I always saw Chennai in Yellow. It could be the harsh sun. Or probably the bright colored Sambar with a wild, turmeric fragrance. The Chennai in early 80s was a different world. There were no high-rise apartment complexes. Barring the LIC building on Mount road, which was the tallest in Chennai, there were no distinguished tall structures. We lived in a small lane off Seethammal road in Alwarpet. A few hundred families existed there: crammed into a lane whose tail end was abruptly blocked by a concrete wall, which separated an old bungalow and our miserable lane. An ancient Mango tree lived in that bungalow and its monstrous branches spread across the wall and into our lane. There was no traffic in the lane thanks to the wall that blocked the rear end. We played cricket in the lane; we drew the stumps with charcoal on that wall.
During summers, when there was acute water scarcity, my uncle and I used to fetch water on tricycle from a bore well in Teynampet. That too ran dry within three weeks and our only source of water was Metro water. There was a Metro water tank down the road and there was always a group of people waiting around for the tanker to arrive. I have witnessed some of the fiercest street fights around that tank. In 1983, Velu, the milkman’s son cracked a guy’s skull. He was sent to jail and all. Amid such extreme living conditions, love found its way. A few romances sprung up, thanks to the Metro water tank. I was 11 then so was not allowed to speak but I knew that my uncle and the dusky girl (I mean most of them are dusky in Chennai…) were up to some mischief.
One day, while trying to crack open my uncle’s Piggy bank, I discovered a stack of letters. There was one, which was unsent. It was written in Tamil and to my utter dismay, my primary school drop-out, beedi smoking uncle was a fucking poet!
“Neeril potta sunnaambai pol, kodhikinren…” he wrote to her. It means “I boil like Calcium Hydroxide in water.” Okay, that didn’t sound too poetic but in Tamil it sounds quite cool. I don’t know if my uncle got the treatment he wanted for his boiling, but the romance abruptly ended. God knows why.
The other romance was between a fair-skinned married girl and one of my uncle’s friends, ‘Kaka’ Bhaskar. Kaka means crow in Tamil. It amazes me even now. Bhaskar, used to send letters to her through her son! Her husband, who toiled away as a foreman in some factory in Ambattur, left home early and came back late in the evening. The husband got hold of one of Bhaskar’s letters one fateful day. The girl simply said “he’s after me, he’s been sending letters for a while now.’ When the husband slapped her and demanded why she had not told him earlier, she pouted, shed a few more tears, and said ‘he threatened me…’
Yes, same old story. But Bhaskar did not say anything when the husband and few others beat the shit out of him. He just stared at her, as she stood by her door, biting her lip and crying real tears. Bhaskar’s family was asked to vacate and move to some other place, far away. Community justice was swift, mindless, and before long, people forgot about it. Bhaskar became an alcoholic. When the girl delivered her second baby, the fair-skinned husband was stunned to find a dusky baby girl. He threw his wife and the baby girl out. No one knows what happened to them.
Chandran, who lived next door ran a watch repair shop. A mop of curly hair on his head and a pencil-line mooch on his chubby face was in-line with his wackiness. He was the clown, errand boy, and the universal brother to all ladies that lived in our locality. The fucker called everyone ‘akka’ (elder sister). Including my grand mom who was 70 then. The ladies were fond of him and gave him food regularly and took care of him when he fell sick. One fine day, the ladies decided that they should get Chandran, an orphan, married.
There was a small problem. Mr. Nice-guy Chandran was a junkie. He did some heavy-duty chemical shit. And, my uncle suspected he was gay. I don’t know if he was, but given that he had male guests that stayed overnight and that none of them ever came back… I am now forced to admit that my uncle was probably right. So the ladies who were blissfully unaware of Chandran’s other side, found a drop-dead gorgeous girl who was an orphan but was college educated. Even the 11 year old me had a crush on her. The marriage obviously was a disaster. The girl left him within three months. Right after that, Chandran had to shut his watch-repair shop down: he was doing drugs 24 hours now. The last I heard, he was homeless and lived on the pavements of TTK road.