desk, a Goddess sits grinning at you:)

  • umashankar pandey

    Bhavana, you are sparkling as usual, taking swipes at the local customs and revelling in them at the same time, and inventing pleasures out of torturous crowds in the buses and share-autos. You may be adapting marvellously to your arranged marriage but your approval of the wash-room at the American library is proof enough of the pining you have for sanity. What stops us from going ahead and having better living conditions for ourselves?

    Tell us more about Albuquerque!

    • Bhavana Upadhyaya

      USP, so true, so true. I long for sanity. But you know what there is energy and creativity in chaos and there is soul in the mess. I am slowly learning to cherish the rawness, the craziness, and disturbing annoyance that is Chennai:)

  • Deepak Karthik

    MTC buses(hopefully not much of crowd) will be a fun to travel, can infer a lot :)
    a different post from you ji…
    in between the rate of jasmine’s appearance has been reduced considerably, bcoz of
    1) high price
    2) very less people to take :(

    • Bhavana Upadhyaya

      True, Deepak. The prices have shot up. But they are addictive–they look beautiful and women in buses still wear them. Makes up for the musty armpits and perspiring t-shirts in a crowded bus:)

  • Deepak

    You have listed the cultural supports/pillars of Chennai beautifully!

    • Bhavana Upadhyaya

      Thank you, Deepak. Your support and presence from Mumbai helps too:)

  • jyothi nagaprasad

    fond memories of Chennai – after reading your blog I got reminded of a notice on the washroom door of the westside store at spencers mall which says ” please don’t wash your feet” :)

    • Bhavana Upadhyaya

      Lol, Jyothi!!! Chennai is funny at times, loud at others but I find him so steady!

      • jyothi nagaprasad

        agree Bhavana. I love Chennai…. but for the weather. :)