Thanks to my readers for showing such enthusiasm for my India travel diary. As promised, here is Part 2 and it continues with a flying weekend visit to my lovely, beloved Chennai. Or Madras as I still think of it. The moment the flight landed in Madras, a goofy smile appeared on my face as if by pure reflex.
Madras greeted us with a slight drizzle which had cooled off the city considerably. For a second I worried about the possible repeat of the nightmarish deluge of 2015 that temporarily took down Madras, with the indomitable spirit of Chennai rising out of it like the Phoenix. Luckily for us, it did not rain the rest of the weekend and was mostly pleasant.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
I travelled in 3 cities in India this time around. The sad thing is that traffic is pretty bad in all three.
But if I had to rank, Bengaluru is the absolute nightmare where you’re lucky to get anywhere upto 2.5 kilometres (roughly 1.5 miles) in under 30 minutes. I have been stuck at intersections, especially the one near my dad’s place on Bannarghatta Road where two side streets from opposite directions merge into the main road and there are about 8 different possibilities of turns, by cars, auto rickshaws, two wheelers, buses, and pedestrians. Everyone just keeps coming, and get stuck. Horns blare, and it’s impossible to move in any direction. What’s worse, people will pile on even after seeing the four or more vehicles deadlocked in the center of the intersection. I am absolutely flabbergasted at how one of the smartest populations in the world does not get self-regulating in the absence of traffic lights or traffic cops is crucial.
Pune follows as the 2nd worst in my opinion, especially after my Alice-like foray into the wonders of Lakshmi Road.
Madras – the traffic is still bad, but amazingly, it keeps moving and not so frustrating. And that statement has nothing to do with Madras being my hometown!
Call taxis are oh-so-90s, the buzzword these days is Ola! Similar to Uber. But good luck using them if you don’t have a local phone!
Traffic jams are not always created by er, traffic!
We were stuck on our way from the airport in Madras at an intersection where a political gathering was taking place. A stage had been erected, and a guy dressed like MGR, was dancing to his old songs (M G Ramachandran, famous superstar of yesteryears, and a former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu whose popularity still soars, more than 25 years after his death). Of course, his legacy continues in the form of Amma (real name: Jayalalitha), who was his pair in quite a few movies, and is the current Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. And a bunch of people were sitting in the open area, in a light drizzle, on a Friday evening, watching a garishly dressed guy moving to a 60s song. Not so different from Trump followers in their blind loyalty, don’t you think!
The Indian Shopping Experience:
In the US:
You go to a store (or your computer), select what you want, go to the check out counter/window, pay, and walk out with your bags or wait for them to show up at your doorstep.
First, you have to deposit any pre-existing shopping bags you have to the security guy at the entrance. (In the malls, you walk through a security door, and your bag gets checked). They give you an id tag for the pre-existing bags.
Then you shop. Not from the racks, no—that would be too easy, and then where would all the salespeople go?
Everything is folded and behind the counter, unreachable to you. The sales people will take them out as you point to the ones you want to see. Never mind that it gets tiring and a little embarrassing for you to keep asking them to take out more things, and the sales people become more and more vacant eyed—this is the system—take it or leave it.
Finally, you have decided on a few (or leave with nothing, in which case the sales guy probably mutters some unprintable stuff under his breath). Either way, you cringe at the mound that the salesperson has to put back, and wonder if (s)he’s going to spit on your purchases.
If you think you’re done, think again. Now you go to the counter minus your stuff, which gets delivered to them via a secret back way. Then you pay, which could take a while as they check each item.
No, you still cannot get your hands on your stuff. They will give you the receipt, after rubber-stamping it a few hundred times. The stuff you bought now goes to another secret passage, and is routed to the basement (usually). So you cannot exit through the front door. You walk down to the basement via a dark staircase like you’re heading to a mafia meeting. The only thing missing is the blindfold and the cannoli.
Now your bags are finally in sight. But wait—not done yet. The security goes through your entire purchase, checks each item against the receipt. More stamping! Yay! You finally get to hold your bags. You hug them to your chest, give the security guy a nasty look (the poor guy is only doing his job, says your husband) and walk out. But only after collecting the original shopping bags you deposited at the entrance, which have now made it to the basement by another secret passage way.
After this exhausting experience, one would think you would never shop again here. One would be so wrong, because, you’re back the next day, like a warrior.
Ah… the power of retail therapy!
Fair & ugly
India’s unholy obsession with fair skin continues and continues to disgust me with the Fair & Lovely cream advertisements. “Get fairer skin in 7 days” says one. This is one topic that makes me so angry I can’t even write about it.
Weird Foods & Great New Restaurants:
Raj had told me made the mistake of telling me about a few great restaurants he had tried on his last trip. Without me. So of course I made him take me to a couple during the weekend! This also meant we could visit with family without the hassle of anyone cooking. Two mangoes with one stone, right?
The first one was The Accord, owned and run by Chef Venkatesh Bhatt. I watch his show regularly and write his recipes down. (Raj to his aunt: “she says she knows all the foods we ate yesterday because she learned from his show, but hasn’t made a single one”).
Of the five or six restaurants in the Accord, we went to Royal Indianaa (yes, that’s how it’s spelled—no idea why) which is completely vegetarian, with his parents. The ambience was classy and traditional, with old style heavy carved pillars and beautiful decor. The buffet had quite a spread, and there was live music performed by a group with traditional south indian instruments like Veena. Although, they started very ambitiously with semi-classical and slowly devolved into film music, in pure abhashruti * to boot, which was entertainment in a way.
The corn/malli soup was amazing and so were all the traditional foods. The yogurt rice was to die for!
But I absolutely draw the line at tandoor idli and Chocolate vada. As someone used to say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Seriously!
The other awesome restaurant we tried was Mahamudra by Isha Yoga Foundation. The ambience was excellent, the décor very traditional in a non-fake, non-pretentious way. The food was simple, authentic, and similar to what you would find in homes. (Which is probably why I liked it—Raj and my friends make fun of me because I go out to eat, and ask for rasam and upma).
The one interesting idea that Mahamudra had, but very poorly executed was this water flavored with holy basil and a fragrant grass called vettiver.
Growing up, we had shades made out of vettiver and on hot summer days, we would sprinkle water on it. The breeze that resulted was not just cooling, but wonderfully fragrant! We also used to flavor the water stored in mud pots with a few sprigs of this grass.
I got so excited about this water but they had done something weird to the water and it didn’t taste like I expected it to. The green color made it look like jello shots, which was a big turn off!
Goodbye for now, Madras
In roughly 48 hours, I spent time with 1 set of parents-in-law, visited 4 aunts and 3 uncles of various ages, 3 cousins and their families, 2 parrots, 1 sister and brother-in-law, a very handsome nephew who loves to put together drones, and 1 very cute niece who loves animals, goes horse riding, gave me a flash manicure (and secretly begged me to convince her mom to get her a dog), after a gap of 4 years. Emotional overload made for a very cranky, tired and sad me on Sunday night as we flew back to Pune on a late flight!
As I get ready to head back home, I can’t help but marvel at how much I have NOT missed the circus that is US elections, and the daily despair/rages that Donald Trump news used to cause me. It’s all there waiting for me, orange hair and all but it’s been a great respite! Goodbye for now, India! It was a fun trip, and you never fail to amaze me with your complex personality! Be back in a few years!