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Chennai has always been a city I loved to hate. But the feelings that
flood rush through my mind right now about this city are far from hostile. Chennai, where I lived for 15 months and counted each day till I could get out of there. Chennai, which has now become a necessary inconvenience every time I go to India because of a lousy visa situation which requires me to go renew my Visa at the US Consulate – a requirement done now over two days instead of the earlier torture which was confined to one day.
I do not know from where this aversion to Chennai grew in me. Was it the scorching summer heat that drained my body and soul or the long wait lines at the US consulate? Was it the fact that during my Chennai life, there were days when I barely saw my husband –literally having just a glimpse of the other as we passed each other somewhere near T Nagar? Me on the way to work and he back from work. Or was it the never-ending, dusty distances I was forced to traverse on unavoidable visits to family and friends? So when old friends planned reunions at Chennai, I always balked at the idea. Whatever it was, thoughts of the city always came suffused in a sense of dread and heat.
But today, Chennai soars above all that. I see swirling waters sculpt heroes out of ordinary men and women. Despite the loss of life and property, humanity has emerged the winner. People have taken up the job of organizing rescue missions and emergency help without waiting for government agencies to step in. Every able person considers himself or herself a volunteer. Instead of sulking over the indifference of the national media to this horrible calamity, they have gone on quietly, in their own way to get things done. Homes, theaters, schools, wedding halls, colleges, malls – everything has changed overnight into a shelter.
And the most heartening thing of all? Dear old Chennai, orthodox and conservative to the core, where house owners dictate what renters can cook in their kitchens, is opening doors and hearts to total strangers today and the famed Thamizh trait of Virunthombal is coming into full play. The last time the city got flooded, barely a few days ago, the social media was rife with Chennai memes. Smart, funny, clever. But this time there is no levity. Instead I see humanity unfolding across the internet. People going online and posting open invites. Absolute strangers are invited to walk in – simply, unconditionally. People are ready to share whatever limited stocks they have with the have-nots. Not a single post did I see which specified who was welcome – trivial stuff such as religion, community, and politics beat a hasty retreat in the face of such absolute benevolence. Everywhere I see heart-warming stories. A much needed respite from a media overkill of intolerance and hurt. Chennai today reminded everyone of what we as a nation seem to have forgotten – that human beings matter; not religions. And I am quite sure that the friendships being forged right now on rescue boats and the living rooms of strangers are special bonds that will endure.
The memes will be back no doubt. But first there is more important work to be done. Like ferrying stranded people to safety, passing on vital information, and getting the city back on its feet. After that there will be time to come up with and laugh at Chennai’s own brand of humor.
Today, the people of Chennai have triumphed and the city soars high on their indomitable spirit. Today, I have decided to ignore the heat and dust of Chennai and instead, indulge in the warm gush of humanity and the coolness of its resilience. Today, I am proud of Chennai and stand by this grand old city. Maybe it will be a love-hate relationship from now. And the next time I am at the US Consulate, memories of this day and the pride I feel will ease the torture of those long lines, a merciless sun and unwarranted uncertainty.