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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Life in Chennai # 18: Sleep well, eat well

You just have to laugh. Good thing I can generally sleep through anything.

I happen to live a couple buildings down from a temple. OK, rewind that. In Chennai, that is like saying you live a couple buildings down from a Starbucks on the West Coast (if you can throw a rock in Vancouver and not hit a coffee shop, a sushi joint and a yoga studio, then you’re inside). Here, as a function of the diverse and personalized nature of Hindu worship and a simple matter of population, there are temples pretty much every few blocks, from tiny roadside shrines to sky-reaching monuments.

So, anyway, the good-sized temple I live beside started marking an auspicious time and started doing pooja (worship of the Deities of the Hindu religion). At 4am. Over the loudspeaker. 5 days ago. From 4am to 10pm, solid. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I think they skipped parts of Monday for some reason, although maybe I just stopped noticing. Which is remarkable, because we’re talking loud. But break or my imagination, they were back at it again this morning for day #5, (although with a later 6am start). So hearing and experiencing what their pooja is cool and I have absolute respect for the varied Hindu traditions, but to be perfectly frank, I am not sure why it has to be done over the loudspeaker where I cannot turn it off. I assume everyone at the temple can hear just fine (although maybe not anymore), but over the speakers, it projects like they are piping the broadcast directly into my flat. And of course not being a morning person myself, I cannot fathom why anyone or any god would require anything at 4am. It is simply wrong, wrong, wrong! Not better black and white you’ll ever get out of me! ;-)

Truly, I wish I could share it with you though! My parents caught a piece over the phone the other night, but it is hard to convey with words. It is actually louder inside than out on the street, maybe some weird acoustic thing. I tried making a recording on my camera’s video mode, but it didn’t do it justice. But to give you an idea, it is like waking up on the couch with the TV on super loud because you fell asleep watching it drunk. Or for those who perhaps that example doesn’t resonate, it is like going about your day with a really loud stereo going, always. We actually had to shout over breakfast!

Ahh, India. The first morning, being unexpected, it was a bit annoying, but mostly, I find it just another amusing example of the hundreds of little things you just cannot take for granted here. On the plus side though, I was a real keener getting to work early on Friday. I wish I understood more of what was going on. My housemates and close colleague at work all coincidentally being Christian, they haven’t been much help and what little they’ve explained I’ll withhold so as to not make myself even more ignorant than I already am. Actually, now knowing a little Tamil, I expected to understand more of what was being said, but it was either too esoteric or most likely just too garbled by the low quality amplification. There have been sections of leading prayer and reciting verse, sections of rhythmic chanting and many sections of various kinds of music (no hip hop though unless I missed that set while at work on Friday). I’m not a super fan of traditional carnatic music, it takes a certain appreciation, but much of it was nice; some I noted would have been great with a nice funky base line. I liked the drum sets though. I suppose I shouldn’t really call them sets – it isn’t like they were down there with a DJ spinning (of course I shouldn’t assume…) – but the term works so bear with me.

As I started with, thank God I can sleep with pretty much anything going on. But one side effect was that I had some seriously fucked up dreams as my brain tried to incorporate the external stimulus, especially the chanting segments. I wish I could remember them better, but they always fade, just leaving that slightly disturbing residue of memory that my brain had been just mixing things that ought not be mixed, like coming in to find your 6-year old trying to bake cookies for the first time (does anyone else remember that horrid game show “just like Mom” that was on when we were growing up?).

Of course living with noise and inconveniences is a common adaptation for the most of us who now live in cities and apartment buildings the world over. Chennai is no different in this respect than Chicago or Calgary or Copenhagen. Perhaps garbage trucks bang bins (surely on purpose) in the back alley at 5:30am, maybe trucks grind gears along the nearby thoroughfare, or you have one of those neighbours (I’ve been one of those neighbours) who’s stereo base pounds through the walls 24-7. Dogs bark all night at whatever dumb-ass things dogs bark at, police sirens carry for miles and some jerk’s car alarm is going off, again, but we all somehow get along with the babble of cooking, shrieking and different tastes in music and TV programs carrying through the walls.

Here is no different, although of course we’ve got our own unique quirks. The newspaper wallah and a host of others I cannot identify by their distorted cries carries through the windows as soon as the sun is up. Traffic here produces a wider range of racket with the constant cacophony of beeps, squeaks and horns. The custom (requirement?) here is to have an audible reversing sound on your vehicle, which is usually some blaring, repetitive ring-tone like song. Everyone has ring-tones. But on the plus side, almost no one has car alarms, so major score on that one; the reversing sounds, which I despise, only last a minute (or 2 depending on the ability of the parker and the sketchiness of the space they are attempting). There are different urban bird and animal sounds, but not any more of them and nothing exotic. No monkeys or anything cool, although the peacocks made quite a raucous when I was staying in Jaipur last month. But all in all, I actually live on a quieter street than I have in times past: the concrete walls are much more soundproof than Western construction and I usually sleep with the overhead fan which does a good job in dulling most into its white noise.

Actually, being woken up repeatedly at early hours to singing and chanting reminds me (other than residence at University, of course) of a funny story of living in Vancouver during the 2002 FIFA World Cup. I was living with my girlfriend at the time just a couple blocks from a major downtown intersection, high up on the 15th floor. The World Cup was in Korea and Japan that year and games therefore were at crazy hours of the night Vancouver time. And every day for 2 weeks straight we were woken up at 4, maybe 5 in the morning to the sound of some group or other having an impromptu parade down Robson Street cheering and honking and waving their flags wildly. The honking would start and I’d blearily get up and lean my head out the window above the bed. “Who won?” she’d ask sleepily. “Italy, I think”; “Brazil today”; “Korea again” (they did particularly well that year and have a sizable population in the city). It didn’t matter who won – such is the diversity of the city – every morning without fail the nationals and supporters of the winner would suddenly sweep out from wherever they were managing to watch the game at that hour and parade down the street. It was like it was choreographed. On the plus side, we kept up on the standings. It is a fond and fun memory, no less in the telling. Such is city life, in all its randomness and bother. So I suppose I can be easy on the temple.

But there are other funny noises to deal with this week. We’ve got a cricket holed up in our kitchen and he’s been going solid for a couple hours now. I’ve gone in there to see if I can find him, to tell him, “sorry little guy, but I can pretty much guarantee there are no girl crickets living in our kitchen. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. I appreciate your commitment and all to being the coolest, suavist, cricket in the yard, but man to man: they aren’t coming dude. Give it up.” Of course I couldn’t find the bugger so he’s still there. I hope he finds a way out. We had one living there for a couple weeks back in January and never could find where he was hiding.

Bugs and creatures are another thing you mostly have to get used to here in India. I suppose it is the climate as well as the fact that we’re rarely living in a sealed environment (our apartment actually has an open-air window to a central shaft running down the middle of the building, a peculiar, but common design element here so all the apartments are open to each other, though grated, and to the outside). So things find their way in pretty regularly and many just decide to stay and set up shop. I’m generally unfazed by it, although I do admit I jumped and shrieked like a kid trying to capture a giant cockroach that flew into my room one night. I know they are more scared of me and can’t do me any harm, but it is all their fast skittering and flying about! Leslie thought it all very funny, but she’s about as resilient as anyone I’ve met with this stuff. You get used to all sorts of things though and very few of the bugs are actually a bother (except mosquitoes of course).

We’ve got geckos. They’re cute. I talk to them. We have a new little one scurrying around that I sometimes surprise when I come out to go to the bathroom. I try to shoe him out of my room, but figure he is fine living under the fridge if he wants. Not like we can do anything about it anyway. They just wander in and out. And I figure they eat bugs so points to them.

We go through phases of having ant problems in the place, again coming in from the outside. They are mini ones, very common here. I don’t mind them except when they occasionally get into my dinner left out on the table. I don’t figure they’ll harm me though. You have to compromise some. Several of us living here have concurred on there being an ant quota. So if I open my dinner and there’s, say, less than 5 ants checking it out, fair game; above that it gets dicey. On the other hand though, there is no “5-second rule” for dropped food here. With nasty microbes and general grime here, if it hits the floor, it’s DOA.

And that’s the basics of shared living here. It isn’t the most pristine place I’ve lived long term and it isn’t the quietest, but it isn’t the sketchiest or loudest either. At university our decrepit place had mice and millipedes and at one place or another I’ve had the excitement of having a squirrel or bird or bat make its way inside and freak out (my cat particularly enjoyed having the bird around…and around and around). I’ve lived near a fire station with neighbours who had a rock band, the one living there being the drummer. And unlike good friends of mine, I haven’t had bed bugs or fleas. Everyone’s got their horror stories.

So give a cheery hello to whatever critters share your space with you while you eat your cornflakes and give your shared wall, floor or ceiling a couple good bangs just for a chummy “nice to know ya” to your neighbours. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.


McKay said...

Update: the temple has finally stopped broadcasting its celebrations and observances after over a week of near-constant sound. After a while, it mostly faded into the background noise, just another soundtrak to my daily life. The last day was a grand send-off with music going to midnight and then starting sharply and louder than over at 4am.

But to ensure the fun did not stop, our kitchen cricket decided to move into my room under my bed as I discovered when I turned off the lights a couple nights ago. It took me 20 minutes to route him out, get him in a glass and dump him off the balcony. Sleeping outside in a tent, the soft orchestra of crickets can be a soothing sound, but right under my bed, it was a tad more distracting...

Hot Soup said...


Ah, 2002. I had it much worse than you: I was on the first floor on Robson St. and those Korean students, delirious at their country's surprise success, would serenade my bedroom window at four every morning.

Much as I love an underdog, especially an East Asian one, I was desperately rooting against Korea that year.

Sriram said...

lol. You write well.
I came here via your Mt.Everest pic on flickr. Thanks for sharing.

LifeIsAGame said...

Came across your blog while searching for "living in Chennai". I am an Indian who have lived in the US for past 10 years and thinking of moving back permanently. Reading your blog reminded me of what I had totally forgotten about. Thanks for posting your experiences.