Chennai: Rambling Through A Megacity




Our pre-dawn flight to India was full as a curry puff, packed to the overheads.  Finding our seats on our flight to Chennai from KL, we realised we were joining most of Malaysia’s expat Indian population, stampeding home in high spirits for the annual Diwali Festival.

Yet it was soothing to gaze down on the Bay of Bengal as we soared through sunrise serenity, west over the monsoon thunderheads.

The Sub Continent hove into view below through smog and haze, and soon we were standing at Chennai  immigration booths dealing with the usual suspicious functionaries.

“You are Australian and…a journalist,” divined the officer, pawing through my passport and spotting the media visa.

I answered in the affirmative.

“You know Maxwell?”

Clearly one of India’s 1.45 billion rabid cricket fans, he was referring to the Australian cricketer Glenn Maxwell, who, the night before, had played a fine innings in India, keeping a struggling Australia in the Cricket World Cup.  The subcontinent, we would soon learned, was abuzz with tales of his whacking willow work.

But befuddled from being up since 1.30am, I assumed, because of my occupation, he meant the long dead, pension-pilfering UK mogul with a daughter doing 20 year stretch in a US jail.

Having worked on his London tabloid, it so happened I did know ‘Cap’n Bob’ before he vanished off his yacht in the Canaries.

“I’ve met him a few times,” I murmured, tentatively.

He suddenly appeared somewhat awe stricken. “Well, in that case,” he said, stamping my passport with vigour, “welcome to India, sir!”



Minutes later we were in an elderly compact car, navigating ghastly traffic and effluvia. Chennai, formerly Madras, is one of India’s largest cities, with a population of  12 million, so the ride from the airport was never going to be pretty.

Our driver cut across the chaotic megacity with sluggish aplomb and we checked into The Raintree,  St Mary’s Road, on a surprisingly leafy street in the Alwarpet district.



We decided on a walk around the neighbourhood. Just crossing the road was an adventure – weaving our way through speeding trucks, tuk-tuks, locals on bicycles, and sari-clad women balancing fruit on their heads.  Exploring a nearby street, we found ourselves at Suriya Sweets and Greens, a bustling confectionary store.

The place was teeming with sugar lovers, filling bags with assorted sweetmeats. Diwali is always good for business.



Standing out from the locals has its advantages at times: the beaming proprietor appeared chuffed we were there and presented us with sweets. As we thanked her, we were approached by a tall, elderly fellow, who’d heard our accents and introduced himself as a former State cricketer. He’d been to Perth to play with the visiting Tamil Nadu state team in the 1970s and got to know our big-name players.

“When Dennis Lillee came to town we would have drinks at the roof bar at your hotel,” he beamed, his eyes distant with whimsy.  “Glorious times, glorious. Your lads in white were real cards. Those were the days…”

I told him that back in the Pre-Cambrian, Mr Lillee had occasionally come by my WA school to teach bowling , but at that, our friend grew increasingly mawkish, verging on maudlin, hankering for the glory days.

Again, cricket had been the golden thread, bringing understanding and friendship, but he was by now nigh weeping with aching recall, so it was time to make a run for it.



Escaping the pastries and pathos we opted for a visit by tuk-tuk to the one-time headquarters of the British East Indian Company in old Madras, fighting Fort St. George.

Now a small museum, with fading displays, musty rooms, and a decrepit grandeur, it still draws a daily trickle of tourists.

The fort, built in 1640, is full of military memorabilia, regimental uniforms, and vestiges of colonial life.



Upstairs, there is a gallery of large oil paintings from various eras, many browning and cracking in the heat. These track the chronology of British occupation and its key figures from colonisation to the end of empire – a motley pantheon of aristocratic pomposity and long-suffering Indian dignitaries and indignities.

The aging canvases are watched over by security ladies whose job it is to mumble, ‘No photos!’ even though no one’s exactly lunging for the Box Brownie.



The 17th-century St. Mary’s Church also lies in the fort grounds. This offers in memorium a more intimate recognition of the men and women, mainly military, who made it possible for Britain to maintain her lucrative plundering foothold in India for over 350 years, until being rightly turfed out in 1947.



Upon reflection, while vaguely hair-raising, our tuk-tuk journey to the fort had been remarkably uneventful, even pleasant, our faces cooled in the soft sea breeze as we puttered along Beach Road. Clearly the three-wheelers are the nimblest way to negotiate the gridlock traffic.

But our trip back to the hotel was a different story. This would be our first introduction to the utter mayhem of rush hour Chennai tuk-tuk transportation. Bumper cars on methamphetamine even seems a weak equivalence.



We waved over a speeding tuk-tuk outside the fort.

“You give me 550 rupees from here to Raintree,” demanded the strident driver over the bubbling splutter of his tiny engine. “It very far, very hard, very bad traffic, very bad time, very…”

Having used an Uber tuk-tuk  on the outward journey, we had paid the going rate of 150 rupees for the run.



Heated negotiations commenced, but eventually, despite his disgust over having to temper his extortion, we set off with a 350-rupee compromise. From the outset he was an angry helmsman on a mission to appal and punish.

The trip was a head-long, nerve-wracking, nail-biting business. Most of it was spent hurtling toward on-coming buses and trucks on the wrong side of the road. The traffic was terrible and the air super-saturated with swirling, dense carbon monoxide fumes. We breathed through hankies to survive.



There was wild weaving, zigzagging around pedestrians and cyclists, spur-of-the-moment U-turns, slamming of brakes, insane overtaking manoeuvres, vicious revving of the food blender engine, speeding the wrong way down one-way streets, crossing pavements and shop fronts as short cuts…all accompanied by the infernal honking of the tuk-tuk horn. We held on for dear life.

Most amazingly (and this applied to tuk-tuks rides across southern India), there was never a single collision, not even the slightest bumper tap or paint scratch, even though they hurtled within millimetres of each other.  Tuk-tuk commanders are actually very good at what they do.


We made it back alive


At last, we screamed up St Mary’s Road the wrong way through tooting traffic and slammed to a jarring but welcome halt outside the Raintree.

That evening for dinner we strolled over to Chamiers Cafe, a hidden gem above the Anokhi boutique in the street behind the hotel. A charming, vintage-style oasis, it attracts an eclectic clientele of locals and serves delicious south Indian and European dishes.



Next morning, we enjoyed a magnificent buffet breakfast at the hotel before setting off to see a few more sites, starting with the impressive Kapaleeshwarar Temple on the western side of the city.

Braving another tuk-tuk we were at the temple complex in about 15 minutes and fell in with the amiable street vendors peddling souvenirs and trinkets from colourful stalls.



Seemingly out of nowhere, there appeared a rangy young fella in an ‘80s Manchester United guernsey and pooh brown polyester strides, a man of indefinable demeanour.

An instant new buddy, he assured us he was the temple’s most experienced and trusted guide.

Why wouldn’t you engage such a chap, whose daily office was a profoundly sacred place, under the scrutiny of powerful, all-seeing Hindu deities?

You wouldn’t because he turned out to be a slippery swindler, a flim-flam man of the first order, and unfortunately, we were enticed on to his terrible temple ‘tour’.



Having taken our footwear and handing them to his deadpan sidekick in the shoe locker shop, he led us into the temple courtyard.

He started spouting tedious data about the Hindu pantheon and warned us to be ever respectful of the numerous temple deities.

“Please sir, if I may, allow me to take your photo from the best location,” he said, wrestling the Canon from my grasp. “You must take it from here to get the light just right on the holy temple.”

The light was wrong, we were truncated, the temple tilted – they were possibly the worst photos I had ever seen, the woeful lens work of a giddy toddler.

The tour went on, ever accompanied by the exceptionally dreary and nonsensical history spiel.



“I now require a kind offering of 500 rupees to pass into the next sanctum,” he declared. “This sum must be provided, as it goes to help the poor and disabled of my beloved land. That would be 500 from each of you. I will give it to the right officials.”

Overwhelmed with heart-rending visions of India’s most disadvantaged we coughed up the moola, which disappeared swiftly into his soiled trouser pocket.

“Over here are some priests,” he said indicating a motley quartet of rather languid chaps in cream robes, squatting by giant budgie cage with a deities them. “Would you like to say hello to them, and perhaps proffer a meagre stipend for their afternoon meal – say 300 rupee each?”



“Hello,” we said, and peeled off 200 to divvy up for samosas, and moved on.

Our purses grew lighter by the second.

“We now enter the most holy of areas in the complex,” he whispered. “Only Hindus can cross into the inner shrine where the high priests perform their rituals.

“Could you both now give me 500 rupees each and I, being a devout follower, will take it to the holy ones. Your gift will help maintain the temple.”

The day’s allocated cash now close to depleted, we watched him disappear into a swirl of incense and out of sight.

He emerged a few minutes later, smiling beatifically, brandishing two wizened marigolds for our trouble. I saw he’d pinched them from a posy in the entrance through a swirl of sandalwood smoke.

“The priests asked me to give you these holy flowers as a thank you…”

We moved on, seething. It was at this point we noticed an enormous roll of banknotes protruding from his bulging pant pocket.

“Here are the sacred cows,” he mumbled, leading us to a stark bunker. We peered into a dank concrete chamber and spotted several wretched, chained beasts panting pathetically in the tropical heat.

“For a small donation you can buy them food and wat…”

“Stop, you bloody shonk!” we blurted in harmony. “Get out of here, the tour has ended!”

“My fee is 3500 rupees.”

“Goodbye, charlatan!”

We cut a quick line to the exit, our former companion slithering after us yelling abuse.

It took a concerted and raucous effort to extricate our shoes from his storeman pal – yes, for another a small fee – and we fled.



I’m surprised Shiva the Destroyer doesn’t have more of a hand in the fate of the temple hucksters, but there’s no fathoming the decisions of the inscrutable gods.

Though entirely turned off all creeds, we did visit the impressive adjacent compound tank with its colourful central shrine.




Scanning our tourist map for a nearby attraction, we dived in a passing tuk-tuk and sputtered over to the Iguana Reptile Garden in the Guindy National Park, a welcoming green space in the heart of the hot and smoggy city.



The zoo garden is worth a squiz, but there was something peculiar about it when we visited: chiefly, none of the scaly residents were moving. One had expected a spectacle of flickering tongues, slithering, whipping of tails, snapping of jaws, creeping or crawling – but all was mysteriously frozen.

Perhaps they were conserving energy in the heat or trying not to be noticed by hungry patrons; maybe they were on strike; dead perhaps; or had become heart-breaking casualties of the taxidermist’s art; but it seemed we’d stumbled into a reptilian Madame Tussauds.



We did, however, get a slow wink from an inert iguana as we walked out, so I’m now convinced the entire zoo was having us on.

Hot, dusty, and tired, we retired back to the Raintree and headed for the roof pool. Time for a cool change of pace and some down time.

That evening we arranged to meet a guide for a tour of the St Mary’s Markets, a colourful, bustling, centuries old Chennai institution. We will be running a story in an upcoming edition about our experience there, where a biblical downpour made the visit as aquatic as it was cultural.



After the markets, we waved down a tuk-tuk for the return journey, and our charming guide Lakshmi helped negotiate a 350-rupee fare to the hotel in a hard fought, but honest battle of the purse strings.

But somewhere between the markets and the hotel, our driver decided he deserved more from these two innocent tourists.



Halfway through the traffic pandemonium he began, “Five hundred, not three fifty. You give me five hundred!”

Arriving back at the Raintree we stood firm, as agreed,  but the fellow went spare, chasing us into the foyer and shrieking for his filthy lucre. A crowd gathered and staff circled to assist, but the tuk-tuk berserker was on a roll, claiming he was being robbed.

Purely paying for peace and to avoid the wary stares of dozens of onlookers, we reluctantly handed over more notes.  The hostile fellow jumped in his battered crate still ranting, and sped away to filch another day.

Quiet once more descended on the Raintree foyer, and we made a beeline for the evening South Indian Banquet Special in the dining room. Delicious!

The sun rose over Chennai, and we popped down for our last lavish regional brekkie at the Raintree before making the journey south to historic Mahabalipuram.

Peering over the morning edition of The Hindu, sipping South Indian coffee, I noticed a solemn moustachioed blade milling about the foyer.

Following in the hirsute tradition of Freddie Mercury and Pancho Villa (the Zapata soup strainer being de rigueur in those parts), we realised it was our trusty driver, Murugan, waiting to collect us.

Murugan, named after the Hindu god of war and embodied by the peacock, (he was to live up to both eponyms in the coming days), was keen to hit the road.



We grabbed our luggage, paid the bill, tipped a gaggle of unidentified staff who precipitously swarmed the departing vehicle, and headed south through endless suburbia, proud but edifying Murugan at the helm.

“Mahabalipuram, here we come!”














2 thoughts on “Chennai: Rambling Through A Megacity

  1. Thanks for the detailed report on Chennai . Great story and photos, Peter. Transported me back to India .

  2. Great story, well bowled (up) as usual Pete. But it seems like you had to do more than avoid Lillee-like bumpers. Some nasty little wrong-uns were bowled at you too. Alas, that’s India for you. Always challenging, but equally enthralling. Bat on. BC.

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