April's Notes From The Road: Chennai 3 (2008)

Vanakkam again! All remains well in Chennai – and the heat has dissipated somewhat, so we have been able to enjoy a few balmy afternoons and outings. The IDLO course continues fabulously. In addition to my own presentations on international investment opportunities (and Jerry’s on the uses of social media) for MFIs, we have learned about some amazing “new enterprises” initiatives being spearheaded by the IFMR Trust and new online dispute resolution mechanisms. It appears that some players in India are already a few steps ahead of what is being talked about in the U.S. And now there is another online opportunity for individual investors to invest directly in Indian MFIs and get a 3.5% financial return on their investments – it’s called Rang De. It launched only recently so is probably too early to know whether it will be as successful as Kiva and Microplace, but nevertheless an interesting addition.

We have finally had some time to see a bit more of Chennai. Last night the IDLO group went to Marina Beach on the Bay of Bengal at sunset. It was a magical, peaceful time. A few (including yours truly) rode horses, while others ate neon-pink cotton candy, bought giant shells and flew tissue-paper kites with local children. The entire area was struck by the 2004 tsunami. For the most part it has recovered – and the municipality used it as an opportunity to spruce up the area overall – though we heard tragic stories from locals about what happened on the fatefully tragic day. Several of the course participants come from parts of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka that were directly devastated by the tsunami and we have been honored to hear some of their stories of how their communities have suffered and subsequently rebuilt.

Another oasis of peacefulness in Chennai is the Ramakrishna Mutt temple, which is just around the corner from the city’s famed Kapaleeshwarar Temple and its classic Dravidian style and giant technicolor gopurams (tall pyramid-shaped towers that mark the temple entrance) and mandapas (pavilions flanking the temple). We didn’t expect to find such a breathtaking-yet-still place, and found solace in the calm temple interiors (segregated for men on the left and women on the right) and simply walking around the temple grounds – complete with a resident ferret! Highly recommended on any visitor’s itinerary.

It seems like each day that passes, the food in India gets better and better. It’s hard to pick a short list of favorite new dishes! But here are a few from the last 48 hours:

  • Bhatti ka chaat: a mixture of pineapple, paneer (local soft cheese), sweet potato, cauliflower and red and green peppers that are grilled in a tandoor (clay oven), tossed in lemon and served with mint chutney
  • Dhingri makkai hara pyaz: a thick stew of fresh kernel corn, mushrooms and spring onion tossed in a mildly spiced masala
  • Pilau (rice pilaf) with juicy cashews and fresh mint
  • Dry-rubbed mutton shank with slivers of fresh coconut, lightly fried basil, tomatoes and cilantro leaves

In an upcoming post I’ll try to navigate the universe of Indian breads and what makes paratha different from phulka and how many ways roti can be served.

Given where we are, we decided to watch the epic movie Gandhi with Ben Kingsley. (Next up is a Bollywood flick.) It is poignant to be in the same place where Gandhi worked and to be reminded of his “peaceful non-violent non-cooperation” approach, his formative years spent in South Africa under apartheid and his deep friendship with Nehru. Connecting so many dots, from his quest towards a unified and independent India (success vis-à-vis the British followed by what he considered to be the tragedy of partition with Pakistan) and his premise that “an eye-for-an-eye approach ultimately leaves the whole world blind.”

Now time to head outside in search of freesia – they are everywhere, abundant and intensely fragrant. Many women wear long strands of freesia blossoms that have been woven together in their hair. If only we could have such beautiful hairbands at home...