So, the Lonely Planet guidebook’s introduction to Chennai is fairly dismissive about the city’s prospects for tourist pleasure:
“No matter how determined you are, you’d be pretty hard pressed to find much to gush about when it comes to Chennai. The streets are clogged with traffic, the weather oppressively hot, the air heavy with smog, and sights of any interest are uncooperatively thin on the ground. Even the movie stars, as one Chennaiite put it, are ‘not that hot’.”
Turns out some people got really upset about this description. The Deccan Chronicle reported that
“Chennaiites today are an angry lot and they have a good reason to be. Recently a reader of Deccan Chronicle pointed out the website of … Lonely Planet which described Chennai in what he and many other Chennaiites believe is disparaging….Vimal Abraham, a marketing manager with an MNC who brought this matter to the attention of this newspaper says, “My primary concern is that the review appears very biased with more emphasis on the negatives of the city rather than giving a balanced viewpoint on the same. Where else do you find tourist-friendly autos and hop on and off buses in the same state?”
Users of an online forum I sometimes read called Skyscraper City were also outraged. One user wrote in: “Chennai has been a long term target to websites and blogs of this kind, which is the main reason of Chennai’s tarnished image. We cannot keep our mouth shut by reading this.” Apparently, this user did not keep his (her?) mouth shut, and wrote to the Lonely Planet. He received this response from the editor:
“Thank you for writing in about the description of Chennai on the site. We try hard to provide objective commentary, and it is unfortunate Chennai suffers from some negative stereotypes when compared to many other cities in India.
We do try to balance this with the following:
“But the locals are a little friendlier than average here, the streets a little wider and, in spite of its booming IT, business-outsourcing and auto industries, the pace much slower than in most Indian cities half its size. Chennai is so modest you wouldn’t even know it’s an economic powerhouse, much less a queen of showbiz: India’s fourth-largest city is also its most humble.””
Hop on – hop off buses, tourist friendly autos AND slightly wider roads than the rest of India? Lonely Planet-toting tourists should start pouring into the city now.
Here’s the thing though: I kind of think the Lonely Planet is right. Chennai is a terrible place for tourists. But I think that’s because the best things about Chennai are really invisible to outsiders. Because of its history, it doesn’t have the grand architecture of Delhi and some cities in Rajasthan. All the culture is hidden away, in people’s homes and in temples and nondescript performance halls, and a lot of the really interesting people only speak Tamil. For all its difficulties, I think this might still be my favorite place to live.