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A bevy of colourful deities atop one of Chennai’s numerous temples

Remembering Chennai evokes a chequerboard of emotions in me, both black and white and almost in equal measure. And before the recent past transforms into the good ol’ days, imbuing every memory with a glossy sheen of forgetful nostalgia, I thought I should record my thoughts about this city that was beginning to feel like home; before it got too hot. I mean Madras did give me a few things to cherish: it taught me to take pride in sporting a stache, its ghee-laden cuisine bestowed upon me my slight (in my imagination) potbelly that I’ll have to work off, and it gave me a rigorous training in reporting around a completely alien tongue that should hold me in good stead.

Chennai, the city of monochrome shirts and checked lungis, of filter kaapi and tiffin lunches, of clandestine lovers and cheap movie tickets, of Amma and Anna, of colonial splendour and ruined temples, of men with moustaches and plump women smelling of flowers.

I had a brief affair with Chennai, a sultry, sweaty affair that lasted exactly ten months. That was Saturday night, and this is

Chennai Streetside

Blowing Hot and Cool at you

Sunday morning and I find my mouth heavy with the aftertaste of masala dosai. Chennai is a regimental mistress and she (if cities were gendered, Delhi would be a belligerent male, Chennai a matronly female, and Bombay a sexy siren beckoning the unwashed to its shore) likes to wake you up with temple chants and a cup of freshly brewn coffee in one of its ubiquitous ‘Cool Bars’ – a uniquely Chennai institution for dehydrated daytime pedestrians – which also double up as “Hot Cafes” in the relatively cooler mornings.

Chennai trundles at a leisurely pace. Most of its inhabitants live with the full knowledge that the ravages of time have applied merely a cosmetic layer to its underlying edifice for the last couple of millenia. Being a history buff, I frequently and ardently wish I could make use of a time machine in various locations. Chennai, and Tamil Nadu in general, is one of the few places where I didn’t feel the need for one, one of the few places that hasn’t sold its soul to modernity, one of the few places I truly, and sometimes grudgingly, respect. In my imagination, the past of Tamil Nadu looks much like the present: people must be wearing the similar clothes, they must be speaking a less Sanskritized version of the same language, medieval Tamil society must have been as patriarchal as it is now. Not much has changed except that the state of Tamil Nadu is part of the construct of the Indian nation with a power base centred in an alien territory: Delhi.

Chennai is an early-morning city, unlike Delhi. The city wakes up at 5 every morning to clanging temple bells, a ruckus that competes furiously with the soothing guttural loudspeaker-enabled call of the muezzin. At the break of dawn, the first chaiwallah opens the shutters to his shop. Men in hurriedly rolled up lungis start pouring out of the woodwork on rickety bicycles for their daily dose of newspaper, coffee, and cigarettes. I don’t blame them, if there was a place in the world where I’d sincerely worship the sun, it’d be Chennai. And I’d want to be out of my house before He showed His face.

When I was new to the state of Tamil Nadu, it seemed like a fairly foreign country. People seemed loud, abrasive, and most frustratingly, completely incomprehensible. Eager to find ways to survive in the new city, I asked for advice from a couple of local friends from Kalpakkam, a nuclear reactor town 50 kms from Chennai. “When you’re in Chennai, there are two things you shouldn’t open your mouth too loud about,” they said. “Politics and Rajnikanth.” I stared agape at their street-smarts, wondering really hard if they were kidding. Eventually, I decided they weren’t.

They also regaled me with stories about Jeppiar, an unintentionally funny educationalist whose English language skills are the stuff of legend. Jeppiar also happens to run the regimental Satyabhama


Gender segregation rules don’t spare Jeppiar either

Engineering College, which has made the news for its militant gender segregation rules, where the price for a boy talking to another girl or vice-versa is expulsion, for both parties. Girls and boys have separate staircases (to prevent them from checking out each others’ asses I’m guessing), separate seating rows in classrooms and college buses. “Boy-boy talking okay, girl-girl talking okay, girl-boy talking not okay,” Jeppiar says in his inimitable style.

My preliminary prejudice regarding Chennai was that of it being an overwhelmingly vegetarian city. In my imagination, it was populated by men who – foreheads smeared with the typical three-fingered Shaivite mark of vibhuti (holy ash) – visit the temple every morning to prostate themselves elaborately before each and every deity in the temple complex. Imagine my surprise when I found out that one of the most popular street-side eating joints was a makeshift cart called ‘A-1 beef stall’ with innumerable dubious branches across the city. I was ready to be proven wrong. Bring it on Chennai, I thought.

I soon discovered that my prejudice arose from the common mistake of equating a Tamilian with a Tamil Brahmin or TamBrahm, who incidentally make up only 3% of the population of Tamil Nadu but command disproportionate influence in the state (Amma is also one of them) and among the national elite. The rest of the population is composed of ravenous meat-eaters who devour chicken, mutton, and beef like nobody’s business. To the extent that the most common lunch-stop is the Dindigul or any other “Biriyani” shop that sells chicken and mutton biryani at reasonable rates of Rs.60 a plate.

However, I wasn’t entirely wrong regarding the puritanical nature of Madrasis. My quintessential Chennai moment was when an evangelical Tamil Christian accosted an unsuspecting person at the local panwallah with an ardent plea for him to give up smoking, a plea that bordered on intimidation. “Your body is your temple-aa,” he said in a nasal Tamil twang, among other incomprehensible entreaties. He wasn’t convinced, as smokers often aren’t in the face of unassailable sense. Upon further inquiry it turned out that the young proselytiser was a student of medicine at the Madras Christian College who carried a copy of the Tamil Bible along with his physiology textbooks.

Chennai is an intensely conservative city. But this backward-looking is of a distinct nature considering there are hardly any right-wing elements within the city with any clout: a quiet assertion of cultural pride rather than the chest-thumping historical chauvinism of say, the Shiv Sena in Bombay which is derived from an irrational sense of ownership over Shivaji, the last great


Vaiko making one of his fiery speeches

Hindu king to unify India, well almost. There are certain aberrations such as Vaiko, a fiery ex-DMK leader who has carved a name for himself on the base of Tamil nationalism by founding the party MDMK. What makes the right-wing elements powerless and anti-migrant sentiment subdued within this city is the fact that the essential character of the city is unchanged. Apart from pockets of South Chennai where the mushrooming IT sector has attracted migrants, most of the city is still contently Tamilian. Those immigrants who settled here during the colonial era, comprising of the mercantile Marwaris and Parsis, have been assimilated into the culture seamlessly. It is conservative in the sense that is clings to the past but doesn’t impose it on others. It’s a city demands to be left alone to its ends.

(To be continued)