India 2016 Day 2 (July 10): Chennai Ahoy!

Day 2 in India begins! We have a surprise visitor for my grandpa in the morning, an old friend and relative from a town called Madanapalle. While he’s here, we engage in a brief but thought-provoking discussion about the recent police shootings and the way many in India perceive race, violence and politics in the U.S. It’s often a very somber, simplistic, discussion that challenges me to think further about the way that I talk about these issues, both to foreigners outside of the U.S and to U.S residents.

For example, one question that was asked by our guest (I’m paraphrasing here): “Whites and blacks – they don’t get along very well in the U.S, do they?”

A very simple, somewhat offensive (to our U.S perspective) and almost childlike question, but actually one that begs acknowledgment, as the answer is quite complex, and I struggle to answer honestly say “No, of course they do!” At the same time, I can’t answer “Yes, they get along very well.” Both are simplistic reductions of the actual truth – which is that race relations in the U.S are fraught with both coexistence and great tension, which is no more apparent than now in the wake of recent police shootings of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota and the murder of five police officers in Dallas.

Another query: “If Trump becomes president, will he send everyone away?”

In reality, Trump’s plan to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and ban all Muslims from entering the country is both morally inhumane and logistically impossible), so the likelihood of him accomplishing any of this is next to zero. Still, I cannot dispute the fact that Donald Trump has said these things, that these things have garnered him nationwide support, and that he is our nation’s Republican presidential candidate.


Another morning jolt before we’ve even had a chance to sip our tea: domestic terrorist attacks occurred yesterday in Srinagar, the capital of the state of Kashmir (a territory whose ownership is severely disputed by India and Pakistan). Selfishly, my first thought is whether or not the situation is unsafe enough to prevent us from traveling to Kashmir later this month to visit (despite the political situation, Kashmir is known for its beautiful landscapes, scenery and rich culture). I realize this, and ashamed, I turn back to the newspaper, to read more about situation. My knowledge of Telugu (the language in which the newspaper is written, and the native tongue of my parents) vocabulary is limited to more colloquial and common-use phrases, not high-level newspaper or literary speak. Still, I’m able to make out a few words, including “11 dead” “mujaheddin” “encounter” “protests” and “stone throwing.” Not good. I take it as a given, shamefully, that there is always turmoil in Kashmir. Yesterday was a peak in the violence, but daily tensions persist in this border area between India and Pakistan, not always rising to the violence that they did yesterday, but the political situation remains grim to say the least. Speaking as a human rights advocate and optimist, I hope for a better future for Kashmir. Speaking as a realist, I don’t know if I can expect anything to change in the near-term.  (Sidenote: for those who want to learn more about the political situation in Kashmir, definitely use Google as a resource. I wish I had more time now to dive into this complex situation).

After a light lunch, my parents, grandparents and I depart for the airport to head to Chennai, the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu bordering Andhra Pradesh on the right. People in Tamil Nadu are known for being very proud of their language (Tamil) and disdain for English, something which my mom points out at first glance in the airport, when she notices that the arrivals/departures screen is primarily in Tamil, with hardly a word of English. Granted, we are in the domestic terminal, not the international terminal, and there are plenty of restaurants and shops on the streets of Chennai with English signs, but it’s still a surprising thing, especially coming from Hyderabad, where English (alongside Hindi and Telugu) is widely spoken and written.

We’re picked up by our family friend and driver at the airport. (Sidenote: I’m still not sure that I’ll ever get used to being driven around and served food in my home – it’s something so commonplace for the middle-class Indians to have a driver and servant that a native Indian would hardly bat an eye, but it’s still jarring to me each time I come to India ). Driving around, the city seems not to be too different from Hyderabad in terms of the number and types of shops and restaurants, though there is definitely more greenery in this area, where the climate is more humid. I do notice there seem to be fewer women walking on the streets than in Hyderabad, something which my mother attributes to Hyderabad being a more cosmopolitan city, and Chennai being more traditionally conservative as it relates to women and social norms. I’m also told by our family friend that India’s biggest beach is also in Chennai…sadly we have no time for sunbathing while we’re here.

I’m also shocked and impressed by the number of buses I see passing by us on the street – far more than I’ve seen in any other Indian city, and probably more than I would see in downtown DC. And it seems like there’s a subway system that’s just starting to get underway too. Public transit in Chennai would put many cities in the U.S to shame.

In the spirit of full disclosure: I spend half of the time making these observations in between periods of semi-lucid awakeness and falling asleep in the backseat, so I would take my observations with a grain of salt. Jetlag: 1. Tara: 0.

We spend some time at a friend’s home, in what seems to be a nice, family-centric but quiet suburb of Chennai. In full Indian tradition, our hosts stuff us to the brim with hospitality in the form of appetizers, snacks and fruit, despite our protestations that we couldn’t possibly eat another bite. I mostly abstain from the conversation except when the real estate developer in the room brings up the topic of green/LEED-certified buidlings in Bangalore, and the environmental geek inside me bursts forth into discussion.

We finally make our way to the hotel, where we’re greeted by another family friend who is attending the same wedding, and find ourselves in the hotel restaurant. There, we gorge ourselves on delicacies like fried rice, noodles, gobi manchurian (cauliflower deep-fried in a delicious sauce), and chili chicken. Food-wise, I’d give this day a solid A.

And with this, I sign off, as I look forward to waking up bright and early to head off to the wedding. Talk more tomorrow!