Monthly Archives: July 2012

So, I’ve left Chennai behind. While I don’t think I understand that much about how the place works, one thing seems fairly apparent: There’s never been much in the way of conscious planning. The city just grows, and gets more congested, with no accommodation for getting people from place to place (they’re working on a Metro system that might work eventually, but for now has just turned the core into a construction zone).

Quite the opposite is true of Pondicherry, the much smaller seaside city I visited over the weekend. As the base of the French colonial government, it was very carefully planned, with an orderly grid surrounded by an oval. The Europeans even separated themselves from the rest of the oval into the section closest to the water, known as the French quarter. Different rules apply there. The streets are quieter, dominated by quant guest houses and swank restaurants. White people proliferate (although of course, everyone uses it now; the beachfront promenade is closed to vehicles at night and packed with families taking the evening air). Read More


Over the past few weeks, the Indian chattering classes have been all astir about a remark President Barack Obama made at a forum about India’s decreasing friendliness towards foreign investment. We’re totally still friendly! politicians across the political spectrum protest (while corporations tend to agree with the criticism).

One place, however, seems to go blithely about its business: Bangalore, which has been a byword for American outsourcing for decades now, and shows no signs of slowing down. If the billboard above is any indication, the state of Karnataka seems to understand its comparative advantage, and won’t let any silly protectionist impulses get in the way.

Much of the actual tech work—the maintenance of billing and customer management systems for giant companies—goes on in sprawling tech parks outside the city. (Some of which, like Electronics City, are really communities unto themselves). I spent my time in Bangalore’s urban core, which is much more crowded with government, university, and military functions than call centers and corporate headquarters. Compared to Chennai, it feels managed, with functioning intersections, well-swept avenues and immaculate public gardens. Read More

India places great store by its small merchants—the tiny shops that line every commercial street, hawking cell phones, saris, snacks, and other items one might need during the day. So much so, in fact, that populist politicians have largely prevented Walmart from moving in, Mexico-style, citing the preservation of micro-retail. Their reticence makes some sense. Goods may be marked up by small vendors, but at least streets are active—to a degree that town planners in the U.S. can only dream of—and millions of people own their own businesses.

The smallest enterprises are the ones that don’t even have a storefront, operating instead out of carts or simply on mats on the ground. For agricultural goods, the distribution network that sets them up is fairly transparent: In Chennai, farmers come to a neighborhood called Georgetown (perhaps my favorite out of all the Georgetowns!) and drop off truckbeds full of limes, carrots, bananas, coconuts, mangoes, etc. Smaller loads are parceled out from there, I presume to roadside retailers throughout the city.  Read More

It’s not in the American theme menu that the Park Hotel featured one night last week, which I doubt anyone ordered off of besides a group from the U.S. Consulate (one of whom, having been forewarned that the ketchup would be unrecogizable as such, packed her own Heinz).

But it is in the fact that we could have drinks with our platters of onion rings and done-up potato skins. Tamil Nadu, you see, is a dry state—the government holds a monopoly over all retail and wholesale liquor sales. It’s nearly impossible to get a drink with dinner at a restaurant; only 190 bars, clubs, and hotels are licensed to serve booze in Chennai, a city of 4.6 million people. Most people just tend to drink in their houses, and make do with a short list of domestic wines and beers, since high import tariffs make the foreign stuff prohibitively expensive. For the younger crowd, Chennai can be a drag.

That may be changing a bit. Earlier this month, Tamil Nadu allowed five-star hotels to keep their bars open 24 hours, provided they paid a “privilege fee” of 32 lakh (or about $58,000). The effect of the change was first felt at a different hotel, the Park Sheraton, which has a nightclub space called the Dublin. Last Saturday night, the DJs didn’t say anything in particular as the clock ticked past midnight and the bar stayed open, fueling dancers who packed the cave-like space. But everyone knew that something had changed, as they stumbled out at 2 and 3:00 in the morning—the hotel had paid up.

I’m fairly sure they’ll earn back their investment within a weekend.

At times, Chennai feels more like a barnyard than the major city it is. Cows wander unmolested, and while the more useful of the bovids—water buffalo—haul carts loaded with everything from limes to rebar. Horses randomly show up on beaches. Then there are the scavengers: Crows, goats, cats, and dogs that serve as organic waste disposal systems, vacuuming up one type of litter and producing another.

The dogs are a strangely homogenous crew, as if someone had bred a lean, mid-sized, short-haired canine to have the best chances of survival on the Chennai streets. They’re in various states of health, some excellent and others slowly dying of mange. And so far, they’re gentle, rarely even barking (the ones in Bangalore are bigger and yappier). I’ve already encountered two that became sweet and obedient house dogs after people picked them off the street as pups.

Of course, there’s a long history of trying to get the population under control, and they’re now occasionally the subject of protests involving people dressed in condom suitsRead More

It’s cliche by now to talk about the starkness of India’s inequality: Everyone knows the country is ridden with indecent displays of affluence right beside the most abject poverty known to this world. That hasn’t taken away its ability to screw with your head.

Conspicuous consumption comes in many forms in Chennai. There are a handful of full-scale malls, from the aging Spencer’s Plaza to the bright and shiny Express Avenue, which has a luxe movie theater on the upper floors. There are also thriving shopping avenues, lined with thousands of jewelry stores; a substantial chunk of the country’s wealth is vested in gold and gems.

But none of those playgrounds for the rich and aspiring carries quite the air of exclusivity that’s settled on Khader Nawaz Khan Road, affectionately known as KNK. That’s where international luxury brands you’d see on any fashionable thoroughfare in Europe or America have set up shop, with palatial custom buildings of the style that haven’t really been constructed since the British Raj (at least in the case of a new Louis Vuitton, pictured).  Read More

The best time of day in Chennai is between the hours of about 3:00 and 5:00 p.m., when the city’s extensive network of primary and secondary schools get out. Many parents come pick up their kids on motorbikes, and others make their way home on their own, filling the streets with adorable uniformed younglings. In a city that can be so inhospitable, it’s beautiful to see so many young shoots still thriving. Read More

As I mentioned before, walking in Chennai is no picnic, on account of poor sidewalks and the never-ending din of traffic. I could only assume that running, a morning habit that I’d have a hard time giving up, would be a nightmare.

But, pleasant surprise! It’s actually manageable just after sunrise, at about 5:30 a.m., when the streets are relatively calm and the heat of the day hasn’t set in. I headed to Marina Beach, purportedly the second-longest in Asia, thinking that I and the fishermen would have it to ourselves.

Actually, it seems like half the city had the same idea. As the sun rises above the eastern ocean, the promenade is thick with people taking their morning exercise: Husbands in workout clothes powerwalking alongside wives in full saris (sometimes with sneakers underneath). Little kids circling around in a roller rink. Groups of young dudes charging alongside each other. Yoga sessions. Boxing lessons. If you’re a cow, there are long patchy lawns to romp on, or simply graze.

Part of the parade carried an air of dutifulness: Diabetes is rampant in Indian cities, where jobs tend to be sedentary. In Chennai, there are sweet shops and bakeries everywhere—not to mention fried street food—and few apparent gyms or fitness clubs where someone with high cholesterol might work it off. So I think it’s a safe bet that many of those morning constitutionals are on doctors’ orders.

More photos after the jump. Read More

It’s Day 3 in Chennai, and I’m on information overload. But blog posts needn’t be! I’m going to try to break things down into bite-sized pieces, starting with the thing I’ve been doing most of: Walking.

Walking in Chennai, to put it mildly, is a challenge. It came in dead last on a ranking of Asian cities for their walkable qualities, on account of the lack of pedestrian footpaths and abysmal traffic. What sidewalks do exist are often uneven or broken, and splotched with feces, dead rats, and humans lying prone. Bicycles, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, cars, and massive buses rocket through the streets with little regard for those on two legs; stoplights are either non-functional or ignored. I try not to open my eyes too wide, even at the most astonishing sights; the rush of diesel fumes can burn. It takes most of my mental capacity simply to focus on moving forward without getting flattened, which I haven’t yet witnessed, though fatalities happen all the time. (One upside: The closer you cut it with passing vehicles, the more you benefit from the breeze of their passing.)

At the same time, though, people walk. Everywhere. In American cities and suburbs, when roads don’t at least have shoulders, people tend to avoid them. In Chennai, there is no street where even old people, women, and children can’t be seen hustling on their way. The best way to do it is in groups, or at least by attaching yourself to a group: When a critical mass of people builds up on a median in the middle of the road, the traffic is forced to flow around them. On truly impassable roads, the Corporation of Chennai has sometimes installed underpasses, but I’d take my chances on the surface over the smell and darkness underground. The latest idea is skywalks, but it seems that natives might make the same choice, if faced with the prospect of climbing several stories up just to cross the street.

The city makes some provision for people walking around the giant Metro rail construction sites.

To avoid the eye-level unpleasantness, those of modest means may hail an auto-rickshaw, one of the buzzy two-seater mini-taxis that saturate the city. I haven’t done much of that yet—understanding the city on a granular level, and how things relate to each other in space, is still only possible on foot.