Chennai, South India, February 8, 2006
Returning to India opens one’s eyes and always spins one’s head around, to someplace different, to a new space and consciousness. My flight from Bangkok, where I stayed one night with my friend Michael Moore, a journalist and writer, to Chennai, formerly called Madras, was on time. The bags came quickly, as soon as I stepped into the baggage claim area, the exchange of money took less than a minute, and as I stepped out I was swiftly met by Ranjit Kishore or Raju, a PhD student at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) from Orissa who had been sent to bring me to the Institute upon my arrival. There were surprisingly few taxi drivers or hotel touts doing the usual of noisily getting into my face or aggressively grabbing at me for their business. It is a new India.
What a difference a few years makes! The India of waiting, waiting, waiting, has given way now to an impatient competition, a race to whatever is next. There is a sense of tension and possibility in the air. But for some there is also a sense of some being left out and left behind. That is what I am searching for, where and how the politics of being marginalized is having an impact on the daily life of the people.
Raju has arranged a car to take us to MIDS in Adyar, not far from the Theosophical Society’s headquarters with that enormous banyan tree that is the largest in the world. Probably if you Google that you can find an image of it. That tree provides a metaphor for us for much that follows. It encompasses under its shade and spreading branches and trunks a place for all, its roots coming from the sky.
The drive into the city has the feel of both new and old, of how things have changed but stayed much the same. There are fewer bicycles and bullock carts and far more cars, trucks, and motorcycles, but there are also people lining the roads who are eking out a living in the most marginal of occupations, cobblers and sweepers, vegetable and fruit vendors, construction workers and other laborers, hauling and moving goods, providing the muscle, the strength, and the base for the new development.