I write from the slightly moth-eaten second twin bed, illuminated by the neon street lamp outside my window in the Breeze Hotel. If that sounds a bit seedy, it is. We’d have done better to start our visit here then move onwards and upwards to the Taj, except that I think the shock of leaving home and husband would have been even more acute had this been my first impression of Indian hotels.
To be fair, it’s not quite the horror I was anticipating. It’s about a notch lower than a UK Travelodge – points lost for lack of kettle and scummy bathroom, in which the shower is just a grubby curtain and nozzle with a bucket (ew). But the room is large, the wireless internet is available for longer and cheaper, and the food, about half the price of that at the Taj, is very good. After our arrival, escorted by the three managers of our second company in matching pastel shirts, we unpacked and headed out to meet our driver, who had promised to take us to see St George’s Fort, the first seat of British Government in India. Dressed in the usual white, our driver’s distinguishing feature is his nose, which considering its size, shape, texture and slight greenish tinge looks almost exactly like a shrivelled lime. I do not call him Lime-Nose in any place except inside my head, however.
St George’s Fort was an interesting place. It’s a compound of unmistakably colonial buildings, all white stone, square angles and gleaming pillars. That is, I suspect they were once gleaming – now the overall impression is of grimy, dilapidated grandeur, as each building looks in need of a good wash, and is surrounded by the usual corrugated iron huts and piles of refuse. The Chief Minister of the state has his offices here, as we found out when we tried to take a restricted road and were politely but firmly redirected by a beret-wearing female army officer. For the tourists there’s the museum, featuring military artefacts and a random selection of surviving objects from the 1800s, including an impressive room of floor-to-ceiling portraits in gilded frames.
Then there’s St Mary’s Church, a lovely building in creamy stone, apparently the oldest Anglican church east of the Suez Canal (why the Canal was chosen as the deciding point, I’ve no idea). Happily, and completely unexpectedly, inside the church we found a box of poppies for sale, so promptly bought one for Remembrance Sunday next week. The church also had the usual commemorative plaques for those who had died in the area – lots of army officers killed in battle, but a surprising number of women and children too. It made me think about the wives of these governors and generals, who came to live in India for years at a time. How did they feel about being uprooted from their native land to live somewhere so utterly foreign and seemingly primitive? Judging by the names of surrounding convents and colleges, a lot of them founded educational establishments, when they weren’t losing children to dengue fever or dying of typhoid themselves. Of course, life expectancy in Britain wasn’t all that great either, but I was amazed at how resourceful and brave these women must have been, often deprived of their husbands in tragic circumstances and a dangerous sea journey away from home.
Sunday has been a little calamitous. Lime-Nose was again happy to be our chauffeur for the day, and we planned that we would drop Margaret off at St Mary’s first, then take me to the address of Chennai 2nd Branch. LN was most reluctant, bless him, to take me anywhere without calling to make sure it was ok first, but neither of President Veeraraghavan’s phone numbers worked. An hour later, as we drove up and down roads which became residential streets, which became dodgy-looking windy paths choked with tides of rubbish, I decided that I’d be as well listening to conference talks in my hotel room. LN was getting deservedly short tempered, and as we gave up and drove back he told me to tell this ‘President’ that he had supplied me with very false information – I think he thought I was being taken advantage of.
The afternoon was spent at Chennai Horticultural Gardens (judging by the curator’s surprise when we turned up, the gardens were there solely to provide an environment for a couple of dogs, several varieties of butterflies and some wicked looking centipedes) and at Guindy National Park, an acre or so of tightly packed dirt with overhanging trees, housing about 27 types of deer, a couple of bored-looking monkeys and some screeching parakeets. It was clearly a popular Sunday afternoon entertainment for families. Everyone was wearing brightly coloured silk and everyone was excited to be there – it turned out to be quite a cheerful way to spend an hour, even if it did smell rather a lot in the hot sun.