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Chennai Calling

October 16, 2007
Even without the blessings she received from a passing elephant, Maria Giovanna has fond memories of her first visit to India.

I used to joke with Indian friends who went back there year after year, for wedding after wedding, that if people ever stopped getting married in India, the travel industry would collapse. Little did I imagine my first trip to India would also be for a wedding, to Madras (now Chennai) of all places, for the nuptials of my then boyfriend's school chum.

Both guys were Tamil Brahmins who stayed on in the United States after grad school. The boyfriend's classmate was the son of an industrialist, due to move into the family business after completing his MBA and a stint at a top tier consulting firm here. "You must come to the wedding!" his luminous bride-to-be enthused, when we met for the first time under the watchful eyes of the stone lions at the New York Public Library. Thrilled at the prospect of attending a bona fide Indian wedding, I enthused back, "That would be great!" Or so I thought.

But, let's start at the beginning. Why this interest in India? It seems, in some way or other, I've been circling the subcontinent for years. As a little girl, with a parent in the airline industry, we would go home to Ireland on free stand-by tickets, often flying Air India to London, connecting onward. My toy cabinet at my grandfather's Dublin home was full of trinkets I'd carry off the planes: Air India paper fans, elaborately decorated carry bags and red-and-gold Maharajah pins. In college, I escaped Manhattan with authors like R K Narayan, Salman Rushdie and Barbara Stoller Miller's translation of the Gita Govinda. In between classes, I'd slip away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Asia Society for their India exhibits. In 1997, I saw my first Hindi movie, and was smitten. So, I always knew I'd be heading to the Indian subcontinent. The fact that there now was an Indian boyfriend in the picture was purely incidental.

A few months before the impromptu wedding invite, I saw my first Tamil movie, Rajiv Menon's Kandukondain Kandukondain. I was dazzled by the lush scenes with Aishwarya Rai and Tabu in this Sense and Sensibility unfurling in rural and urban Tamil Nadu. My ears adapted to Hariharan's voice and the bouncy undulations of Tamil.

By happy coincidence, that same movie was on my June flight from Brussels to Chennai. We arrived in the early morning hours. As I stepped out the plane, I braced for a furnace blast, like writer Elizabeth Bumiller described on her arrival in India. But no, the air was chilly; the airport, grim and industrial. In the luggage area, I smiled to find myself face to face with a large Ganesha, a good choice for a patron god of lost luggage. Sadly, I was soon to discover there were bigger obstacles I needed vanquished than a missing Samsonite.

As I stood staring at the luggage belt waiting for my own valise to appear, someone tapped my shoulder. The aforementioned boyfriend. His flight, due two hours before mine, had been delayed and the bags were only being unloaded now. He looked around surreptitiously as he told me this, as his parents didn't know I was here, and they were waiting outside. We agreed to talk the next day.

Image: An elephant on the streets of Chennai
Photograph: Maria Giovanna

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