The gateway of south India. Chennai, formerly Madras, is a 350-Year-old-city that evolved from the English settlement of Fort Saint George, absorbing the neighbouring villages and towns over the years. A fascinating blend of the past and the present, the historical and the personal, Chennai, with its unique proximate location to three south Indian states, is a crucible of the traditions and cultures of peninsular India with its variety of temples, shrines, forts and palaces and its traditional art and dance forms. While retaining a lot of its old-world charm, it has also emerged as the nerve centre for trade, commerce and transportation in south India.
The United City, peppered with photographs and illustrations, puts together stories, articles and poems which celebrate the amalgam that is Chennai. Presented in this anthology are writers as diverse as Ashokamitran, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Pudumaippithan, Ramachandra Guha, Timeri Murari, A.R. Venkatchalapathy, Janaki Venkataraman, Theodore Baskaran, V. Arasu, Vijay Nambisan, Gopikrishanan, Salma Ilampirai, Manushyaputhirn, Gnanakoothan, Dilip Kumar and S. Muthiah, and the marvelous illustrator Manohar Devadoss. Their captivating stories detail some defining aspects of the city: the evolution of the New Black Town which today stands as the commercial heart of Chennai as George Town; the birth and development of cinema in India ; the famous Marina skyline; the Thousand Lights Mosque and other heritage Buildings; the Ghana songs which rise from the slums; and the river Cooum… The City they create is fascinating and enticing threatening at times but also rewarding.
Absorbing, thought-provoking and rich in detail, this anthology is evocative of the spirit of an exceptional city.
C.S.Lakshmi is a Tamil writer who writes under the pseudonym Ambai. She is also an independent researcher in Women’s Studies and is currently the Director of Sparrow (Sound &amp;amp; Picture Archives for Research on Women) located in Mumbai.
A city is believed to be built with roads and buildings; bridges and flyovers; highways and avenues; monuments and forts statues and memorials. Brick and mortar stuff. But a city is actually built with memories – memories of people, of events, of happenings. Chennai, the city, has offered succor and inspiration to many. I was once travelling with a gentleman who told me that at one point in his youth, in the early 1930s, there was once no money at home and nothing to eat. He came to Chennai and joined a hotel as a server. His job was to carry vadais, idlis and coffee and sell them on the railway station, calling out the name of the hotel. And that is how he made a career. Strangely, when I look the decisive step towards a carees, I had also boarded the train to Chennai.
Desires, Journeys Arrivals
I did not belong to Chennai. My parents had lived there at some point in their married life. But I grew up entirely in Bangalore. Chennai was only a city we visited to attend weddings of cousins and other similar family occasions. But Chennai was a regular fixture at our place in Bangalore. Out days began with the Hindu (and later The Hindu matrimonial column with its call for fair-complexioned brides, educated and home-loving, became a section which was regularly checked out when they began looking for a groom for my elder sister. I still remember taking down letters dictated by my father: My daughter is medium fair in complexion, well up in domestic duties …). Friday meant the Weekly arrival of Tamil magazines like Anandavikatan, Kalki and Kalaimagal. For the children, there were Kannan and Kalkanda.
Diwali meant many things to us then. First was the oil bath at the crack of dawn and bursting of our share of firecrackers. After that came hot idlis early in the morning with a generous helping of chutney with crushed fresh coconut, green chillies and gram and freshly ground molagappondi with the fragrance of roasted sesame seeds, urad dal and red chillies still wafting from it After we had had our fill, my younger brother and I would have another important thing to do. We would take out our savings five or six rupees and start walking towards Melleswaram main market road to buy the large, glossy Diwali issue of Anandavikatan. It was probably the presence of these magazines at home that prompted me to write in Tamil. After some abortive attempts at writing poetry which spoke of only loneliness and unbearable sorrow and invited god to intervene in these matters, my first adventure novel written as a teenager was serialized in Kannan (published from Chennai) after it won the first prize in a novel competition. There was great jubilation at home. Chennai was fine so long as it remained where it was. Be all hell broke loose when I decided to do my postgraduate studies in Chennai.
It was a chance remark made by an aunt who lived in Chennai who was known for her indiscretion that began it all. She commented that there was no use getting gold medals in Mysore University. Try proving yourself in Madras University. The remark must have triggered off some of my own plans to study away from home. At that time the best excuse one could have to leave, other than marriage, was education. The trouble was that the family, from my mother’s side, had a history of people running away to Chennai to join the Ramakrishna Mission. With my predilection to write poetry attempting direct communication with god, it was feared that I my take to ochre robes after reaching Chennai although I had no such intentions for the days of poetry and god were over. After much discussion and misgivings, I boarded the train to Chennai one night along with my mother and in the early morning hours caught the local electric train from Park Station to Tambaram to take admission in Madras Christian College.
From the mid-nineteenth century onwards there have been many who have come to Chennai with a mission. U.Ve. Swaninatha lyer (U.Ve.Sa, as known) came here to print his rare Tamil manuscripts. He writes about it in his autobiography, En Charithiram. The first time he came to Chennai was in 1885. He came to print in Chennai a book written on Thiruvidaimrudhur. The best printing presses were in Chennai at this time. He writes that main aim in coming to a city like Chennai was to get to know its intellectuals. His host, Ramaswamy Mudaliar, took him in his coach to the Presidency College, Cosmoplitan Club and similar places to meet intellectuals and others who gathered there. U.Ve.Sa went around Chennai like a tourist, visiting the museum, the beach, temples, bookshops and the university. He writes that the humility of the intellectuals in Chennai amazed him. He came back again with the intention of printing his treatise and lifetime work on the ancient Tamil classic Chinthamani in 1886. In Choolai area there was a printing press by name Dravida Rathnakarm. He decided to print his treatise there. While the book was being printed U.Ve.Sa would go around visiting the scholars in Chennai. During his second visit in the same year, it was December and U.Ve.Sa was alone in the press checking the proofs. It was Christmas time and Chennai was full of tourists who had come to see the city during Christmas. He was reading aloud and someone who seemed like a villager was listening to him carefully. U.Ve.Sa writes that it was Tamil which drew him near the window where he was sitting and reading aloud. It was around this time also that the people’s Park fire incident took place. U.Ve.Sa’s mind was so full of Chinthamani that when someone came and told him about the fire, he thought that the printed forms of Chinthamani were in danger. When he found out about the fire he rushed there and found the most pitiable sight there of people who had been burnt. They were all visitors to the city of Chennai. After the printing of Chinthamani, U.Ve.Sa visited Chennai often to print his rare books. He often felt that id he stayed in Chennai itself it would be easier for him to print his books. And he did get an offer to work in the Presidency College in 1889. He sought the permission of his father. His father told him, ‘. . . but I can’t get there the daily dip in the Cauvery I enjoy here. And you know I never travel by train. I find it would be hard for me to leave the region of this holy river at the end of my days.’ Chennai had the printing presses, it had its great intellectuals, and it had its beach and university. But what it lacked then as now was a flowing river like the Cauvery. And Cauvery now is the name of a dispute between the two states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
A very shy but determined girl called Krubai who was later known as Krubai Satyanadhan , the first Indian woman to write an autobiographical novel in English called Saguna, boarded the train to Chennai in 1878 to pursue her medical studies. As she boarded the train, a purse containing some money was put in her hand along with her ticket. The thought of being alone on the journey scared her. On the second day of her journey, she writes in her novel, ‘. . . the dim light of the morning revealed a new scene. A language not my own fell on my ears; people rushed about and shouted vociferously in a strange tongue, and I felt a throb of fear in my heart. There was a great deal of shunting and whistling, indicating that the train had reached a large station. I looked at the crowded thoroughfares and large houses, and searched in vain for some familiar face. But everything was new and bewildering. At last the groaning and creaking came to an end, and the train stopped. I looked at the crowded platform which was a scene of great bustle and excitement, and felt safer in the compartment.
In the early years of the twentieth century a young poet came to Chennai and become the assistant editor of Swadesmitran newspaper. While in Swadesmitran he wrote many poems on the nation. The young man was the renowned poet Bharati. In November 1904 he joined Swadesamitran giving up his job as a teacher in Madurai. In 1905, he took up the editorship of a Journal for woman called Chakravarthini. And in 1906 Bharati began to edit the magazine India and it is in this magazine that he introduced cartoon drawings which drew everybody’s attention. Later in the same year he took up the editorship of English weekly called Balabhart. In 1908 November Bharati left Chennai and returned for a short while in 1919 March. One of the persons who had gone to receive him at the station was Rajaji. R.A. Padmanabhan in his book Chitrabharti quotes Rajaji describing his feelings at seeing Bharti. Rajaji says, ‘Bharti got down from the train. When I saw him I felt very sad. When I had met him earlier his face was bright like fullmoon but now it had lost its luster. . .’
Bharati returned in 1920 to join once again Swadesmitran whose office was in George Town. Bharati took up a place in Thambu Chetty Street nearby but the stench of gutters affected Bharati as it was to later affect another famous writer called Pudumaippithan. Bharati came then to stay at Triplicane in one of its narrow streets called Tulasingaperumal Koil Street. It was here that Bharati was attacked by the Pathasarathy temple elephant and badly injured. But he recovered enough to join Swadesmitran again his daughter writes about going around the streets of Triplicane singing with him. And it was in Triplicane that Bharati died in the year 1921 and was cremated in the krishanmpettai cremation grounds there. Bharati stayed for a long time in Pondicherry but he left his mark on Chennai in many ways. By his poems written and sung aloud, his writings in papers and journals and the meeting where he spoke. In fact, the photograph of Bharati which is used widely at present was taken at the Ratna Company photo studio in Broadway by a young apprentice.
In his interesting memoirs written in 1947, Dr T.S. Sowrirajan, a great national leader who had taken up the leadership in Tamil Nadu to fight against orthodoxy and for the rights of Harijans, writes about Gandhiji’s first visit to Chennai. Gandhiji came to Chennai many times later but this first visit to Chennai is historical in many ways. In 1914 Gandhiji came to Chennai. He had decided that he should set up something of his own for he had realized he could not work with Gopala Krishna Gokhale. He planned to tour India and one of the places he came to was Chennai. Very few people in Chennai knew him. Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari who was Practising as a lawyer in Salem knew him through correspondence they had exchanged. G.A. Natesan was Gandhiji friend and it was arranged that he would be Gandhiji host. G.A. Natesan and a few friends and reporters went to the station to receive Gandhiji. This small reception committee expected him to be in western clothes and thought that he would be travelling only in upper class coach. The train arrived and there was no Gandhiji to be seen. They were greatly disappointed. And then they saw him alighting from the third class coach with his wife Kasturba. He wore a Bania turban, a typical buttonless shirt tried with strings and a dhoti. He and his wife carried their own luggage to G.A. Natesan’s car. The Chennai newspaper wrote that evening about this unusual style of arrival. At that time, as far as Chennai was concerned, Gandhiji’s arrival was just one of those everyday occurrences.
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