I suspect it’s all connected with India’s increased prosperity and success as a nation. I should start by saying that I’m sure that in many areas, particularly rural villages and slums in the larger and more crowded cities, that deep poverty is as grinding as ever, but what I saw in Chennai in particular was a generally higher standard of living.
I’ve already mentioned that there are much fewer bicycles and more motorbikes. Also that cars are modern ones rather than the old Ambassadors. It’s noticeable that cars are in beautiful condition and look new. They’re nearly all imported – and that’s notable too, because there was a time only a few years ago when Indians took pride in making what they used and now it’s more fashionable to buy imported goods. The roads are incredibly crowded and busy, even more than they used to be. It all looks chaotic, but actually people drive very well. They need to be very alert. As a general rule, the larger vehicle is held to be responsible for an accent* – so if a motorbike hit a pedestrian it’d be the biker’s fault and if a car hit a bike it’d be the driver’s. There was an incident where a bus hit a lorry it was overtaking – witnesses said that the lorry swerved into the path of the bus, but it was the bus driver who was arrested. He was overtaking, therefore the anus of responsibility (sorry, family expression started by Weeza some 20 years ago) was on him, although checks were being done on the lorry’s steering.
Wink and I also felt that there were far fewer people living on the street. We weren’t approached by a single beggar or street seller in Chennai. There aren’t many of the woven huts left where, remarkably, a whole family would emerge dressed in immaculate, freshly laundered and ironed clothes, the man in crisp white shirt, the children in school uniforms and the woman in a sari. I suppose that a lot of new flats have been built for those people to live in. Regarding clothes, the sari is still traditional in South India, but less so now. Young people are far more likely to wear casual Western clothes – my younger friends used to at home but not go out in them, but this is gradually changing. If they do wear Indian clothes it’s likely to be a shalwar kameez or trousers and tunic rather than a sari. The dhoti has all but disappeared (I didn’t see a single one) although a few men still wear a lungi – the difference between them is that a dhoti is wrapped around the waist and passed between the legs, whereas the lungi is worn more as a sarong; that is, it goes around the waist but not between the legs. It’s convenient in that it can be flipped up to waist length to walk in the street and the lower half released to make a long skirt to wear indoors. A dhoti is nearly always white but a lungi is usually coloured or checked.
Another difference on the streets is that now there are overhead signs giving directions! This is a real innovation within the past 18 months or so, apparently. Just of major roads, but it’s certainly a start. One thing about motorcyclists, by the way – the rider often wears a crash helmet, but I’ve never seen a single passenger wearing one. Most car drivers and front seat passengers wear a seat belt, a rarity in the past.
I didn’t see a single person being given instructions doing a head waggle. This is a real change – it’s sort of the equivalent of a nod of comprehension, although there was often a fair degree of subservience in it. The few times I saw it were ‘equal to equal’ – that is, it was simply comprehension – and it seems remarkable that there has been such a change so quickly. Tips are as readily and gladly received as ever, but there’s no indication that anyone feels demeaned by a tip and it’s graciously received and quite often a handshake is exchanged afterwards which would never have happened a few years ago.
The water is much more likely to be safe to drink. Previously, I’d never have drunk water unless it was from a previously sealed mineral water bottle, but now many more places buy in sufficiently pure water that Westerners and non-acclimatised people can drink it safely. I’m always careful – in four visits I’ve never had a stomach upset (rather the opposite, if you see what I mean) but I was able to feel a lot more relaxed this time. Oh, and you can order black tea without fearing that the roof of your mouth will be removed by tannin. And I’d never previously had anything but disgusting coffee, but now it’s far better, usually filtered although modern coffee shops have espresso machines.
*As Sir Bruin wittily put it when correcting my typo – “grave or acute?” So good that I’m leaving the mistake as it stands.