Meet the people, expats included, who swear by the city and have made it their home.
Japanese by birth, when Kyoko Fukuda landed in the city for the first time five years back, she was smitten. The 36-year-old, who is a producer at a marketing company, says, “I feel very safe in Chennai.” And this—along with enjoying shopping for fish at Kasimedu market and eating sambhar at Ratna Café—is just one of her many reasons to want to live here. She is now temporarily in Gurgaon, but hopes to be back by December. Exploring the compelling draw the city has, we catch up with four others who have chosen Chennai over other cities for reasons as varied as its weather, the people and its unique cultural identity.
A Frenchman, but “made in India”, Venet speaks Tamil and loves his tiffin, especially pongal from Rayar’s Cafe. In the city since 2010, he grew up in Pondicherry, went to school in Ooty, did his higher studies in London, and lived in Paris and Madrid among other places. Citing the city’s strong cultural identity as the biggest draw, the 44-year-old tells us how Chennai is often underrated. “Viewed from the outside, it seems boring. One has to live here to realise its charm comes from its people, who are laidback, friendly and really cool within their cultural conservatism.” Staying in Thiruvanmiyur, Venet’s reasons for picking Chennai over others include the Sriharikota Space Port, the Pulicat Lake and the Margazhi music season. Is there anything he’d like to change about the city? “The cleanliness of our beaches. It’s so sad to see defecation and littering,” concludes Venet, who is an ardent champion for sustainability.
Favourite spot: “The Palavakkam/Thiruvanmiyur beaches early in the morning. These are smaller and cleaner, with fewer beachgoers.”
A bowl of delicious Japanese soul food drew our attention to Akimoto. Currently running the year-old restaurant, Aki Bay at Velachery, this engineer-turned-restaurateur says he picked Chennai for the long haul because of the Indian and Japanese friends he has here, for its beautiful coastline and the inherent kindness of South Indians. Quitting his job at the Nissan motor company after almost 20 years, this 43-year-old decided to learn the art of ramen making from Tokyo and then live in Chennai and dish up the authentic broth for the folks here. While he does wish that the city could be cleaner, with less traffic jams, he describes it as the land of “chaos and opportunity”. A fan of the mini-tiffin at Adyar Ananda Bhavan, Akimoto’s favourite from his homeland is the Miso Ramen. The ardent cyclist, who has previously lived in many cities including Michigan in USA, has visited other places in India, like Delhi, and favours Chennai for the tropical weather and the people.
Favourite spot: “The Lighthouse on Marina. It’s the starting point for the running club that I am part of.”
With three adorable children (the oldest is six years old) in tow, when Marilyn Ibarra-Caton and her husband had to pick a city to bring them up in, they chose Chennai. The 40-year-old economist is originally from Odessa, Texas. “My husband had been approached for jobs in New Jersey, Texas or California, but when L&T approached him about a job in Chennai, it made perfect sense,” says Caton, who has been here for the past seven months and adds that one reason for the shift is “the sunshine all year long”. If there was one word to describe the city? “Colourful! Most women wear saris or traditional clothing, which we didn’t see in others places,” shares the American, who finds the people happy, welcoming and rich in culture. Telling us how Chennai ticked all the right boxes, including help for taking care of home and kids, she adds, “My husband and I always talked about living abroad so our girls could be exposed to another language and culture. We both love to travel, so moving here was a wonderful opportunity to see Asia.”
Favourite spot: “Santhome Church. As a Catholic, it is a unique place to visit for me.”
After 15 years in the US—studying and analysing South Asia, its politics, literature and culture—Akhila realised she needed to “experience the ground realities of living in South Asia to be credible as a cultural commentator”. A former faculty at the University of Dayton, she says, “I was never happy in the US, despite wonderful friends, fantastic mentors and abundant resources. I never felt fulfilled creatively.” A Tamilian—born in Mumbai and raised in Chennai—she came back in 2011 and plunged into the performing arts scene with her mother Gowri Ramnarayan at JustUs Repertory, and also founded the Sahrdaya Foundation. The 42-year-old tells us the city is more than “a Carnatic/Bharatnatyam/Kollywood bastion”. “Some experimental writers live and work here, as do documentarians and filmmakers, and amazing jazz, folk and pop musicians. Chennai can be unexpectedly cosmopolitan, just as it has a thriving street/underground culture,” she says.
Favourite spot: “The Theosophical Society and Kalakshetra Foundation—for the worldviews I imbibed from the people I interacted with there, and the opportunity to experience nature inside the city.”
Text: Sabrina Rajan