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  • An early morning walk in a poorer working-class neighborhood in North Chennai

“Let’s throw caste and religious hatred into the Boghi fire
and celebrate Pongal together as Tamilians to attain Equality!”

I was part of a group-walk this morning (13/1/2019) in Tondiarpet in North Chennai, thanks to theChennai Photowalk Team(https://chennaiphotowalk.wordpress.com) and the ongoing Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha(Chennai Arts Street Festival).I went there with the idea of taking pictures;instead, I ended up spending most of my time talking to residents and was quite taken by some of the encounters. Here are some tidbits that might be of interest to the larger following ofthe Theru Vizha.

As expected, people were curious as to who we were and our purpose for being there. When I told one gentleman that I was from Mylapore, he quipped: “You all live by the pen, and we here live by our hands!” I don’t think it was meant as a put down, but rather his way of describing the upper classes and intellectuals. Without my prompting, he talked about how his community lived side by side with Muslims and Christians, and how there has never been any sort of conflict in the neighborhood. They visit one another, talk out their differences, and,as the giant billboardsat the entry to the neighborhood indicated, they celebrate Pongal and other festivals together (Samatthuva Pongal).

“A great segway for this privileged dude from Mylaporeto start his walk in a working-class melting pot in North Madras,” I thought to myself.

I spoke to a number of people about the plastic ban. The man in the corner, who was cleaning chicken (sometimes pulling the skin deftly with his teeth), told me that the ban was affecting his business and he is yet to find alternatives. However, the banana leaf merchant across from the row of butcher shops told me that his sales had gone up and that he was now also selling mandara leaves as a more lasting alternative. The man with the ‘Mylapore quip’ opined that the plastic ban was a good thing and problems will get sorted out in time. Some of the street cleaning ladies told me that after a few days of status quo, they had indeed begun to see a steady decline in plastic garbage.

The man operating a table-top tandoor seemed to be popular in the neighborhood and he was super busy to talk to me. When I asked him whether it was OK to take a photo, he declined with a smile, “vaanda sir.” That made me wonder if I wasn’t taking for granted aright to parachute into the privacy of this community, camera ready in hand.

As I was exiting the Murugan koil, I stopped at a tailor’s shop to ask him if by any chance he was stitching cloth bags for sale to the community. This query lead to a fairly long conversation, in which he painted similar themes about communities and religions living together in harmony, quoting liberally in Tamil from the Quran. “Some say that religious traditions are different and irreconcilable.”But, he insisted, “Naan oru kaalum athia etthukkamatten” (i.e. I will never accept that argument). He also held forth on how the way one communicates is so important to peace even when dealing with anti-social elements. He illustrated this with a story when someone held a knife to his throat in Bombay and demanded all his money. He had Rs. 125 with him, and he told the assailant that he was on his way to purchase milk for his baby; but if, however, the man felt that his need was more urgent, then he was most welcome to his cash. You can guess the rest of the story.

As I was leaving, he said he had one small request.

Oops, my Mylapore antenna went up in a jiffy. Had I spent all this time with a con man?Was he about to hit me for some money?

“You are my guest, and you must have a glass of water and a cup of tea with me,”he pleaded. After some hesitation on my part, we walked up to the busy tea shop at the corner. I declined the water, suggesting that I was already overdue for a pee. But the tea? I must say that it was the best cup of tea I have had since arriving in Chennai. My offer to pay was quickly rebuffed with how that would defeat the whole objective of treating a guest that Allah had decided to bring to his door today. When I told him that the rest of the group may be waiting for me, he wanted me to call everyone so he could treat us all to a cup of tea.

As I took leave of the tailor to try to catch up with the rest of the group, I saw a little boy dressed in a pattu veshti emerge from a kolam-decorated Hindu home. He held a stainless- steel plate in his hand, covered with another plate. He walked ahead of me and turned to enter another home a few doors away. As he entered, he called out, “Auntie!” As I passed the open door, I could see that it was a Muslim home, and the boy had just removed the cover plate, and there it was: what looked like a serving of Pongal!

For me that said it all about the neighborhood. The stench of garbage,the whiffs from rotting dead animals, and the piles of garbage on the streets momentarily left my mind as I realized that I was witnessing the true humanity of Chennai in colorful display.

Raju Rajagopal is a  social activist, writer, and a retired health care entrepreneur

 

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