For the last six months, I’ve been working on a new book—a young adult contemporary novel set in Chennai, India. The story was inspired by my family’s experiences there in 2009, when my husband participated in a Fulbright Teacher Exchange. As part of the exchange, we lived in an apartment in Chennai for five months, and my kids attended a local school.
For years, we’ve said we wanted to go back, and this summer we decided to go for it, before my daughter left for college in August. We flew from Chicago to Frankfurt to Chennai, for a total of nineteen hours in the air, which was as grueling as I remembered. Even though we arrived in Chennai around 1 a.m., the temperature was a sweltering 98 degrees Fahrenheit outside. After a fractured night’s sleep, we set out to explore Chennai. Our hotel was close enough to our old neighborhood that we could walk there.
It was weirdly nostalgic to see the narrow lanes where the kids once played street cricket and badminton with the neighbor kids. When we found our old apartment on Karpagam 3rd Street, the building’s caretaker, Saraswati, gave us an curious look, until she realized who we were. Given our family’s very limited knowledge of Tamil, we couldn’t explain our return after six years away, but Saraswati was able to convey her amazement at how much the kids had grown.
Even the owner of the nearby corner store remembered us, probably because we’d stopped by almost every day after school to buy ice cream or chips. We also saw places we’d frequented in the past, like The French Loaf (cafe/bakery with great chocolate cake) and the oddly named “36 Degrees U Go Minus”— where we’d ordered numerous banana milkshakes and plates of fries.
When we lived in Chennai before, we took auto-rickshaws everywhere, but I’d forgotten how death-defying the rides can be. No seat belts, crazy traffic, and horns honking constantly. We took auto-rickshaws to some of our old hang-outs, including Citi Center Mall, where all four of us went to Terminator: Genisys 3D on opening weekend for a total cost of $10(!). We also revisited Vidya Mandir–the K-12 school where Mike had taught math, and the kids had attended school (at the time, they were in 3rd grade and 7th grade). My daughter’s class had already graduated, but my son got to see his former classmates, who crowded around him like he was a celebrity. In the evening, we had a wonderful dinner with the Vidya Mandir teachers, who overwhelmed us with their generosity.
Going back to Chennai as tourists, rather than temporary residents, gave us a chance to indulge a little. Rather than staying in an apartment with minimal air conditioning, dodgy bathrooms, and occasional cockroaches, we spent four days in a comfortable hotel with intense a.c., a full kitchen, and a rooftop infinity pool. We took a trip to Mahabalipuram, where we splurged at a resort with an incredible winding pool and tropical grounds (necessary for my research, as my book includes a pivotal scene set in this resort!).
After just four days in Chennai, I realized the descriptions in my WIP were woefully inadequate. As a result, I took a lot of photos and jotted down numerous notes, with the hope that I could capture more of the city’s vitality in my novel. I’m not sure if that’s possible, but this trip made me very glad that I decided to set my current book in India.