I grew up loving to read and like any devoted reader, I always found a way to sneak in books with me everywhere I went. I read on the way to school, under my desk during classes, and at home, within the comfort of my Ariel themed blanket. I was, however, very different from a lot of the characters that I read about. They all seemed so fearless, and their lives were so colourful. I, on the other hand, feared the unknown. It was a herculean task for me to step out of my comfort zone, a space that I had constructed for myself so carefully. But, it wasn’t until a random day last year when this all changed. My cousin and I, accompanied by my notebook, decided to take a spontaneous excursion around the city of Chennai. We started off at the Santhome Church in Mylapore, where we spotted a nice balcony to get a glimpse of the famous stained-glass windows. While admiring the intricate details and rushing to get a couple of pictures before getting caught by the watchman, I felt like a character from one of my fantasy novels. Despite the difficulties they faced, they constantly strived to break out of their shell and did not fear the unknown, as I did. Enjoying the exhilaration, my sister and I continued the journey. We made our way to a raggedy little store tucked away in the corner; the board read “The Old Curiosity Shop”. As my sister and I bent our heads to fit through the small door, what we saw inside seemed straight out of a fantasy novel. Vintage books, postcards, statues, and little ornaments filled the store with colour and history. This little but colossal adventure of mine triggered a series of little excursions around my city. A city that I’d lived in all my life but never really took the effort to get to know beyond its margins. A city of gold.
I grew up in a part of the city called Anna Nagar; most people associate this area with quiet residences, canopies of trees and intricate streets. Walks around the area have always been my process of getting to know my neighbourhood, and my most favourite part about these walks, sometimes solitary, sometimes with friends, was the little gifts I’d bring back home. A bar of Dairy Milk. A photo of bougainvillaea spilling over brick walls. A pretty looking rock. Anything, really.
It’s early summer, and I’m 16 years old and coming back home in a school bus meant for 8 but overpacked to fit about 20 people. The bus, as per usual, stops at the Chintamani traffic signal for me to get off at— the walk from the signal to my house has been etched in my memory for the past 15 years; a walk that makes life worth living. The sun is shining softly, I’m covered in shadows of leaves from trees the signal is surrounded by. There’s a specific kind of dusky melody the birds sing here, in chorus with murmurs of strangers' daily schedules and squeaky auto-rickshaw bells. I feel like myself in this city.
You don’t forget these kinds of things. Your mind won’t let you. Even though my mental map of this city has become rather extensive since the adventure with my sister, I still look back at the experience as its beginning, and its glowing centre. Yet, I know the city won’t remember me the way I remember it. So many life-changing moments have unfolded here — the city watched me grow up, try to find myself through my writing, completely lose myself about a million times on the way, and then, finally, come back to it. Come back home. Of course, I deliberately engineer these experiences to maximum cinematic effect in my brain. Madras is only a simple city, after all, one of the quieter, more soft ones in this loud country.
My relationship with this city is symbolic of so many things: brief flirtations with the stillness of city life, the impatience of the human mind and, of course, urban solitude. In the golden rush of being a teenager, my favourite nooks and corners in this city stay a constant reminder to exhale. To close my eyes. Listen to the birds. Look at the sky and think about how the world just casually bleeds into hues of orange, pink and yellow every evening. How we let ourselves be distracted by the small-scale sorrows of boys who take too long to reply and pimples that refuse to pop.
I’m trying not to fall asleep against the window and the pages of the book I’m reading are slipping through my fingers. The signal moves fast, fluttering between red, yellow and green every 2 minutes. It’s a four-way signal, constructed in such a way that you’re always anticipating being hit by a vehicle while crossing it. On my right, there’s a line of snacks and savoury shops that my 5th-grade science teacher once warned against; “The oil they use to fry potato chips is very old. They don’t use fresh ingredients!” I still cringe a little every time someone offers me packaged potato chips. I eat them, nevertheless. Potato chips are food for the soul.
It’s an area that gets especially crowded during the afternoons when schools get out. Ice cream vendors and cotton candy sellers will most likely find their prime audiences here. Once, when I was learning how to drive, my instructor and I were waiting at the signal. Just as I was about to cross it, a man selling multicoloured balloons stumbled past and threw me off gear. So, there I was, frozen, struggling to get the car running back up again, trying to balance releasing the clutch and pressing down on the accelerator, with tears brimming in my eyes — Indian roads are merciless. A signal is not a good place to cry, but I cried anyway. I’ve left behind so many resentments, grudges and tragedies not just here, but in so many places around the city. I like to think I’ve left behind a trace: a trace that I hope will help me find myself.
On the road facing the opposite side, is a photo studio I’ve been going to get passport-sized photos clicked for years now: the photographer and I share a routine. I prefer plain navy blue backgrounds because white and black make my hair look weird. I tilt my face a little to the right each time I smile because I like the way the photos turn out that way. Over the years, I’ve crossed the signal to get to the studio, school uniforms slowly transforming from pinafores to kurtis, my curly, frizz-prone hair learning to tame itself as I grew older.
It’s in this city I’ve received some of my great sadness and greatest happiness. I sit in the backseat, amidst high-time Anna Nagar traffic and watch my mother driving. She pauses at the red light, puts her sunglasses on and turns the car radio down. She tells me that my grandmother is sick. Of course, I don’t listen. Nor do I really believe what she’s saying. Death can’t possibly be real, right? Especially not today of all days, when the sun is blaring after a short spring of rain — perfect rainbow weather. I look outside the window and smile at a little girl sitting on a bike behind a man who is probably her father. Her fingers count along with the signal, 3..2..1… and as red turns to green, she throws them up in celebration, part of a victory dance, and shoots off. As a child, you never really realize how much hope you’re capable of sharing with others, even strangers.
I like to think that, at traffic signals, all of us have tiny victories we let ourselves pause and feel bittersweetly happy about. In a city like Chennai, that’s full of big buildings and grand gestures, with tenderness folded away in its deepest corners, I fell into a habit of unfolding these corners.
I’ve sat in churches, malls, museums, and cafes in this city and I’ve cried. I’ve sat in these places and felt at utter peace. I think returning to the same places, with the same kids on bikes and suspicious snacks will always remind me that no matter how much my life may change, I’ve been in this place before, and I’ll get to be here again.
About the Author:
Neeraja Srinivasan is currently studying English Literature and Creative Writing at Ashoka University. Her work has been published by the Museum of Material Memory, The Remnant Archive, and Madras Inherited, amongst others. To Neeraja, writing is an instrument that she uses to quietly sit and examine the hearts and minds of those around her; a love language of sorts. You can find her musings on Instagram at @neeruslists.