Outside, along the seafront, hundreds of local women wobble along the sticky pavement. Garlands of creamy jasmine swing from their thick oiled hair. Their sari tops, in Quality Street colours, expose well-fed bellies.
Obedient children swing teddy bears by their sides and are fed ice cream and jaggery (a sugary dessert) by their fathers. Each one sweats and smiles. Then, as the last rays of sunlight balance on the Bay of Bengal, a crow hawks in like a missile and steals a lolly from a bemused toddler.
Chennai, India’s fourth-largest city, can be read by its Sunday afternoons. A day of rest in the Tamil capital is one of family outings and worship. Hot-button issues of the day — finance, trading and showbiz — are temporarily ignored.
Having escaped the traffic — for which my guide thanks Ganesha, “the remover of obstacles” — we pull up to the triumphalist, neo-gothic San Thome Cathedral. Its brilliant white facade shades the Catholic congregation who file in and out. A lone Ambassador car squats under a skinny palm tree. Earlier in the week Hindustan Motors had announced that no more of these iconic cars would be made at its plant near Kolkata due to mounting debts and lack of demand. A wave of nostalgia washes over me and I snap a picture.
Inside, shoes are removed under a sign that — in Tamil and English — reads, ‘Priests are available for blessing, counselling and confession.’ White lace and red silk roses decorate the pews and fans whizz above heads bowed in prayer.
Below, in the basement, is a modern chapel housing the tomb of St Thomas the Apostle, who brought Christianity to the subcontinent in the first century. Upstairs one finds sober contemplation, but downstairs worshippers shove forward to pray by the tomb.
My guide, a Hindu, ushers me back through the throng and directs our driver to his place of worship, the Kapaleeshwarar Temple.
We park a stone’s throw from the temple’s rainbow-coloured gopuram gateway tower, which in the darkness is partially lit by red and blue neon strips. Giant mandala-like kolams (chalk drawings on the floor) decorate the huge inside-outside. Deafening bells ring out, children run and adults sit under streetlamps.
Hindus queue patiently to worship at the Shiva lingam (a sacred representation of the Hindu deity Shiva). Unlike in most other Indian states, non-Hindus can’t enter inner sanctums in many of Chennai’s temples. Friendly and down-to-earth Chennaites may be, but being devoutly religion means strict rules.
Instead, we opt for a fruit salad decorated with waxen flowers, bought just beyond the temple walls. A few insects commit suicide on the halogen light above us as we sit and tuck into chunky mango. The moment is peaceful until a quick flutter catches my eye — a moment too late. First claw, then a caw and quick a glossy flash of black, as the crow artfully lifts the paper carton of fleshy fruit clean off my lap.