An Italian's Guide to Five Experiences in Chennai

An Italian's Guide to Five Experiences in Chennai
A panoramic view of Chennai, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

An Italian son-in-law asserts his privileges as he attempts to navigate through the maze that is the Chennai traffic

Carlo Pizzati
October 22 , 2021
10 Min Read

It’s time for that Italian manoeuvre to beat the traffic. Cross over, start a U-turn by rolling down the window, waving my arm wildly at incoming traffic and warn I’m going to go for it.

Then shove the nose of the car into the opposite lane, force an auto-rickshaw, a moped, a bike and a car to slam on their brakes and let me ease into their lane, shaving a millimetre off the bark of a nearby poplar tree.

Bustling Chennai traffic

“Amazing what a white arm can do in Chennai traffic, ay?” I comment to my wife and to my mother-in-law, who’s nervously clutching the fake leather seat in the back.

“Oh, you think it’s that post-colonial power still?” my wife asks.

“Guaranteed. Did you see anyone complain? No one. It’s that crazy Westerner again. They’re too shocked to start an argument. Not a beep, nor a peep. White man’s privilege!”

Traffic in Chennai? Worst traffic in India.

I mean there’s Auroville. That’s right—try driving out or into Auroville at night and you’ll see. You probably think peace and quiet, spirituality and brotherhood. Forget it. Wild cattle roaming the dark, narrow and badly paved roads. Bicycles without a headlight in zero public lighting are more likely what you’ll get.

Everyone’s used to the skinny holy cows roaming about the highway on the East Coast Road as the engine hits 120 km/hr. And I’m no newcomer to bovine- dodging either.

But Auroville at night, I promise, will make you lose one point of your eyesight and maybe a square cm of hair somewhere in your receding hairline. Not to mention the washed up, weathered vellais: Italians, Germans, Belgians, French, Canadians, Americans who go Easy Rider, ‘head out on the highway looking for adventure, for whatever comes our way...b-b-b-booooorn to be wiiiiiild!’

They haven’t gotten the Indian flow yet, so they’re accelerating and braking suddenly, all with the wrong rhythm—too jumpy and jerky for the context of such deep forest darkness.

They haven’t understood yet the silent, feigning mediation, that cross between indifference to incoming traffic and survivalist alertness which is inbred in any living Indian driver, including Overseas Citizens of India residents, like myself.

They haven’t mastered the ‘Ganesh will save me’ lane merging technique: the motorcycle driver who never looks to his right, as he merges into a lane, knowing that if a truck wipes him away, that is the will of the gods.

It’s actually more subtle than that. It’s a game of feigning indifference. A competition among non-attached folks in showing the other you don’t care what happens. I don’t care more than you don’t care. See? I’m not even looking!

And it’s even more complicated than that, really. It’s a game about pretending you do not have peripheral vision and expecting the incoming driver to have it, so he is the one forced to step on the breaks before ramming into you.

Ram ram, jai jai ram. Ram ram on them brakes!

But there’s a simple technique to avoid heart attacks at every merging motorcyclist: just pretend to be even more unaware of the ‘Ganesh will save me’ motorcyclist. His peripheral vision will miraculously re-awaken. He will swerve at the right time, stay off the road and let you pass.

If Auroville is the worst for back street driving, Chennai is the king of road stomach acid.

I’ve marched my wheels on the asphalts of Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kochi, Kovalam, Trivandrum, Gangtok, Goa, Guwahati, Shillong, Shekhawati and more.

Yet, Chennai wins and here’s why.

In the symbiosis of man and automotive vehicle, traffic is just an extension of the urban culture’s nervous system.

There is one sure way to understand a city— observe meticulously how people drive in it. And how they drive into each other.

How do Chennai spirals differ from Mumbai’s snakes or Delhi’s amphibian toads; the geometric/ zoological gridlock metaphors for different shapes of car clusters?

Delhi has got imperial traffic and imperial gridlocks. It means you get stuck, mostly. In flooded lanes, in irrational choices at roundabouts or simply by overcrowding. You get frustrated if you’re in a hurry to improve your career, gain power, meet influential people who will help your dharmatic quest for power.

Mumbai thinks it has traffic, but it has lane dividers! How serious can it be? You get stuck, sure. But it’s a problem only if you have a Westernised obsession with results, appointments, delivering on time, and such devilish fixations. If you just turn on the radio and you have automatic gears, you should be fine, really.

Bangalore is a mess, three hours to get to the airport. Ok, but you let the Uber driver lose a year of his life by worrying and sounding his horn, while you check your Instagram in the back seat. 

Again, it has to do with where you’re going, not necessarily with how bad your experience is at the moment. Yes, lethal fumes, yeeesss overheating engines, I know, and, yes, constantly paying attention to see if someone cuts in front of you and then you find yourself in the same spot for an hour, while the lanes to your left and right are slowly flowing to their destiny.

Fine. Nothing that can’t be cured with a little new age music as a soundtrack.

But Chennai...there’s no way you can do that in the traffic nightmare capital of the country known for traffic nightmares. This city did not develop with a plan. It went from forty thousand people to eight million in less than a century.

Very few traffic dividers, narrow two-lane roads designed for one bullock cart at a time, filled with six lane traffic, garnished by bee-hives of mopeds and bikes.

Here, the name of the game is ‘chicken’. Not just to avoid cars that cut in front of you, but to avoid incoming traffic from jumping into your lane and really getting you, the jouster, stuck for a long, anarchic while. The vital question is: who will swerve first?

This is just a reminder of the precariousness of our position in society, of the fleeting nature of existence. Again, India teaches its Vedic lessons in everyday life, if you know how to interpret it.

Which is the whole point—non-attachment to your spot in the lane while you reincarnate into your next spot in line.

But it’s a struggle because your dharma is to get somewhere. So you press on that pedal and you hop on forward, while your nemesis in incoming traffic does the same, shoved into your lane by a car cutting in from the side.

CARLO PIZZATI’S FAVE CHENNAI EXPERIENCES

The Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Mylapore

TEMPLE HOPPING TO GREEN OASES

Yes, Chennai has a deserved reputation for being a boring, slow, provincial metropolitan area of eight million people. It’s not a city that immediately reveals its charms. Foreign travellers often inch to their hotel through ebullient slow traffic, drink up and enjoy the pool or the gym, until they feel the need to venture out. Then they might reach as far as Fort St. George or stroll on Marina Beach, perhaps, to then get stuck and get mad again at the worst traffic in India. But that’s not what the city is about: there is a secret Chennai you can discover if you live here, and enjoy its authentic flavour.

WAKE UP EARLY, BUT NOT TOO EARLY:

Let’s say you should get to the neighbourhood of Besant Nagar by 8am. My favourite dive to have masala dosas and filter coffee is Vishranthi Hot Point. Don’t be put off by the somewhat humble demeanour (which I love, anyway). This is a place where workers and middle-class clerks alike grab their breakfast. Brimming with atmosphere, the food is some of the best in this area. You can walk off the extra calories by taking a stroll on Elliot’s Beach among ancient merry go-rounds and fishmongers.

NOT TOO FAR UP THE COAST, YOU REACH THE THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY:

It is open to the public and it’s completely worth the small entrance fee and the time, even if you don’t care about the important spiritual legacy that goes from Annie Besant and Madam Blavatsky all the way up to Jiddu Krishnamurti, who planted a beautiful tree you can still see here, along with temples and holy shrines of all the religions in the world. It’s completely worth it also for the 260 acres of cacti gardens, the 450-year-old banyan tree, the meandering paths along the mysterious jungle by the Adyar river populated by migratory birds, giant fruit bats, snakes, jackals, wild cats, mongooses, hares and much more. My favourite daily walk in Chennai.

BY NOW YOU MAY BE READY TO HEAD FURTHER NORTH: 

You could either stop for lunch at Woodlands, and get a fantabulous thali which will put you into a hypnotic state until you’ve entirely digested it, or maybe head to the Mylapore temple. I prefer to get here a little later on in the afternoon, because it may be too hot in the mid-day hours. You can go inside the temple, walk around the reservoir, sit and rest in meditation, people-gaze, or shop for saris or lungis. But what you shouldn’t miss is a little snack at the restaurants around the temple and, afterwards, ask for the kiosk that sells glasses of rose milk. 

NOW IT’S TIME TO DISCOVER A LITTLE SECRET NORTHERN INDIA IN THE HEART OF THE CITY:

Sowcarpet, aka Mini- Rajasthan or Chhota Mumbai. It’s a casbah, and a charming one, with cows walking around some collapsed Indo-Saracenic-style building, dozens of shops of all kinds (turbans and sweets, for example) and just a flavour of a different India in all the alleys populated by Gujaratis and Rajasthanis.

YOU MIGHT BE A BIT TIRED, RIGHT NOW: 

If there’s nothing on at the Music Academy, which has great acoustics and pretty good quality of events, it might be time for a drink. I suggest you head to the stylish Library Bar at the Leela Palace Hotel, which has good cocktails and atmosphere. Then you can mosey on down to the good Chinese restaurant below, to end the day with delicious dumplings.

Extracted from Carlo Pizzati’s Mappillai: An Italian Son-in-Law in India (Simon & Schuster, INR 399)

The cover of Carlo Pizzati's Mapillai: An Italian son-in-law in India


Related Articles

Chennai: Culture and...

Simrran Gill December 08 , 2021

5 Stunning Heritage...

Uttara Gangopadhyay November 20 , 2021

Why 2020 Was the Year of...

Nakshatra ShahAashna Dhiman December 31 , 2020

Here to there

Explore Directions(Routes) and more...
to Go

Our Other Editions

Outlook’ is India’s most vibrant weekly news magazine with critically and globally acclaimed print and digital editions. Now in its 23rd year...

Explore All
  • Check out our Magazine of the month
  • Offbeat destinations
  • In-depth storytelling
  • Stunning pictures
  • Subscribe