There is, alas, no Venezia for me anymore. I now live in Chennai.
Every year, I long for the sounds of the Grand Canal that I heard from my apartment south of the Rialto Bridge. The apartment was on the top floor of my aunt’s palazzo and the gondoliers pretended that it once belonged to Marco Polo, even though the Venetian explorer had actually lived at il Milione’s courtyard, many oaring calories upstream. The burly gondoliers would beg me to wave at the Argentinean, Chinese, Indian and Russian tourists yelling “Marco Polo!” whenever I went to close the windows. And I obliged them by bending one arm, turning a hand towards me, tilting my head and giving what I described as “the papal salute”.
This year, however, I’m feeling less maudlin than usual. I look around me in Chennai and I gaze at familiar scenery – the canals, the boats, the swashing of water, the incessant rain. Just like Venice. Human vultures are taking advantage of a submerged city by selling milk packets off little boats for Rs 100. Again, just like Venice, where rich tourists are skinned with “special prices”. Suddenly Chennai, it appears, has its own brand of Merchants of Venice. It has sweaty crowds of commuters instead of sweaty crowds of tourists, packed temples instead of packed churches, auto rickshaws instead of gondolas, dengue-delivering kosu instead of just annoying zanzare.
I see it now: ah, Venezia, you’ve come to me.
Forgetting the past
While driving down the Old Mahabalipuram Road recently, I was reminded of the 20th century Italian futuristi movement. The futuristi artists hated the cult of the past: nostalgia. So they planned to cement one of the most historic waterways in the world – the same Grand Canal that had inspired Franz Liszt to compose the “Lugubre Gondola” for Richard Wagner’s floating funeral. The futuristi artists thought it was time to do away with the past and turn Venice into a real city, with cars. Thankfully, their plans didn’t succeed there.
But their dream has come to be realised in Chennai’s present.
As motorcyclists whizzed by like many-winged Mercury gods, their cerulean raincoats flying behind them, cars floated in Chennai’s floodwaters. The marooned vehicles were usually a banged-up Maruti Suzuki or another clunker that barely survived the waltz of the angry autos, buses and 4x4s in the everyday Chennai traffic. The sight brought back to me the image of German pilot Bern Weise inching up the Canal Grande at 15 kilometres an hour in a motorboat that had been dressed up as a red 1961 Triumph Herald convertible car.
All around Chennai, men using a mechanical contraption with a large, rubber pipe disappeared into the murky depths of the new city Laguna to pump out water. They did it hopelessly, albeit relentlessly. Pumping out water, but where?
At the sight of the Chennai boats along the flood canals, I almost felt like singing “Santa Lucia”, saint patron of Venice. And yet I felt the saint to invoke in these times would be San Clemente, who Roman Emperor Trajan martyred by having him thrown in the Crimean Sea with an anchor chained around his neck. According to myth, every year the sea would recede for two miles, revealing a sacrarium with the saint’s bones tied to the anchor. One of those water-receding saints could be handy for Chennai.
Sinking in corruption
My Venice has come to my Chennai in other ways.
Venice, of course, is sinking naturally because of time, gravity. And yet misguided projects like lucrative movable dams at the entrance of the Laguna (many politicians have gone to jail for this corruption scandal) are helping the water inch further into the fabric of the crumbling palazzos. Further, the movement of Leviathan-sized cruise ships, towering above the floating city’s roofline, has increased the dangers of moto ondoso, a wave motion hitting the foundations and sides of the poor old palazzos.
Similarly, my Chennai has caved in to profit and corruption, by selling out reservoir land space and making the waters drown the poorer neighbourhoods. Tutto il mondo è paese, they say in Venice – the whole world is just like your own village. Reassuring and scary at the same time, I say to myself, as I swing my papal wave to the autos sailing through canals of stinky water along the Old Mahabalipuram Road.
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.