Monday, December 18, 2006

Finding Possibilities in Chennai

Another View of St. Thomas Basilica

This is part two of my Chennai story.

I spent four full days in Chennai doing work for our office, as per my previous post. All I can say about that work is that I wish I didn't have to do it, but I'm glad it afforded me the chance to travel.

It's the third time I'm doing this post, with delays from work and my own indolence - but anyway I'd like to finish before I move on to other things.

Some few Chennai facts I gathered from my readings -

  • Chennai is the traditional historical name for this area - the name of the second town that was merged with the original British settlement called Madras. Up until the millennium Madras was this city's name and until now outsiders prefer to call it by that name, though the Indian nationalists foisted the traditional name in 1996.
  • The city is the fourth-largest metropolitan area in India, topping over seven million people within the city and its suburbs.
  • It is one of the largest manufacturing areas in India - it is sometimes called the "Detroit of South Asia."

Frankly though, most of these escaped me until I did some reading on Chennai a day or so before my trip. Furthermore, the impact of the city and the people was something I did not expect.

Upon arriving, the first thing I noticed passing through immigration was the THRONG of people all over the place - both within and without the airport. It was a scale I haven't encountered for a normal activity since my days in college enrolling at UP (I gather it hasn't improved much, still, these days). I expected to have some problems with the smell of people (judging from the Indians over here), but instead I was overpowered with the crushing smell of HUMANITY. It was a physical force. No offense intended, really, but South Asians just have this odor that differentiates them from East Asians (who, incidentally, in close quarters, have their own unique pheromonic index), and from Filipinos in particular.

I was glad to see at least more than one foreign face to accompany me on the waiting line. Two hyped-up girls with London accents were behind me in the immigration line, and there was one Chinese lady from Hong Kong and some other Caucasians. It was a welcome relief to know people would stare at someone else than me while I was in the airport. I had that strange feeling when I queued up for my flight from Dammam.

Getting out of the airport was a chore. The baggage claim took almost an hour. I quipped to one of my fellow travelers, "We spent more time waiting at the carousel than we did on the flight!" Finally, the bags came through and I was ready to go.

I don't know if this is the same for the other major cities of India, but Chennai is filled with billboards! I thought Metro Manila had it bad, but downtown Chennai, if such an expression could be said and still remain fair, was worse. The billboards of every known product and service one can think of - well, they are all blown up in full-color, with accompanying model. At least the billboards are not raunchy. But seeing them for oneself can make one go cross-eyed.

The hotel I stayed in was a little bump above three stars, but it was comfortable. It offered no view since I was on the second floor and just across me was another office building. The glass window and the airconditioning did little to muffle the horns of the passing vehicles below. As I mentioned in my previous post, the food left a lot to be desired, but at least I could pick up a Western breakfast - no guarantees it will be healthy, but at the very least I could eat it.

The workdays breezed by most quickly - and I could attest to the quiet competence of our people based in our Chennai office. Like many young Filipinos, they were filled with hopes for the future and tried to bear their challenges as best as they could. It is no wonder why Indians make a beeline out of their own country --- there just isn't enough room for all that human potential, and besides, some "fools" from the Middle East are willing to pay just a little more.

One particular note is the preoccupation with wedding dowries. A fair-sized wedding, which the bride's family would shoulder, would be in the vicinity of 6-8 lakhs (1 lakh=Rs.100,000), though some people would hardly agree to anything less than 10 lakhs. One well-to-do person I spoke to admitted to spending 20 lakhs (Rs.2,000,000) for his eldest daughter's wedding. There are gifts for the couple, inclusive, and cash and gifts for the groom's family, should they be so inclined (and if not, the money goes to the couple anyway). One hideous and polite business curse I read from somewhere else goes like "May you have ten daughters, and may they all marry well!"

Naturally, the higher the salary and social desirability of the groom (inclusive of his family background - father's job, etc.; educational qualifications; employment position; other achievements), the higher the expense. Man, had I lived with this kind of influence, I would have killed myself to get all those honors up until university. At least that portion of the rat race would have yielded some rewards.

Indian men, in that respect, would go out of their way to put themselves on a higher social station. They can be very lucky in one way but in another, since they bear all the responsibilities in a relationship, it's just a balance.

It still surprises me how mainstream Indian society is still very conservative. All the more because of the perversities existing in it (which I need not mention). Well, there is a direct relationship between the norms of a society and things/ideas which have shock value in said society. People will go to outrageous extremes to prove their fervor or rebellion. If you don't believe me on this, talk to the Muslims and learn what they think of their extremists. And, as a Catholic, I believe this applies just as well.

I had the privilege of visiting the Basilica of St. Thomas the Apostle and praying at the site of his tomb while I was there. Though some hagiographers still dispute over the traditions over the historical accuracy of St. Thomas' mission in India, the belief is very strong that Thomas made his way to the Mylapore area in Chennai and preached in the area. He was met with firm opposition and several times had to hide in caves in the hills around Chennai. Accounts have it that he was killed while he was praying.

The basilica is built alongside the so-called site of his tomb. It's rather small, and its history outlines some tragedy (it was set to the torch by a zealous Muslim ruler), but as you can see from the picture, there is a quiet majesty to the old church. When I visited, a wedding was about to take place, and a church is never at its loveliest than when a wedding is celebrated. I smiled at the women and the nuns in the church while I took some more pictures.

The tomb itself is in a separate structure. On the ground floor is the museum of antiquities, while the tomb itself is below ground. The inner sanctum was dedicated two years ago after another set of renovations. I saw some articles from St. Francis Xavier, Jesuit missionary, among others. Perhaps I was numb, but it took some time before I took in the pregnant possibilities of this place. I was in a place where a man who lived with Jesus was buried! The thought floored me when I got back to the hotel. It still gives me goosebumps, even now.

The relative simplicity of the basilica was in stark contrast to the Kapaalesswarar Temple, with its various representations of the Lord Shiva and the rest of the Hindu pantheon. It was a shame that the temple was closed when I arrived, as I had wanted to see the real deal. But judging from other representations of Hindu art, it wouldn't be far off the mark that ornateness is the deal for the temple.

Chennai still has its living history. The old British outpost - Fort St. George - still houses the legislature and various government offices. It was Saturday, so I couldn't enter the compound. In one quarter of the city the glory of the British Raj is still very evident - the High Court, blending Neo-Gothic severity with the vigor of Indian architecture, the Public Works building, and the old Madras schools built by the British. The Thousand Lights Mosque is said to be a powerful statement of the Muslim faith - I passed it and tried to snap a good photo, but it didn't turn out right.

The most prestigious sectarian school in Chennai, is Loyola College, founded by the Jesuits in the late 18th century. It's funny because my identity was shaped by my schooling with the De La Salle (Christian) Brothers - who happen to be the most heated rivals of the Jesuits in terms of education. At least in the Philippines that's who they were. I mean, ARE.

The most amazing feature of Chennai is its public beach --- at 13 km, its Marina is one of the longest stretches of sand in the entire world. I wish I had more time to go around the memorials and other points of interests. But I was running on a meter, and I wasn't exactly a tourist. I just stared at the sea and listened to the waves beat upon the sand.

Before I left for Chennai I was a bundle of emotions looking for something, anything, to grasp. Mainly it was work, or most likely the absence of meaningful activity apart from work. Listening to the sea, and letting the experience of this new place get to me, taking in the unique fragrance of salt on land, my spirit lay still and I found some peace.

I need a little of that peace as this world is still a tough one. Not to mention the near-traumatic experience I had when the Saudi airport authorities checked my luggage on my way back to Dammam. Isaac Asimov said something to the effect that the acme of stupidity smacks of genius. I was foolish enough to buy representations of the Hindu gods as souvenirs for my friends in Saudi Arabia. I was half-shocked (the other half conveniently snapping up, "How stupid could you get?") when the x-ray guy at the airport said the idols were proscribed. I believe it was my sincere incredulity of my trespass that convinced him.

And now I am back here, in the thick of mundane things, despairing again of another Christmas spent away from my family. In my heart of hearts I light a candle, and hope again that the wonder and peace of those moments in Chennai, will give me solace until that day my feet touch my native soil and breathe once more, the atmosphere of home.

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