The Devil and the Details

The devil, they say, is in the details. Meaning I guess, that, while something might seem straightforward or simple at first, there is more beneath the surface, or, maybe that the real essence isn’t in the grand design but in the finer points, the nuggets that blend and knit together somehow to create the fabric of the whole. Mies van der Rohe, the famous architect, supposedly coined the phrase originally as “God is in the details,” with the emphasis on details–and getting them right–paying enormous dividends in the overall stature and success of his building designs. Over time, though, the usage has shifted to blame old Nick for the truism that when things go wrong, it’s usually because someone didn’t pay attention to a crucial detail and an entire project–or relationship–went awry. Curious shift in point of view . . .

At the fishermen’s village near Broken Bridge

I tend to prefer the version with the connotation of a gathering, an assemblage, where all the minutia we usually don’t notice somehow add up to create an atmosphere we can feel, subtly beneath our consciousness, yet always there, providing, in our case with India and Chennai and Besant Nagar, an energy and vibrancy that are palpable, that tingle beneath the skin. By the way, these photos were all found within a ten to fifteen minute walk from our house.

No, not a laptop repair center but the ironing stand across the street . . . yes, the sidewalks on our street are brick pavers
Just waiting . . .

They also say that, in writing fiction, well rendered details can evoke the reader’s senses and bring the writing to life as we not only see, but hear and smell and touch and taste the world of the story. My brief words and photos here can’t begin to truly share the constantly shifting aromas as we walk the streets, the beach, the cafes . . . the delicate sweet of jasmine and the tang of so many unknown spices and the green rawness of the ocean and the strangling cloy of the garbage bins . . . the crows debating like politicians and the chance music of mysterious and hidden birds, the lilt of Tamil spoken at a million kilometers an hour, and the silver rustle of the leaves of the tamarind trees and the neem trees and yes, even the cannonball trees. . . the startling burn of the heat and the twist of the astounding sweet of so many new and unexpected tastes from veg kadai to gulab jamun to fresh-from-the-coconut water and daily sambar and idli and avial and drumstick and who knows what might be next. (Okay, the Hyatt Regency is doing Oktoberfest now so maybe a couple steins of pilsner and a bratwurst with a load of kraut.)

Abandoned gate in the fence around the 450 year old Banyan tree at the Theosophical Society . . . with a guard at the top right . . .
At a temple hidden down a narrow side lane a couple blocks from us
No mail since we’ve been here . . . How delightful!

My walkabouts usually tend to focus on greeting and chatting and photographing those who are up and at it far earlier than the average–coffee shops don’t open til 11 or maybe a few at 10–but I’ve also collected all these details and more . . . And I’ll soon share new series of the ubiquitous signs, of the daily kolams, of the trees who refuse to give up their preferred resting place in the street, of all my chums the street dogs and, yes, the beach horses, plus all the energy and industry of the foot-treadle sewing machine man, the ironing man as he fills his heavy ironbox with glowing coals, the coconut man as he scoops the meat and pours the water for 20 rupees each, and the scissors and knife sharpener and the paper collector as they croon their way walking or pedaling their carts along the streets . . .

Love this mysterious tree that guards a Ganesha in a niche . . .
Wooden scaffolding with coconut fibre ropes at the Theosophical Society and used everywhere
Did you think I was joking when I mentioned the cannonball tree?

And of course there are those other details, the ones I don’t photograph and rarely share: the open wound of beggars nearly everywhere, generally mild in manner and mostly appreciative–an older woman bowed her head into my chest briefly in quiet thanks the other day; the sweepers who diligently shove the dirt across the roads, bent at the waist to work their short-handled brooms while neglecting the trash and litter, leaving it as treasure for the rag-pickers and fodder for the crows and the dogs and the cows; and those who have no access to restrooms, private or public, who simply take their nature breaks (yes, all of them) wherever it suits, including the open sand at the beach; and, yes, we are embarrassed to admit it, but the smooth-talking fellow claiming to be our new neighbor who scammed us (and two other new teachers) into donating a good bit of money (by local standards) so that his temple could feed the poor children . . . but that is truly another story.

Yep, there are wires everywhere and nothing is spared from supporting and bearing them . . .
The guard at the Theosophical Society banyan tree taking in the sun
All dressed up at the Theosophical Society
Everyone’s favorite god, the remover of obstacles, Ganesha, at the Theosophical Society

So, yes, the details are where the story comes to life, the context and weave of all the senses, but it is still those wonderful faces and smiles that step out and connect against that backdrop . . . like the proud scissors man who stopped his chanting call to chat with me and show me his wheel on a bright sunny morning.

The scissors and knife sharpening man on our street

And, with the surf running lightly in the background, another new face, tethered at the beach near the Arupadai Murugan Temple a few blocks away, waiting for his breakfast. (A friend who lives right there gives his owner oats from time to time)

One of the beach horses near us

There is such a treasure of tiny marvels to see and hear and smell and touch and taste every day, so let’s just say that life is in details . . .



Author: David Hassler

David M. Hassler was fortunate enough to have become a relatively rare male Trailing Spouse when his talented wife Sarah accepted a job teaching music in the elementary division of the American International School in Chennai, India. His role includes, first of all, serving as her everything wallah, but also allows him time for exploring, discovering, and sharing new places, new faces, and new tastes around Chennai, throughout south India, and beyond. David M. Hassler is a long-time member of the Indiana Writers Center Faculty and holds an MFA from Spalding University. His work has been published in Maize and the Santa Fe Writers' Project. He served as a Student Editor for The Louisville Review and as Technical Editor for Writing Fiction for Dummies. He is currently Managing Editor for Flying Island, an online literary journal. He is co-author of Muse: An Ekphrastic Trio, and Warp, a Speculative Trio, and future projects include A Distant Polyphony, a collection of linked stories about music and love, memories and loss; And on the Eighth Day, A Tale of the Last Time Traveler, a riff on classic Sci Fi; and To Strike a Single Hour, a Civil War novel that seeks the truth in one of P T Barnum's creations. He is a founding partner in Boulevard Press.

11 thoughts on “The Devil and the Details

  1. Love your posts! So interesting to see what you see, in your daily life, of what the area is really like. Hope your furniture comes soon and keep the posts coming!

  2. Wow, most interesting read to say the least — and the pictures were and are amazing. Thank you for sharing and taking the time. Hello to Sarah …. give her my best.

  3. Love the post David ! Tuxedo Bug embraces my two favorite colors so I’m quite partial to the little fella! You’re doing a great job capturing the essence of life on the streets of Chennai! Are you picking up any of the language?

    1. Thanks Mix! I do have a few words of Tamil but I’ve learned that I first need to work on shifting my pronunciation of English! We find that when someone doesn’t seem to understand us, it turns out they eventually may say a word back to us that we finally recognize is indeed the correct English word but with a very distinct Tamil and British accent to it. I’m practicing flipping all my r’s as that’s a huge difference, plus putting the accent on the first syllable in Tamil style!

  4. Your “details” shine all the way to Indiana!
    Gerry and I are with you on your morning adventures, and we couldn’t be more grateful!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

By submitting this form, you are granting: David M Hassler, 5945 N Washington Blvd, Indianapolis, IN, 46220, permission to email you. You may unsubscribe via the link found at the bottom of every email. (See our Email Privacy Policy ( for details.) Emails are serviced by Constant Contact.