Chennai impressions


Chennai expanded my mind with sounds, possibilities, art! Some impressions:

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Trying to ignore the loudspeaker right outside my hotel room, which backs onto a five-star hotel’s parking lot, booming with strings of numbers and letters called out to summon drivers when their passengers are ready to go somewhere.

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Befriending the Brazilian ex-dancer who wears beautiful saris to the performances every day, who’s braving India for the first time, and who spent two hours in a rickshaw today because the driver couldn’t find where she wanted to go and she didn’t know how to direct him.

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Admiring the strange, surreal costuming of the Kathakali drama. (Picture a man in green face paint, a large golden headdress, and a hoop skirt … yes, that’s the villain.)

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Dreaming vividly … last night, being seated in a restaurant amid flowing rivers.

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Feeling famous … getting recognized in public twice in one day, after this article appeared on page 2 of the Times of India Chennai edition.

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Buying saris by myself for the very first time, from the very nice folks at Tulsi Silks in Mylapore.

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Meeting S. Muthiah, the eminent South Indian historian, who told me Leaving India was the best book he’d read in the last three years. Who knew an 80-year-old gentleman could make me feel so warm & fuzzy?

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Listening to Lydia, who was in town to perform at the All-India Whistling Convention, whistle a selection from Verdi’s Rigoletto.

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Doing a fun conversation/reading at Full Circle Bookstore attended by a great audience of 50-60 people, including journalists, queer community, consulate friends, Fulbrighters, book group ladies, scholars, & readers with lovely, smart questions.

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Eating a fabulous South Indian thali while talking with Sunil Menon, one of my activist heroes, a pioneer of HIV/queer organizing in India.

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Immersing in a week of amazing performances in the annual dance and music festival … taking pages and pages of notes and feeling ideas for my novel flow … way more than I can possibly describe.

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Inventing the chikku-lime smoothie, with the collaboration of the juice guy at the Music Academy canteen (and getting others to order it too). Recipe: 3-4 chikus, 2 sweet limes, 2 spoons sugar, yum!

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Meeting old and new friends … chance encounters with people I know (a writer from Michigan, a dancer from San Francisco, an activist from Seattle) and beautiful new connections with people I met here.

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Reading newspapers’ music reviews, realizing it would take me another lifetime or two to understand passages like: “As a contrast, he rendered ‘Ni Dayarada’ the Vasanthabhairavi raga kriti of Tyagaraja in durita kalam. The raga alapana of Shanmughapriya for the RTP was grand, with all its sangatis in place, karvais in style and akaara prayoga reminiscent of Semmangudi.” !!

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Having a rickshaw driver explain to me that he’s really a Brahmin pandit who has written several books in Tamil about the nature of atman and brahman, and is studying Sanskrit, several verses of which he proceeded to recite to me.

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Running into Shri Shanmuga Sundaran in a parking lot and being invited to “Amour,” his gorgeous bharatanatyam piece based on the sculptures of Auguste Rodin (who, I learned, was inspired by Indian sculpture and myth) … and sitting right behind the French ambassador at the performance.

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All in all, this has been a most excellent week. And what’s strange is, I spent most of my first day in Chennai totally miserable.

I had just come from Kolkata, where I’d spent time with two good friends and traveled to the Sundarbans, an idyllic area where we spent our days on boats and our nights on an island with no cars, minimal electricity, and extreme peace.

So when I arrived in Chennai on Monday, I was feeling that I didn’t really know anyone here, I couldn’t speak the language, my attempts to organize get-togethers and introductions weren’t coming through, it was just one more giant city to learn to navigate, the hotel was too noisy, the one mosquito in my room was actually hordes of them, I would much rather be home — or at least in Mumbai where I’d been starting to feel grounded, instead of starting all over again — etc., etc.

I hunkered down for most of the day, playing around on the Internet and basically avoiding dealing, knowing the whole time that there were all these fabulous performances happening that I was missing because I was just so cranky … until around 4pm I got so hungry I just had to get dressed and leave the room.

And then I made a couple of Skype dates with friends at home, which made me feel better. And I got through on the phone to an acquaintance in Chennai, who said they were going to a certain evening performance too, and we agreed to meet. And the show was excellent, and the company even more so.

And the week just got better and better.

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