A wonderful insight into Madras

Name of the book
Madras Chennai and the Self Conversations with the City
Pan Macmillan India
Rs 299/-
Buy the book for personal library

Visited the recent World Book Fair in Delhi with a resolve not to buy a book. Idea was to have the feel of books around, see their new designs and subjects, smell freshly printed volumes, watch the joy on the faces of proud young book buyers and so on. The reason for the resolve was that many of the books which I had picked up in the last year’s fair, had not been completed by me even once, let alone do the second round of reading.

But this little book was instrumental in breaking my resolve the first, among many others later. ‘Madras’ drew my instant attention from the heap of some competing wonderful titles simply because I have not been to this city more than once and always wanted to read more about it. Then Jallikattu was also weighing on my mind. Another reason was that having introduced two books on Bengaluru and Delhi to readers of Urban Update in earlier issues, temptation to pick up another city-centric book was too much to resist. Both the earlier books were completely different in their content and style while still telling a lot about the respective cities of Bengaluru and New Delhi. ‘Madras’ is more of a literary fare and engages its readers, through small chapters, in a very absorbing manner. But it’s not fiction; the stories the author tells you, give a complete idea of the city’s past and present. It is a positive book and does not really bother you with typical urban issues of traffic snarls, water scarcity, encroachments and growing vehicular population. In a way, a slight relief!

Of late, newer and newer authors like him are writing about cities in a very gripping manner and with refreshing styles. They don’t just pen dry history and tell you about the geography of a city but introduce the city’s varied cultural, social, culinary, environmental and educational aspects. Tulsi Badrinath, a novelist, is among them. He has written this book as if he is talking to you while taking you along the avenues and streets of the Tamil Nadu Capital that has the Bay of Bengal as its immediate neighbour.

Madras which became Chennai officially in 1996 has always been known for its traditions, religion, culture and love for cricket. Remember the historic Chepauk stadium which hosted so many Test matches and Ranji games? Well, the city celebrated its 375th birthday in 2014, 10 years after it was hit by the worst tsunami. Yet, The New York Times included the city in its list of 52 places to visit in 2014 and Lonely Planet listed it as one of ten best cities to visit in 2015. Many consider it as India’s first modern city which is close to 400 years old with well written records available.

If Chennai is known as the ‘Detroit of India’, thanks to the dominant presence of auto giants like Hyundai, Caterpillar or Ford, it is also known as a major centre for Bharatanatyam, the classical Indian dance form. In between the two, this coastal city offers many other things to its citizens, most of whom love it madly.

Just before India achieved its independence there were three major presidencies in the country run by the Britishers. Madras was one of them. Bombay and Calcutta being the two other. Madras had a head start of almost fifty years over Calcutta in terms of its pre-eminence in East India Company’s affairs. Gradually Calcutta became the centre of its expanding ambitions in the Indian subcontinent and in 1772, Calcutta became the capital of British India and Madras was left to grow at its own pace. After Independence, various parts of Madras Presidency were allocated to other states and Madras became the capital of the new state of Tamil Nadu.

As per the author, Madras and Chennai came into existence almost simultaneously in 1639, as two contiguous areas. While Madras went on to lend its name to the larger southern peninsula or Madras Presidency, it also absorbed Chennai into its fold as it grew. Debate over the origins of the words Madras and Chennai continues even today. Modern people call it Chennai and those more traditional refer to it as Madras-both are twin names of the same settlement which was first discovered by Britishers. When Francis Day stepped on a sandy strip of land on Coromandel Coast nearly four centuries ago, it was not only an exploratory step on behalf of a trading company but a giant stride into the future of imperial Britain.

Author Badrinath intermittently gives accounts of changing facade of the city with beautiful large two storeyed bungalows of the rich, giving way to malls and shopping arcades and gardens slowly disappearing. He also rues rather lightly, the shutting down of some libraries and book shops in the old city.

Madras has had the unique influence of the British, the Portuguese and the French. San Thome, a big area of Madras near river Adyar was under the Portuguese but by 1662 it was in the possession of the Sultan of Golconda and then under British control in 1749, but not before they fought the French.

While talking to some of the prominent people of the city, author Badrinath creates a layered image of Chennai by sifting through her memories, and by narrating the stories of those who call it home-the current Prince of Arcot, Dalit writer & activist P Sivakami, superstar Vikram and Karate expert K Seshadri, among others.

The book also takes the reader through the fine beaches along the Bay of Bengal, Fort St George, a variety of trees of the city, mainly coconut, jasmine stalls, cricket fever, classical music and dance, as also a peep into political movements.

There is a mention of how the great Pandit Ravi Shankar played past midnight in 1960, to the capacity crowd at the Music Academy “in staid old Madras where everyone went to bed by 9 pm”. Weaving stories with the help of local prominent people, the author has helped paint a beautiful picture of this quaint city, with its old architecture, beautiful churches all of which to the north and central India may not make much but it means a lot to the entire long stretch of south India having five important states. Carnatic music and cricket are passions of the city, says the author and talks about the 164-year
old Madras Cricket Club which later became Madras United Club.

The book talks of films stars and politicians from MG Ramchandran, Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha (who passed away in December) and Khushboo, Rajanikanth and Kamal Haasan only to provide you different facets of the city, just like Mumbai which can’t be complete without the Bollywood stars.

Indeed, after the death of Jayalalitha Tamil politics drew the attention of entire India as also after several days’ protests over the bull taming game’s ban by the Supreme Court, Madras was the focal centre for all.

Reading this book gives you a real different feeling about the massive metropolis, its rich cultural tradition and so on. For those who have been to the city or read about it, this book reintroduces Madras and Chennai in a very friendly manner and for those who want to know about the city, it provides some answers and leaves a lot to be experienced through a sojourn in Madras. I mean upon reading this tiny book, sans any photos, you would think of a visit to Chennai.