For one month every year, the city becomes “elsewhere”, which is to say, anywhere but here.
Its famously sweltering conditions become chilly enough to bring out the cashmere shawls, the ponchos, all the warmer selections of one’s collection of clothes for eventual migration (am I the only one who makes no secret of mine?). The fans are voluntarily turned off all day, and particularly at night. Wooden doors swell with rain, refuse to shut, and compromise one’s privacy in a place in which one has very little already. Cyclonic winds waltz with treetops, twirling and twirling, raising goosebumps as if they were fingertips circling on skin. The sun, when we see it, we greet like family.
We put on our sturdiest rubber chappals and pay the monsoon price for autorickshaws, because for once Chennai is too exciting to miss, its excess of activity dismantling every stereotype we know of its lassitude. Once a year, there is everything to do, and too few days to do it in. It’s the season of being spoilt for choice, of shows and showing off, of cultural pursuit becoming a matter of daily routine. You can almost hear the crackle of newspapers dating to February being removed from those sarees, starched and saved for the season. Time compresses: we who are so used to a city that never wakes up find that there aren’t enough hours in the day to rest. It expands too: we drink our fill of lectures and performances, the classic, the avant-garde, the homegrown and the foreign – like students who only crack their textbooks open just before a final exam, we absorb in weeks what could have been spread over a year. And most elegantly, time stands still – every sabha in the city thronging with that generation of women who wear a floret of diamonds in each nostril, and a pavé of roses coiled into white hair.
All this romance, sprung entirely from this decidedly tender climate. “Baby-making weather,” a friend winks. It must be true. One of the sharpest images this city has seared in my mind is of the man and the woman I saw one night as I walked a bridge across the Cooum. They were under a piece of cloth, which he was gently tucking over her with one hand, stroking her cheek with the other.
Chennai in the winter becomes a city whose exits shift into sight: its weather and its bustle both insinuate other places, windows into other worlds. But there are those who have neither doors nor windows, whose city it is much more than yours or mine, and for whom its year-end guise is not the same one we experience. I’ve spent a lot of time this winter wondering and worrying about them, those who make their homes on the pavements and the beach. My bad throat and muddy shoes are bourgeois trifles beside their concerns. So this year, some items of that pile of clothing for eventual migration have found their use. As have curtains and blankets in surplus in my household. In giving them away to assuage the coldness in someone else’s bones, I’ve found that, in my comforters and comforts, the thing that lets me sleep soundest is the sense of having done something useful. It keeps me as warm as a hug.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.