Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

What Madras taught me about going home

We do not know what we are when we are global, we have a better grasp over ourselves when we see ourselves as creations of what our hometowns taught us to love and hate

The cricket icon Krishnamachari Srikkanth reached into his shirt for the sacred thread and did not find it for a moment. Upon finding it he showed it to the strangers in the room and said that he is proud to be a Hindu. He said he is a “Hindu guy, Hindutva guy". And he said, “This is a Hindu country." In the authors’ lounge at The Hindu’s literature festival last week, he was having an informal conversation after learning the topic of an impending panel discussion—“Why is India’s secular nationalism under attack?". “This is Hindustan," he said, “This is Hindustan. We are only letting Muslims and Christians live with us."

I was surprised but the reason is not what you probably have in mind. I have never heard a Tamilian say “Hindustan" before. The rest of what he said did not bother me. My first two decades were in Chennai and I am accustomed to people speaking their minds and when they are at it, pulling their poonal (sacred thread) out, and even groping for it first. Usually they say things with no malice.

It was inevitable that something about science will follow. “I can scientifically prove in 15 minutes that India is a Hindu country," he said.

“All right," I said.

“I can prove it in 5 minutes actually," he said, gathering his thoughts. Then he said, “Or at least you will not be able to scientifically disprove it." The scientific proof never came.

I was home. My childhood was filled with such moments. Even nationalism never seemed morbid when you heard it in Chennai. It is more comic lament than threat. And I love how even in its most stupid moments the city will invoke science. It is never some sacred book, or a quote, in Chennai it is usually science. “I will scientifically prove that…" There is a long list of things that can fill the blanks, and they are a parallel emotional history of the great loveable city.

Do we love only what is good and what is excellent? When we are asked why we love what we love we search for great reasons. Maybe that is not necessary. When I left Madras (now Chennai) in 1995, through its giant railway station, I was fleeing a dirty parched chaotic corrupt ugly nepotistic city for better prospects and hopefully sexual decadence, and since then refused to accept that I had any love for a mere place just because I spent the first 20 years of my life there. People who spoke with great affection about their unremarkable hometowns, I thought, were only exhibiting the delirium of narcissism. But I am now developing an affection for Chennai as the allure of homelessness is fading. What is so wrong to belong to a place? I always thought something was wrong with that sort of thinking. I thought we can never be free if we belong. But that is a tiring sort of existence.

The modern urban Indian is a cultural orphan, as a result he keeps finding false homes. In ideologies, faiths, moral convictions and cosy clubs and foreign cultures that do not care about him. Maybe we should just fall towards our real homes, the places that raised us. What the hometown has is time, our epic early histories. We love nothing more than ourselves and what we see in the hometown is ourselves.

People tell me that Chennai has changed a lot since the time I left it but I see mostly the same city. Men do not bounce on their dowry scooters to kick-start them, but I can still steal from my novel that was set in the Madras of the 1990s to describe the Chennai of today. In the mornings, in the TamBrahm colony where I grew up, as in many other lanes, there is still the fragrance of the same paradisiacal breakfasts, and the chant of Carnatic singer M.S. Subbulakshmi from a thousand devices. Cycling to some tutorial is still the same type of a young man—antiquated, a thick steel watch on the wrist, oiled hair combed in the good-boy hairstyle, and looking like the past of an old man.

Actor Rajinikanth has been gentrified, which is where his cinematic destruction lies, but he is still a public mascot of the city. The hoarding painters still paint his face pink instead of black. Hysteria is still a dialect of Tamil.

The Chennai of my time is in turn an ancient way of the world. My new affection for my roots is, apart from narcissism, a result of a fatigue with a kind of modernity that requires you to be homeless. When you are homeless you are perpetually in the sway of dominant cultures, and I am sick of both the north Indian and Western ways. To be modern now is, at times, beginning to feel clownish. Also, the idea of “global" is clearly more farcical than liberal. “Global" is a quality that exists only in relation to the West; “global" is what white people call that part of human culture that is distant and exotic but still comprehensible to them. This we know from “global literature", “global cinema", “global food" and other such inanities.

We do not know what we are when we are global, we have a better grasp over ourselves when we see ourselves at home, as creations of what our hometowns taught us to love and hate, accept and reject. What may have Madras taught me? That melodrama is not a form of mediocrity. That an actor knows acting only if he can cry and laugh at the same time, everyone else is just making faces. That ultimately how you fight colonizers is not flinging grenades at them but by persisting with your traditions and tiring them out. That we should be secretive about important things. That at any given moment in the world, someone is a Brahmin, someone is not, and what the Brahmin loves is always called culture, and what the others love is called folk.

I had once renounced the idea of home because I thought I had no use of it. It was an unfair place for a person with no social networks and I had prospered outside it. Also, I thought being attached to my hometown will make me a petty village romantic who confused self-absorption with heritage and conservation. But then, it now appears that I was never really too far from home. As the 18th century German writer Novalis wrote, “Where are we really going? Always home."

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

He tweets at @manujosephsan

Close