On Sunday evening, I make my way past families sitting under the trees at Gandhi Mandapam, children running around the lawns, and people on benches immersed in their phones to a small group engrossed in their books.
This is not a unfamiliar sight as most green spaces across the city are becoming havens for the city’s residents across ages to read, journal, and create art. Walk through the Dr. Visvesvaraya Park or the Anna Nagar Tower Park as it is known among locals, and you are sure to spot a group, noses in their books, or another not too far off immersed in journalling. At the Nageswara Rao Park in Mylapore, on every alternate Sunday, you are likely to stumble upon a neat array of books and a group of children and adults reading. Meanwhile at the Adyar estuary, in Tholkappia Poonga, amateur artists dabble in paints and pencils as they attempt to capture the hues of the sky on canvas.
“We’ve been meeting up here, at Gandhi Mandapam since June,” says Krishna Sai, one of the curators of Chennai Reads, a silent reading community. “I’ve always struggled to read at home, and coming here and reading in an environment like this has felt more enjoyable. Even if I get bored or feel like taking a break, I can close the book, and take a walk here,” he says.
Following their first reading session with Chennai Reads, V Chandrasekar, and his wife Amrutha Ravikanth envision themselves being regulars. “There’s a feeling of openness when one is outside, and the mind is reaching out to better and broader areas. You instantly tend to feel better because of the small, imperceptible things- the smell of grass, the breeze, and the sounds of children playing,” Amrutha, a psychologist and teacher says.
At Nageswara Rao Park as well, on alternate Sundays, a large silent reading group initiated by Aparna Balasundar and Balaji Venkataramanan come together from 3pm to 4pm. As residents of the area, Balaji says that the park was the best option for them to meet at, and that the space has enabled them to have varied activities. “We’ve also had an art show by a budding artist, and a writer coming in to talk to us about their new book. There’s also a tie-up with a food start up, moremilaga, for refreshments,” he says.
The changing weather in the city, given the incoming north-east monsoon, has only added to this experience. Two weeks ago, readers who meet at the Anna Nagar Tower Park as a part of the Tower Reads silent reading community weren’t deterred by the sudden, heavy downpour. “While we usually sit under a large tree near the open gallery, we soon shifted and sat inside the tower. The weather was lovely, and we had stunning views of the park from the top” says A S Krishnakumar. A stash of books are always kept near their reading group, and he says anyone at the park is welcome to join them.
While Krishna Sai recalls being inspired by a similar silent reading community, Cubbon Reads in Bangalore, Delhi’s parks were the perfect space for Harini JBL , to host sessions of her writing group The Folded Paper Writing.
“In Chennai’s parks, there is Nature, breeze, and inspiration all around,” she says, as she speaks about her plans to have writing group meetings at the parks here. Her face lights up, when she speaks about the Anna Nagar Tower Park which she frequents, either to read or to paint, while listening to Ilaiyaraaja songs playing on the speakers there. “A friend and I went there recently, found a cosy spot on the grass, to sit and paint bookmarks. This was so calming and we left feeling refreshed,” she says.
Unlike cafes or most other indoor spaces where there is a compulsion to spend money to work there, or engage in a creative pursuit or a mindful activity, the many parks around the city offer a conducive environment for someone who is actively looking for a change of scene, especially when the weather is kind.
“When invited to a journalling session, people are often hesitant and tell me they aren’t sure if they can write. Journalling isn’t just about writing, more so when done in a park. Even if someone is unable to, they can go on a walk, pick up a leaf, or sit on a bench. You’re sure to be able to fill up a page, sketch or paint after,” says P Swati, Psychologist and founder, Shuddhi Holistic Wellness Centre, Adyar. Through her initiative Joy of Journaling, Swati has hosted group journalling sessions at the Anna Nagar Tower Park which was well received, with people asking her for more such sessions in the city’s parks.
Following a move to the city, exploring these public spaces has also been about getting to know Chennai better, says Harini. For others, it is all about discovering the beauty of the city, and its pockets of calm.