A Night Walk in Chennai, India

Glen T. Martin

December 2003

The institutional structure of our world has laid human beings prostrate before its monstrous domination. This city is organized around hidden, unspoken imperatives that distort the lives of the dominant, successful persons and crush the life out of the less fortunate, subordinate majority.

Last night I walked for two hours in the middle of the night through the empty streets of the city center here in Chennai, India. During the day these streets are full of racing, honking cars, trucks, and three wheeled taxis. At three in the morning, they are largely empty. During the day, the mind is distracted and harassed by honking vehicles, and one is perpetually concerned to avoid being hit when crossing streets or edging around barriers on the sidewalks.

The institutional structure of the city during the day harasses, distorts, and crushes human beings. But the noise, business, and care for self‑protection required diverts attention from its gigantic imperious features lying unspoken in the background. At night, in the empty streets, the mind becomes silent, deeper, more fully aware. At night, in the empty streets, one begins to see.

Here and there on the darkened sidewalks elongated, rounded shapes appear before me and then recede as I pass by. Persons wrapped in a single threadbare blanket, entirely covered to keep off the ever‑present mosquitoes, lie still on the bare concrete.

Everywhere the concrete. Everywhere the bare mud of the lifeless earth seeping from the cracks, the street‑repair sites, the edges of the concrete. A portion of the earth robbed of fertility, without the goodness of plants, flowers, or trees. Concrete spanning miles, laid out as raceways for cars and trucks, people marginal, pushed aside, molded into the technical imperatives of capital.

These silent, sleeping elongated mounds are mostly motionless. Silence borne of weakness, disease, lack of nutritious food. Among the motionless mounds an occasional scrawny cat prowls, or watches cautiously. Here and there groups of wretched dogs cross the street or lay near one another on the cement. Occasionally a large rat scurries out of sight into the dark of an ally or beneath a grate.

The three‑wheeled taxis that during the day wait endlessly at hotel entrances, near store fronts, or wherever else a possible customer might appear, are now parked out of the way here and there on the empty streets. During the day, they wait endlessly because there are far to many taxis for customers, far too many taxis for these drivers to eke out a wretched living. Now they are parked out of the way on the darkened streets, their drivers asleep in the back seat, twisted into the tiny space, or head and feet hanging out of the taxi into the space of the street.

But not all sleep in the warm, Chennai night. Everywhere, sitting on chairs or standing motionless outside the darkened hulks of buildings, I encounter the suspicious gazes of the poor workers hired to guard the property of the rich. In front of closed gas stations, inside the gates of private residences, in storefronts or hotel fronts, the poor are on guard for a few rupees a night. In the minds of the rich, this vastly worthwhile, a small price paid to protect their concentrations of private wealth.

At one time in history, churches and temples dominated the landscape. Today, corporate structures, buildings many stories high, dominate the landscape. The temples have been replace by the banks on every corner. Come to the Trust bank of this or that, the home for your investments, or your life insurance, or your mortgage for a better future. Everywhere I see the source of loans to protect your child’s future, to finance your education, or purchase the home of your dreams.

In the quiet, darkened streets of Chennai, one has a chance to gaze at the institutions that structure the lives of the people who are their victims. Elegant buildings, ten stories high, dot the local area. In some, the blazing decorative lights burn all night long, surely costing each night many times what their employees who clean the floors our guard their doors earn in a year.

Walking through the empty streets of this city of eight million, I encounter a world of concrete and steel where nature has been superseded by the works of human beings. How strangely mad it seems that the works of human beings are not made for dwelling on the Earth in peace, prosperity, and joy. These works are not the works of the many but of the few. And even these few are agents of some alien power that lies unseen in the background, making human beings its agents, victims, and slaves û the imperatives of capital.

Are those who own the buildings and banks, who manage the stores, restaurants, and businesses responsible for the crushed lives of the ones sleeping on the darkened concrete? Are they responsible for the three‑wheeled taxi drivers sleeping in their cabs on the margins of the empty traffic‑caverns?

This world, so clearly visible in the small hours of the night, this world, so full of suffering that crushes the lives of the poor in their misery, is not a world created by the wealthy bankers and building owners. This inhuman world of concrete and steel was not created by government decisions to build roads or contractors competing for bids to lay more concrete over the bosom of the Earth.

No. These wealthy and powerful few have their lives and minds dictated by the power of capital. Their true potential to develop as human beings dwelling on the Earth in wisdom and compassion has been twisted into the death mask of greed and callousness by the imperatives of capital.

As I wander through the darkened city streets, empty of traffic, tremendous images of light and color arise before me at every turn, especially at intersections. Here are the billboards. Giant photos of beautiful Indian actresses and actors project into the silent world of stray dogs, scurrying rats, and wretched sleeping people, the life of beauty, happiness, and pleasure. It is a projection that floats on the surface consciousness of billions of people around the Earth. The actors on these billboards look Indian in their clothing, features, and cultural artifacts. The actors on advertisements in the United States look “American.” The actors look Thai in Thailand, Japanese in Japan, and Spanish in Nicaragua.

Everywhere the billboards blaze through the night. Here in India, as elsewhere, the life of beauty, happiness, and pleasure must blaze through the night at the cost of millions of rupees in electricity. For the immense illusion generated by the imperatives of capital must obliterate reality in the minds of human beings, rich and poor. One break in the continuity of the message, one blackout in the electric grid protecting the images of happiness and fulfillment, and the nightmarish reality might begin to become apparent to human persons everywhere.

Whether on TV, in the newspapers, or through giant blazing billboards, at all costs the imperatives of capital must keep its tentacles around the minds of the masses. They must be induced to focus hypnotically on what one U.S. poet called “imbecile illusions of happiness.” They must be made not to see the reality in which they daily live, the nightmare of their world of exploitation and death. The hidden institutional structure of our planet must remain hidden behind images of color, light, and sound projecting imbecile illusions of happiness into the minds of billions of people. At all costs, people must not see the structure of domination and dehumanization everywhere apparent in the night air of Chennai.