Bicycling to IIT. But First, Some Honesty.

This chronicler has a professional duty to be honest.  While spinning breezy tales of bicycling bravura, he must also show what it really feels like to bicycle Chennai.

And the fact is that cycling in Chennai is downright unpleasant. That’s simply the truth.  Chennai, like any other city in India, is incredibly filthy, smelly, crowded, noisy, and chaotic, with crumbling to non-existing infrastructure and air pollution levels that leave one choking and gasping for breath.  Away from a few prime spots, Chennai resembles a war zone.  And on a bicycle, you see, hear, and smell (especially smell) all this very intimately, something you would not do if you drove by in a car or even whizzed by on a motorcycle.

There, I have said it.  That’s the honest truth.

The trick is to try to understand what would cause a population of such incredibly smart and talented people to allow their immediate environment to be so degraded.  But that is a serious question, and while casting about for necessarily serious answers, some other strategy is needed to cope with the immediate horror of the surroundings.  Perhaps diving deep into one’s spiritual self is the answer. (I certainly try to do just that, and it helps me immensely.)

Some random images of what you will see as you cycle:


(The presence at the back of the trash bin is noteworthy.  When provided at all, facilities are just not enough for the population.)

DSC01834 (This was on a sidewalk; the amazing thing is that a sidewalk existed in the first place)

And a random movie of my Bike Friday and I in traffic, trying to keep at bay fumes of unburnt hydrocarbons from idling motorcycles and poorly tuned diesel engines (that black handlebar you see in the beginning belongs to my Bike Friday, I was steering with my left hand while taking this movie with my right, do not try at home).  Again, you will have to believe me when I say that traffic was actually light at this time:

It was with considerable relief therefore that I pedaled into my alma mater IIT Madras this morning, to visit my classmate and current IIT professor Devdas Menon and his wife Roshni.  IITM is an oasis: densely wooded, clean, with deer and monkeys and birds and butterfles floating around like the land belongs to them (which, if you think about it, it did at one time, and it should for eternity). I had breakfast with them: Roshni makes a mean dosai.

While having breakfast, I wondered what it was that I was feeling after a long time, and it suddenly struck me: normalcy. There was tranquility, and a sense of order.  Exactly like what I have gotten used to, lo these thirty two years in the west.  Clearly, life inside IITM is very different from life in the rest of India.

After breakfast, Devdas took me to his terrace, which lies in the shade of a huge banyan tree, pictured below. The tree is situated in the middle of a deer corridor, and at most times, deer can be found lying in its shade.  As I sat up there on the terrace, under the banyan tree, a mango tree off to the side, deer wandering in and out, monkeys by the fence, butterflies flitting about, a feeling of serenity enveloped me.  A feeling I was grateful for.

When I pedaled away from his home, my path was blocked by a gigantic deer that was crossing the road, and I had to wait for it politely to pass.  My camera battery had unfortunately died just a few moments ago, so I couldn’t take a picture of that particular deer, but here are a handful of other pictures from the campus.


(The banyan tree outside Devdas’ house)




I will end with a little plug for Devdas.  He’s a highly nontrivial dude, with a strong spiritual bent.  (Disclaimer: It was he who got me started on my own spiritual path.) He has his own website at


4 thoughts on “Bicycling to IIT. But First, Some Honesty.

  1. I know the feeling about Chennai, Al. When I first returned to India, I was keen on buying a Bullet motorcycle. Anu suggested I try my friend Prabhakar’s bike for a few days, before I buy one. It took just two days of doing that for me to give up on the idea… The amount of carbon monoxide I inhaled while waiting at the signals was scary. And it’s not just Chennai… Every Indian city has gotten that way 😦

    • I don’t leave home (whether on foot or on my bicycle) without a surgical mask. Without that, the pollution does a number on my throat, and it eventually leads to nasty respiratory problems. 😦 😦

    • Great video! The 5000 volt stuff is a bit scary, but I can understand why he’d want to invent something like that. I use a surgical mask myself, and yes, it does get a bit difficult to breathe through that. But, it does a pretty good job of filtering out the thick smoke of traffic.

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