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Expat in the city

Londoner Peter Claridge on living as an expat in Chennai, falling in love with the city, and his book on these experiences

You know how our parents packed us off to school on the first day, with a string of instructions? Peter Claridge’s book, Chennai Expat Guide, feels like that. He’s like the agony aunt, uncle rather, addressing a host of problems that foreigners shifting base to Chennai might encounter. “People outside India are ignorant about what it is like. They have certain views and concerns. I want to allay those fears,” says Peter.

He’s only 33, but some of his narratives make him sound like an older doting uncle doling out advice. For example, he talks about drinking water, what to wear to a wedding, getting a reasonable fast Internet connection and acquiring a SIM card.

Did you know an expats’ SIM cards validity ends the day his Indian visa expires? The guide is filled with little details like this, and it spoon-feeds visiting expats with as much information as possible. This includes everything from where to shop (depedning on your budget) to where to get a hair cut.

There are snapshots of TANGEDCO’s online account management portal where bills can be paid, a pie chart to show Chennai is safe, photographs of street signs, police stations and street dogs.

Peter visited Chennai for a month in 2006 on work. In 2008, he moved here, as he saw potential and was interested in the start-up scene. His fondness for the city is apparent in the book. “I have travelled to other Indian cities. Mumbai is fantastic but very crowded. Bangalore is a much younger scene and has less of a vibe. But Chennai… I really enjoy living here. It’s an unassuming city and lets you be,” he says.

Among other favourites here, he loves the food. On weekends, it is always a mini tiffin from Apoorva Sangeetha, while dinner is almost always paneer. Weddings here fascinate him, and he loves that any family get-together means a table filled with great food. He enjoys how easily things get done here, whether it is getting clothes ironed or getting something fixed. Oh, and he’s also delighted that he met his wife, Swapnil, here. Incidentally, she’s the one who edited his book.

But there are also the usual clichés about dealing with a sea of people, piling luggage into dinky cars and trysts with spicy food. Nevertheless, the book makes for an entertaining read. Certain chapters are bound to make the reader crack up, and then there are a couple of points which don’t reflect an absolutely accurate view of the city — like the chapter on the absence of a dating scene.

The idea to compile a book came two years ago when Peter was writing a blog post about living in Chennai. As he reached 8,000 words, he believed it could be turned into something more than just a blog. This 236-page book is a result of that. It also features anecdotes from around 50 expats.

He’s been working with Unmetric, a social media analytics platform, for the last four years. “I take the MRTS to work,” he says, pointing to an app on his smartphone. “With this, I can book my season tickets online now. I have also used the bus services here. I used to commute by 29 C.”

The author has numerous hilarious experiences to share. Over the eight years he’s lived here, he’s had his cheeks pulled on the train and been given a golden shawl at a wedding for no apparent reason. “Also, I don’t know why, but my watchman thinks my name is Pizza. I tried telling him I’m Peter and he said ‘Ah pizza!’” he laughs.

The book was launched last Saturday. It can be ordered on Amazon or Kindle. via thehindu.com

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