My fast of not reading books since long was broken by the above book which is a first hand account on Chennai by Bishwanath Ghosh (He is also the deputy editor of the national daily The Hindu). I was a regular reader of his writings in the Column width of Saturday's Metro plus pullout and could relate to most of his nostalgic stories, since we belong to the same era. His experiences,observations, travels and research on Chennai as a 11 year old resident of this city has been chronicled in this book.
What drew me to this book was my love for this city where I was born. And like me he is a third culture Indian and so was really curious to know how a Kanpur bred Bengali and now a Chennaite of 11 years perceived the city.He has researched his subject well and visited many places around Chennai and met many people first hand to compile this book.
The author traces the history of Madras aka Chennai and find its roots in Fort St. George. According to the book, Fort St. George is where modern India began, almost every Institution in India from the army to the judiciary, from medicine to engineering has had its origin here.
Like every other modern institution he chronicles, even Indian railways originated in Madras in the sense that Madras Railway company was formed way back in 1845, when the first ever train ride in india, from Bombay to Thane had not even been thought of. But only the Great Indian Peninsula company set up much later beat Madras by opening the Bombay Thane line in 1853. Since the original structures of Bombay and thane stations no longer exist. Royapuram station, declared open in 1856 is today the oldest railway station in the entire subcontinent.
Not just Modern India.....
Even the seeds of Yale University were sown by the nine bales of exquisite Indian textiles, Elihu Yale shipped from Madras and which were then auctioned to raise the amount for the financial assistance of the University.
This traditional city which has now married technology and being dubbed as India’s Detroit was home to Robert Clive, Wellesley, Warren Hastings and ofcourse Elihu Yale.
He travels to the nooks and corners of Chennai’s two important suburbs Triplicane and Mylapore and likens them to Britain and France. And I thoroughly enjoyed travelling through these paragraphs since Mylapore is my birth place, my playground and campsite during my summer and Dussehra vacation(My grand parents home). Still there is more to Mylapore than what he was written but this book I know is not just about Mylapore. Like him, I too as a child have seen many foreigners awe at the Kapali Koil and camcording the history of the place and shooting the colorful exquisitely crafted temple tower. But the author has missed about the “Mylapore festival” which is one of its kind in the world or may be the kolam fest he has mentioned in the book must be related to this.
The book kindled so many memories of my own.The author’s father getting him toys from Moore market reminded me of my own dad getting me unique postal stamps for my philately collection and beautiful colored fishes for our aquarium from Moore market whenever he visited Madras. This big market where you could source from a pin to a machine was destroyed in a mysterious fire accident in the mid 80's.
Every issue and crosssection of life like Social, cultural, political, religious, wellness, medical,civic has been sourced and detailed meticulously with interviews from the citizens of Madras. After reading this book, perhaps my north Indian, Andhraite and kannadiga friends may never ask me why we Tambrahms never have a surname like them and instead tag our husband or father’s name.
The endearing part of the book was the place where the author meets the editor of his favorite childhood magazine Chandamama to whom he had written as a nine year old boy but never got a reply from the editor then.
Patricia's story was inspiring. The woman who married a drug addict and disowned by her family. She owned a kiosk on the shores of Marina once upon a time and now runs a big restaurant called Sandeepha and caters to the needs of many MNC’s. The shores of Marina – the world’s second longest beach(?) is indeed an inspiration for many writers, actor, poets and entrepreneursa and of course fitness freaks.
Like Murugesan street of T.nagar where the author lives, every road and street is built over history and the city bears the foot prints of historical greats whom we keep reading in our school texts. The best illustration of this is when the author says after 11 years, he found that he stays in an apartment which was built after razing an independant house called Sundar Niketan- the residence of Krishnaswamy Sundarji who later went on to become the army chief. Similarly, about the Army personnel working from the room of Robert Clive , he says their children might be reading Clive in their history texts, but would never know that their fathers worked from the same room as Clive's.
I also found some portions of the book a drag and irrelevant especially the place where it has a detailed account on Gemini Ganesan and Saroja Devi. Films are a part of tamil culture alright, but such long chapters exclusively on them alone does not define Madras Talkies.
Also the author says “ Death by fire (as in immolation) seems to be the norm in Tamil culture” – I would have contested these lines but he has immediately thereafter added particularly in the case of poor women and sometimes to display their love for their leaders like MGR etc.,. So there, not tamil culture but a cross section of people like in other cities too. It happened during Mandal commission in Delhi or any revolutionary movement like the Telangana movement.
But why no grand mention about The rippon building, ice house, The theosophical society, Kalakshetra, Valluvar Kottam, Mahabalipuram - all these buildings and monuments would speak volumes about the madras culture. Apart from the unparalled music event in December, It has an active Tamil and English theatre group too.
And no mention about Taramani Tidel park, Mahindra city which are part of the neon drenched Chennai instead it is compensated with the development of Sriperumbudur and other areas like Oragadam. And there is more to Madras Cuisine than Ratna Café Sambar. The adais. idiappams, paniyarams, Keerai vadai's, thattai’s, murukkus and the signature sweet Aavin’s ‘Palkova’and the little café kiosks which serve the frothy kaapi in davara tumbler(cup and saucer).
But this beautiful city where traditions coexist with modernity and which is also slightly ahead of its times by addressing and accepting the transgender community cannot be contained in 315 pages.
Perhaps, we can expect part 2 from him if he continues to stay there.
This book would make a gentle and light read for anybody who loves History and wants to know Chennai aka Madras history and culture. Bishwanath ghosh calls it Tamarind city because as a kid when he travelled to this city he found many tamarind trees in the city and tamarind is an ingredient in most Tamil cuisine and his mom who stayed in Madras during her early days, often made Tamarind rice. So, there the tamarind connection.
I call this city Thoonga nagram. A city which never sleeps, even much before BPO’s came .
Incidentally, Madras( I like the colonial name) celebrates its birthday on August 22nd. For more info go here.
Tamarind city – Where modern India began
Author: Bishwanath Ghosh