If you ride in Chennai, it is kinda hard to miss it. A ribbon of sewage that flows through much of the interesting parts of the city, emptying into the Bay of Bengal at Marina Beach. Egmore is where I encountered it up close and personal this visit. It is typical of India that you see modern gleaming structures cheek-by-jowl with the most depressed downtrodden dirty habitations possible. Check this out:
I was pedaling along Ethiraj Salai (“Salai” = Road in Tamil) when I came upon this scene. That is your modern gleaming structure looming tall in the back, probably home to some software company, and that’s the wall of sewage (aka the Cooum) in the middle, and that’s your debris laden patch in the foreground, probably already appropriated by some goon for some illegal construction. What is really really sad is something you can see in this semi-closeup:
If you look closely, under the pink building, you will see a number of low lying structures of unfinished brick. Those are slums. People live there, right along the Cooum. They use the Cooum as a public bathroom, they cook along its side, their kids grow up playing on the banks, that is their home. It is easy to feel disgusted, but think about them, particularly those kids. What kind of environment is that to grow up in? What lifelong diseases are these kids going to harbor? How much child mortality would there be in such surroundings? Yet, these people have no choice. They are at the bottom of the economic pile, with just enough resource to survive, and none whatsoever to move elsewhere.
Now giant slums around the world—Dharavi in Mumbai, the Favelas in Rio, Kibera in Nairobi—have been written about in plenty and their praises have been sung widely. Those are buzzing hives of energy, with enough small-scale manufacturing and service activities to make them economic powerhouses. But somehow, I don’t think these slums along the Cooum fall into the same category. I doubt that there is anything to celebrate or praise here.
The Cooum is actually a river, and at one time, it was apparently even clean. That fount of knowledge, Wikipedia, has much to say about it. Apparently it figured in Roman trade with the port of Mylapore, and wine jars and Roman and Chinese coins have been found by archaeologists along its banks. Anyway, check out Wikipedia for yourselves: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooum_River
Continuing with the theme of disparities living side-by-side, I swung around 180 degrees from where I took the picture above, and I shot this picture:
Yup, the Radisson. They charge $100 a night for that view of the Cooum from their bedrooms. The actual residents of the Cooum, those with the unfinished brick buildings as addresses, get by on $2 a day.
I’d chosen to ride on Ethiraj Salai because just the day before, my friend Raj’s daughter’s wedding had taken place at one of the marriage halls close by this road, and so, when riding along Mount Road, I had simply turned my wheels towards this hall. To continue along Ethiraj Salai after passing by the hall was but natural. Riding along, I discovered that there are two women’s colleges in the area (one of which lends its name to the road): Quaid-e-Millath college and Ethiraj College. I have family members who went to Ethiraj college, so I certainly knew about it, but I believe this is the first time I’d even realized where it is located. (And no, I hadn’t known before riding on it that day that there is a street called Ethiraj Salai, otherwise I would have realized where the college was, of course.)
It wasn’t all slums that day. I hung a right after taking those photos above on to Pantheon Road, and on a short flyover, I discovered a stunningly beautiful building that I could see through the treetops. It was the Government Museum. The traffic was too heavy and there was no natural shoulder for me to stop the bicycle and take pictures, but I intend to come back. I was awarded a consolation prize just a few meters ahead however (I mostly think metric when in India, although not all the time): a charming colonial era building that turned out to be a hospital for women:
Chennai is full of interesting buildings like this. But you gotta look beyond the surface clutter. They seem to all date back to British times though. It is almost as if the natives (as the British called us) were a little too confused after centuries of colonization, and were thrust a little too suddenly into the modern era, that their creative energies all went underground. Sadly, those creative energies do not seem to have resurfaced in the municipal arena (although they are certainly going gangbusters in many other fields: films and music immediately come to mind).
More such buildings, undoubtedly, in future posts.