April's Notes From The Road: Chennai 2 (2008)

Chennai is alive, living, engaging, challenging, a "normal" large Indian city yet unique in its own way. The IDLO law-and-microfinance course is superb -- intense and eye-opening as usual. The weather remains hot and muggy, the markets teeming, the traffic and general daily chaos unparalleled. And the more things change, the more they stay the same...

I continue to be struck, in so many ways and on so many levels, by how India is – at least to the casual observer – exactly the same as it was when I first visited eight years ago. Sure, familiarity can be comforting sometimes, but here it feels disconcerting insofar as what looks “the same” includes massive and extreme poverty, lack of critical infrastructure to serve the public good and an inclusive (or national-scope) approach to integration of more local actors and experiences. While grass-roots initiatives are key drivers to economic and social development, they could and would be all the more successful if the lessons learned and benefits reaped were shared with neighbors, and I just don’t see that happening.

Both in China and in India, en route from the airport to our hotel we passed by major highway construction projects. In China the construction crew, materials and management were modern and cutting-edge. When the taxi driver responded that it would take three months to complete the overpass and by-ways, it was easy to believe him. In India the scene looks the same as pictures I’ve seen from early in the 19th century – dirt paths and concrete blocks seemingly leading nowhere, ramshackle groups of men using manual labor (with no hard hats and often only sandals as “protective” footwear) and no sense of how the road would fit into the surrounding area even if it were ever completed. We were told that it would take 18 months for this, which was painfully hard to imagine.

That said, there is plenty of hubbub, action and enterprise taking place in Chennai. One needs only to go to the old George Town marketplace or the whopping-big “T Nagar” and Pondy Bazaar areas to see robust local market activity and entrepreneurship. Our first full day in town, we explored the historic Fort St. George which used to be part of the British complex and naval base. Mildly interesting, full of men queuing for hours to get in the compound for meetings whose purpose we never quite determined, and Hot with a capital H. We wandered around St. Mary’s Church (which proudly boasted a “bullet-proof roof” but we suspect that meant bullets as of 1763) and checked out the government’s fleet of armored cars, on-base dry goods shop, barber and museum. Mildly interesting but hard to say for sure, given how sapped my entire body was from the humidity! Much more captivating for me was the High Court nearby, a deep red oasis of buildings topped with ornate onion domes and a random giant lone classical column that would have been equally at home in Athens. How did it get to Chennai, and even more curious, how in the world can the court judges and barristers bear donning suits and cloaks in such temperatures – and were the cases tried and decisions handed down actually enforced?

Normally such heat would dampen my appetite, but thankfully we have eaten wonderfully well so far in India. I am keeping a log of all the unique, delicious or otherwise memorable dishes sampled and already have a healthy list underway. A few early favorites include gobi bhoj puri (cauliflower stewed in a light cumin sauce with chilli and green onion), kekada masala (a stew of crab, raw ginger chunks and a tomato-based sauce – the crab is still in its shell, so a lot of pulling and sucking required to savor the meat) and rasamalai (a dessert of small dry cheese dumplings in a sweet curd-milk-honey syrup with rose petals and pomegranate seeds). Yum! The local fish dishes are deservedly popular and sublime; lots of fiery chilli, coconut, ginger and coriander used. Likewise the fresh fruit juices could not be better – so far sweet lime and watermelon are my favorites. And if all that were not enough, there are always more chutneys and condiments to accompany each meal that my mind begins to blur. Is mint chutney, mango chutney or bitter gourd chutney better suited to chicken? What is the difference between mango chutney and mango pickle? How many different ways can you serve preserved lime? And are “bitter berries” (that look like tiny snail shells) really bitter? (Answer: No – but they are as salty as anything I have ever tasted.)

The IDLO law-and-microfinance course is now in full force, and so far very good. As usual a diverse and extroverted group of participants, including representatives from the Sri Lankan Attorney General’s office and the Central Bank of the Philippines, law professors from Afghanistan and clean energy and development experts from Nepal, along with a large Indian contingent from throughout the country. The course venue is the fabulous Raintree Hotel, an "Ecotel" that not only uses natural and materials throughout but also has the best rooftop terrace with 270 degree panoramas and an inviting rooftop swimming pool. Truly a traveler’s treasure! The focus so far has been the legal and regulatory environment for microfinance as it currently applies in India and especially with respect to the new Microfinance Law that went into effect last year. Comparative analyses and frameworks from other participant countries are slated as the week unfolds, and I’ll be sure to report back.

Speaking of comparisons, now time to go debate whether chutney is better than pickle, a sari or salwaar kameez is more comfortable to wear and a tuk-tuk autorickshaw or classic white Ambassador is the preferred mode of local transport!