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Cities of India- Chalo Chennai

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August 2002
Cities of India- Chalo  Chennai

Once upon a time a little fishing village, Chennaipattinam, was gifted by an Indian king to foreign merchants. The year was 1639 AD and the royal was the last of the Vijayanagara rulers, the Raja of Chandragiri. The merchants were from the then little known East India Company and the kuppam (commune) was what we now call Chennai.

This is just a part of a long and mostly forgotten story. By 1644 the small Fort St George had been built and a George Town was beginning to come up around it in the first British settlement in India. It was also the country?s oldest municipal corporation, based on a charter issued by James II in 1688.

Like the tides that lashed its long beaches, Chennai grew and diminished with the changing fortunes of the British Empire. Though briefly occupied by the French and the Portuguese, Clive of India?s strategic military seaport went on to become the Madras Presidency, one of the four critical divisions of British Imperial India. From Chennaipattinam to Madras and then to back Chennai, life seems to have come full circle for a city that is sprinting towards the future with one foot firmly in the past. .

Madras Musings

?This place drives me crazy. It is just too formal and conservative. All ?Saars? (Sirs) and ?Madams?, dead quiet, nothing ever seems to get done here. In Bombay, if you are looking for some hired help and pass the word around, you have four guys knocking at your door before you can say ?excuse me?. Here, you?ll be lucky if you get the job done. The city seems to go to sleep at nine in the night. Try catching a bus after dinner out and you?ll know what I mean. And then there is the weather. There is too little water and too much sweat!? - Avinash Nathan, third year Engineering College student.

?When I travel up North, I find that everybody has the habit of clubbing the whole of the South as Madrasi. It used to irritate me that people cannot be bothered to find out how many different subcultures exist here. Southern simplicity is not a myth. Still waters run deep and all that. Why, I take pride in it. If we are conservative it is in our appearance and behavior, not in our thoughts and ideas. I am at home here. I can be whatever I want to be. I am not judged by the way I look or the manner in which I speak. I don?t feel the overwhelming urge to throw a great attitude or make a good impression.? - Shubha Krishna, teacher at an alternative school.

Like other Indian cities Chennai can inspire anger and affection in equal measure. You can love it or hate it ? but indifference? A visitor is either piqued or bemused by Chennai. Throw in few bottlenecks, some fascination, a lilting melody here and a little shock there, and you will have a wholesome chutney of unexpected flavors.

Vannakkam! (Welcome!)

The average Chennaite is a study in contrasts as rich as the ones you will find on her favorite Kanjeevaram or his dearly beloved maillkann veshti (dhoti with striking borders). She will dress in a salwar but remain partial to her pottu (bindi) and mallipoo (the fragrant jasmine from Madurai available at every street corner). He may be a marketing whiz but is just as adept at figuring out a Carnatic raagam the moment its first note is launched.

The Tamil month which precedes the rich harvest of Pongal has everyone feeling generous and blessed. Early in the misty mornings, walking to one of the centuries old temples which pre-date the coming of the British, you will find their stone-carved precincts steeped in the lilting melodies of the Thirukural (songs in praise of the boy-god Muruga). Stay on for some piping hot Sakkarai Pongal prasadam (the jaggery sweetened moong and rice offering to the Gods). Stop by one of the wayside canteens for a little tumbler of the real thing - genuine filter coffee topped with frothing fresh milk. Get set for the day ahead.

The temperature rises by degrees and summer is around the corner. Everybody expects this but can never really be prepared for it. The sweltering heat sweeps through the concrete city, setting it aflame without a fire in sight. The water crisis begins with the taps fizzling out. As the queues lengthen and the tankers cause more accidents, nongus (melt-in-the mouth pine nuts), tender coconuts and luscious mangoes save the blistering day. Says Radha Natarajan, a harassed mother of two, ?There are only three seasons in Chennai - hot, hotter and hottest.?

The months move on and suddenly spring is in the air. The northeasterly winds bring relief in spurts and drizzles, replenishing the depleting ground water tables and bringing joy to the growing Rain Water Harvesting movement. By December the ?season? has begun. The magic of Markazhi, the auspicious Tamil month which stretches from mid-December to mid-January, casts its spell across the city; and with it comes the annual Madras Festival of Classical Music and Dance. Music and melody become Madras. Over 2,000 concerts or kutcheris are organized by the scores of sabhas or cultural organizations, mentors to the Carnatic traditions. The best artistes in Carnatic music and dance vie for the honors in celebrations which engulf the city.

Popular as the Madras Festival is, it is the ?other? spring festival that precedes the official month long celebration of dance and music. This one is a week-long fiesta of alternative creative expression from across the world - a brainchild of dance exponent Anita Ratnam and businessman Ranvir Shah.

Chennai is also home to many low profile institutions with strong traditions. At Kalakshetra students continue to learn dance in the best gurukulam ethos with founder Rukmini Devi Arundale?s principles still governing the pioneering school. Brhaddhvani, the Music Academy?s archives and Sampradaya, on the other hand, are resource centers on music, quite like the Madras Craft Foundation is for South Indian cultural heritage. Paradoxically, Chennai?s heritage conservation movement itself has never been very active.���

If buildings in Chennai are relatively immaculate, it is only because the lack of rain keeps them so. Chennai?s Marina was once the city?s sparkling pride, and even now manages a muted glow from beneath the encroachment and littering. The second longest beach in the world, it is as much home to early bird walkers as it is to chili pepper bajjiwalas. Walk by the distinguished Fort St. George campus where early Christian and Portuguese influences still lend diverse character to the city?s topography. Mylapore, that bustling old heart of the city hosts another short event with a big heart. Over two days, scores of women turn the car street of the ancient Kapaleeshwarar Temple into the canvas for a kolam (traditional rice patterns drawn at entrances to Southern houses) competition with kummi, poi kaal kudharai and karagattam (folk dance) performances providing the backdrop.���

At last year?s naval parade, at the stroke of sunset, ships lining the beach front lit up beautifully. Silhouettes of light against a fading horizon, they sent up flares and stood still so the city could catch its breath. Like so much else about the evening, it was all about nostalgia and patriotism, motivation and fraternity. As the armed forces fight a war against falling recruitment figures and budget allocations, Chennai showed it cared.���People kept moving forward to get a closer look. They applauded, they waved and they cheered the soldiers. After all, it isn?t every day that we find real heroes to clap for.

Churlish Chennai

On the other hand, one doesn?t have to wait for April to celebrate All Fool?s Day in Chennai -- you can experience being made into one any time of the year. With all its history and culture, it is also the best place to come to for other reasons -- a crash course in developing a psychological armor. Modern survival skills require a tough exterior. The best place to learn is in Chennai, where the lessons come for free and are provided even when one doesn?t ask for them.

There are many subplots worth choosing from, for vituperative verbal abuse pours forth unprovoked at markets, amidst parking lots, on public transport, in rush hour traffic, near public utilities, by the water lines and even in places where you least expect it -- like the air-conditioned comfort of an up market store organizing a popular sale which has formidable looking women squabble over the choicest silks.

In buses you are lucky to land a seat at all -- often the presence of a handkerchief or bag or an extended limb ?reserves? a vacated slot even before your befuddled mind has the time to register the vacancy. Women carrying children or the obviously elderly get no concessions in conditions where the fittest have trouble surviving -- be it on the packed suburban locals or on the city buses. In the suburban trains, ticketless vendors who sell everything from pins to pomegranates actually demand you shift in your seat so they may park their bottoms and bags there as they conduct their business.

Not to be outdone are the amazing autowallahs. They have been variously described as rude and ridiculous as they quote astronomical amounts for indefinite distances, opting to stand idle rather than carry the janata for a fair fare. One sunny young chap who probably wasn?t a day over eighteen told this writer his ways were insignificant compared to the shenanigans of the powers-that-be who specialized in periya kollai (big robbery).

Rude repartee is a tradition successfully emulated by the vegetable vendors, flower sellers, pavement shops, household help, milkmen, contract labor, school van drivers, conductors and such other innumerable sorts whose razor sharp tongue holds you responsible for all the ills which assail their life. Come to think of it, Chennians have a very natural excuse for all this aggressive behavior -- we can always blame it on the weather.

Distrust looms large as maids are all presumed guilty and never proven innocent -- housewives hover as they clean the rooms, using the opportunity to indulge in some friendly neighborhood gossip. One branch of a self-help supermarket in my locality has a surfeit of salesgirls whose job is to linger indiscreetly and ensure I help my self in a legal fashion only. Like in chess, social moves are planned much in advance and manipulation elevated to a subtle art. Offense is easily taken and courtesy rarely returned.

Conclusively yours

Chennai is ever expanding, a city which spreads out reluctantly into suburbia. High-rises are relatively recent as the pressure on the land pushes real estate upwards. For a long drive full of local sights, George Town and Parry?s Corner could be the right beginning. Leaving behind the wholesale markets of Flower Bazaar, the rickety old pockets of Triplicane and the ceaseless congestion of Perambur, accelerate by the plazas lining Egmore to coast down to the business district around Gemini Flyover, the city?s oldest and still most sensible bit of traffic management. Here lies ?the most expensive piece of real estate in South India? as the Nugambakkam High Road?s Ispahani Centre has often been described. Kodambakkam is nearby, centre of the film industry. It still belts out Rajni blockbusters and Rahman hits with an energy that can only come from high hopes.

Old worldly Mylapore, Alwarpet, Raja Annamalaipuram and Thyagaraya Nagar jostle to retain their centralized charms but the heritage homes have almost totally given way to the onslaught of matchbox apartments, shopping complexes, commercial centers and meager parking lots. Add to that the eclectic range of restaurants, art galleries, theater, poetry and reading circles, multiplexes, lifestyle stores, bowling alleys, discos and coffee pubs -- what isn?t on that list is probably getting added on even as this is being written.

A quiet entrant to the software bandwagon, the city is slowly being recognized as a topnotch alternative to Hyderabad and Bangalore with its Taramani IT corridor the new destination of white-collar yuppies. The old industries centered around automobiles and spare parts have continued to attract new players with Hyundai and Ford setting up their India operations here.

Chennai?s cosmopolitan side does not set its trends or demand obeisance - it just goes about its business. And what a thriving business it is. As Maya Rao, a correspondent for a newspaper puts it, 'If we started a Page 3, we wouldn?t have anything to fill it with. The celebrities and hip party crowds - and they are very much there - wear their low profile like designer second skin. That is very much Chennai - cosmopolitanism and all.' Southwards still come the beach hugging localities, much loved for their cultural consciousness and sunset sea winds. The city stretches and pulls, like a tug of war in which the pressure is never let up, only the players keep piling on.

Retailing is the hottest new trend in Chennai -- a city that is consistently defying its classically conservative categorization. The market is there. And its pitfalls and problems notwithstanding, a great many players are finding this is the perfect place to sell not just clothes or cosmetics but ideas. There are grocery chains, there are chains selling white goods and there are the newest kids in the flock, the lifestyle stores. They have invested huge sums of money on the results of sketchy market research and upbeat gut instinct.

Most of them hedge questions about money and profitability but have every intention of hanging in there . They face finicky buyers who understand VFM. As A.N.Ramesh puts it, ?I go shopping looking for the best deal -- and that includes the ambience and the price.? Does he have any brand favorites? Not really. ?Whoever gives me the best deal,? he repeats. And for a change, there are a whole lot of sellers listening.

They say Chennai is a conservative place with hardly any nightlife to speak of. They could be right. In a city which has too much to do, a nightclub or two (or three) is easily overlooked. Here is a metropolis which loves its filter coffee as much as the many popular pubs which sell the very same brew. If Chennai appears too chivalrous, Madras is entirely in the mind.


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