In Chennai, it is the absence of so many that feels so palpable.
This city has long been known for exporting the best and brightest overseas. In India: A Million Mutinies Now, V.S. Naipaul detailed the scholarly roots of Brahmins with a desire to keep learning — even if that led one far away from home; later observers say that a reservations system with fewer seats for upper castes also helped fuel migration. Teenagers taking their class XII exams, the old joke goes, might as well do so in the line leading up to the US embassy.
While such an exodus marks much of India, among Chennai’s elite it often feels like no one stayed back. And so, parents waiting for the children to one day return have given up, converting bungalows into flats, or selling off land and moving into new colonies on the city’s outskirts.
“There’s a generation missing almost,” says Vijayalaxmi Gopalan, 55, who lives in a three-year-old gated community and notes that most of her neighbours and family are in the same predicament. Her two sons have settled in Seattle — and she says it looks like they are there to stay.
But Gopalan, who teaches French and communications, dismisses the idea her children owe her anything: “It’s their future that’s important.”
The void is most apparent at family events, says Iswar Natarajan, 68, whose son also lives in the US. He says, “You go to any function here in this city — any marriage, any social function — you will find only old people. They’ll say, ‘My son is here, in the States or Australia.’”
Some parents have packed up and tried to join their children — struck by the irony of being even lonelier with family intact but in a foreign land. Others go when a new grandchild arrives, their airline ticket and six-month visa a cheaper option than Western creches and nannies.
That’s not to say there aren’t some non-resident Indians returning to work here and an even larger number of young people flocking to Chennai for jobs, from writing code to making cars. “Even from the north,” pronounces Natarajan, as if the unthinkable has happened. He works at RK Swamy BBDO India Pvt. Ltd, the creative agency, and describes his home city as one he doesn’t recognize anymore. Personally and professionally, he sees once-frugal, conservative Chennai consuming. “The younger generation, the attitude has changed. People used to live for the future in Chennai,” he says. “Now they live for the present.”
Still, much of this city remains obsessed with a better future; hoardings and advertisements seem to plug laptops over TV sets, life insurance and engineering courses over swanky new housing developments. On one bus transporting students to the city’s outskirts, the school’s founder is presented as larger than life, painted in a way that seems more fitting for a politician, an actor, even a deity.
Yet, the young and old appear to rarely intersect, and the city’s growing traffic problem feels apt metaphor for how the old and new bump, ensnarl, ultimately dodge. The elderly pass time at temples, family functions, bazaars that inspire sweating alongside shopping. The young fill malls, classrooms, new clubs and lounges, even as they decry Chennai’s early closing times and grumble about how they’d much rather be in Delhi or Mumbai. The two generations literally and figuratively speak different languages.
Which is why the arrangement of Priya Karunakaran and Manmeet Kaur stands out — and offers one solution.
Two years ago, Karunakaran returned from a year abroad with her sons, in the US and Australia. Her husband was “allergic” to the cold and wanted to come out of retirement for a job about eight hours away from Chennai. Kaur, then 23 and a New Delhi native, had gotten a job in Chennai with a great profile and pay — but needed a place to live, preferably safe and near the gurudwara. Through a friend, she heard about Karunakaran and asked if she might consider renting out a room.
Karunakaran is a piece of the old, born in Sri Lanka to Tamil parents, settled in Chennai for decades. Initially, she said no. But she sympathized and relented.
And now, Kaur huddles over a table, pushing idlis made by her landlady. I can’t resist — the idlis and the question: Don’t you want to party, live on your own?
“I begged Aunty to let me live here. She is awesome. She’s the reason I can stay in Chennai.”
They began as roommates of convenience, these victims of the nuclear family gone global, but now they consider themselves lucky — at least they have each other. Even as she loves the company, Karunakaran remains the Tamil mother, fretting over a future that’s not her own. “She misses Delhi so much. Might there be opportunities you know of?”
Yet again, she would be ready to let go. She explains, “For me, it’s always the children’s choice.”
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