The CEOs of Google, Pepsi and the CFO of General Motors are from Chennai. Chennai is a big city full of brilliant people, a South Asian hub with big business, vibrant cuisine and a deep and wide culture. They have modern malls, decent traffic and now a metro.
Chennai is one of the best cities in India today. And yet I hate it.
Note that I’m not saying that Chennai sucks. Here. Chennaites seem to love their city and defend it quite valiantly. I just don’t like the place. So just take this screed for what it is. The random opinion of a random human from Colombo who has likes and dislikes, just like you.
So. I actively dislike Chennai. When I first went to Chennai, gosh, 15 years ago there were people suffering under overpasses, people peeing on the street — the malls and public spaces were concrete and severe; it was dirty and smelled bad.
When I went back 10 years ago the railways station smelled like pee for a good kilometer radius. I hopped a train to Bangalore immediately.
When I came back round to catch my flight, a friend showed me around and I saw a greener side to the city, a cool restaurant, a nice shop where the salespeople throw bolts of sari cloth at you. So, while Chennai was still a bit shit, it had improved in 5 years, at least in my estimation.
When I came back 5 years later, I stayed in the cheapest ($5) and worst hotel room of my life, the sort of place with thin sheets and thinner mattresses, where bugs scurry as you turn on the lights. The next morning I walked past the endless garbage (and the cows eating it) and caught a bus to Pondicherry. Maybe the place had improved but I didn’t hang around to find out.
When I came back this year I simply couldn’t leave because of work. In my three days I can say that Chennai is very much improved and yet still in the negative column of my heart. That sewer smell is still everywhere, but they’ve visible cleaned up. The trishaw drivers are still unpleasant and eager to displease, but there’s Ola and Uber, and Swiggy and Zomato for food delivery, and all sorts of modern conveniences.
Their malls are expansive and air-conditioned and they have Starbucks and H&M and Brooks Brothers and generally good shopping, aside from the usual sari/textile shops which are honestly fucking nuts, in a good way. The movie theatres are marble temples and they have regular temples as well. As I said, there’s a lot of good.
However, in between those pockets of good is the brown-grey dust covering the city, the ever-present fart smell from the fetid canals, and the heat — baking it all. The architecture is incoherent and haphazard, sprawl upon sprawl. Flying into the city you’re struck by concrete extending as far as the eye can see — a dry and arid urban plain.
There’s very little beauty in this city. There’s a lot going on, but there’s little beauty or place to rest your eyes. There is no architecture to speak of and nature is hard to find.
Then of course there are the people who — while individually nice — are just too many people. Chennai is a great market, but it’s a claustrophobic and tense place to be. You can feel the weight of 10 million souls and smells and yells compressed around you. I didn’t really notice that feeling until I got back to Colombo and felt like I could breathe again.
Colombo has many of the problems of Chennai — shitty architecture, guttery smells — but sheer weight of humanity has made Chennai a black hole of those problems. To me.
Chennai is one of the best cities in India — modern and modernizing fast— but I still hate it. I hate it so much that I wrote this, which at least means that Chennai has character. Just not a character I like.