INDIA TODAY/ Simply Chennai/ City
Rocking to a different beat
The city is different from all the other metros. This is its
strength and it is high time that the difference is celebrated.
It could be an apocryphal story but it isn`t. Two young men
were `time passing` in Spencer Plaza on Anna Salai (forever Mount Road to me), in the city of Chennai that will forever be Madras to me. One of the men
remarked to the other that every time an international rock group hit India, Madrasis
had to travel to neighbouring Bangalore to catch the show. ``Why da,`` he mourned.
His friend thought for a while, then pointed to a passer-by
and said simply and succinctly, “Because of him.” The man he was referring to
in this rather indiscreet manner was young, sported a caste mark on his noble
brow and wore shapeless trousers and a shirt that clashed horribly with the
aforementioned trousers. Try as you might, you somehow couldn’t visualise him
swaying to the sound of Joe Satriani’s guitar or jumping to Mick Jagger’s
The point is this: to repudiate that Madras is all about
young men with kuris
on their foreheads, maamis
in voluminous silk saris despite the sweltering weather, larger than life
billboards featuring not exactly lissome men and women in about-to-be-released
films, and rows of restaurants advertising ‘pure vegetarian’ fare, would be to
repudiate the very essence of Madras. The point is also this: Madras has more
to it than hidebound tradition. It has pubs and tapas bars, rock concerts on
Saturday nights, and theatre groups active all year long. It is not a
comfortable fit but there you go.
I’ve done Delhi, I’ve done Mumbai, I was once and will be a
future resident of Bangalore. And I will admit that Madras flags in comparison
to most of the country’s metros and definitely so, when compared to the
Garden-turned-IT-City next door. It`s not the climate, as some will have it;
Mumbai has equally steamy weather for a large part of the year. It`s not the
roads or the traffic, bad as both are in Madras; the traffic in Bangalore, with
neither the zombie orderliness of Mumbai or the good roads of Delhi, have to be
traversed to be believed. It could be the perennial water problem, though I
have been in belts of small town India where water is a story best left untold.
So what puts Madras at Stand Two? It could be that modern
will always play second fiddle to tradition here. It could be that the city has
just one shopping mall worth its name. it could be that the hippest of
happening PYTs and supposedly dashing young men, incumbents of an as-yet non-existent
Page Three, all look mere wannabes when you compare them with their counterparts
further north, just as the adverts seen around the city are horribly gauche and
the models in them still belong in the hillbilly category. It could be that
the few watering holes, as indeed the restaurants serving Mediterranean fare in
the city, are frequented more by the moneyed than the connoisseur.
It could also be that an astounding 82% of people here do
not eat ready-to-eat packaged meals. Indeed, it could well be because Madras
downs its shutters by nine
PM… it always did and will also do so.
The very air in the city is conservative; there is no
getting around that. Pretty much all of Madras is populated by Rules
Ramanajums - prototypes of the staid character played by Vikram in the superhit
film Anniyan. No one seems to want to
break the mould in terms of dress, food or behavior. Madras, thus, exists in a
And that, to me, is Madras’s strength. It has a comfort zone
seen in very few cities in India, leave alone the world. You don’t even need to
go scouting this comfort zone, it envelopes you in its pattu folds the moment you become a part of the city.
It’s a large, invincible
zone, comprising its friendly denizens, its many temples with colourful gopurams,
the bantering sundal sellers on Eliot’s beach. Marghazi, the winter season of
music and dance, the plethora of jewelry shops, Pondi bazaar which is
definitely not Madras’s answer to Mumbai’s Fashion Street, the Saravana Bhavan chain
of eateries with its mouth watering (vegetarian) fare, all fall in this comfort
zone. The art galleries, the ubiquitous posters and cut-outs of the
CM-with-the-marvelous-complexion, the ever slicker Tamil films that roll off
the production line, the dhapaankuthu or
street dance that follows the one-two beat… all of this falls in the zone, too.
For all the condescension of the outsider, Madras has got
much going for it. A recent India Today
poll put Madras near the top in the Best Cities to Live In, Law and Order,
Primary Health and Agriculture categories. Madras has AR Rahman, Madras has the
Asian College of Journalism. Madras has The
Hindu, a newspaper that does not talk down to its readers. Madras has the
veteran theatre group, the Madras Players, worth their weight in gold. It has
the Cholamandal artist’s commune, the gorgeous Museum Theatre.
So, okay, its not as if I don’t sometimes hanker to see one
of the new feature films in the
beyond-plush PVR cinema. It
isn’t as if I don’t wince when I meet with blank stares while asking for some specialty
bread or blue-veined cheese. It isn’t as if I don’t yearn to call up some
female friends and go pub-crawling. It isn’t as if sometimes, most times, if I
am honest, my overheated skin doesn’t crave the touch of real winter.
Bu the cravings pass. And as I drive down the autobahn- like East
Coast Road, I catch a glimpse of a striking bone structure tautly covered by
skin the colour of cappuccino in the car alongside. Elsewhere, I breathe in the
fragrance of mullapoo (jasmine) in someone’s hair. I hear the mellifluous voice
of the incomparable MS Subbulakshmi over some loudspeaker. And I am back in the
I’m doing okay in Madras, thank you. In fact, Madras is
doing very well, thank you.
2013 disclaimer: So, this was written eight years ago, and Madras has changed, as change it must. However, its comfort zone heart remains the same, thanks be.