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Keeping it Clean on Mint Street, Chennai


A dishevelled figure approaches. Avoidance alert! Too late.

“Hi friend. You want hash, brown or coke?” he whispers in a thick Indian accent.

His type have got the public whisper down to a fine art. Audible enough for a potential customer to hear, but no one else, no matter how close and within earshot they might be. That’s what years of sleazy hawking can do. It’s a skill that cannot be learnt in the classroom, only self-taught on the street.

He doesn’t mean hash browns or a sip of that ubiquitous fizzy cola drink from that dirty tricks multi-national either. He is a seller of other things.

His type can usually say a few phrases in a few dozen languages. Phrases that are good for business. His business.

From the back lanes of Rotterdam to the streets of New York, he can be seen. Shady, dodgy, slippery, trust-him-as-far-as-you-could-throw-him, but he can supply you with any illicit substance, if that is your thing.

Behind him, a brush made from twigs sweeps dust. Its owner, an old woman in rags, performs the sweeping-street-dust-into-the-air ritual twice daily. At least until the dust settles again, she’s keeping it clean on Mint Street.

A cow munches on discarded vegetation. Its also keeping it clean while standing in its or some other animal’s stale urine. Holy cow!

Not really: just thrown into the street by some back street dairy owner for the day to fend for itself and whacked on the back with a piece of wood if it pokes its snout into places it should not… like the juicy delights of a fruit vendor’s street cart.

A boy negotiates his way past a couple of stray dogs that are also rummaging through the rubbish. An old man at the side of the street rubs his face against another stray dog while stroking its cheeks in a touching show of affection. Dog lovers of the world unite. These street dogs have it tough and don’t really belong to anyone, but on seeing such a scene, they kind of belong to someone… maybe to everyone. People tend to look out for them, from pup to death’s door.

On the other side of the street, an attractive young woman. with calf length jeans, sandals and loose chiffon top, talks to a friend in a doorway while twirling her long black hair between her fingers. She has the ‘wow factor’ that could turn many a man’s heart to mush… and possibly has.

A canal-side setting in red light Amsterdam, where Asian girls pout? Hardly. And she isn’t selling anything. It’s just an innocent conversation between two Mawari girls. Moneylenders’ daughters, originally from more Northerly parts of India. Well-to-do bankers’ girls.

Through the old woman’s dust, three silhouettes approach, ghostly figures, lost in the haze. For a fleeting moment, its desert sand, not dust. The figures come into view. Their Rajasthan ancestry given away by their lighter skin and full body yellow veils draped over head, cascading almost to the ground. Their jingle jangle ankle jewellery denotes their presence. They glide by.

The twirling-her-fingers-through-the-hair woman pays no attention to them, or them to her.

The beauty of the scene suddenly destroyed.

A man rasps, brings up garbage from his throat and snorts its contents onto the floor via a designated nostril, with finger squeezing the other shut. A dog sniffs it and walks off. A good reason why face to face shows of affection with Indian street dogs are not really recommended.

A cycle rickshaw wallah rings his bell as he veers his wooden vehicle over to one side to avoid a pothole. You walk in the road. There are no pavements. Pedestrians beware!

Clothing dries on balconies overhead. Kids packed tight into auto-rickshaws head home from school. Early October in Chennai is hot. Mint Street is even hotter.

Approaching a one room shop with counter directly on the street –

“Vanakam. Thums up? Glass bottle,” I say, not wanting a large plastic bottle.

Vanakam being one word of Tamil that I know. At one point, my Tamilian vocabulary was up to about 35 words!

Moving back towards the fridge in the dark recesses of his dimly lit shop, the vendor obliges with faint smile.

A flash of blue and yellow breezes out from a dark alleyway a few metres down. A resident of one of the many apartments that make up the compact four-storey block to which this ‘mom and pop’ shop belongs. The whole neighbourhood comprises compact apartment blocks: hundreds, if not thousands of them.

Concrete box India. The concrete box area of Chernnai’s original centre, Georgetown, next to the port. A city of seven million. Low rise sprawl that just keeps on sprawling, but within which Georgetown remains Chennai’s beating heart.

The blue and yellow figure stops at the shop and, in Tamil, she orders some washing powder. She must be no more that 26. Her huge, dark, watery cow eyes glisten. The only part of her body exposed is her pale skinned face and a slightly hairy braceleted arm that protudes from her tightly wrapped around saree. Not for standing in the doorway while twirling hair through the fingers, this woman. This is a woman under wraps. In every sense of the word. A housewife. A mother. A washer of clothes, a doer of household chores… but also a possessor of the ‘wow factor’ and a crusher of hearts nonetheless.

She leaves with packet in hand. She also glides. She also jingle jangles. Breezing back into an alleyway of untold secrets, mystery and seclusion, she will faithfully clean whiter than white for the rest of her life because her type do. Her type have to.

As with the hash brown man who lives in the shadows, the cows that eat rubbish and the old woman who sweeps dust, she’s keeping it clean on Mint Street.

This piece is part of Colin’s ebook that is not an ebook, but which can be read for free here.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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