Guna akka did not let me leave without a packet of guavas.
She pushes it into my hand and refuses to take it back, along with a slightly smaller packet of too much chili powder mix, the kind that burns the tongue pleasantly. My sweaty 20-rupee note is bullied back into my jeans pocket. Guna akka says that her anbu (love) could not be measured in money and these guavas came from there. She goes back to calling for potential customers from the thick stream of people and bags milling out of Park Station MRTS. I am allowed to leave only after a warm shoulder squeeze and my number is typed onto her phone — “you better call me sometime!”.
It was February when I meet Guna S, a 40-year old woman, who sells guavas in Chennai’s Central Station area. I was reporting on whether a construction site that cuts the path of commuters near the station exit is bothering anyone — a civic issue article pitched hurriedly in class. Dubbed Central Square, the plan was to construct a looming thirty one-storey building. With elaborate plans of a 1000-car parking space and eateries that forcibly dislocated many, it begged the familiar question – whose city is it anyway?
Guna akka sat across the dusty construction site, deftly packing five guavas in plastic packets. I introduced myself as a student of journalism and she began telling me that the construction was not bothering her business. “If it helps the city and our state, then good,” she said, namma Chennai after all. With short wavy cropped hair and deep cracks on her heels from large amounts of walking, Guna akka had a sunny smile as she told me about her day. She explained that her working day started early in the morning and her lunch was at around 4 PM. She kept an eye out for policemen as they constantly evicted her.
Guna akka once paid a 500-rupee fine at Central Station and then moved to sell at Park Station, “they expect me to move but I haven’t paid the fees for my eldest daughter in nursing college so how can you expect me to leave just like that?” she asks.
Like many hawkers in Chennai, she did not have a permit. Activist Traffic Ramaswamy filed a PIL in 2015 that asked for the revoking of hawker’s permits at NSC Bose Road, Parry’s Corner. Since the petition has passed, it is even harder for vendors to earn a livelihood. Another hawker I meet, Sarasa akka, tells me that the government does not even provide alternatives to those they evict, how will they live? Additionally, the city’s Corporation workers and policemen frequently scour the streets for hawkers.
“I have worked here for ten years,” says Guna akka and she adds that several hawkers in the area, have also worked there for that long.
As I left, she pronounced us friends and asks me to visit. This was how I watched Chennai move, its people sweaty and busy, with Guna akka.
Sometimes Madras. Mostly Chennai. A constantly growing city dotted with several crowded beaches and a population of about one crore. A city whose heat combined with strict Savarna relatives in the Mylapore-Alwarpet-T Nagar triangle and gave me a fever every time I visited as a child. A city I feel indiscernibly small in and unprepared for and one in which I often return to Central Station and Guna akka.
In between reporting trips, I learnt that Guna akka’s youngest daughter finds English exams difficult but that Tamil was her best subject. I told her that I am afraid of ghosts, especially my third floor hostel ghost. She mentioned her husband, Shanmugan, who had worked at a hotel at Bangalore’s Majestic bus depot. I showed her pictures of Amma and described the chicken curry in my mess. We ate sour guavas sprinkled with spice and steamed sweet potatoes while talking about Dhanush’s song Chill Bro and other songs that we liked listening to.
Once, a vendor named Karthik, selling earphones and cables, asked who I was, Guna akka answered that I was her sondekaren, a relative, her younger sister’s daughter. Shocked, I looked at her, laughingly she said that I did in fact, look like her niece. She believed that, everyone in the world is related and that whatever was up in the sky, looked out for everyone. Karthik sharply commented that it is good that college students are coming to see how people live. “Maybe you’ll learn how the rest of us survive,” he says, “people like you don’t understand. It’s time you did.”
Another time, a man passed us by and asked Guna akka what the point of talking to me was. He pointedly said that I would not understand a thing about them anyway. Guna akka gave him one look and loudly warded him away with, “what’s it to you? she’s my sondekaren.” The truth of what he said burnt, but Guna akka gave me a sharp look, handed me a piece of guava and shut me up, the burn from the spice swallowed all else. She continued to introduce me to everyone — from her friend who sold sweet potatoes, usual customers, to her husband — as her sondekaren or her friend. All I could think of is anbu — as Guna akka said it. That was the first time, I thought, I could belong in Chennai.
I learnt to read the word porattam (struggle/protest) with Guna akka. Once, when I was visiting her, there was a yellow flyer sitting next to her, calling for a strike the next day. The only letters I recognised were the ‘p’ and the ‘m’, but she helped me form out the word porattam. I could not read enough to figure out why the strike was being called. I asked Guna akka if she was going and she did not respond. I did not ask again. I looked through the English dailies the next day but found no news of the strikes.
Every time I left, I refused the additional packet of guavas, “gam ini iru,” (keep quiet) she laughed and said it was from her heart. She proceeded to tell me to be careful in the streets, to take care of myself and as always, to visit again. I tried hard to write my report on vendors and permits. My 456-word report on pavement hawkers did not tell how Guna akka’s youngest adores Sid Sriram or the pride that fills the family when her oldest gives them injections. Instead, it was filled with a lede, quotes, a nut graf that lacked an official voice; an inverted pyramid that had no room for Guna akka or her life.
Despite the years of despair that I was never Tamilian enough and never a Kannadiga, Gunakka’s anbu demolished all that. Anbu was the language that Guna akka spoke and easily filled in with North Chennai basha and gaalis. A language she taught me, where these words sounded like they had always been there below my tongue and at the roof of my mouth just waiting to be sounded.
Amidst a city that had no patience for my lateness, and my blurry uneasiness of identity. In the middle of it, there was Guna akka inviting me to lunch. “Thuniviya?, va va pola.” (Will you eat? come come let’s go). I never went as I feared the social gap between us would awkwardly catch us. Now, I wish I had gone to lunch with her, as I now understand that friendships are solidified and gaps are bridged when people eat together. It was Guna akka and her anbu that made me feel like I could belonged to the city. I wondered if Guna akka felt that she belonged to Chennai.
Guna akka told me that the city was not safe for women, I grudgingly tried to argue but agreed that I would bring a friend along next time. This reminded me of Amma who, in her weekly calls, told me not to stay out too late, especially in an unfamiliar place. Chennai became the city where uncles on trains told me not to step out without a dupatta but it also had a Guna akka.
Months later, I called Guna akka on mother’s day. I shyly mumbled out a annaiyar dina vaazhthukkal focusing on my ‘zh’ pronunciation before remembering to introduce myself, “I am that Central Station girl.” She laughed and said of course, she remembered and ended the call by telling me to be careful with corona situation.
I wonder how cities are built and for whom. Often, Smart City projects focus on beautification and consider cities as large sprawling entities to be bent into an orderly shape. But what would our world be if people really really looked at love, as difficult as it may be, in government policies and in the shaping of cities? Would the metro line halt at Vannarpet leaving the rest of North Chennai unconnected like it does now? Would Loop Road be extended over pushing away the men and women who sell fish? Would Chennai with its 155 wards have 33 wards near railway lines only for the SC/ST population?
The American author, bell hooks, in her book, All about love: new visions, argues that love has been central to social justice movements. She writes, “if all public policy was created in the spirit of love, we would not have to worry about unemployment, homelessness, schools failing to teach children, or addiction.” Paromita Vohra in Love in the Time of Politics, reiterates this, she writes, “we always rely on politics to tell us what love should be. Why don’t we rely on love to tell us what politics could be,”
Where would our cities be if we wrote policies that can cut through hate and privilege? How do we act with anbu and care for people and their stories?
The last time I met Guna akka was sometime mid-March. COVID-19 had hit a while ago. The kind of goodbyes I was used to were stiff and quiet. The obligatory kind where Papa checked his watch restlessly ready to brave the Bangalore traffic, easier to deal with than a daughter leaving, and there was Abhi’s no-hug-rule with a gruff, see you bro. Only Amma’s eyes were wet and the words stuck in her throat appeared later in her occasional letters. There, love was a word that sat uncomfortably and straight-backed at our table and was flung far from our household. A word to be brought up when gingerly picking out films and never with people.
We waited for Guna akka and Shanmuga anna near Rajiv Gandhi Hospital as their Vadapalani bus slowly arrived. We all waved loud swishy byes, I flapped my arms as I never had before. Till they were out of sight, they didn’t stop waving and neither did we.
Now, months later, I keep returning to thoughts of Guna akka and light pink pieces of guava. I have no answers to questions on journalism, cities, or love. But on days of endless dread and endless terrible happening, I think of how I left Chennai with a whole lot of burning anbu.
Archita Raghu is a journalism graduate.