This is just one to the author many keen observations of Chennai. With mordani wit this biography of a city spares neither half of its split personality from moody magical Madras to bursting at the seams teach-savvy Chennai. And a minute into the book the reader knows they are inseparable and Bishwanath Ghosh refuses to take sides.
And yet he tells us while Chennai is usually known as conservative and orthodox almost every modern institution in India from the army to the judiciary from medicine to engineering traces its roots to Madras fort st George which was built when Delhi had only just become the capital of the Mughal Empire and Calcutta and Bombay weren’t even born.
Today the city once again figures prominently on the global map as India Detroit a manufacturing giant and a hub of medical tourism. There have been sweeping changes since pre-independent India but even as Chennai embraces changes its people hold its age old customs and traditions close to their heart. This is what makes Chennai unique says Ghosh the marriage of tradition and technology.
Bishwanath Ghosh wears a reporter cap and explores the city he has made his home delving into it past roaming its historic sites and neighbourhoods and meeting a wide variety of people from a top vocalist to a top sexologist from a yoga teacher to a hip transsexual from a yesteryear film star to his own eighty five year old neighbour form the ghosts of Clive Wellesley Hastings and Yale to those of Periyar and MGR two people who redefined the political skyline of Tamil Nadu.
What emerges is an evocating portrait of this unique city drawn without reservation sometimes with humour sometimes with irony but reservation Sometimes with humour sometimes with irony but always with love.
Bishwanath Ghosh was born on 26 December 1970 in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, where he began his career as a journalist before moving to New Delhi to work with the Press Trust of India and The Asian Age. In 2001 he relocated to Chennai where he spent seven year at The New Sunday Express and three at The Time of India. He is currently a deputy editor with the Hindu. In 2009 he wrote the bestselling travel book, Chai Chai: Travels in Places Where You Stop But Never Get Off, also published by Tranquebar.
At time even a minor act of nature can decide things of great significance to some of us such as the title of this book.
One morning around six o’clock when the roads of Chennai are stirring awake wife and I were driving home after dropping a friend off at the railway station. Rarely do you find yourself driving at a leisurely speed in your own city at that hour; usually it is a dash to catch a plane or train when the eyes are glued to the watch and blind to the blossoming of a new day.
We were on Commander in Chief Road gliding towards Mount Road When something fell from a tree straight on to my lap. Taking it to be a large insect I instinctively shook it off. As the tiny intruder lay near my feet I examined it from a distance and then picked it up with glee.
What’s that? My wife who was driving asked.
A piece of tamarind.
But why are you smiling?
Because that settles it.
I had just signed the contract for this book intended to be a portrait of Chennai which I proposed to call Tamarind city. The title was based on my childhood impression of the city. However when I bounced it off may well wisher in Chennai they all quite expectedly raised the same argument: but tamarind is not unique to Chennai it is commonly used all over south India. That set me thinking should I be fastidious about such technical accuracy even though Chennai has traditionally been representative of the whole of the south and therefore qualifies as Tamarind city or celebrate the image that was sown in m as a child?
For weeks, I see sawed between Tamarind City and the various names that came to mind at odd time of the day I visualised these titles on the spine of an imaginary book but none of them was convincing enough to make me say this is it!
Then that morning the balance was titled by a weightless piece of dry tamarind that fell straight from the tree onto may lap. I knew this was it.
Year in the city before returning to Delhi to settle down. But Chennai turned out to be a rocking chair. Swinging to its gentle rhythm the balmy sea breeze always apologising on behalf of the heat, I didn’t realise how quickly the last two digits of that year got interchanged.
Today I am forty married and leading a fairly comfortable existence as an honorary Madras. Yet as I look into the mirror every morning stoking the new grey sprouting on my chin, I often find myself asking but wasn’t it only the other day I took the train to Chennai?
I had almost missed the train.
Delhi lay under a thick blanket of fog on the night of 13 January 2001 when I arrived at the railway station to board the Tamil Nadu express. I was to travel 2, 157 Km in the next one and a half day to reach Chennai. A small party of friends including my girlfriend had come along t see me off. They engaged me in humorous banter as we stood in a circle on the platform. Much of the ribbing was forced just to break the awkward silence that we kept slipping into. They were aware as was I that for all the years we had spent together I would be past tense once the train pulled out of the station.
The train departure was scheduled for 10.30 pm but there was no sign of the train even at ten o clock, which was unusual. Trains originating from a station usually park themselves at the designated platform way ahead of the departure time. Finally the recorded female voice the nightingale of Indian Railways announced a delay first by thirty minutes and then by an hour.
The delay presumably due to the fog was robbing my departure of drama. I could see my friend growing weary of waiting. The banter was now too artificial for comfort. A farewell is most effective when short and sweet the longer it drags the more you wish the person left sooner.
To make matters worse a male voice live and not automated came on the public address system to announce that the departure of Tamil Nadu Express had been Postponed indefinitely due to the fog engulfing north India, and that passengers must wait until further announcement.
I could see the smiles vanish from the faces of my friends. They were friends alright but why should they stand indefinitely in the bone Chilling cold to wave goodbye to someone they might never see again? They bullied me into going back to my girlfriend place which was very close to the railway station and advised me to keep checking the train departure time over phone. The girlfriend was delighted. She had earned a few more hours with me. She perhaps know the relationship was eventually going to be devoured by distance. As soon as my friends dumped me back at her place and left after giving me farewell hugs having fulfilled their responsibility of seeing me off I called up the station. To my horror I was told that the Tamil Nadu Express was leaving in thirty minutes.
As I ran across the empty platform weighed down by a heavy bag containing my lifetime collection of music cassettes and dragging with numb fingers a large suitcase that had all my clothes and a few books I desperately looked for a collie to not only carry my luggage but alos guide me to the air conditioned coaches. The AC coaches are clubbed at one end of the train and if you happen to be unwittingly walking towards the opposite end you are only walking into deep trouble. But none of the coolies who otherwise accost you at the very entrance of a station was in sight. They were not required on required on the platform anymore because all the passenger had already boarded the train except me. Finally I spotted one and called out to him. He turned out to be a fellow passenger wearing a bright red shirt standing outside his coach. I said sorry to him and ran in search of mine. I had barely got past the door after pushing the giant suitcase in when the train gave a jerk and began to move.
By the next afternoon I had left north India and its freezing cold way behind. The sun now shone brightly on green filed. I stood by the door and watched the train roll on furiously from the land of paratha and puris to the land of idlis and dosas from the land of Kavitas and savitas to the land where someone like me would now be speaking only English.
I was however accorded one last chance to speak in Hindi. As I stood by the door smoking I noticed a young stood next to me. I remembered seeing him the night before and what had struck me about him was the permanent smile pasted on his face. He was smiling even now as he wiped his hand and put handkerchief back in his pocket.
Do you live in Chennai? I asked him. It had been hours since I had spoken to anyone.
He recoiled in mock horror at my question. Then slapping his palms together burst out laughing.
Chennai main rehkar marna hai kya? He asked do you think I’m crazy to be living in a place like Chennai? His body was still shaking with mirth.
Why did I choose Chennai? Why did I want to leave Delhi in the first place the place to be if you are a journalist? That’s because I was bored and tired. Bored of chasing politician and tired of trying to extract a sentence or two out of them in order to produce a 450 word story. I wanted to break free from the routine; from the constant fear that I might someday lose my job if I did not chase people hard enough for so-called exclusives.
But way did I not choose Mumbai or for that matter Kolkata considering that I am a Kanpur bred Bengali who had never had the chance to live in Bengal? A job hop to Kolkata could have reconciled me to my roots.
I guess it had something to do with my memories of childhood. My parents had lived in Chennai at different times and they always spoke highly of Madras as the city was known then. Much of my mother childhood was spent in and around Madras and that is why idli and dosa were often the Sunday brunch special during my growing up years in Kanpur. And when I was about six years old my father was sent to IIT Madras for three months on a training programme. He came back with a lot of toys (purchased from Moore Market which was soon to be destroyed in a fire) and tales. I have long forgotten the tales but my first impression of Madras formed on the basis of his accounts was that it was a city of tamarind trees. No other detail registered because of my inborn love for the taste of tamarind. For the first few months after coming here whenever I went out in search of lunch I would ask only for tamarind rice.
At times walking the streets of Chennai I wonder if I am walking over footprints left behind by my father way back in 1976. I also wonder about one more things how did a family manage back then with the husband living in Madras for three months and the wife alone in Kanpur, looking after two small kids? Did they not worry to death about each other considering one had no idea what was happening with the other until a long awaited letter arrived. They did not have the device to worry. The device came in the form of the mobile phone. On one hand it allows you to stay in touch but on the other if a close member of one family does not answer repeated calls or if the phone turns out to be switched off you panic.
Long before mobile phones became commonplace satellite TV had entered our home. It was in 1993 when I still lived in Kanpur that I found myself being swept off by the high energy choreography of Tamil songs. Songs that did not have choreography had scenery. Till then in movies I had only seen the streets of Bombay or the hills of Kashmir and occasionally Switzerland. I must have seen picturesque south Indian locations too masqueraded as pretty north Indian villages in Hindi films but there was no way my untrained eye could have distinguished them as south India. But the Tamil songs I now got to watch thanks to satellite TV presented the beauty of the south in its purest form. The greenery the beaches the backwaters pristine and strikingly fresh to the eye of a north India.
It was not as if was completely oblivious to the beauty of south India as shown in films. During my college days I had watched in seedy theatres located in squalid neighbourhood of Kanpur dozens of soft porn movies that were invariably shot in Kerala some of them in its dense jungles can it get more picturesque than that? But at the time you were so eagerly waiting for the female characters to take off their clothes that the background scenery was completely irrelevant. The natural beauty of Kerala came to be acknowledged by the rest of the country only in 1998 when the then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee spent his year end vacation in the backwaters of Kumarakon. By then I had already become a diehard fan of preset day south Indian songs and choreography. I remember waiting for hours for one particular high energy dance number Kalluri Salai one of the early compositions of A.R. Rahman in a film called Kadhal desam. Even today I get goosebumps watching the song.
What eventually pulled the trigger for me was Rajeev Menon Kandukondain Kandukondain which was an I watched with the help of subtitles in a theatre in Delhi. I still remember the automated female voice correctly pronouncing the worlds Kandukondains Kandukondains when I called up the theatre to find out about the availability of tickets. My friends thought I was mad to be interested in watching a Tamil film. Needles to say I watched it alone. Tears trickled down my eyes during the final scene.
What made Kandukondains Kandukondains eminently appealing to me was the interesting mix of stars: Tabu and Aishwarya Rai two actresses north India loved; Mammootty, the highly acclaimed Malayalam actor; and Ajith Kumar and Abbas two reigning heart throbs of Tamil cinema of the time who demolished the notion that heroes had to sport double chine pot bellies and thick moustaches.
One of the most sublime moments of the film is a scene where Abbas who plays a sophisticated young tycoon lies lazily on a raft that is drifting on the blue green waters. Facing the overcast sky eyes shut in reverie he is softly singing the verses of the revered poet Subramania Bharati. It begins to rain, but Abbas continues singing and then deliberately rolls over and plunges into the water wanting to soak in the sensuality of the moment. It was a case of the present fondly embracing the past the urban merging with the rural of sophistication bowing before simplicity that too in such an idyllic setting I wanted to be there.
When I finally decided on the date to leave for Chennai I went to the New Delhi railway station to buy a ticket. All the trains bound for Chennai were full. But there was one seat just a single seat available in three-tier AC coach of the Tamil Nadu Express. I had made it just in time.
Throughout the journey I was fascinate by the newness of everything each new set of fellow passengers new stations new landscapes. I was thirty years old but had never travelled down south before a gap in my education an omission that I was now going to make up for. I kept looking out trying to get a feel of the expanse of India as the train rapidly to get a feel of the expanses of India as the train rapidly progressed from one state to another. It was dashing through Maharashtra when I had opened the conversation with the young Sikh who laughed when I asked him if he live in Chennai.
His body was still shaking with laughter and he pulled out the handkerchief which he had just put in his pocket to wipe the tears that my question had induced. I asked him way it was such a crazy idea to be living in Chennai.
What is there to do in Chennai? It is such a boring place. I can’t ever imagine living there. I am only going there to fetch my wife. I reach there tomorrow morning and take the train back in the evening. In Delhi there is so much life. I meet up with my friends in the evenings and have drinks and then we go on long drives. If a policeman catches us we give him five hundred rupees. He is happy we are also happy. But you can’t do such things in Chennai.
I nodded as if I agreed with him.
Then he brought his face closer to mine and said in a lowered voice Ek baat bataoon? South ke log hotey badey darpok hain you know something south Indians are very timid.
He burst out laughing again slapping his palms together.
Timid I had heard that before. It is because of their so-called timidity that people from the south are still preferred as tenants in the north. They pay the rent on time hardly make any noise to disturb the landlord of fellow tenants and promptly vacate whenever they are asked to. Clearly it was the case of civility being mistaken for cowardice. But such finer qualities are often lost on north India which is still driven by the old saying Jiski lathi, uski bhains the one who wield the stick owns the buffalo.
So engrossed I was in the journey that I had completely forgotten I didn’t know a soul in Chennai. I was not even sure where I was going to stay. All I had was an assurance from a certain man called Pugazhendi who had promised to pick me up from the station and take me to the accommodation he had found for me. But Pugazhendi was a busy man and we barely knew each other. How far could I rely on his assurance?
So engrossed I was in the journey that I had completely forgotten I didn’t know a soul in Chennai. I was not even sure where I was going to stay. All I had was an assurance from a certain man called Pugazhendi who had promised to pick me up from the station and take me to the accommodation he had found for me. But pugazhendi was a busy man and we barely knew each other. How far could I rely on his assurance?
Pugahendi had been a journalist with a Tamil paper till he discovered the filmmaker in himself. He had just made his first film starring khushboo the actress of northern Indian origin who was once such a rage in Tamil Nadu that her fans built a temple to her. The film if I recall correctly was about a woman fighter of the liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE falling in love with an Indian doctor. The film ran into trouble with the censors and Pugazhendi had to make several trips to Delhi to plead his case with the broadcasting ministry. It was during one such trip that we met at the Press Club in Delhi. He wore a white khadi shirt and a dhoti and came across as a shy modest man. He did not smoke or drink and stood out like an island of virtue in the club. When I told him I was relocating to Chennai he offered to find me a place to stay even if as a temporary arrangement till I found one of my choice and gave me his card.
I called him a few days later. He told me he had been very busy but that he would soon find a place for me. He asked me not to worry. Three days before taking the train I called him gain. He said he had found a mansion for me.
Yes, a mansion.
And how much would that cost me?
Not much just Rs. 2,000 a month.
More good news: he said his manager would be waiting for me near the engine of the Tamil Nadu express holding a placard with my name on it. All this seemed too good to be true.
Around seven o’clock on the morning of 15 January thirty one after I had Delhi I saw many fellow passengers pulling on trousers under their lungis. Chennai was nearing. The friendly waiter from the pantry car I still remember his name Krishnamoorthy served one final round of coffee.
The first glimpse of Chennai from the train roadside temples yellow authorickshaws men on bikes, young women on scooties. They all wore a purposeful look as they went about their chores certain about their destinations. They had no idea they were being watched intently by a man who was coming to live in their city with no specific purpose and who was not even sure where he would be heading to once the train had pulled in at the station.
Coolies invaded the train even before it could come to a halt. My huge suitcase made me a perfect catch. But even if I hired one of them what could he do other than drop my luggage at the taxi-stand? From there where would I go?
With hope in my heart I dragged the suitcase in the direction of the engine. Sure enough a young man was holding a placard with my name on it. And standing next to him was Pugazhendi in his trademark white shirt and dhoti. I couldn’t decide whether to feel important or grateful. As directed I got into an autorickshaw along with the man who had held the placard. He was pugazhendis manager. Pugazhendis followed us on his Bajaj scooter. We were now heading towards the mansion.
The mansion I discovered is the common name for a lodge meant for bachelors and single men. I subsequently got to learn that there were scores of single men in Chennai who had attained old age living in these mansion. My mansion however was a newly constructed one located in T. Nagar the heart of Chennai. I was given a room on the second floor and as I climbed up I noticed a hand painted warning on the first landing alcohol strictly prohibited and on the second lading another women visitor strictly not allowed. Basically a place where one could exist but not live.
In hindsight I consider myself lucky to have checked into the mansion. I was baptised as a chennaiite by fire.
That afternoon when I ventured into the adjacent street in search of a mobile phone connection, I ran into a sea of people. Never before in my life had I seen such a multitude gushing into a holiday. They all walked leisurely the countless families that had descended on the street. The men looked menacing with their thick moustaches. The women wore flower in their hair and on their faces sweat-smudged talcum powder or a yellow tan left behind by turmeric paste. I had never thought the term rubbing shoulders could be so literal. I began to feel giddy.
Where was the Chennai I had seen in the song? There was no breathtaking choreography here only suffocating crowds. I managed to find my way out of the street onto the main road but there again more people. They were coming in hordes from all direction I felt like a child lost in a village fair who was desperately. I felt like a child lost in a village faire who was desperately trying to spot his parents.
The main road turned out to be south Usman road and the street. Even during the leanest of season as Ranganathan street. Even during the leanest of seasons as I was to experience subsequently they are packed with people mostly shoppers. South Usman Road and Ranganathan street are home to Chennai biggest retail stores so big you have see them to believe. The number of employees in each store would easily outnumber the staff of a decent sized software company. It is said and not without reason that you can find everything under the sun on south Usman road and its tributaries except a father or a mother. T. Nagar would be a desert without south Usman road and Ranganathan street; and what would Chennai be without T. Nagar?
Today when I look back I feel extremely proud that I spent my first fifteen days in the city not in the cosy home of a friend or relative living by the sea in the posh neighbourhood of Besant Nagar but right in the centre of action where one could experience the authentic sights sound and smells of Chennai.
The sights: that of a woman selling flowers alongside a man selling cheap varieties of lingerie of men wearing dhotis and women bright colourful sarees of raw mangoes sliced like toothcombs and displayed to make mouths water. The sounds; of the nadawaram emerging from the temple the cacophony of the crowd the call of the hawkers the hissing of the batter when it is poured on the pan and sprea out in a circle that eventually becomes a dosa. The smells: the sweet of the flowers and the sour of the idlis being streamed by roadside vendors. It is delightful to watch the vendor extricate hot idlis from a smoking piece of cloth. All this thanks to Pugazhendi.
For the next ten days Pugazhendi would come to the mansion every morning. He would read the newspaper while I bathed and got dressed and then astride his Bajaj scooter we would go house hunting in T. Nagar. He was enchanted by the calm of a certain street. Best for creative people very peaceful place he would say. He had been a frequent visitor to that street until recently because the music director illayaraja who had composed the background score for his film lives there.
We did see a house on that street but the landlady was overbearing. She kept lecturing me about how a tenant especially a bachelor should conduct himself. One could choose to turn a deaf ear to her but she lived on the ground floor and would obviously be keeping an eye on me. That house was ruled out. W took our hunt to the adjoining streets, which were as quiet and leafy but nothing worked out to my satisfaction.
Meanwhile, I had also spoken to a few brokers. Once morning when Pugazhendi was held up by work, I went to see a broker who called to say that he had found a flar that suited my budget. The broker worked out of his home pasted on the wall behind his desk was a blown up poster of the New York skyline the twin towers of the world Trade centre intact they were to melt away in less than eight month that morning I realised that a broker who is usually seen as a despicable character was a family man too. He asked to be excused for a few minutes while he went to drop his daughter to school. His wife served me coffee and biscuits. Then riding pillion on his bike I went to see the flat. I liked it instantly. For once I saw rooms painted in a pleasant shade of white and not the gaudy green that dominated most of the house I had seen so far. Moreover this was a flat and not an independent house which meant that i was not going to live with the landlord. I said yes. I found it painful to fork out the brokerage but felt immensely grateful towards the broker. As I stood in the empty flat looking out the window I asked the broker so where in T. Nagar are we?
Murugesan Street he replied.
Pugazhendi when he heard the news was most happy. He directed his manager to arrange for a fish cart to transfer my belonging from the mansion to the flat. For one last time I rode pillion on Pugazhendi scooter while the manager followed us on the cart along with my luggage.
For the first few years since I became a resident of Chennai till I got accustomed to its say I would begin each day feeling as if I had arrived that very morning. The city always threw up a sight or a sound that was new to me. Each morning it would be awash with fresh colours. I would gape at the cinema posters pasted on the walls announcing new releases or boasting about the number of weeks a particular film had run. And the investable political posters which don’t fail to amuse me even now showing either a laughing Karunanidhi or a sombre-looking Jayalalithaa. The two leaders’ bitter rivals have been taking turn in ruling Tamil Nadu. I have always wondered why Karunanidhi is always laughing in the posters as if someone just cracked a joke. Jayalaithaa on the other hand wears a dignified smile if one at all. The former actress mostly appears grim in the posters. Quite recently I spotted the image of a laughing Karunanidhi on the hoarding of a new release: it turned out that the film had been scripted by him. Karunanidhi whose family today has a steely grip over the Tamil film industry stays in touch with his former profession by writing the script for the occasional film. Politics and cinema re Siamese twins in Tamil Nadu. Here politician can generate as much hysteria as the film stars and most often it is the stars who go on to become politicians. If anyone is capable of causing frenzy other than them it is God.
I clearly remember that night a few months after I moved to Chennai. It was well past midnight and the entire neighbourhood was in deep slumber. I was in bed entire neighbourhood was in deep slumber. I was in bed too drinking rum and writing in long hand a piece for the paper. A sudden burst of crackers jolted me out of my thoughts. Even as the crackers exploded loud drumbeats rent the air. I rushed to the balcony to take a look. A procession of about thirty people was following an idol being carried on a hand pulled cart. A diesel power generator placed at the rear of the cart helped illuminate the idol. The drummers and the men who burst the crackers walked at the head of the procession. Following the cart were the devotees mostly women. Their sarees shone in the light provided by the generator. Back in the north whenever a wedding procession passes though never at this unearthly hour people stand at their gates or balconies to watch. The whole idea behind making noise is to get people to watch. But that night I seemed to be the only person on the street witnessing the procession. My neighbours slept through the noise. The sound of crackers going off at odd hours was part of their life. If was to become part of mine as well eventually.
The lay north Indian has known very little about Chennai except that it is inhabited by conservative and religious people called madrasis who live on idli and dosa. There was no need to know more. The south for the north was always the back of beyond. People from the south came to the north in large number to work. But there was no movement in the reverse direction. Being posted to the south in fact was considered a punishment. While I was in Delhi I knew of someone who when he fell out of his boss’s favour was transferred to Chennai. The transfer order had the desired effect: he quite.
Even most western writers in their India experience books have given Madras a short shrift confining their powers of observation to Bombay Delhi or Calcutta. There are exceptions though. James Cameron the legendary British journalist who was in and out of India from the time of the 1945 simla conference till the 1971 Bangladesh war spent some time in the city and found it agreeable. I have a sort of trust in Madras Cameron wrote in his 1974 book an Indian Summer. It is an agreeable rather boring place it is the sort of place I would be if I were a town several decades after he set foot here multinational companies from across the globe came to discover the trust he talked about.
Today Chennai is a throbbing manufacturing hub that is often described as the Detroit of India and home to countless software companies the giant as well as start ups is it also the country capital for cure the hub of medical tourism where people from remote corners of India come for treatment and most often double as tourists squeezing in a trip to the beach and some of the temple during their stay. Consequently young professional from the north are increasingly packing their bags to take up job in Chennai and Bangalore and Hyderabad as well. Working in the south is no longer a punishment but a privilege.
Till the multinational companies came Chennai was living a its own pace. But after becoming a global city, it could no longer afford to. The change was rapid. I am glad that I lived through the change. I came in 2001 just in time to catch a glimpse of the old Chennai. Back then it was still possible to travel a distance of five kilometres in less than fifteen minutes even during rush hour something impossible now unless you are driving at three in the morning. Trees were yet to be gobbled up by flyovers. People seen talking on mobile phones were few and far between as a result of which peace prevailed in restaurants and theatre. There were no Cineplex’s: the very first and far between as a result of which peace prevailed in restaurants and theatres. There were no Cineplex’s the very first one to come up was still in the making. Pubs were non-existent come up was still in the making. Pubs were non-existent: the salaried tipper had to make do with either the permit room of one of the lower-rung hotels or one of the hellholes attaches to liquor shops that masqueraded as bars.
When you wanted to eat out the choice was between a when you wanted to eat out the choice was between a regular multi cuisine restaurants a typical south Indian eatery or a fancy Punjabi dhaba. International brands be they clothes or cosmetics were still brought by relatives from abroad when they came to India on holiday. And there were just two English newspaper.
Today just look at all that you get in Chennai. There are now four mainstream English papers. When it comes to eating out the choices are mind boggling: Chinese Italian, Mexican, Lebanese, Thai, Malaysian, Korean or how about Japanese? At the last count there were seven Japanese restaurants in the city. Pubs are a dime a dozen. As for international brands of clothes or perfumes you name it and Chennai has it.
Yet there is a Chennai that hasn’t changed and never will. Women still wake up at the crack of dawn and draw the kolam the rice flour design outside their doorstep. Men don’t consider it old fashioned to wear a dhoti which is usually matched with a modest pair of Bata chappals. The day still begins with coffee and lunch ends with curd rice. Girls are sent to Carnatic music classes. The music festival continues to be held in the month of December. Tamarind rice is still a delicacy and its preparation still an art form.
It’s the marriage between tradition and transformation that makes Chennai unique. In a place like Delhi you’ll have to hunt for tradition. In Kolkata you’ll itch for transformation. Mumbai is only about transformation. It is Chennai alone that firmly holds its customs close to the chest as if it were a box of priceless jewels handed down by ancestors even as the city embraces change.
Amid all the changes racing over the city I realised my own life had fallen into a pattern. The boundaries of Chennai for me had shrunk to the few stretches of roads that lay between my home and office. I dreaded becoming just another resident so busy earning his living that he is no longer alive to his own city. I wanted to rekindle the romance for which I had travelled 2, 157 km on a freezing night a decade ago.
So with a notebook in hand I set out again
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