The city that loves you back!
Over the last week, the city that I call home, Chennai, witnessed unprecedented rains, followed by devastating floods. The residents haven’t seen anything of this magnitude before and are still recovering from the shock. However, amidst all the pain and suffering, what the world also discovered was the special emotional connect that millions of residents have with the city. The way people came about selflessly helping each other in this time of distress showed us a glimpse of the true spirit of Chennai — and the love that people had for the city.
Being one among those millions of Chennai lovers, I felt like writing about my experiences in this great city over the years. There are many local references that only people from Chennai / Tamil Nadu may understand.
19 years ago on a hot summer day in 1996, I landed in Chennai as a freshly minted BE graduate who did not have a job — not even a Y2K mainframe job that almost everyone seemed to easily get in those days. Little did I know then, that tens of thousands of students like me came to Chennai every year for the same reason as me — to escape from the social pressure from parents and relatives, who make it their responsibility to remind us everyday that we have finished B.E and still don’t have a job. The prospect of staying with friends and searching for a job with big dreams and little money seemed far better than the idea of staying back at home and feeling ashamed every day.
The Mansion Days — how Chennai taught me survival
My first month in Chennai was spent as a guest in my friend’s place called AA Mansion on Lake view road in West Mambalam. Don’t let the term “mansion” fool you — two of my friends were sharing a small 10ft X 10ft room and I joined them as a guest. These were the days where I learnt to survive on ₹30 per day or ₹10 per meal. Our breakfast, every day, was delicious pongal and vada (cost us ₹6) from a small hole-in-the-wall outlet opposite to Lake View road bus stop. Lunch usually was limited meals at Ganesh Bhavan for ₹13 (if we could afford it we used to treat ourselves to curd — extra ₹2) and for dinner, there was a place that sold 2 chapatis and curd rice for ₹10. My father used to send me ₹1500 per month those days to support myself while I was searching for a job.
The MBA days — how Chennai gave me self-esteem
Months passed by and I did not get a job. But I got a lucky break. Of the countless (and useless) entrance exams that I wrote (often without preparation, so I usually end up failing), I managed to crack the MBA entrance exam at the University of Madras (Chennai was still Madras then — and still is in many of our hearts). 4000 people wrote the exam and I was number 3 on the waitlist in the Open Category quota (12 seats out of 40). Three good souls decided to give up their seats and — probably, join a better course in some other university and I managed to sneak in
Boy — what a relief that was! I no longer had to search for a job and my parents and relatives started feeling better about me (it didn’t matter to them that this was not a top tier MBA — it’s just how the system works in India). What I cherished more than the MBA admit, was the newfound self-esteem — “Doing an MBA” was a far better answer than “searching for a job” to the omnipresent question at every wedding or a family event — What are you doing now?
The Money Days — how Chennai gave me my first taste of success
Between 1998 to 2000, I got my first job, purchased my dream bike (Royal Enfield CitiBike 535cc), landed my first corporate training contract and took my first baby steps into entrepreneurship — all in Chennai. The corporate training story is pretty interesting, actually. I knew Java pretty well and I was able to convince Polaris to give me a contract to train 25 of their experienced Pro C programmers in Java. The training was for 15 days and the contract was for ₹30,000. It was terrifying as my students were all experienced programmers and project leads and I had very little actual programming experience. I completed the training successfully and collected ₹28500 (after TDS). I still remember spending almost ₹26000 on the same day, buying everything that was on my wish list — Adidas shoes, Ray-Ban sunglasses, Levis jeans, treating my friends to pizza (they had never had a pizza in their life) and hold your breath — a 64KB Casio Digital Diary!! This was my money. I had earned it and I was not afraid to spend it. Your life is nothing but a collection of your experiences and on that note — my early career days in Chennai were really happy!
The Silicon Valley Days — leaving Chennai for the US
I left for the US with a one-way ticket to San Francisco in 2000 through a consulting company (more commonly known those days as a body shopping company). I was happy with my friends in the US but was not content. Something was always missing. We missed standing in a tea shop in Chennai and having hot tea with plantain bajji, or sitting on the beach and chatting for hours with friends. We missed Sathyam cinemas and rued how AMC can never be as good as Sathyam. And the overall mood in Silicon Valley was getting pretty bad with the dotcom bust and people getting laid off. I resigned my job and bought a one way flight ticket to Chennai to start a new training company (two one way tickets does make a round trip after all :-) ). My heart leapt with joy and excitement, on the flight back, that I was going to return to Namma Chennai.
The AdventNet Days — how Chennai gave me a real career
My business plans didn’t really work out well and I quickly shut down the business as I did not like surviving in a negative market. I wanted to thrive in a rising market, but the sentiment in 2001 was very negative after the dotcom bust. As someone who was not married yet, the social pressures of doing your own business (it was not cool those days to be an entrepreneur) made me look for a job. I joined AdventNet (now called Zoho) as a Pre Sales Engineer in 2001. The next nine years I spent there transformed my career. This was the period where I poured passion and energy and built a great product team in Chennai. I have traveled to over 26 countries and over 55 cities. While I love exploring different cultures and food, I used to listen to this song several times and it always gave me goosebumps.
(Note: the keyword here is listen — watching it evokes totally different emotions :-) )
In late 2007, I moved to Austin, TX. Even though quality of life was better in the US, life was boring and the environment was depressing. After the Lehman brothers collapse in 2008, the only things that people talked about in the US were weather and the subprime crisis. In Chennai, in spite of the heat, the dirt and the sweat, there was real energy, real aspiration in people and real joy. Every day in the US was the same and boring, every day in Chennai was exciting and fun. There was always a celebration around the corner — sometimes it was a wedding or a Navrathri golu, at times you had a seemandham or a sadabishegam, and there was Diwali or an Onam — life in Chennai was full of color. I was happier here. I decided to return from the US to Chennai for the second time. It was almost like Chennai was creating these recessions to bring me back!
The Entrepreneur Days — how Chennai gave me Freshdesk
In 2010, I quit my job at Zoho and started Freshdesk. We assembled a rock star team and the time that we spent at our Kilkattalai office in 2011 was probably the best time of my life. We almost considered moving to Bangalore — the office space was ready, two offers to senior employees had been made but then our Bangalore plans started to fall apart and we decided to stay in Chennai. I am really glad that we stayed in Chennai. I would have not been able to get our wonderful Freshdesk team and our beautiful office (with wall paintings of Thalaivar) may not have happened anywhere else. Freshdesk is proud to be in Chennai and I am confident that one day we will make Chennai feel proud of Freshdesk!
Dear Chennai — You have given me everything in life, how can I ever repay you
Love the City and the City Loves You Back
This statement is something that I made up on Madras day and it has been really true in my case. Every time I come back to Chennai, Chennai has embraced me and given me more and more success. Now after all these years, Chennai is bleeding (with water). Today, when I see the pain and suffering of people here, my heart cries. This is my city, this is my home and I will not let it suffer.
When I saw many people leaving Chennai to the safety of their hometowns, I could understand their need to be safe. The thought of moving my family to a safer city did occur to me in the last week, but I simply couldn’t do it because If I leave to another city, that will make me feel more miserable — sitting there doing nothing while my Chennai suffers.
Here is a scene from a Rajini movie, which captures what is running in my mind repeatedly (and probably everybody’s mind right now)
The last few days have been tiring — mobilizing and distributing relief to thousands of people who have lost everything and whose homes are underwater. But I understand that the work is not done yet. Rescue and relief is what is happening now. Rehabilitation and rebuilding will take much longer. But I have hope.
Having seen the tremendous response from lakhs of volunteers, and the spirit of my own fellow Freshdesk employees, I have hope that we will bounce back and restore the old charming glory of Chennai — whether it’s the filter coffee in Saravana Bhavan or the bread omelette outside Alsa mall, hanging out at Bessy beach or movies at Sathyam Cinemas (of course with popcorn and seasoning),– our life filled with all the small joys of our very own Chennai will be back soon. Koopidura namma Chennai Veyila! (Call our (infamously hot!) Chennai summer!)