It was Tamil New Year’s Day. The television sets had a schedule of movies and shows lined up but the people of Chennai had other plans – a road trip to the Defence Expo 2018.
It was initially a ticketed event where people had to pay Rs 100 to register for a pass, but was later made free to ensure everyone had the chance to experience the exhibition.
So, with my seat belt strapped on and two journalists to give me company, I started on a 70-km drive to the Expo on the outskirts of Chennai. I had lofty plans of peeking into Mahabalipuram, which is just 10 kilometres from the Expo, and probably sit by the shore and watch the waves before I head back to the city for my evening assignment.
But boy, what a day it turned out to be.
There were billboards showing the way from the city and policemen deployed throughout the stretch to manage traffic. It took us an hour to cover the last two kilometres. It seemed like the vehicles were slowing down for no reason at all. Even the governor had already reached the venue, and no cop could give us an explanation for the traffic.
Adding to the delay were a few heads peeking out of cars, trying to catch a glimpse of a lone helicopter in the sky – causing hundreds behind to honk. I sat praying to Surya Bhagwan to take a break. Our skins were peeling off.
We finally made it and it felt like stepping into the Marina Beach area during the Jallikattu protests. The monstrous tanks, simulation units and radar systems were buried in a sea of people.
Lunch dabbas were spread out on tanks and remnants of lime rice were left to say – ‘Subramanis were here’.
Two kids, Rahul and Neha, were excited to know all about submarines and missiles but appa was quick to knock on their heads and say, ‘Selfie eduthutti kalambalaam! (Let’s take a selfie and get out of here!)’
The ‘Vellakara’ tents (the ‘white’ people who were manning the Russian and Israeli tents) were the most sought-after. The scientists at the stalls seated themselves at the far-end – away from the treacherous crowd. They figured packing up the machinery and hiding would help thin the crowds, but boy were they wrong! 'Cause it definitely looked like the people were there to click pictures with the foreigners and not the missiles.
My eyes fell on the Ashok Leyland exhibits and after managing to speak to the boss, I went inside the barricade. They said they had to remove all the boards which read out the descriptions of the machinery because parents propped their kids on them to take “menacing pictures” with the Super Stallion truck in the background.
Just then, I felt someone brushing against my legs. I realised five annoyingly naughty kids had slipped in saying they were with the press. The guard was too worn out to reason with them.
Soon, one was emptying a Lays packet and eating crumbs off the carpet, another tried to climb the bulletproof vehicle with a can spilling Coke over the seat and another used his toy truck as a lever to climb up on the bonnet of the vehicle.
The organiser’s eyes popped out of their sockets. He whispered:
Yesterday I was explaining all about defence mechanisms and today I am clearing Pothys shopping bags and semiya from the carpet. I can’t wait for today to end.
There were long queues next to every tank. The MBT Arjun Mk-I tank seemed to be everyone’s favourite to climb on, because the selfies taken upon it were absolute ‘boss-like’.
Every organiser told me what a grave mistake I had made by coming for the Expo on the last day. Yes, I figured that after being pushed, pulled and manhandled a hundred times. And the summer heat was just the cherry on top.
Just then, the speakers began blaring, asking everyone to walk towards the open area for the air show. Guarding our cameras and microphones, we began our journey through a sea of humanity. And we didn’t need to walk at all.
It was just like walking through Panagal park one day before Pongal.
Towards the end, we had only one thing on our minds – don’t get lost and don’t die in a stampede.
We were so close to that.
By noon, I was tripping on water bottles, cartons and even fruit peels.
The police struggled to deal with the unending and surging crowds of over 3 lakh people in the sweltering heat. The mini sandstorm unleashed by the display of the tanks during the live demo sessions only made matters worse.
Just when the last air show began, the three of us made a dash to the exit and sped away in our car. Till we hit the city limits, we sat quietly waiting for our sweaty shirts to dry up.
And for those who decided to leave after 4 pm, well, let’s just hope they made it in time for a late dinner.
I can still smell the sweat of the lakhs of people, and nail marks of kids who wanted to get ahead of me.
However, all said and done, the Defence Expo was a marvelous display of the remarkable strides made by the Indian Army, Navy, Air Force and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
But for the people of Chennai, their coolest moment was ‘lime rice on tanks’.
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