No, this is not your typical writer’s residency. It’s in India. So, having been in Chennai – the bustling, matter-of-fact capital of Tamil Nadu – for just over 3 days now, I’m still adjusting. Having done a few residencies in the last few years, I’d gotten used to the idea of just turning up and sipping coffee while writing, then going for relaxing walks. Not that I thought it would be like that here… I think I was just so focussed on the content of my project – the personal and inter-cultural dimensions of “medical tourism” – I’d forgotten that travel always implicates the traveller. You are no neutral observer.
A few examples. I was on my way to an internet cafe when a man, about 60-ish, approached me, and started walking with me. He said he worked at the airport and recognised me from when I arrived – he gestured to his lower lip to where my facial hair is, then stooped over to imitate my posture, smiling. We chatted in broken English for a while, until he stopped, leaned towards me, and whispered “can you help me?”. He had a bag from an eye hospital and a print-out of the costs of some procedure or prescription, running to the thousands of rupees. I am not proud to say I gave him a tiny amount, then refused when he pleaded for more. I still don’t know how to feel. I can still hear him saying “I don’t ask anybody!”, then myself saying “but you’re asking me…”. I still don’t know how I feel about how I responded, or even what exactly happened, or what problems this man has, if any.
Who is responsible for the health of the Indian people? What happens when someone’s social circle can’t help or support him (or her)?
Example two, a little less significant. Just after this encounter, I popped into a little supermarket to buy a few supplies, and thought I may as well buy a few oranges as well. Only after I got back to the hotel, did I notice the sticker on them – grown in Australia. Does India actually need Australian oranges? I don’t think so. I don’t either. But they’re here.
Anyway, here’s a few photos that somehow reflect my first impressions of Chennai – well, of Mylapore anyway, the suburb where I’m staying. The traffic is a self-organising cacophony, the people are gentle and subtle and (for the most part) leave you to your own devices, it’s hot as hell (an overnight low of 25 is considered “pleasant”), and the locals love their little oases (the beach, parks, AC restaurants, the mall…).