Chennai, down the line

Chennai, down the line

Tamarind city — where modern india begins
Bishwanath Ghosh
2012, pp 315

Chennai is an important city in India both geographically and politically. From commerce and trade to education and culture, the city seems to be the centre of South India. Perhaps that is the reason why the individual South Indian identities are submerged under the term madrasi (most often used in pejorative sense in the North).

Bishwanth Ghosh’s book Tamarind City — Where Modern India Begins tries to depict the saga of Chennai or Madras or Madrasapatnam or Chinapatnam from the year 1687 to 2011. Being a North Indian and also a journalist, Ghosh tends to compare Chennai with other metropolitan cities like Calcutta and Delhi.

The book is written on the assumption that modernity was ushered into India by the British. He seems to regret that though Chennai came under colonial rule much earlier, she did not enjoy the privileges that were accorded to Calcutta and Delhi.

The narrative is spun most fascinatingly. Its multi-directionality — from the present to past and again to the present — makes its reading exciting. An image of a ‘charming lady’ — “with a string of jasmine tied around her hair and too modest to talk about her” — called Chennai is created to narrate her encounters with Elihu Yale in 1687, with Robert Clive in 1744, and with Arthur Wellesley in 1797, but the narrative suddenly switches over to the first person authorial narrative of contemporary scene, where Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha hold the reigns of Tamil Nadu.

Similarly, the genealogies of people are traced (like that of Gemini Ganeshan, Ketty Bashyam), the offsprings are heard with reverence and patience, and their views are recorded for the benefit of the readers.

Though Ghosh seems to start with the history of Chennai, he is more interested in modern Chennai. He concentrates on the contemporary socio-cultural-economic issues of the people of Chennai. Ghosh is neither impartial nor objective. Sometimes, it reads like the sweet ramblings of a person who has fallen in love with the city. Over 35 people are interviewed over a period of time.

Those who are interviewed include tourist guides, musicians, a Dalit writer, a Yoga teacher, children of a yesteryear actor, a hotelier, Brahmin men and women, transgendered, old-age home residents, doctors, journalists, foreigners settled in Chennai, artists and so on and so forth — in some sense, this could be construed as a cross section of Chennai society. The tsunami which ravaged the lives of thousands living in Chennai is also recorded. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in Sriperumbudur and the fame that Chennai has acquired recently for its medical pilgrimage are also dealt with at length.

Ghosh recognises the passion of the people in Chennai — the intermixing of politics and cinema. But, quite interestingly, in a vibrant political milieu like that of Chennai, Ghosh has not interviewed any contemporary politician. Similarly, cinema, which is another passion of Chennai, is not taken into consideration — you do not have a single contemporary actor or actress or director or scriptwriter being interviewed, but for the passing references to Ilaiyaraaja or Kamal Hassan. Though it is the journalist’s prerogative to choose to interview whomever he wants, the value of the book would have been enhanced by incorporating a few of them. In fact, this is an open book — you can go on adding any number of interviews and increase the readability of it.

Sometimes, one wonders if Ghosh’s understanding of Tamil culture is rather very commonsensical — particularly when he speaks about the divide between Brahmins and Non-Brahmins, among Brahmins Vaishnavaites and Shaivaites, and among Vaishnavaites, Tengalai and Vadagalai, and so on.

His political statements are not borne out of any ideological understanding of the place. For instance, a statement like,“today, what unites Gandhi and Periyar is their near irrelevance in the very societies they once stirred,” is cynical rather than a statement that emerges out of any comprehension of the socio-political situations engineered on the masses. Similarly, the issues that he takes up when he talks about Carnatic music are naive.

If he takes a liking to someone like T M Krishnan, it is fine. But, making generalisations on Carnatic music after only one interview represents inexperience rather than any understanding of the nuances of the music of the land. In fact, there are innumerable senior Carnatic musicians in Chennai who would have given their views of the music. Somehow, Ghosh has not found a place for them.

Most importantly, Ghosh has not given a single instance that could make Chennai unique. Just change the names of people, places and a few events here and there, it becomes the story of any post-colonial South Indian city. The distinction that tradition and modernity are living together in perfect harmony is indeed a pan Indian feature and not in any way restricted to Chennai alone.

If one can be satisfied with the description of people of Chennai, this is an
excellent piece of writing. But, if one tends to ask why, there seems to be no answer.

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