... City life, urban life, living in big cities, in fact, is living in a galaxy of unimportant, random, stupid, absurd images. But your look gives a strange, mysterious meaning to these little details of streets, asphalt or cobblestone roads, advertisements, letters, all the little details of bus stops, or chimneys, windows...Maybe ten years ago, I went shopping with a friend in what was originally called Black Town, i.e., the 'native' quarter of the colonial city. It was later given the more PC name of "George Town." It's still the most densely populated part of Chennai. When I went there I was entranced by the sheer number of things, people, sights -- I tried to evoke it, and ended up with a list as chaotic as the place:
I drove to the Evening Bazaar. This mud, this dung, these potholes filled unevenly with clay, broken brick and bits of stone, these buffaloes, these cycle-rickshaws with their dull bells, ka-klang, ka-klang, this man with wild hair and beard, a dirty cloth over his bare chest, with ragged trousers black with grease, dragging a filthy sack through the muddy streets.The trick, which I have not mastered, is to take a list and turn it into the kind of mysterious, three-dimensonal picture in the mind's eye that Pamuk has achieved with Istanbul.
I tried to pass a car parked in the middle of the narrow street, cycles and rickshaws parked haphazardly to its left, a narrow passage to the right, potholed and awash with stagnant rain water. I honked and waved at the driver, but he rowed with his hand like an oar out the window, palm scooped, to say, "Get around me if you can, I'm not moving."
To the right, stone doorsteps descended directly to the broken pavement. A thin old woman crouched on one narrow step to polish a stainless steel pot. I inched along between the bulbous Hindustan Ambassador car on the left and doorsteps, skinny woman, a pot on my right, my head out the window, riding the clutch. A pedestrian squeezed between me and the woman and the building and, freed, turned to wave me on. Then I was also freed to re-enter the human and animal stream.
A woman sat on the pavement with a basket of oranges and papayas and apples, just where I wanted to park. The parking attendant shrugged, and pointed me further down the road. In front of me sat a man on a low stool, selling bricks of incense, samples burning on a charcoal brazier. I got out and walked, skirting puddles, smeared cow dung, people, all the varieties of small and narrow vehicles which could push their way along the throttled roadway. Smells of incense, rose paste, fried snacks, excrement, the flowers in women's hair.
Women speaking Tamil, Gujerati, Hindi, walking in twos and threes, single file at the edge of the road, headed toward vegetables or saris, strewn out on white cloth-covered mats in tiny shops open to the street.
I watched the ground as I wove in and out between parked cycles, motorcycles, cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, cows, bullock carts, hand carts. I saw water, mud, potholes, puddles tinted lime green with chemicals, scattered paper, leaves, dung; peoples' feet, bare, sandalled; children in school uniforms with cloth bags of books jumping across the puddles. Once in a while I looked up, to see two Sikhs on a parked motorcycle, getting ready to enter the stream, or a sugar-cane crushing machine daubed with turmeric, sindoor and sandalwood from the Worship of Tools festival; or further up, to the buildings revealed in their original forms, above the level of storefronts and signs, with cement columns, wooden fretwork, barred windows, pipal trees rooted high above the street, springing from cracks in the plaster.
Two old men on a stone step, one with his head thrown back to look at the sky, mouth slack, teeth in chaotic disarray. As I looked at him a whiff of excrement passed my face, as if it came from his open mouth.
A cycle rickshaw passed, an old woman sitting in the back, intently weaving a marigold garland, pulling flowers from a jute bag and swiftly knotting thread to attach them to the rest. Five bullocks in a line made me step hastily aside, the horns of the lead animal spreading beyond its body like hooks to catch the unwary.
Pushcarts with pots of bubbling, spicy chickpeas, small puris, samosas. The smells of food flowers filth. A man makes sandwiches at a stand on the sidewalk: spongy white bread, green chutney, slices of onion, tomato, cucumber, boiled potato. His sandwiches are famous, he does a roaring business. My mouth burns.
Jewelers, sari shops, provision stores, temples, houses, coffee shops, pawnbrokers, sweet shops, aluminum vessels, open sacks of garlic and dried chillies. Helmets, necklaces, belts to be worn by actors portraying gods. It's only silver-plate, 510 rupees.
Packets of mehndi to redden your palms, decorated tear drops to glue to your forehead, jasmine for your hair, silver anklets for your feet, printed saris 100 rupees cheaper than anywhere else in the city.
The temples are closed, they open at four, shop doorways are hung with fading folded palm fronds, with paper garlands. A few days before, the street was full of crushed gourds, their red insides gaping like bloody flesh, thrown into the road with camphor burning on top, to carry away with them the accumulated evil of the year.