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Friday, 27 September 2013

Colour, Culture and Cows: Chennai

Unexpected business trips go part and parcel with the life of a consultant, particularly in our increasingly global workforce. Admittedly, though, it's more often that Cleveland, or Cincinnati form part of this plan. A short plane ride; a rental car and drive through a nondescript suburb to an equally nondescript hotel. Ho-hum. Another day. Another dollar. So when I received an email from my boss beginning, "Can you go to Chennai next week...?" this was something of a different - and thrilling - proposition.

Shopping Companions on the OMR

And Cleveland it was not. Thirty degrees and humid, at 3:30am, I might have heard crickets or the hum of night time insects, were it not for the hundreds of people thronging outside the airport, apparently unaware that it was the middle of the night, a time I usually reserve for sleeping (or at least for insomnia, if sleep isn't forthcoming). Not here. As if in the middle of the day, huge families awaited their arriving relatives; swathes of white-shirted taxi drivers thrust high their greeting cards to find their target passengers. I had somewhat expected this, and knowing that it would be the middle of the night and I would be in culture shock and shattered by the flight, I was grateful that one of those cards was meant for me, and that soon we drove away from the constant voices and beeping horns into the night.

School Time!

The omnipresence of people in Chennai is not limited to airport arrivals. From what I have seen of India after a very short time there, people are travelling and working when they need to, at any time when their work is required. At every time of day I ventured out, people walked along the streets to school, to eat, to work, to pray, milling about among the stray cows and dogs who were their constant roadside companions.

 The sprawling city of Chennai stretches far beyond the confines of what could be described as the centre. Added to this, the growing technology industry in India has necessitated the growth of buildings in equal measure: offices to house the workers; hotels to house the business travellers. So, on the Chennai OMR IT Expressway, suddenly from the darkness we emerged to towers bearing very familiar names - PayPal, Cognizant and so on. And even past familiar lunch joints, though with a local twist for branding and menu options.

Subway, Chennai Style, in Tamil & English

In my short visit, I met business men and women whose commute took them two hours each way - daily. I balk at a commute longer than 2 hours where I don't stay overnight. These hardy souls travel by public transport in soaring temperatures to their offices each day. I choose the simplest and shortest method of transport possible. These workers travel by bus (for the most part) with hundreds of other passengers. Standing, often, and traversing Indian roads - main roads - where road markings are treated universally as less a guideline, more a coincidence and traffic lights less a system of road safety, more colourful decorations.

Onam Festival Floral Decoration

 It's not hard to believe that might be true in a country filled everywhere with beautiful colours. Even in the poorer areas that I saw in Chennai (and in Mumbai, which I visited at the weekend), there was colour. Where in the western world's hotels or offices would you find a beautiful decoration of floors and coloured sand to mark a local festival? Or a flower of white sand outside the Indian equivalent of The Gap to welcome you? I spent long days working - too long to experience much outside of the hotel and immediate surroundings of the office, but it is impossible to miss the culture and beauty of the honours accorded to faith, gods and festivals wherever you look.

Lunch is on Gandhi

I left for my return trip as I had begun to experience India - in the middle of the night. Away from the IT giants' offices and neighbouring hotels, into darker roads flanked by the great pools of water on either side and the tiny temples unique to south India. Finally we arrived at the airport, a glittering diamond of light and glass breaking through the darkness. But that airport is a product of the west. Its cultural virtues amount to a lump of coal compared to the diverse beauty of the colourful houses surrounding it. Flying out of Chennai just after dawn, the blues, oranges and greens of the houses paint the city's landscape far more, and the verdant hills and countryside beyond are beautiful and still, like a perfect prayer.