OnPoint by Keith Ng

3

Chennai

Chennai had been described to me by various people as: "The capital of South India", "the Detroit of India" and "a nice seaside city". To quote Meatloaf: Two out of three ain't bad.

It's a strange mix, being both the heart of South Indian cultural consciousness and a grimey industrial powerhouse in a country where IT is hogging all the glory. It's claim to contemporary cultural significance is its film industry, which churns out Tamil-language (spoken around South India) films with a great deal of... industry.

Vastly generalising, pulp Tamil cinema is more violent than it's Hindi counterpart, and the stars tend to be more stout and buxomed, respectively. Movie posters tended to consist of a slightly chubby middle-aged man with a mostache, looking pissed off as hell and holding a gun, a machete, or just a big stick. They got pretty bloody.

The women were full-bodied and big-boobed. It's part asthestics, but also part practicality. They're not allowed to even *kiss* on-screen, so to keep the audience excited, they do a lot of jiggling. Conveniently, there was always an excuse for her sari to get very wet.

I stayed on the main street of a busy bazzar district cum tourist hub, a few doors down from a cinema. The hotels were pretty scungy, but they were also popular wedding venues. The local brass band seemed to have a monopoly - they played in every big wedding in the district. They even have their own horse.

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With the spectacular amount of commotion that goes into a wedding parade, it's hard to know exactly what's going on. But here, the groom, all dressed up on his pimped-up horse, leads a parade through the main street, bringing traffic to a halt.

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Nobody seems to mind too much, though...

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...and it's quite a sight.

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A few nights later, Svenda and I walked past a local hall where something was happening. Curious, we poked our heads in. Seconds later, the father of the groom was taking me by the hand up the stairs, and we were paraded in front of the relatives, then onto the stage as props for the wedding photos.

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It's perfectly normal for men to walk down the street holding hands here, which took a while to get used to. There's no romantic connotation to it, just a demonstration of platonic affection, but it's not okay for a man and a woman to hold hands, which was slightly confusing.

And of course, homosexuality is still a huge no-no, especially in the conservative south. But as you head towards the more modern cities, there would be fewer men holding hands, and more couples doing so.

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South Indian meals are huge! Huger than American meals, even.

A "thalis" meal is served in little metal bowls also called thalis. You get eight little bowls of goodies, a piece of popadom and a piece of roti or dosa, which is a pretty decent meal. *Then* they come and pile on the rice, about half a kilo of it at a time. The curries are pretty thin (and entirely vegetarian), which probably explains how they can pack away so much rice.

They give you a sambal (a hot curry), a dhal (lentil curry), some kind of hot and sour soup, buttermilk, pongal (a sweet rice porridge)... and I forget the other three. You pour them into your mountain of rice, then churn little rice balls with your hands. As you finish each curry, you add in the next one, and the taste of your thalis gradually evolve, from superhot in the beginning to sweet at the end. At some places, they put ghee (refined butter) and some kind of yellow powder into your rice, which makes it extra sticky and delicious. Though in other places, they think you're a bit weird if you ask for ghee, which confused the hell out of me.

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All the autorickshaws and buses in the city ran on CNG. Pretty environmentally friendly, you'd have thought. A government report revealed, however, that respiratory problems were actually on the rise, due to the smaller particulates created by CNG engines being more harmful. Drivers were also reporting more injuries, caused by the continual vibrations from the CNG engines. You just can't win...

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And here is this week's NGA...

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