Cardboard Cows and Sugarpuffs: A Taxi Ride to Fame – Chennai, India

Cardboard Cows and Sugarpuffs: A Taxi Ride to Fame
Chennai, India

Travelling through town in a rusting metal box of a taxi in hot pursuit of another gym. No suspension, tattered and torn interior and head wedged against the roof. Every bump and twist magnified from the neck down. Side to side, twisting, turning, avoiding the meandering cows and the potholes. All four windows are open to combat the onslaught of the oppressive Chennai heat. The breeze brings only the noxious odour of exhaust fumes that suck away the oxygen. On the dashboard is a makeshift Hindu shrine; next to it, a stick-on logo which reads “India is Great”. At this precise moment I probably need some convincing. I had little sleep last night during a forty hour train journey from Delhi. Only five hours late – which isn’t too bad. Backpacking across India you get used to it.

The incessant sound of vehicle horns fills the air. Women glide past, perched side-saddle on a thousand speeding mopeds. Their saris drape and flow in the evening pollution, accompanying the strangled wail of film music coming from the street-side shops. We grind to another halt. A million faces wait to cross. Old men in a group pause and peer into the taxi; faces lined from a bygone age, frozen in time with sugarpuff teeth and leathery skin.

“Only five minutes more sir. Very near”, the driver insists after another half hour. He said that ten minutes ago, no doubt he’ll say it again in another ten.

After crawling through the traffic for over an hour, I arrive at the gym, nerves shattered and needing to lie down. The gym is one the myriad concrete buildings that jostle for space, spilling down the hillside toward the road. Outside the door is a massive cow, casually munching on some discarded cardboard. Above the entrance is the hand-painted sign, “Gaylord Gym”.

I make my way in, ill-tempered, jaded and tired from the journey. Why does everywhere seem to be lit with a thirty-watt bulb, I mumble on entering the stairwell. I emerge into the sweatbox and moan, “What? No ceiling fans? No windows?” It is an ugly place with rusting machines and seriously chipped weights. I notice the dust-laden, uneven stone floor and the grimy walls. Fifty people stare in my direction, all in their late teens and each with a look of bewilderment. They’ve never seen a westerner inside the gym before.

As with many places here, the name “gym” is used with a cavalier abandon that would be taken as misappropriation under the auspices of any trades description act. The antiquated contraptions that populate some of these places beg relief. The only appealing thing about this one is the sweet smell of burning incense. It drifts through the heavy atmosphere from the picture shrine dedicated to Ganesh, which hangs as a centerpiece on one of the walls. Adorned with a garland of bright yellow marigolds, the shrine adds to the special character of the typical Indian gym. The distorted music from the latest film blockbuster is played at the usual ear-splitting level. In front of the shrine is an empty chair and an imposing, old wooden desk, behind which the absent manager or owner would usually sit.

I notice a few fading colour photos of Hindi film stars, cut from magazines and precariously hanging from bits of old tape. Cinema is a religion in India. I see the same faces on walls throughout the country. I recognise one or two; Salman Kahn with his classically chiselled looks is the “face” of the moment. Curiously, female stars rarely make it onto the walls. Indian men seem obsessed with the male stars – especially those who become typecast as the heroes. There are also a few cut-outs of champion western bodybuilders with their overblown steroided physiques.

I’m dripping in sweat even before I lie down for the first exercise. The tortuous, metal-backed bench wobbles from side to side. It becomes less a case of me performing the exercise in good style, and more a case of me trying not to slide off. From the corner of my eye I can see everyone gathering. By the time I’ve got up, everyone is surrounding me. They form a circle and watch my every move. Fame at last! They probably wonder why I am sweating profusely and gasping for breath throughout my workout – after all, it’s only thirty seven degrees outside and eighty eight per cent humidity.

The attention persists for the next hour. I am subjected to the now familiar daily exercise of answering questions about where I live, whether or not I an married, what my job and caste are, how old I am, and so on. On the street, in the hotel, in the restaurant – the same questions, the same answers, four or five times a day, seven days a week.

A big, grinning face peers out from one of the photos on one of the peeling walls. One of the boys informs me that this is Sanjay, who will be in later. I am told that I must stay to meet him; everyone agrees. And I agree, not to disappoint. By now my weariness is overlaid with tiredness, and my belief that anyone who poses bare-chested for a gigantic colour poster has to be an arrogant poser is struggling to show through.

And still the questions go on. What about my training schedules, my diet, how many brothers and sisters and what do I think of India? Someone asks, “Do I think this gym is good?”, to which I reply, “Well…er…yes. It’s one of the best I’ve been to in India.” Which is true.

Sanjay arrives and looks as though he has just walked straight out of a Hindi movie. He is over six foot tall, which is unusual for a South Indian. His hair is stylishly combed back, and he’s wearing an army flak jacket with upturned collar. Relatively few Indians cultivate such an individual image. To western eyes he may look whimsical, but to the boys he has got it all – the look, the build and the walk. Contrary to my preconceptions, he is very personable.

He sits on one chair and I on another, and we start to chat – the seats had been strategically arranged without my noticing. Everyone in the gym has gathered round to witness this famous meeting of minds. We are the stage act, and they the audience, hanging onto every word. He seems to accept – even expect – a large audience around him. A private conversation for public consumption.

He tells me he has been to the West, and is full of tall stories about his periods in Los Angeles and London. He tells amusing tales relating to his time spent as a chauffeur, and his spell in the state “pen” in California. He recounts the time when he allegedly beat up a gang of skinheads in London single-handedly. I doubt if he ever met any skinheads but he had the boys listening, laughing and believing. Sanjay knows all the Hollywood lingo, talking of “chicks” and “pigs” in a thick Tamil accent – a tall man with big stories told in western movie slang and a good wit. He must appear the apotheosis of glamour and sophistication to the boys. Travelling beyond the neighbourhood is an adventure in itself for them.

When I leave, it’s like exiting a film set. Sanjay is a blurring of reality and screen-world fantasy to the boys. They hero-worship him; a star performer. And me? – I was probably a strange, exotic character from half a world away. East meets West over a tattered desk in a run-down backstreet gym. Hardly a world summit, but I bet our meeting was the talk of the gym for days to come.

I hail a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw for the ride back to my hotel. I haggle over the fare. “Very far, very far. Two hours”, the driver insists. Knowing that it’s more like one, I bargain him down. A dozen gesticulations, exaggerated facial expressions and a lifetime later, we agree on a price. I climb in for the long crawl back, further sapped of energy after the mandatory haggling. Even trivial matters are turned into major dramas. We move off and I drift into a semi-conscious dreamlike state. I see cardboard cows eating sugarpuffs, and my picture having replaced Salman Kahn’s on the gym wall. It’s all surreal. Going to the gym was never like this in England.


Colin Todhunter is the author of Chasing Rainbows in Chennai, which reached No.3 in the bestseller list of India’s largest bookstore, Landmark. This piece is an extract from the book. All of the other chapters can be found in the India stories section of BootsnAll.

Traveler Article


Leave a Comment