What can I tell you about my beloved Chennai? People from other metros will argue that Chennai has little to recommend it. They complain about the heat and the orthodoxy. They complain about the nightlife or lack thereof. They complain about wily, rude autorickshaw drivers who fleece unsuspecting tourists. Yes, I know.
Generation Y: Chennai’s women no longer wear Tamil culture on their sleeves. Laxman / Mint
But what can I tell you in defence? Abnormal as it seems, I am happiest in Chennai. This irrational love that most of us have for one place has mostly to do with childhood. I know several people—my husband included—who have no ties to any one city, having grown up in several. My friend, Arun, for instance, who now lives in Berlin, can objectively take Indian cities apart, sifting them into pros and cons that say everything but mean nothing. Mumbai for enterprise, Delhi for power, Kolkata for Bongs who aspire only to get to Kolkata, Bangalore for the weather and entrepreneurship and Chennai for its culture. All true, but it does little to capture the essence of this coastal city that welcomed St Thomas and does the jalsa (illicit gratification, for example, liquor) and jilpa (gratuitous holding forth on topics that one knows nothing about), as blogger Krish Ashok says.
Chennai is waking up at 4am to have lunch at 7. It is going to tiny Murphy Electronics in Adyar and having the proprietor dig out from the dark recesses every gadget and gizmo that you never thought to have. It is drinking “Kumbakonam degree coffee” at, well, Kumbakonam Degree Coffee in Anna Nagar. It is eating chop suey and hakka noodles at Waldorf with the IIT guy you have a crush on. It is watching grizzled old men cover themselves in monkey caps when the temperature drops from unbelievable to bearable. It is watching pretty maidens with turmeric yellow faces and dripping wet hair walk to the temples in the month that is called Margazhi in Tamil. It is describing yourself as a “thayir saadam” (curd rice) or a “Mylapore girl” and knowing instantly what it means; about every nuance of that person. It is knowing that music connoisseurs go to Mylapore Fine Arts or the Triplicane Academy during the December season, while the people who want to see and be seen go to the Music Academy.
Also Read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
Chennai is Grand Sweets, Ambika Appalam and Saravana Bhavan. It is the pleasure of speaking in Tamil using a shorthand that only other Chennai-ites will understand and relish: swear words such as savu cracki, or the disdainful “veetila sollittu vandirukaya?”, which is what an auto driver will yell when you cut him off, causing him to nearly bang into you. Your fault, lady. Have you told people at home (that you are going to die)? That’s what it means but like most translations, this does little to capture the pithy essence of that insult.
Change comes slowly to Chennai. Go there today, and you will still see the vendors on the beach selling “thenga, manga, pattani, sundal” or coconut, mango, and a variety of fried lentils. Couples still sit in the moonlight at Elliot’s Beach, looking around furtively for known faces. Mamis (matrons) still duck into Nalli’s or G.R. Thanga Maligai (GRT) for silk saris and gold, respectively, and haggle hard for the “compliment” or a Rs5 purse that is given free after they spend a few lakhs. The free purse seems to give them more pleasure than their purchases. Chennai is going to Pondy Bazaar and finding everything except your mother and father. It is parties where people still quote the “Manjal Araithayaa” speech from the Tamil movie Veera Pandiya Katta Bhomman after sufficient quantities of liquor have been quaffed. It is eating spongy idlis at Murugan Idli Shop and wondering if ordering every type of dosa on the menu is gluttony or good taste. It is the scent of jasmine at sunset.
Chennai is steeped in Tamil culture. “No ifs, ands and buts about it”, as a Madrasi would say, and no, please don’t use that word to describe anyone south of the Vindhyas. M.S. Subbulakshmi epitomized what, for many women, is Tamil culture. She was deferential to her husband who managed all her affairs; almost childlike in her simplicity; had regular oil baths and then scented her hair with sambrani (a type of incense for sweet-smelling hair); circled the tulsi plant for the well-being of her family; and inspired thoughts of the divine.
Today’s Chennai is edgier, sexier, grittier. Radio announcers (many of them female) regale listeners with a snappy Tamil that is equal parts slang and slander. Girls in Chennai no longer wear salwar kameez like I used to. They ride motorbikes in tight jeans and halter tops. Few oil their hair but many still wear the bindi. They prefer lattes to filter coffee and pizzas to pongal. And you know what? That’s fine. Because Chennai hasn’t lost its essence. The same babe who speaks in Tanglish (Tamil-English) will go home and address her grandmother as “Paati”. The same boy who sports spiky hair and sunglasses will submit to a Ganga Snanam with loads of hot sesame oil come Deepavali day.
Chennai—my Chennai, the city that I love—still exists. You just need to know where to find it. Come with me. I’ll show you.
When in Chennai, Shoba Narayan dines at Karpagambal Mess in Mylapore and Beyond Indus at the Taj Mount Road. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org