CHENNAI: I’m back in the city and for good, after a year-and-a-half. It’s been about five days. First impression: the cups in all the places I call home have the same chipped edges, the lizard running around my mother’s kitchen has grown fatter and continues to elude all capture plans, the kids have grown taller, the adults have become older, my grandfather still reads nine newspapers back to back every day. Nothing has changed, or so I could say. Of the things that have changed I could count the beloved dogs that can no longer climb stairs, the father who voluntarily refuses jalebis in a surprise of surprises and a slight jab that points to an age I don’t want to acknowledge, and not so surprisingly in the city, a number of new little hills, also called speed breakers, that my spine does not remember.
“I have been gone and come back, but little has changed”, I have had the chance to whine, as I am shooed away into a room by the mother who still seeks to protect my legs from the gaze of the person at the door. More conversations have occurred about “What next?” and silly me thought it was about work while it was about a wedding all the while. And then there is me in the public sphere — a seminar on gender at a girl’s college, a handful in over a hundred interested in the subject, older professors visibly shocked at the mention of sexuality, colleges time and again seeking to liberate minds while controlling bodies. “No cellphones”, “Wear long kurtas”, “Don’t gather around outside campus”, “Bring your parents, we’ll talk to them”, “Don’t get yourself killed like that ‘bad’ girl who was hacked to death by her boyfriend”, and so on and so forth. Then like a ray of hope, a couple of young women speaking in Tamil and English offering feedback that stunningly summarised the takeaways and asking questions of the institution, showing a kind of courage I wish I’d had back in college.
Veering dangerously near the ‘recent foreign returned’ category, an observation on roads: Man tripping on a pothole and quickly steadying himself but only after looking around to see who else noticed (I did), because he was walking while staring straight at my chest. Arriving here from a country where the drinking begins at noon gives me a potential stand-up set of city centric ‘Three women walk into a cheap bar’ jokes. “Madam, do you want to shift to the restaurant? That’s where families go”, “Ladies not allowed, sorry”, Faints after asking, “beeeer-aa?”, “You’ll leave by eight no madam? Gents will start coming after that…”, “Sit in the corner madam, please, no one will see you and no touching will happen when the gentlemen come”, “Any sir joining you soon?” — are some of the possible ways the joke will go. Some of the above has happened earlier to me, but most of it was asked of three of us over the course of an hour this week at a newly refurbished hotel.
If I were asked what has been boring, I’d say having to rehash old strategies and bring back an old campaign ten years after we believed it ended because the Corporation of Chennai is packaging old shelved projects into new proposals — Elevated Beach Expressway has just become Marina Loop Road. The same fishing villages will be affected and the same people, only a decade older, will be fighting it. On what has been interesting, I’d peg women being checked diligently for drunk driving. While it feels different to not be able to drive through with a smile, I’m almost blissful that women drinking has been accepted without doubt.
I can say ‘little has changed’ both negatively and positively when I take stock of the above. This week I intend to visit Washermenpet and sit in solidarity with the women who are leading the Chennai Shaheen Bagh protests. From there I know I’ll walk away feeling one thing, and that for sure: Change is small, and it’s happening, and it will come. For now, I’m glad I’m back, changes and all.
Archanaa Seker firstname.lastname@example.org