An Afternoon At The Beach

This was an entry to the recent Flavorwire Short Fiction Contest that didn’t win. 

An Afternoon At The Beach

 It was the hottest afternoon of the month, but the Boy was in a state of tranquility. His toes were buried under the glowing ochre sand, his body was glazed with warm sweat that rapidly cooled, his hands were in his pockets and his eyes were on the horizon where the sea met the sky and infinity lay in between. The cool, salty breeze billowed his T-shirt, ruffled his hair, and left his lips dry, his tongue licked them frequently. The sea glittered and shimmered under the bright light, but it didn’t hurt his eyes, he was used to it. The languid waves slowly rolled in and withdrew much before his legs, so weak was their reach. A few boats dotted the azure landscape, their outlines wavering in the afternoon haze. He breathed with equanimity, his mind had switched itself off, forgotten the problem that had plagued it all day.

For weeks now, the Boy had sat in front of a blank white screen with a blinking black line on its left hand side, waiting. Waiting for the right word, the right sentence, the right beginning. His mind was a vessel that ferried stories from the cosmos into the world, but it had been docked for a long time, this new story was taking its own sweet time to emerge. Any fugitive sentences that arrived prematurely before the others were promptly excised from the page altogether. When he was not in front of the screen, doing other things to pass the time, he could feel the story coursing through his brain in all its resplendent glory, but he couldn’t hold on to it more than he could grasp a handful of water, such was its fluid shape. The Boy didn’t wait idly: whole paragraphs, characters, dialogs, scenarios, whole pages formed inside him, bursting his mind at the seams. But he lacked the conviction to put it down, what if he didn’t get it right? He thought up a volume a day and it made him sick in the heart and the mind, without having written a line. Life went on, but the block remained.

The Boy attributed this creative drought to a lack of worldly experience. His transition from infancy to childhood to adolescence had taken seventeen years, and in that time he hadn’t really walked the earth. The true artists really struggled and suffered before they achieved greatness, like Fitzgerald, Carver and Updike with alcohol, Dostoyevsky with his gambling and Plath with her depression. The Boy had never suffered for a day in his life. He wished that his parents had divorced early on or that they were poor indentured servants who had accumulated massive amounts of debt to the local loan shark, but unfortunately he had had a relatively normal childhood. To go through a truly harrowing experience and feel real pain and suffering, the kind of pain that didn’t arise from having to take the bus to school when the family chauffeur was sick, that was what he whispered to forces unseen before he went to bed at night. That was the only thing that could refill his writing well.

This wasn’t the first time he had come to the beach, and it wouldn’t be his last. He comes here for the Sun to melt the block away and let his imagination flow through his body. He comes here for the sea, the city’s true confidant, to wash away his paralysis and renew his resolve. He comes here to sweat out the story and to distract his mind from it. He comes here to be inspired by beauty and to remind himself that colors other than white exist.

He was interrupted from his placid solitude by The Beach Soothsayer. The Soothsayer was an old, dark woman, in a yellow sari with red fringes. Her figure conjured an image of a sapota resting on a yellow watermelon in the Boy’s mind. She held a short bamboo stick in her right hand and a string of colorful beads in her left. A large, thick mole stuck out from her left cheek.

“My dear boy, would you like to know your future?” she asked him in Tamil. “I’m one of the few people who can tell you. Just for thirty rupees.”

The Boy was no fool, he had never humored these obvious frauds. They foretold futures of success, fame, happiness and wealth, futures that remained the same for everyone. For who really wants to hear the truth, that Life is unfair? That ten years from now, their wives will suffer from miscarriages? That they will have to suffer the loss of their family because of an incurable plague, or that they are doomed to years of cleaning public toilets for basic sustenance?

But in the state that he was in, he needed the encouragement, false though it may have been. And he had always wanted to see the process up close and personal, his friends and family are cynics just like him. The heat dissolved his prejudices and he nodded. The Soothsayer smiled, her brown teeth, stained by years of chewing tobacco, peeking out.

They sat opposite each other on the sand, she with her legs crossed and he kneeling on his knees. She motioned for his right hand. He stuck it out, palm faced upwards. She held it with the hand that held the strings of beads. Her bamboo stick hovered over his palm.

“Lord Sakkamma!” she cried upward. “Tell me this boy’s fate!”

Her eyes rolled upward and the bamboo stick circled the Boy’s hand slowly. Once, twice, three times, and then it stopped at the center of the palm, still in mid-air.

“Troubles are imminent for you!” the entranced Soothsayer whispered. “You think you have problems now, but more troubles are coming!”

Great, so much for encouragement, thought the Boy.

“Ah, your mind has been strangled by a spirit into submission and you seek an escape from its crushing vice,” she continued. “This is your punishment for forgetting the power of the gods that roam the heavens, you have been stripped of your purpose!”

It was true that he had recently become an atheist, but he did not think that that had anything to do with the block. Evidently this Soothsayer wasn’t in the business of having repeat customers. He had had enough of this nonsense, the next thing she would be telling him would be to apologize to the gods in a weird fashion.

“You must apologize to the Almighty by visiting the six Sacred Murugan Temples in the South and rolling around the perimeter of each temple fifty times!” declared the Soothsayer. “Only then will you stop blocking yourself from your chosen path!”

There was a blast of thunder (in a clear sunny afternoon no less) to drive home her point. The Boy pulled his hand from the crazy woman’s grasp. Her eyes quickly returned to normal, but she was fuming with anger because her seance (if you could call it that) had been cut short by an insolent and impatient cursed boy.

“You have angered the gods still further! You were supposed to spit on the thagudu thrice to take care of your other troubles! Mark my words, I-”

“Now look here lady,” the Boy interjected, “why can’t you be more like the other fortune tellers and feed me a bit of superficial good news? You’ve got to improve your beachside manner, it’s unbecoming for us vulnerable souls. Here’s your damn money.”

He pulled out thirty rupees from his wallet, the last remnants of the thousand bucks his dad gave him last week when he had to go out with his friends, and shoved it into her beaded hand. The Soothsayer glared at him and stuffed it in her bra.

“Watch out, you cursed swine,” the Soothsayer warned. “God has his own way of saying what he feels.”

“Well tell him to say it directly, I’m tired of his messages getting lost in translation because of his incompetent chosen few,” replied the Boy.

The Soothsayer glared at him, got on her feet, dusted the sand off her and walked toward a couple necking under the shade of an abandoned stall. The Boy resumed his endless gaze into the sea, searching for its mysteries and secrets buried within its depths. He wondered what the Beach Soothsayer’s life was like every day and how she got into the fortune telling business. Religion clearly had a role, but he wondered if she truly believed in what she’s selling.

The beach was deserted at this time of the day, the only visible signs of life were a few couples making their scheduled rendezvous, the ice cream vendor with his red cycle stall dozing on his cooler, two photographers and the occasional vehicle the drove on the road facing the beach. And then the Boy saw the transgenders.

The six of them were dressed in faded and soiled saris that were too small for them and emanated a signature stench that the Boy could get faint whiffs of even at his distance from them. The trinkets that adorned their body were cheap and plasticky (they gave an odd glint under the sun), their makeup was splotchy and didn’t quite hide their true masculine features. The Boy had nothing against transgenders in particular, but their Chennai manifestations just happened to be a feared public menace. He felt awkward around them; he tried not to stare at them too hard because of how they looked, but he also tried to act as if he wasn’t trying to control himself and that he was normal.

The Boy had had similar awkward experiences with transgenders before when they stopped him on the street, but he had only encountered one or two of them together. He saw the focus of the group shift from horsing around amongst themselves to singling him out as a potential target, he could see it in their eyes and the way they were hurtling in his direction. He felt fear grab his throat and he quickly walked back to the road, but it was too late. One of them called out to him eagerly and hailed him with the satisfaction of a spider having caught a fly in its trap. The Boy tried to ignore him (or her?) but he (or she?) grabbed his shoulder. The rest of the gang caught up with them.

“Where are you running off to, boy? one of them, the Boy labeled him (they were definitely effeminate men, not manly women) as the Ringleader, chuckled. “Don’t want to spend time with us?”

The Boy shook his head. Behind him was the beach police station. He considered shouting for help if things got out of hand. The group circled around him, sniggering to each other with shared excitement.

“Come on, give us the money, and nothing will happen,” said another.

It was unfortunate that the Boy had spent the last thirty rupees he had on the Soothsayer’s prediction, which seemed to have come true. He took his wallet out, opened it wide, and showed the group by circling round, that he didn’t have anything to give them.

“Uh…sorry, I don’t have any money with me. Can I go now?” the Boy shrugged apologetically. He put his wallet back in his pocket.

“In a hurry eh? But what can you give us instead of money? Perhaps a bit of fun?” the Ringleader said slowly, each word escaping his mouth like the final drops from an empty Coke can. A shiver passed through the Boy as he realized what was going to happen, his eyes welled up from the fear. The circle closed in on him.

The Ringleader snapped his fingers. “Boys, on three!”

“Come on, sir, just let me go, I, I haven’t…”

“One!”

“Sir, please sir, let me go! HELP! HELP! POLICE!”

The transgender standing behind him put his hand on the Boy’s mouth. It reeked of grime and sweat and the remnants of the roadside mutton biriyani that the group had had for lunch. He started struggling, but it was no use because his assailant twisted his left nipple hard. The other five had their hands on the edges of their lungis in utter glee.

“Two!”

The tears flowed without hesitation, the Boy was truly scared. The hand moved from his throbbing nipple down to his dick and crushed it, he couldn’t even piss his pants.

“THREE!”

The group simultaneously pulled their lungis apart and revealed their privates to the Boy. He squirmed under the grasp of the other transgender, trying to turn away from this gross public display of nudity. The three of them that could afford the sex operation had ugly, hairy vaginas. All of them laughed boisterously. The Ringleader came up to him and grabbed his face.

“Next time, you see us, you don’t run. You come to us and give us our money. Understand?”

He shoved the Boy in the sand, where he was left to wallow in his tears, spit, sweat and piss. The group tied their lungis back on and shuffled away whence they came, their laughter the only trace they left behind. The Boy lay in the warm sand as he waited for the Sun to evaporate the whole experience from his body and mind. He rolled on his back and wiped his face with his shirt.

A round copper plate blocked the Sun from his face and fell on his stomach. He picked it up and spat on it three times. The Soothsayer picked up the copper plate, the thagudu, and threw it into the sea like a Frisbee, where it joined several others like it. Then she whacked the Boy with her bamboo stick for his stupidity.

As the Boy lay back on the sand, gazing at the spirals of white in the sky, he chuckled to himself. He had asked for pain and suffering, and he had got just that. There was no point in groaning over what had happened. A couple of months from now he would be recounting this tale with his friends over pitchers of beer. So the Boy got on his feet, dusted himself down, wiped off the crap all over his face and headed home, back to that white expanse, to the world of infinite possibilities.

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Chennai Summer

Arigato, mon ami!
It’s that time of the year
When sweat trickles down my belly
And the Sun scorches and sears,
The moment I step outside my room,
Hotter than the winds of Barsoom.

When cold showers are necessary
Morning, afternoon and night
When I’m forced to drink my coffee cold
And keep hot liquids out of my sight
Have you ever experienced a Chennai summer,
Where even shadows are dispelled with light?
Tans are temporary, short-lived bummers
Chennai makes black skin a permanent sight.

The heat permeates through the skin
And quickly boils the blood
Soon, the River of Sweat begins
And escalates into a flood
Absolving me of all my sins,
Turning my shirt wet and thin
Releasing an odor wicked and foul
Making the people around me howl
In pain, in their unwarranted subjection,
To a punishment they didn’t deserve
Unable to make explicit their objections
Protecting politeness with fervent verve.
Apologies for the digression,
Of no purpose did it serve.

Summer, when omelettes can be cooked on the road
And days are longer than usual,
I spend most of the time in AC abodes
And the Sun and I constantly duel.

Mangoes and Watermelons
Oranges and Pineapples
Are primarily what I eat
As cool respite from the heat

If you close your eyes and listen closely
You can hear, even feel the sound
Of the solar waves pulsating slowly
Enveloping everyone all around

I pity business executives in suits
And every single husband and wife to be
The men who dress up as 6 foot bunnies
With extra thick floppy ears to boot

The Sun burns through clouds
That previously acted as minor shrouds…

All this talk of heat makes me thirsty
And so I shall abruptly go,
Sayonara, mon amigo!

Attribution: Summer Evening by Andrew, CC-BY-SA-2.0

(NaPoWriMo 2013 #29)

Going Kutcheri Hopping

There is a look of surprise, shock, joy and disbelief on my aunt’s face. Her eyebrows are raised, mouth open, head tilted up (because I’m taller than her) and arms shaking. I have just told her that I had been to four kutcheris the day before. She shrieks (in an aunt-like fashion, not like my sister when Christina Aguilera’s Lotus was brought to our house by the Flipkart man. (The Flipkart Man is awesome because he always has a smile on his face.)) and claps her hands, as if she just remembered it’s her birthday (last year). Note: I think she would have had the same expression if she had walked in on me masturbating. She and my uncle then say that I have intellectually and spiritually matured. Puberty is pretty underrated these days.

South Indian Classical music (Carnatic music) and I have been bitter enemies for the last seven years. It is a gigantic part of my family’s culture and my parents unsuccessfully tried to get me to love it too. Every kutcheri (concert) I went to, I would doze off within the first fifteen minutes, regardless of where I was seated. I found it too slow, uninteresting, and not having anything to say – completely opposite to the Tamil film music and English music (with lyrics) that I preferred. The only highlight of these kutcheris was the excellent food available at the canteens of each of the sabhas (halls). Kutcheris meant sleeping and eating to me at that time.

In South India, December is the month for kutcheris and dances and dramas: if there’s a stage, it probably has an audience during this time. Every day is packed with at least thirty events all over the city, starting from as early as 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM. Most sabhas have canteens and messes attached, and the food during this time is the best, and the most economical, that you will find all year.

And yet I have been to 8 kutcheris in three days. I sway along with the music, roll my head, tap my feet, beat my hands along with the pulse of it and clap at the end of each awe inspiring musical peak. How and why, I do not know. Maybe it was because of the Chennai International Film Festival; watching three movies a day can push you to undertake previously unappreciated things in a frenzy. Maybe I really had grown up in my grasp of that shape shifting beast that is music. Or maybe Anirudh had inadvertently succeeded in his goal to convert me into a Carnatic enthusiast.

Anirudh Venkatesh, right now, as I type this, is reclined on my bed with a yellow face mask of orange peel and turmeric, reading the screenplay for Reservoir Dogs and checking his email. Never has there been a funnier sentence on this blog. But jokes apart, Anirudh is very much part of the family after descending upon us like a Carnatic hurricane and inspiring my father to get on the path towards becoming a concert mrudangist. He’s an up and coming Carnatic vocalist and has won a bunch of awards for his mellifluous voice. Music flows in his veins and he will gladly slit his wrists if it means more people will join him in appreciating Carnatic music. He has hardcore morals and values; I have never seen him angry, selfish, upset, or bad mouthing anyone. And he’s what’s called a ‘chamathu paiyyan‘ (super good boy). I used to resist his enthusiasm and music suggestions because of the narrow-mindedness that emerges from dismissing what you think you don’t like. But suddenly, I surrendered this time, I wanted to give it a fair chance, because this was a part of my culture that I hadn’t immersed myself in like many of my friends. And I am on a clock now; in eight months, I might never get the chance to go kutcheri hopping – hitting concerts, gobbling food at messes, engaging in discussions about musical styles – like it should be done.

Oddly enough, for something that is very personal and emotional, in these three days, I’ve met a ton of new people and enjoyed music with my own friends. Here are the kutcheris I’ve gone to so far:

Anirudh Venkatesh's concert

My Carnatic Guide preparing for another round of awesomeness.

This was Anirudh’s second kutcheri of the season. The violinist is in the 11th grade and so my mother has a fine example to compare my sister’s violin skills with.

He's a disciple of T.M. Krishna.

He’s a disciple of T.M. Krishna who falls behind amidst the pack of Carnatic talent.

Anirudh and I were running late for this kutcheri (because someone takes his time in the bathroom as if he’s on the catwalk later in the day) and so we weren’t in the most calm state of mind. As we entered the Vani Mahal premises and went to the main entrance, we just happened to destroy half of the glass doors that had been installed recently. I use “we” very loosely because Anirudh pulled the handle of the door. Physics-wise, we still aren’t sure how pulling open one half of a set of doors demolishes the other half. What happened after: the watchman grabbed Anirudh’s arm as if he had stolen an orange in Saudi Arabia and dragged him to the manager’s office. Along the way, Anirudh was called a pair of breasts, a prostitute, a penis and a fucker by the watchman, but he didn’t feel hurt in any way because they were all in Tamil. It was as if the glass doors protected Anirudh from these expletives and so when the door shattered, the words flew out and cascaded over him with the grace of a raging elephant. Anirudh and the manager have known each other for a long time and so the manager greeted us warmly, until we brought up the door incident. His demeanor was unchanged, and he merely said that he would have to talk to the committee members and figure out what had to be done. He and Anirudh also discussed Anirudh’s upcoming kutcheri at Vani Mahal. Note: Anirudh still feels bad about it. In fact, he labels it as “the worst thing he’s ever done”. Clearly, he something of a model citizen of this world.

Aditya Prakash

Aditya Prakash is a worthy vocalist with an international band.

Prasanna Venkatraman at Nardha Gana Sabha’s Mini Hall.

Guhan plays that veena like a guitar.

Sandeep Narayan’s one major flaw is that he’s too much like his guru, Sanjay Subrahmanyam.

This kutcheri was so packed that we ended up sitting on the ground in between the rows of seats.

Abhishek Raghuram

The best kutcheri I’ve been to so far. Period.

Imagine being in the middle of an electric thunderstorm with lightning constantly hitting you. That’s the power of Abhishek Raghuram and I’m glad I got to experience it live. The mridangist on the right is Anand, his cousin and the violinist is Mysore V. Srikanth.

Backstage at Bharat Sundar’s kutcheri.

You can only see a bit of him, but Patri Satishkumar is a beast when it comes to the mridangam. His hands are always a blur when they’re at work.

Note: There’s one picture missing, and it’s Prasanna Venkatraman’s kutcheri at Music Academy.

I’ve noticed certain things about kutcheris in general in my brief introduction to this new world. Each “song” has a structure of it’s own: some have an aalapanai, where the artist explores a raga. Ragas are basically the melody behind each song, and this abstract melody is played with during the aalapanai. After the aalapanai comes the actual song, which has a beat, or taalam, of its own. There are three basic taalams: adi taalam, rupaka taalam and misra chaapu. There are thousands and thousands of ragas, so Carnatic music can technically never be exhausted of new material. One of the most amazing things about Carnatic music is that the artists on stage do not practice the songs that they play together beforehand. It’s all improvisation, on both an intuitive and practical level. It is this spontaneity that makes it so fascinating. No song is ever the same, even when it is performed by the same artist. Variations depend on what the artist sees at that point in time. So far, I’ve singled out a few of my favorite ragas, even though I know so little: abheri, sindhubhairavi, and ritigowla (though I can’t really identify them in a song 100%).

I find Carnatic music a very immersive style of music, like drifting in an ocean and seeing new things all the time. I don’t know whether this is a phase, or a permanent part of my lifestyle. Either way, right now, I just want to keep swimming.

The 10th CIFF

‘I’m back.’

It’s been a full month since I’ve posted on this blog, but I’m not going to push it any longer. Some of you may be jumping up and down, clapping your hands in utter glee, or you’re just shaking your head that this online travesty will still exist. Either way, I don’t really care. I need to get back to my writing routine, and what better way than to irritate the followers who are still with me.

This last week, I pushed my love for cinema to a whole new extreme. I went to the 10th Chennai International Film Festival, my first proper (debatable) film festival. I had wanted to attend for a number of years, but December was always that time of the year when teachers tighten their exam sticks and whip students harder than usual. Such meaningless clasps and irons did not hold me down this year; I watched an average of three movies a day for the whole week and saw a total of 20 movies. Not bad if you ask me.

The festival was peppered with a variety of films, including this year’s award-winning best like Holy Motors (Leos Carax), Amour (Michael Haneke) and Pieta (Kim-ki Duk), retrospectives on Claude Chabrol and Michael Cacoyannis, a celebration of 100 years of Indian cinema with screenings of classic films like Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray), Karnan (B.R. Panthulu) and Guide (Vijay Anand), an Indian panorama that assembled this year’s independent Indian standouts like OASS: The Dew Drop (Abhinav Shiv Tiwari) and Delhi in a Day (Prashant Nair) as well as a focus on films from Colombia, Israel and Hungary. The films were screened across the city at Woodlands Theatre, Inox, Sathyam Cinemas, Casino Theatre and Rani Seethai Hall. As it is actually impossible to watch all the films that are screened at any film festival, let me highlight the ones that I enjoyed.

Here are the best films that I walked into without knowing anything, and which haven’t won many awards:

Nadine Labaki's Where Do We Go Now?

Why should boys have all the fun?

Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? was clearly the most fun film of the fest, even though it was set within the backdrop of a Muslim-Christian communal conflict in a Lebanese village. Maybe I was just bogged down with too much drama, but this film has a lot of heart in depicting women trying to save their community through peace, not guns.

Michel Franco's After Lucia

Ouch.

Michel Franco’s After Lucia is a very clinical film that explores social interactions between teenagers brilliantly. It’s a slow burn that walks a fine line between drama and horror. I found a certain scene involving a cake the most disturbing thing I have ever seen on film, and I’m usually unfazed by extreme graphic violence in other movies.

Radu Jude's Everybody In Our Family

I’ve got 3 days left with her for this year…

Radu Jude’s Everybody in Our Family blew me off my feet. It’s a movie that shifts fluidly between dark comedy, drama, socially acceptable and unacceptable behavior. I don’t want to reveal anything about this movie, but I will say that duct tape rules all.

And here are the obvious awesome films in the fest that everyone around the world loves:

  • Rust and Bone: Jacques Audiard’s fist pumping movie about pain and disability slices through melodrama and convention with standout performances from Marion Cotillard and Mathias Schoenaerts.
  • We Need To Talk About Kevin: I was a little late to get to see this one, but it is even more relevant against the background of the Newtown tragedy and the world’s problems with gun control. With superb editing and visual metaphors, Lynne Ramsay accurately depicts the life of the mother of a serial killer.
  • Melancholia: This is the second Lars Von Trier I’ve seen, and it is both simply magnificent and utterly disappointing. The character study that it tries to be amidst the apocalyptic scenario fails to be as compelling as it could have been, while the spectacle of both the beginning and the end still lingers in my head.

The festival was organized by the Indo-Cine Appreciation Foundation (ICAF), and I went to their headquarters in Chennai to register myself for the festival. I was quite surprised by the state of disarray it was in as well as its secluded location that might as well double for an Mi6 dead drop. Imagine a dark room filled with books, newspapers, magazines and general bric-a-brac, within which two people are nestled. That’s the ICAF I saw, and it wasn’t pretty.

I had some problems with the festival in terms of its organization. Now you might think I’m throwing rocks at it just because I have nothing better to do, but hear me out:

  • The volunteers were a bunch of college kids from a college no one had heard of (at least my friends and I hadn’t) and they never actually volunteered to help us through the festival. They kept moping around as if they were forced to do it.
  • Some of the screenings I went to were either canceled or postponed, thanks to the unreliability of digital projection. Now, that problem is unavoidable, but what was irritating was that these cancellations were announced minutes before I got to the theatre. They were announced in the daily newsletter that was given to festival delegates, but this newsletter was also provided seconds before the first screening. Ridiculous.
  • At Woodlands theatre, there was a sign stuck on the door that said ‘People will not be admitted 15 min after the screening has started’, but this statement was meaningless because people kept walking in and out of each screening. I thought that the film going public for international films would be a little more cultured by keeping their cell phones switched off or on silent mode, but I was disappointed. Every screening had its share of inconsiderate idiots.

But hey, what can you do, right? This festival also gave me the opportunity to watch two Claude Chabrol films, a filmmaker who I had only heard about before, and on the big screen too! The actual films themselves weren’t great, but now I can claim to have seen Claude Chabrol in a theatre. I wish I could say the same about Pather Panchali, which I started watching (and it was amazing. It’s quite astonishing how awesome Sony Pictures Classics restored the 35mm print after all these years) when my phone rang and I realized that I had forgotten about my Model United Nations class in my excitement to watch the movie. I was out of there faster than a bullet, and sped half way across the city. It’s the one film I regret not seeing in the fest.

This was also the first time I watched films at Woodlands, which is normally the place to go if you want shitty seats, decaying walls, and a bad audience to watch crappy films with. Now, those qualities had an air of vintage and antiquity along with the novelty of watching exclusive films that will never be released in our country.

The 10th Chennai International Film Festival was certainly a great experience. I don’t think I’ll be watching any more films until the New Year…maybe.

How to ride a bus in Chennai

Transportation in Chennai is quite varied: cars, bikes, auto rickshaws, bicycles, buses and trains populate the grid. We’re getting the Metro Rail soon, which I’m sure will transform how the city looks. Many people have complained to me about how moving from one place to another is a real pain here, but I beg to differ otherwise. It’s smooth sailing if you know how to navigate the streets of Chennai. And there are some basic tips that will help out everyone in this regard.

First of all, buses are arguably the most widely used mode of public transportation, and the rules that apply to buses do apply to trains as well. One must understand that riding a MTC bus is akin to playing chess: there are strategies one needs to use in order to have a good ride. First and foremost is the time during which you should travel in a bus. If you are in control of the time during which you travel, then you’re in control of whether your ride exhausts you or invigorates you. The best times are early in the morning, between 5: 30 to 7, and late at night, between 9 to 11, when the wind is cool and the traffic is mild. Obviously, most of you would not have reason to travel between these extreme hours, so the next best alternative is traveling in the noon time, between 12:30 to 2:30. Sure, the sun would be beating over your backs, but the dry air sort of makes up for that. The traffic is also relatively mild at this time because everyone’s gone for lunch, except you. The worst times are the bottle neck hours when everyone either wants to get from home to work or from work to home: 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. You really don’t want to be in the middle of all that.

Okay, so now you know when to go. The next thing I want to talk about is bus etiquette. There’s a certain way you travel in Chennai buses. First off, most of the time all the seats are taken, unless you’re on the bus from its start point at some depot. So, you’ll be standing a lot in Chennai buses. Depending on the time, it will be either an orgy of bodies writhing and squirming as the bus moves, or just you and the wind blowing past you.

Now for the coolest experience while you’re traveling and trying desperately not to slip into the travails of boredom, use the Footboard Technique. Many MTC buses don’t have working automated doors, and if the number of passengers in the bus swells, people start hanging off the steps and footboard (the final step). This is actually great because a. you’re not in an orgy of writhing bodies (who wants that? Sweating, smelly people from all over the city scrambling for a hand hold in a bus. Sometimes you start sweating the other person’s sweat if you’re not careful. All their feet and footwear pressing on your feet…the thought of it all doesn’t affect me because I have to do it sometimes) and b. you get the most of the wind that a moving bus can provide. And it’s a thrilling rush of danger and coolness. The etiquette that the Footboard Technique requires is that at every stop you have to get down to allow passengers further inside passage to disembark and then jostle with the other FT people for a spot on the footboard (it’s not really big, it’s a step after all).

Another etiquette to follow on the bus is the Chain Technique. Since there are a lot of people on a bus, mobility for each individual passenger is quite limited. The conductor has his own seat which he treats as a throne and passengers have to come to him to pay their share for using a public service. The Chain Technique involves trusting a total stranger with your money in the hopes that that stranger will pass it on to another stranger to another stranger and so on until it reaches the conductor and you get you ticket. Sure, the strangers don’t really have anywhere to run with your money because they’re on a moving vehicle, but its still a Chain of Trust.

The Courtesy for Females (CoF) clause is basically a free pass for all women on a bus. The seating arrangement in Chennai buses is such that on the right side of the bus is the side for men while the left side is for women. It’s basically a free for all in the last row and the first seats opposite the driver, but you get the idea. Chennai is conservative in a good way, where women are treated with courtesy. Through the CoF clause, women are allowed to sit on the men’s side if they want while men aren’t allowed to sit in the women’s side. Also, the bus driver has to stop for any women that’s running at full pelt to it even though it started much before she was anywhere within the vicinity.

Some other pointers that don’t deserve much detailed analysis:

  • The Weave Technique: When you’re two stops away from your stop and the bus is kind of crowded, it’s a good idea to get out of your seat and head toward one of the exits in the bus so that you’re prepared when the time comes. Don’t believe that everyone on the bus would move to each side like the Red Sea did for Moses because, let’s face it, if you’re riding in a bus you’re not a celebrity. So, weave through the crowd, duck under arms, step over legs and get to the exit.
  • Don’t take the Footboard Technique to extremes by hanging on to window railings and climbing on top of the bus. That’s not cool, in fact, that’s pretty irritating because all the rest of us in the bus would have to wait for another half an hour for the cops to come and beat you down. I once saw a cop take out his stick and chase a bunch of guys climbing on a bus. The chase was intense; even the people who got away from the scene and acted like bystanders were chased down.
  • The Change Rule: Always make sure you have adequate change before stepping on a bus. It’s nerve wracking to have lots of money but not be able to use it. These days, because of the increased bus prices, many people get in the bus with notes so conductors are strapped for change.
  • Always practice your balance before acting cool and hanging off a rail with two fingers or something. It doesn’t usually end well. This applies while getting off while the bus is moving too. I’ve had many a crash landing.

But above all, happy trails, fellow and future bus riders! I hope this was a good summation of what you need to know to have a smooth bus ride in Chennai. But, as for anything, practice makes perfect.