Beaches are celebrated to be a neighborhood for recreation, a place to let go of the day-to-day life and have a quiet time. It is, in most metropolitan cities, also known for its beach side properties and sea-facing villas for the affluent communities. But Mumbai, India’s economy capital differs from most cities. In this city, the beach becomes a liaison for the prosperous and the underprivileged. Residencies of both the prosperous businessmen and the deprived slum dwellers within kilometers of one another are hard to miss. The rich build high white-washed walls and fences around their villas and the underprivileged hang and dry clothes on them. The closed sea facing windows of the air conditioned rooms compliment the window-less shanties. The high walls meant to keep privacy inside the bungalows are used by couples who sit on the other side of the wall for a quick afternoon romance, seeking a piece of the privacy for themselves. In these beaches people’s resilience in co-existing and conquering the hardships of the social order become prevalent. A symbiotic relationship prevails, working and living through social discrepancy, and an act of triumph of human spirit, ignored perhaps because of their own cultural baggage.
Amidst relief work and chaos following a flood that rocked the capital city of Tamil Nadu, we decided that coverage of Chennai was well overdue. I packed my bags and headed to Chennai, also known as Madras to see how the city was coping with the unexpected disaster. I reached Chennai on Friday, 11th December. The rains had stopped a couple of days back, but the relief work was still on. I headed to a place called Navalur, where I would be staying. A 45-minute journey took me through the heart of the city, as I got accustomed to the people, the streets and the overall surroundings. Some parts of the city were doing fine, but other parts looked like a graveyard at times. It was astonishing to see this – as if some were not even aware of what was going on in the other parts of the city. However, looks can be deceiving, and that was apparent, when I later came to know about the amazing relief work that is being done by the people who were unaffected by the floods.
Navalur was a little further away from the heart of the city and was not affected by the floods. I reached the spot, freshened up and decided to read up about the city, as it was afternoon and leaving for a shoot without a bit of research would be futile. I opened my travel guide book and checked out the key areas of focus, the city map and the geography of the area. In the evening, I decided to go to the beach to get accustomed to the city and its food and culture. It is always important to give yourself time and feel at home; Especially if you are to cover a city that you have never been to, in a short period of time, as if you have lived there all your life.
I met one of my old friends there who had agreed to guide me and show me around his city. We moved from place to place – Ramapuram, Vellacherry, Nungambakkam, Adyar – some of which still had a little bit of water, some areas had a few broken houses and almost everywhere there were loads of household material lying on the side of the roads.
Sofa sets, CD/DVDs, Wi-Fi routers, shoes and everything that the water could carry. It was disheartening to see the slums and how much they had suffered from this flood. They lost their furniture, were without food or drinking water for almost a week, and now that the water has receded they had to deal with the loss and try to get back to normalcy again.
But the immense spirit shown by the people is astonishing. Relief work has been carried out by residents of the city with the help of social media – Facebook groups have connected the relief workers and made the workflow easier, Twitter updated them about people who had been stuck in their houses. Even private cab companies, which had halted cab services, had made boats available for rescue so that the boats could taxi people to safety. Chennai will remain an example of how technology can assist in helping people in need. The sun was shining and it was typical winter weather in Chennai as relief work continued. My friend and I stopped for lunch as we had local fish delicacies and a non-vegetarian meal that was served on a banana leaf. Being a coastal city, the seafood here is delicious.
Chennai has few tourist spots inside the city, but one of the attractions is the Marina beach. Marina is the second largest urban beach in the world spanning a total of 6 kms along the city. The beach also has a lighthouse that one can go up to, to get an amazing vista of the city from above. The lighthouse tickets can be bought separately, or clubbed with tickets to a museum on the ground floor of the lighthouse itself. The city also houses major IT company offices, which were closed or their operations were temporarily shifted to Bangalore during the floods. One can also spot fishing boats, food stalls and take horse rides on Marina beach. The best time to visit Chennai is during the winter, as the climate is generally tropical. The city is filled with beautifully carved temples and their colourful architecture is amazing to look at and admire. It is also a city rich in culture as it has a rich history of theatre and is also one of the most important centres of Bharatnatyam, a style of dance and Carnatic music as well. Most people in the city know both English and Tamil. Taxi drivers can communicate in English but autorickshaw drivers mostly speak Tamil and occasionally broken English. The bus service is excellent as well, as government buses are quite frequent and cost effective.
Chennai has left a mark on me, seeing amazingly coordinated relief work carried out by ordinary members of the public, and witnessing how a city moves on and gets back to normal life from a disastrous flood. A city with unimaginable courage, persistence and love for each other. It has showed us instances of resilience and determination. Chennai is not just a city but a spirit of unstoppable forces and beautiful landscapes, of warm people and even warmer hearts. I left Chennai hoping to come back again, hungry for more.
How to help :
You can help individuals from a facebook group called ‘Tamilnadu Flood – Support’ or donate to any of the following NGOs to help.