My time in Chennai could aptly be described in one single word: struggle. An unsuspecting innocent youth who hailed from a remote town of Bihar came to Chennai and got his ass kicked all over the place. Not only did Chennai kick my ass, it also taught me how to live life. Properly.
From dust covered state transport buses to head spinning heat, from an unknown language and script to a whole different cuisine, Chennai offered a difficult challenge. The shackles of hesitation and timidity that had locked my early twenties self into a meek, non-confrontational apologetic lad were smoked to kingdom come, and the uncouth youth was trained into a somewhat respectable man.
I came to this city all kinds of lost, uncertain of the future and regretful of the past. The days were chaotic and nights, terrible. The heat would make me curse my being, while the ever rancid city did not leave the slightest margin of error. The great flood of 2015 was a near death experience, having had to spend two days on the open roof with ten others, barely having anything to eat and eventually getting rescued on a boat by NDRF.
I would rarely find a seat in the local bus, as I wasn’t fast/brazen enough. I was too slow or too fast to jump into or from a moving one, and often ended up falling face first in a series of embarrassing incidents. I would often get down a stop before or after the one I intended to, and walked the remaining distance cursing myself for being so very stupid. The places had difficult names and slipped through my mind like hot knife on butter. The language was alien and the food, asinine. I did not have any friends and I was too paranoid to make new ones.
Life, in short, was effed up.
And yet, Chennai did something inexplicable. It rekindled my soul with its own, like a candle brushes against another, setting it aflame with its own. Where was only uncertainty, I could finally see possibility. The summer heat felt more like warmth, and in the chaotic monotony of noises, I found the rhythm of my life.
Of all my many memorable experiences in Chennai, the one thing that rings closest to my heart was this Tibetan diner, named Dallay. Located just outside the phoenix market city, it was easy to miss against the flashy lights of the big mall and the traffic. Situated on the first floor of a rather unremarkable building, Dallay wasn’t meant for folks with a fine taste in dining. Nor was it meant for couples to get busy or for rowdy youth groups for rabid celebrations. It was not the place one would go for a date, or a get together or business trip either. It clearly wasn’t meant for birthday parties or anything else.
And yet, in its own unique being, owing to its very imperfections the place became my closest friend in the city of Chennai.
It had a cramped, makeshift dingy stairway that led to a dilapidated door through a barrage of portraits and photographs. The main door opened to a surprisingly small hall, with about eight tables with barely any space to walk. The food was prepared in the adjacent room and the waitress would receive it through a small window in the adjoining wall.
In a small billing desk by one of the walls sat a beautiful smiling lady always, and welcomed me every time with the knowing of an acquaintance. My first few encounters when I ordered the same items over and over again, each time, this kind lady took a puzzled liking to me and I did not need to tell her my orders afterwards. After a few more regular visits, I took fancy to a solo table by the window and it became my spot for all future visits.
I could be found there almost every weekend, humming to the hill music instrumentals the hostess often played. I soaked in to the enchanting smell of momos and soup, and looked out of the window at the horde of people and vehicles in rush to enter the mall ahead. They all were happily coming from somewhere and going somewhere too. I wasn’t. I was just a guy sitting by the window looking at people with happy lives.
The food this sweet little diner offered was excellent, covering a wide range of cuisine from the mountains of Nepal to the royalty of Bhutan. For someone addicted to warm beverages, I would often order thupkas and soups, and relish them lost in the little moment of peace I had there on a table all by myself. I would often stream a cricket match on my mobile if any was on, and take my time dining, munching, chewing, humming and sipping.
At times when the ceiling became un-interesting and the bed uncomfortable, and my pitiable self had nowhere to go, Dallay was the place to be. Perhaps it was the music, or the smell, or the taste of food itself, or the window or the table or the charming hospitality of the kind lady or perhaps all of it… the place felt a lot closer to heart than in fact a lot of the people ever did. For about the hour I would spend there, I felt rejuvenated to my core and all the dark clouds blown away.
The place had become a person, and a close one. I do not know the conversations my soul had with its, or the contents shared, but somehow I always left it smiling on the inside.
Now that time has been cruel and I am to step into my next life as I leave Chennai, Dallay seems to have bid me adieu in its own way.
The restaurant staff has been changed and the benevolent lady is gone. In my own silliness I never got to ask even her name. The interiors are renovated to give a more luxurious look and the culinary upgraded. The menu is on a more costly sheet and fancier. The food tastes the same but isn’t enchanting anymore. Something is amiss. The new staff plays a different playlist in the diner and somehow I feel my friend in it has changed, too. The harsh truth of life slowly dawns that all things change and our peace lies in accepting them when they do.
Dallay has changed itself to be a friend to some other deserted wayward loner who perhaps would need a place to recharge his soul.
Perhaps that new friend discovers it soon and sits at the table by the window, looking at people having happy lives, smiling, wishing one day to be one of them, as I am now.