George Town is a neighborhood that lies near Fort St. George, and is where the colonial city of Madras took hold in the mid-1600s. Today it remains a vibrant and colorful part of Chennai, where many people live, worship, and work. Some friends took me on a walk through the main part of the neighborhood. It started quietly on Mint Street, exploring temples and going down streets that were just starting to wake up. It ended in a crush of people, cars, heat and exhaust on the street market at Parry’s Corner where a somber statue of King George V still presides.
Our first stop was at this temple
The Gopis’ powerful devotion to Krishna is idealized as an example of supreme, divine love. Here Krishna has taken their clothes apparently while they were bathing and scampered up a tree with them.
Here is another, colorful temple nearby.
And a younger Krishna.
Georgetown is an area of heavy commerce. We came across a team of workers delivering huge sacks of maida, or all-purpose wheat flour, into a warehouse.
On into the warehouse.
And here are more men hard at work.
There are many different modes of transport in Chennai. We ran into a full-on traffic jam of cars, motorbikes, trucks, ox, push-carts, and bicycles.
You can’t see him but for his shins and feet, there is a man helping from the back. Still a huge load of spices.
Baskets and a sack of tamarind on the way to somewhere.
A family of SIX on a motorbike. Three and four are common, and five is regularly seen, but six was a first for me. They were happy to have their picture taken but could not see what was interesting about this.
Some families live on the streets in George Town, and there are many apartments. We met some lovely residents of all ages on this walk. All of their faces and expressions told so many stories.
George Town is a fascinating place of life and action. Its beauty reflected by its vivid colors is outshone only by the friendly personalities of its people.
I love seafood markets. In Austin my go-to places are Central Market, Whole Foods, Quality Seafood and the seasonal offerings by Costco of Copper River salmon and Pacific halibut. Katie’s Seafood in Galveston sits on the pier and has fresh shrimp and whole red snapper that can be cleaned any way you like it. I always made a point to walk by the Citarella display on the Upper West Side in Manhattan whenever I could, and spent too much time looking longingly at the offerings of The Lobster Place in Chelsea Market. I really tried to like Maine Avenue Fish Market in D.C. while we were there. My favorite seafood market of all time has to be Pike’s Market in Seattle, where among many other outstanding offerings, they make the best hot-smoked salmon in the world. Here are some pictures of that happy place.
Before I arrived in Chennai I researched the variety of local fish available. Alas, salmon – which my family loves most of all – simply is not. Not that it was locally available in Austin, the difference here is that no commercial transportation infrastructure can bring it from points across the world to Chennai. Depending on your point of view that can be good or bad, but at the end of the day you can be sure that what you get here will be very fresh. Nor is the fish displayed on artistically landscaped beds of snow-white ice chips. Not that there is anything wrong with that, either. In the U.S. I loved the colorful presentations of whole fish, fillets, plump headless shrimp, oysters, marinated fish, steamed shellfish, the eye-candy of local, international, and prepared offerings goes on, heaven in a deli case.
To get to the Chennai fish market you drive to the center of town, and the last stretch takes you along the beach where the fishing boats are already in for the day resting on the sand. About a quarter mile off the beach road (just under half a kilometer, I should say) is a complex of thatched stands all tied in next to each other. There is no mistaking from the smell that you are at the fish market. You enter through a narrow path stepping up from the street, sometimes dirt, sometimes mud. There is barely room for two people to walk past one another on this path.
Tables of fish are out on both sides, and as you walk away from the beach the fish tend to get smaller, although that is not always the case. In contrast to my favorite markets in the states, what you find here is fish, plain and simple. Fish with the fishing line still in his mouth. Tiny fingerling fish and big fish weighing over 20 pounds (over 9 kilograms, or “keej,” I need to teach myself). And plenty of shellfish. Small squid and big squid, shrimp (not shrimp, prawns here), tiger prawns, langoustines, live crabs. The fish are proudly displayed on wooden tables and nothing else, just the fish. If you even cast a glance with your peripheral vision the woman behind the table exclaims “fresh fresh!” and bends back the gill to show how bright red and recently alive it was. For the seafood purist, it does not get any better than this.
It is openly acknowledged that the offering price for a non-local is about three times the price for locals. I have the option to send someone local to buy for me but I just can’t stay away. The prices are still pretty good, especially when you remember you are dealing for seafood that was swimming in the ocean just a few hours earlier. The women – for some reason all of the fishmongers are women – are friendly and they are tough negotiators. The prize fish here is Kingfish, locally also known as seer. My favorite here is sankara, a close relative to red snapper, and there is a huge variety of other fish to explore. Once you have completed your transaction you head back across the street to have your fish cleaned.
Across the street a row of men sit in front of huge cutting stumps, ready to clean your fish however you like it. The cost is about a dollar for one large fish or a couple of small fish. They are mostly friendly but can be aggressively territorial with their customers. Not much talking goes on here. Once you tell the cleaner how you want your fish he goes to work, and very methodically turns your whole fish into something more suitable for the kitchen. Every now and then he will run his knife across the cutting stone to maintain the razor-sharp edge.
At the end of the day, however you get it, fresh seafood is just unbeatable. That is certainly what you get in Chennai. And as much as I still love and miss my favorite seafood markets in the U.S., I am a fan of the market here. It is brimming with personality, always a bit of an adventure, colorful, fresh. Everything you need and more in a seafood market.
The Chennai orphanage for special needs children that five of us visited yesterday embodies this concept in its name “Sri Arunodayam” which in Tamil means ‘sunrise.’ Iyyappan Subramaniyan, the man who founded and runs Sri Arunadayam, also exudes sunshine, smiling even as he tells us that these children were abandoned at birth, and because of their special challenges were not considered for adoption. Iyyappan completed graduate studies in mental health and mental retardation, and his devotion to these children is evident with his soft mannerisms, everything he says. The children range in age from infancy to 18, and Iyyappan explains that because they do not have families to go to, they remain cared for into adulthood.
The orphanage is strategically located near hospitals and a doctor comes to visit the children on a regular basis. This orphanage also manages care for children who are HIV positive or who have other needs requiring greater medical attention, and those children are cared for in a medical environment. The place we are visiting is simple and clean, and it is evident that a great deal of work and time is constantly being put into keeping up the physical space the children live in. Talking with Iyyappan you briefly lose sight of the major operation he is running, what must be an endless administrative burden, raising money, making impossible decisions allocating very limited resources. Right now, with us, it is just him and the children. You can learn more about this place and see more of it at the Sri Arunodayam website.
First we visit the younger group of boys and girls. Their enthusiasm and sweetness fill the room. They are happy with the small bag of toys we have brought and pass them around smiling. There is no fighting over them. For the one girl who cannot move to the toy bag, two other children bring toys to her. We play, read stories, count and sort pretend coins. These children are kind and are happy to have fun.
After a while we head upstairs to the nursery where several babies lay in cribs. Iyyappan explains in great detail the stories of these babies, gesturing and talking to them throughout. Soon we start talking to the babies in tones uncertain but meant to be comforting, and some of us hold some of the babies. They are tiny, tiny for babies. Some lie still with feeding tubes. For light and air there are two open-air windows and a doorway. Given the limited resources, the setup for these infants and the care maintained for them is remarkable. It is a tribute to the good people who work here, and Iyyappan continually expresses his gratitude for the people at the orphanage. As he is talking I look at the woman clearly in charge of the nursery, arms folded, her role as protector of these children clear. After all, who else has done what she has for these babies? We head back downstairs for a group photo with some of the boys and girls, with the plan to drive to the home where the older boys live. We will not have time on this trip to visit the older girls.
Sri Arunodayam operates on private funding which you can learn more about here. Two major supporters of this wonderful organization are the Global Fund for Children and the Global Giving Foundation. If you are looking for a charity whose donations will truly be put toward the greater good, these two are excellent institutions supporting this incredibly worthy cause here in Chennai. From everything we saw Sri Arunodayam is well run, is certainly a lean organization, and every resource, every effort, every person, is devoted to improving the quality of life for these children. Maybe the measure of success is the smile we saw on so many children’s faces, and by that measure Iyyappan and his team are doing a stellar job.
We go to the space for the older boys. These boys range in age from 10 to 18. We go into a classroom where some of the children are using beans and work boards for counting exercises, others engaged in different work like sorting or stringing beads. It is unclear whether the instructor shares her childrens’ excitement for the balls and toys that have now taken over the room. Some boys continue their work only to have an errant ball scatter the beans, but with a little help they keep at it. These kids are full of life, we are playing catch, things are active.
Later in the visit we go to a room where the kids are all lying down on mattresses, most of them awake. We left a room filled with energy and movement and now are in a still, quiet place. These children are very small, they look closer in age to the 5 to 7 year olds we met earlier but they are older, and they have difficulty with simple movements. A boy who looks 6 years old is actually 18. This room reminds us that even in the midst of the wonderful welcomes and excitement we have been greeted with, very serious physical challenges confront many of these children. Too many of them do not make it to adulthood. But some, Iyyappan points out, are borderline. He tells us that these boys lying on the floor more than anything else simply need someone to talk to them, someone to touch them. Again we try to take his lead, touching and talking to these children. Even though they do not speak to us, many respond with smiles, hand and leg movement, and even a little bit of laughter. The interaction is amazingly gratifying. A breeze blows in through an open window, those of us who can stand see a pretty lake in the near distance. Time passes quickly in this room.
We meet at the stairway and one of us raises the topic of adoption. Adoption by foreigners is a long process in India but Iyyappan believes it could be expedited for these “special children.” He tells a story of a girl with only borderline challenges twice being adopted – only to be returned to the orphanage. Being in this home is not the solution, it should be temporary, being in a home with a family is what these children need, he tells us, and his smile breaks a little bit. This is the only time in our visit when there is a hint of pain in Iyyappan’s words. He again explains this idea that suddenly seems so self-evident, so obvious – everyone including these abandoned children deserves to be talked to, to be touched, to be shown human compassion. That is what Iyyappan has created with this place.
Earlier during the visit Iyyappan explained the name Sri Arunodayam with a smile – with every child, a new life, a new dawn. Our visit was short, he and his team live these words every day. In addition to a home, food, shelter, activities, they give these children smiles. All across the world there are heroes making the world a better place, and today we had the good fortune of meeting some of them.