Sunday, March 26, 2006


With a rush and a great gasp of air, I emerge from my blogless existence! Whew. I think I experienced one (short) lifetime in my trip to Chennai, which was colorful, eyebrow raising, slightly sickening, educational, and, well, fun. Of course, I spent most of my time doing consular work on the visa line (or "counselor" work, as a few folks there say for some reason). But I also managed to collect some impressions of greater Chennai, of nearby Pondicherry, and of similarly nearby but way "out there" Auroville. What a great trip.

As a quick introduction, Chennai is one of India's 'Big 4' cities, the others being Delhi, Mumbai (Bombay), and Kolkata (Calcutta). I've been to only Delhi and Chennai, with a trip to Mumbai looming in the near future. While India has historically been a country of villages, urbanization continues to accelerate. As this occurs, more and more focus is on city life and culture. All four cities are being connected by the 'Golden Quadrilateral'freeway project, and so are increasing their pull as centers of cultural gravity. Each of the Big 4 has its own character (and partisans, natch). I confess that as an American, I think of these cities in analogous American terms - to me Delhi is Wash DC, Mumbai is a combo of New York and L.A., Calcutta is kind of like Atlanta, and Chennai is, well, Seattle?

I think of Chennai as "Seattle-like" not only because of the southern Indian tech boom, but because it actually feels like a walkable city, unlike Delhi. Where Delhi is built for parades and imperial splendor, Chennai has a certain small town flavor to it. Some would say there's little to do in Chennai, but I had the feeling I could walk around downtown and find all kinds of restaurants, shops, trinkets, whatever. Like a Northwest US city, it has narrower roads, storefronts flush against the street, and something that felt almost like a grid system. Contrast this again with Delhi, which has clusters of markets, most of which need to be driven to, and wide streets that invite comparisons to Frogger.

Another great thing about Chennai was that it constantly threw me for a loop; I couldn't decide whether I thought it was an incredibly urban island in India or a center of cultural conservatism. Of course, it's both, and it's going through the same growing pains as the rest of India, only perhaps more vibrantly and palpably. For example, when you first drive into downtown Chennai, it is impossible not to be struck by all the billboards everywhere. They are stacked horizontally and vertically, advertising everything from movies to travel to cellphones to air cleaners. So urban! Can it be that so many Indians are now buying Moto Razr cellphones and Tommy Hilfiger clothes? I think this fellow to the right wants both - just another commuter writing SMS messages on his cellphone in traffic. But just when I was ready to proclaim Chennai decidedly urban and Western, I started noticing all the 'pocket temples' everywhere. In the middle of a traffic circle, next to a business or restaurant, wherever, these temples spring up. They are all ornate, packed with figurines, and in technicolor. Similarly, as I experienced when I was in Kerala, folks I talked to seemed more culturally conservative. Temples seem more populated, more women wear saris and more men wear lunghis or dhotis. So at the end of the day, Chennai is just Chennai. I wish I had had more time to just wander around and meet people.

Visas, Visas, Visas
Anyway, Chennai baptism complete, I actually had some work to do. I arrived in my suit and tie on Monday morning to the consulate. Now, people have varying opinions of the Embassy architecture in Delhi. It's grand, ornate, just plain big, and of course is the basis for the Kennedy Center in DC. Some people like it and some people think its an anachronism and a white elephant. But it is clearly an embassy. This was my first trip to a consulate, and, well, let's just say it's not an example of grand architecture, or the Raj, or anything else. It looked more like a concrete fortress to me.

Inside, however, the people were very warm and friendly, and work hummed along. Unlike in New Delhi, where there's so much political and economic work to be done, here non-immigrant visas are pretty much the name of the game. Chennai is far and away the #1 issuer in the world of non-immigrant visas for workers in specialty occupations (H1B visas) and intra-company transfer visas for specialized knowledge professionals (L1 visas), and the demand is only growing. Said another way, all those computer folks Thomas Friedman and everyone else talks about are coming from India, and most from Southern India. It is a crushing load, honestly, and the people in Chennai are on the front lines. Sometimes it feels like you're on the Starship Enterprise, a floating outpost thousands of miles from the mother ship. The Chennai section gets cases no one else gets, by the hundreds, and as a result they have a work culture that feels slightly insular and definitely battle-tested. They have taken the lead in setting best practices associated with "Hs" and "Ls" because they've seen things noone else sees. It can feel a bit like the Wild West down here. But it was a pleasure working with all of them; they really know their stuff.

The only unpleasant part, really, of working in Chennai was that they have an astoundingly bad mold/mildew problem. I think I am slightly allergic to mold, so I'm more sensitive to it, but I was bowled over by the air quality. You can see black streaks coming from the air vents and there are veins of mold on some of the walls and ceilings. Yikes! In many places, you can also see where they have "solved" the problem by painting over the mold. Hmm, perhaps not the best long-term solution, eh? I spent my two weeks continuously coughing, but luckily it wasn't serious. I hate feeling fragile, but they have got to do something about the air quality there. If anyone knows how to solve mold problems, let me know and I'll forward it along.

French Flying Saucers
Ok, so work was illuminating, and Chennai's a funky town. Cool. But what did I really take away from my trip down south? There are some crazy people down here, that's what. I had a pretty extraordinary weekend taking in the weird French-Indian hybrid town of Pondicherry, and then seeing the exponentially weirder Auroville. Gosh, I loved that place.

First, Pondicherry. For history on Pondicherry, go here. Suffice it to say that for some 150 - 200 years, Pondicherry was part of French India, and many people there still hold French passports. It officially became a part of India in 1963. My friend Araucana and I stayed at Le Dupleix, a wonderful, restrained hotel that for some reason seemed slightly more Swedish than French to me, but what do I know? Our room was bathed in dark wood, had incredibly high ceilings, and was really quite genteel. Others might say "old," but I'd rather be in a place like Le Dupleix than some of the hyper-modern, characterless places out there. So yes, it was old yuppy, not nouveau-yuppy. Now, the restaurant experience I had there was abysmal, but besides that I would recommend it in a hearbeat. It was designed by the person responsible for HiDesign, a leather (bag) company with a weird, fetishistic, funny website. (Check out the intro.) This fellow's also just finished a newer place called the Promenade, but it looked too flashy.

Araucana and I wandered around Pondicherry, which honestly does feel different from the rest of India. They clearly have some hardcore zoning and design standards here. The buildings are all whitewashed, and there are a number of nice cafes. Unfortunately, the one we picked was only ok. I was dreaming of good coffee, but the poor folks at "Le Cafe" fell into the trap of confusing "good" with "astoundingly bitter and brackish." (See, we are yuppies!) But the atmosphere was very pleasant, and that more than made up for my slightly dented coffee expectations.

Now, here I have a confession to make. Well, two. The first is that I've neglected to talk about the wonderful temples we saw at Mamallapuram, including the shore temples. They are great, and old, some 13 centuries old. They are part of a chain of temples across India, and their style is the same as temples found in Cambodia. They are fascinating for their quality and for their theology. I have some nice pics if anyone wants to see them. Anyway, I just don't have the energy right now to go into this part of the trip. The second confession is that we were going to go see Chidambaram, the mother of all technicolor temples. It's been recently refinished, and is even more awesome now. But we didn't go see it. Instead, we went to Auroville, and I am so pleased we did.

Oh, Auroville. Where to start? I had never heard of this place before. In short, it is a UNESCO-sanctioned international peace city of 1800 people that is trying to create heaven on earth, a peaceful, reforested, harmonious, the-divine-dwells-within-each-of-us kind of place. And it's got a gigantic buckyball temple in the middle covered with gold discs and the world's largest crystal ball in the middle. Yes! I know, sign me up, right? I could not have made this place up, it was so perfect.

Auroville was the brainchild of two people, I believe, Sri Aurobindo and a woman known as "the Mother". The Mother was French, born in the late 1800s, who claimed to be clairvoyant, into the occult, and in touch with the divine. Her book On the Mother (by the Mother) details her life growing up. She knew when she was 14 that she was really the Mother, and she knew she was called to India to begin showing people how to become in touch with the supramental. By the 1960s, they decided that she would begin to make a place on earth oriented toward human self-perfection, based on spiritual harmony. To me, it sounds like she was born right into the middle of the fin-de-siecle interest in the occult, egyptian mythology, etc, and she internalized it and lived it. With an international group of young folks, I would guess hippies, in 1968 they started Auroville in the dusty plains outside Madras. Today, there are 1800 people, 2/3 of them westerners and 1/3 Indians, building according to the plan for an international peace city for 50,000.

Araucana and I spent the better part of a day checking the place out. It is huge, and not really designed for tourists, although they have a nice information center. We watched a video, bought some literature (amazing), read about the great reforestation work they are doing (they've planted 2 million trees I think), and then we visited the Matrimandir, aka the buckyball. I think Matramandir means Temple for the Mother. Unfortunately, they wouldn't let us in that day. Total bummer. I think they were replacing the gold-plated (real gold) discs on the outside of the temple, so we couldn't go in. Here are two pics, one of the work in progress on the temple, and another of the crystal inside. So amazing, and not at all tongue-in-cheek.

Part of me was really taken with the place and their aims. It feels very peaceful (see the rocks above, natch), is full of artists (mostly fairly well-off I think), and most of all it's interesting to see what happens when a group of people decide to make one geographic area their focus. And sure, it's silly, new-agey, and vaguely cult-like in terms of its adoration of the Mother, but how wild to meet a bunch of people that committed to these ideals. Good for them! And they had great food - great organic vegetables, good tofu lasagna, a surprisingly good spirulina honey drink. I would love to go back again and spend a couple of weeks there, just to understand the mentality of the kind of person who decides to live there. When you go to live there, you are first a Guest, then if you commit to join, a Newcomer for 2 years, then finally an Aurovillian. Fascinating. Who are these people, I wonder, and how much does the ideology of Auroville take over their lives? Are they artists interested in self-perfection and spirituality, or are they kooks infatuated with crystals and the supramental? I would love to find out. And eat their food.

Back in Delhi
But all that will have to wait for a while. I'm back in Delhi, with much work staring me in the face. It's Sunday noon now, and I need to venture out and re-engage with my town. I'm behind on poems, too, which means I'm not keeping pace with my New Year's Resolutions. More soon.


At 2:06 PM, Blogger araucana said...

May i case out there really likes "Le Cafe"...the insipid coffee was the creation of "Le Rendevous". Although, having visited Le Cafe, we weren't too impressed...

At 3:18 AM, Anonymous shrinkwrap said...

Ah, Crawdad, it's good to have you back writing again for us stuck here in the U.S.! Great picture of that part of India. I, too, had never heard of Auroville or "the Mother". Must look into that. Here in the world's coffee center (Seattle area), I weep for your bad coffee experience!

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Prince Roy said...

Mumbai and Delhi's US equivs were apt but then you lost me. Chennai=Seattle? Calcutta=Atlanta?

You're right about the 'counsular' thing. Many of us have wondered...

At 4:29 PM, Blogger WA said...

At long last a post from Chennai, have been checking everyday since PR left :)

At 10:46 PM, Blogger Crawdad said...

I admit, I have NO idea about Calcutta. But the point about Chennai reminding me of Seattle is not meant to make one think of direct comparisons as much as it is to point out how different the Big 4 cities are from each other. Chennai does not pulse with nightlife the way Mumbai does or even Delhi can, but it seemed much more friendly, walkable, and oriented toward "main street" and store front development than Delhi ever has to me. When I think of cities like this in the US, I think of west coast cities, namely Portland, SF, and Seattle. Chennai feels bigger than Portland, not as stylized as San Francisco, which kind of left Seattle.

Why do I have a feeling I've really just repeated myself AND left people from both Chennai and Seattle feeling insulted? Hmm. Yeah. Well.

Ok, this is the point where I change the subject with hand puppets or by pointing out some animals or something. "Watch out, Tigers! Wow... that was close. He just missed you." "Really?! Wow, I never even saw him coming." "Yeah, they're fast, them tigers." "I guess. Hey, what were we talking about?" "I don't remember -- you hungry?" "Yeah." "Me too."

At 6:57 AM, Anonymous Dan Sadowsky said...

It never occured to me to equate Chennai with Seattle — and it still doesn't. But other than that head-scratcher (well, and the "walkable" comment, which I'll chalk up to your extended time in a country with generally pedestrian-unfriendly cities) it was nice to read your insightful impressions of Chennai. They did make me see the city in a slightly different way.

I hope you got to see some of the places I suggested. And I'd like to hear more about the difference between processing those high-tech worker visas in Chennai and the ones you do in Delhi. Is the protocol vastly different? Is the verfication process less stringent? And is there no consulate in techie-rich Bangalore?

I'd never heard of Auroville, either. Don't even remember seeing it in the guidebook. Did they get their inspiration for the dimpled spherical temple from Epcot's Spaceship Earth?

At 8:50 PM, Blogger balakumar said...

GREAT note about chennai!!

Balakumar Muthu

At 11:17 PM, Blogger thennavan said...

I could actually say Chennai is a curious blend of several cities of different geographies in the US. It has got the conservatism of the mid-west Bible Belt, the tech-savvy of the West (Silicon Valley), the hallowed traditions in art like those in the Northeast and the openness and vibrancy of the South. Hope you can discover more layers to the giant onion that is Chennai :-).

At 9:48 AM, Blogger Crawdad said...

Hey Dan,
You know, I had much less time to just wander around Chennai than I would have liked, so wasn't able to get to the places you mentioned. Unfortunately, I had to move my flight up a couple of days and get back to Delhi, which was a bummer. But I'm definitely going back at some point, and probably not to join Auroville.

Regarding your Epcot/Matrimandir comment, I was surprised to read just how similar the concepts of Epcot and Auroville are. I'm pretty sure Auroville came first, and work on the actual Matrimandir began in 1971. Here are some groovy pictures of the building of the Mandir in the 1970s. Go here for a description of Auroville's purpose.

Now check out this Wikipedia text on Epcot.

"The name Epcot derives from the acronym EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), a utopian city of the future planned by Walt Disney. (He sometimes used the word 'City' instead of 'Community' when expanding the acronym.) In Walt Disney's words: "EPCOT ... will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise." "

"Walt Disney's original vision of EPCOT was for a model community, home to twenty thousand residents, which would be a test bed for city planning and organization. The community was to have been built in the shape of a circle, with businesses and commercial areas at its center, community buildings and schools and recreational complexes around it, and residential neighborhoods along the perimeter. Transportation would have been provided by monorails and PeopleMovers (like the one in the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland). Automobile traffic would be kept underground, leaving pedestrians safe above-ground. Walt Disney said, "It will be a planned, controlled community, a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities. In EPCOT there will be no slum areas because we won't let them develop. There will be no landowners and therefore no voting control. People will rent houses instead of buying them, and at modest rentals. There will be no retirees; everyone must be employed." "

Pretty interesting, really. One is more spiritual, and the other is more intellectual and oriented toward technology, but still similar to a degree in overall aims.

Now, I also did a bit more websurfing on the purpose of the Matrimandir, and here is a quote on its purpose:

"The Matrimandir was (and is) a microcosm established for the purpose of providing a field, a laboratory for the Evolutionary Avatars (the 9th and 10th of the Line of Ten) to correct, to reinstate the lost Measure. Or in terms Sri Aurobindo has used, to divinise matter; or, as I often put it, to reaffirm the Divine Maya, or Measure.

"This is no small happening when you realise that such a descent and accomplishment only comes once in over 6000 years - the last having been Sri Krishna. Each appearance of a member of this Line demands this refocussing of the Lens, as it were." (Aeon Group)

Yes! Of course.

At 4:39 AM, Blogger Alizarin said...

I love utopian societies. God bless them. Auracana sounds beautiful, by which I don't mean to take anything away from its creepiness. But Walt Disney's truisms are no easier to pin down than the Mother's: Everybody works, and nobody owns homes? Except ... Disney? And no retirees ... sounds kind of "Logan's Run." Renew!

At 10:03 PM, Blogger araucana said...

Lest we forget our friendly neighbors to the north! Another dome to add to the mix: the Expo 86 Dome in Vancouver, B.C. (turned modern day Vancouver Science World IMAX Theatre).

At 3:19 AM, Blogger International Dave Line ---------- said...

Yes I found Chennai to be quite a friendly city. One of the most intesting places to go is not on the tourist guides, Koyumbedu Market, a very colorful place and great for photography.
Dhabba Express would win the prize for best Indian restaurant in the city. Good atmosphere and food.
Sparky´s Diner (in Chetpet) has the best western food in Chennai. Lively atmosphere and very good food. Marina beach is always a fun place to go in the evenings.


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