When I was a kid, Chennai was called Madras. It seems like an eternity since I used the word. I hear so much of Chennai these days that I almost forget how much I resisted the name change when it first came about. The Chennai I remember was a Chennai before the flyover days. These days, all over the city, you either see flyovers, or you see flyovers being constructed. TTK Road, GN Chetty Road, Kathipara…name it, and you have flyovers! What the hell? The beloved city of my childhood is gradually disappearing under a maze of flyovers, grade separators and bridges. So much so that, the original bridges across the Cooum and the Adyar are incidental today!
This morning, fighting morning peak hour traffic on Nelson Manickam Road, childhood memories came flooding back. I remembered how this, now-chaotic, nearly impossible-to-navigate artery was once frequented only by the odd autorikshaw and an occasional 15C. Oh! How can I forget? 15C was a bus route that can only be described as capricious. There was just one bus that plied, back in the early 90s, between Loyola College and Broadway. Yes. You read that right. Exactly one bus. It was supposed to arrive every 3 hours. But, it only arrived when you never needed it. It would arrive, when you were waiting for any bus other than 15C! The driver somehow seemed to have mastered the art of driving a perfectly empty bus even in the most crowded hours of the day. There were days, when tired of waiting for the damned thing, I would take an alternative bus, get off a couple of stops before Mehta Nagar, and walk the length of the road (a good 2 kms) to get home. All this, in the mid-afternoon heat, because school was over at 3, and I was invariably on the road around 3:30.
I remember the days, when armed with a heavy school bag, an empty lunch box and an equally empty water bottle; I would trudge home, wishing I would catch that elusive 15C at least the next day! I remember how taking an autorikshaw back home was such an earth-shattering decision, because using up my weekly dole of 20 rupees would mean I wouldn’t have money to eat samosas in the tiny school canteen! Today, the dilemma I faced over whether or not to take an auto is laughable, to put it mildly.
Snapping back to the present, I suddenly realized that the Madras of old has disappeared as irretrievably as the Amrutha of my childhood. I haven’t stepped into a bus in months, or even years now. The last time I did take a bus from T Nagar, I was so thrilled that it almost felt like I was reliving a part of my childhood. I called practically every close friend to tell them I was taking a bus! Nor do I think or pause before I flag down the nearest auto, at times when my bike is unavailable. There is so much today that I take for granted that I so cherished when I was 11. This reminds me how much people change. How much something can mean to us at one point, and how meaningless it becomes a few years later. That samosas in the canteen, the auto rides, the empty roads, all of them seem like things of the past. It seems today that I lived those times in a dream, or maybe in another lifetime. The city of my birth and childhood has changed beyond recognition.
That said, change is the only thing that’s eternal. I loved Madras then. I love Chennai now. I have lived in a city as beautiful as Paris for two years, and yet, nothing can beat the warmth I feel in Chennai. I don’t know why, but I will probably never be able to get this comfortable with any other city in the world. Maybe because this is home?