A few days ago, one of my best friends had come down from Mumbai, just before the first great deluge came down upon Chennai. It was a last-minute trip. He had decided to take off for the longer Diwali holiday they get in non-South India (he has his own set-up, so he could take that call at the last minute), but didn’t want to spend it in Mumbai. We got onto fervent discussions on the phone, but after much volleying of ideas (“let’s go to Pondy”, “at least Mahabs”, “Crocodile Bank at the very least”), we decided to spend it in Chennai: it was his first time in the city, there’s much to take in here itself, and in providence, the rain didn’t let us go beyond either.
While finalizing the plan, he gave me his wish-list: places he wanted to go, things he wanted to do and foods he wanted to eat. I heard him out, told him what’s doable (we had only three full days, plus the rain), and included a few of my suggestions. He assented. And added, actually, kept on emphasizing one thing, “I want to do, experience, eat, take in everything AUTHENTIC.” He said this quite a few times, ensuring I got it. I did. Or thought I did.
For after landing here, the number of times I heard him mention that word, and the number of times he stopped wherever he spotted that word (authentic Chettinad cuisine, authentic Malabar restaurant, authentic Ayurvedic massage – apparently, no one is offering anything else), was more than all the drops of water the city received since then. Plus, before and after touring the city with me, he would research all the tourism sites and ask all his friends and acquaintances here, there and in-between for recommendations and then keep tossing them in my direction.
Aiming to be the good host, I would help him check off the ones we could (we went to a popular Tamil restaurant for ‘authentic Tamil sappadu’, and he was beaming), educate him on the ones he was informed incorrectly about (‘Life of Pi’ and Alia Bhatt’s house in ‘Two States’ were shot in Pondy, even though the latter mentioned Chennai), find a balance for the ones we didn’t agree on (we decided to go to a mass-appeal multiplex rather than a single-screen for Kamal’s latest movie, as I was fairly confident neither he nor me would be able to handle the fan frenzy – or hear the dialogues – in a ‘thara local’ single-screen theatre, where he actually wanted to go for “authentic Kollywood megastar mania”), and after discussion, struck off the ones we just wouldn’t be able to do (“that cultural centre is too far from here; we won’t be able to do anything else today if we go there”).
By the middle of the second day though, realizing the extent of his zealousness for the authentic experience, I was beginning to feel exasperated. (That’s why I’ve titled this piece after ‘Quantico’ – I was beginning to feel as constrained as Priyanka Chopra in the series’ poster.) Plus, I seem to have made a woeful discovery: ‘researchie’ is the new ‘selfie’. That is, researching on a place and what to do, eat, wear, buy there is the new vacationing scourge, after the annoying and now-thankfully-getting-banned-in-many-places selfie. People seem to be leaving nothing to discovery, chance and serendipity anymore. There are sites and apps springing up by the minute, offering all this info, and of course, all those discounts – and the attitude seems to be: “I don’t want to miss a thing.” He kept on telling me of a particular street-side tiffin centre he had read about, of which visitors had been “raving and ranting”. After clarifying that you can’t both rave and rant about a place, at least the same person can’t, I told him but no one here does (rave, that is). But he insisted. And we went. And mercifully, it was closed due to the rains, Diwali or both. Else, my friend would then have ranted and ranted.
My friend started sensing my brimming annoyance. Also, I had cast a very subtle (according to me) comment in his direction when we were getting a ‘quick authentic bite’. “You know, visiting Delhi (which I did last year) and going to a multiplex there is also an authentic Delhi experience, because that’s a Delhi multiplex, filled with Delhi people, and offering Delhi eats.” As we headed to T Nagar for saree- and dhoti-shopping (the ultimate authentic Chennai shopping experience) for his parents, by bus (the authentic Chennai commuting experience), after foregoing the autokarans (ah, we missed the authentic Chennai bargaining experience), he made a conciliatory effort, “I think I know what you mean. When people come to Bombay, they ask for SRK’s bungalow, where is Ambani’s building, where are the film shoots… and it’s not like every Bombayite knows (or cares), or that film shoots are happening in every gully.”
I seized the opportunity. “Exactly! When you go to Punjab, you don’t expect to see people doing bhangra outside the station. Just like you can’t expect women to be doing bharatnatyam at the airport here. In Gujarat, no one plays dandiya all the time, and in Kolkata, they don’t have rossogolla every minute.”
I continued, “You saw Kamal’s house in the movie, right? It was a regular modern house rather than those traditional houses with an open courtyard you see in movies made by outsiders, or set in rural areas. And Kamal and his son were having bread, omelette and soy milk for breakfast rather than dosa, idly and vada…”
And my final… rant, “Tell me, how is having popcorn bathed in butter and accompanied by caramelized cold coffee in the city’s home-grown and numero-uno multiplex (which also makes that mannaesque cold coffee) not an authentic city experience? How is spending two hours chatting in a cozy city-only coffee shop chain any less a Chennai experience than having it at the roadside kadai? How is going for a dark (read: blind) exhibition tour that ends up opening your mind (after it’s rid the sleep out of you) not authentic since it is presently only in two other cities in India? And most importantly, which site or visitor will tell you about these?”
As the last-mentioned experience – the tour – proved to be his best experience here, he finally started seeing things differently. I was a bit worried I had been a bit too forceful with him, but he didn’t seem to mind. We’ve been friends for a long time, have had our share of arguments (and break-offs and patch-ups), and must confess, is more chilled-out than me.
In the end, we did a bit of the site suggestions (V House, where we even did some meditation), a bit of my suggestions (that dark tour, and a rejuvenating reflexology session), a bit of spontaneous stuff (St Thomas Basilica and then a late-evening walk on the beach), and let go of several (saying you need to leave some stuff for next time). Just the way a great holiday always goes. Besides, holidays are always better with friends who are… authentic.