Every time I hit the departure lounge of Meenambakkam airport, Madras (can’t say ‘Chennai’ yet), my heart and mind scream “No! Don’wanna’go!” Mind, I absolutely adore Delhi, my janambhumi-karambhumi. My shoulders are in permanent bhangra tremens and I think with my elbows. So why does it kill me to leave Madras each time? I’ve never lived there. But when other diasporic Madrasis I know say they loathe the place, it’s too stifling and trad, I find myself rudely telling them to go suck a flying phalsa.
I think it’s got to do with why people love Kolkata and Mumbai desperately, too. The first thing about them is that they’re all port cities, with hideously humid weather by day but blissfully cooled by the sea breeze come evening. And because they were all capitals of British Presidencies, they have a great jumble of Indo-Saracenic buildings and history flying off the pavements at you, closer in time and therefore more fascinatingly immediate than the distant lost-in-time glories of Sultanate and Mughal Delhi.
A toss of waves
In a weird way, the tossing waves of the Bay of Bengal make you feel absurdly the victor at a subliminal level. Is it because we sent the Brits back by sea the way they came, and right here, at Fort St George, is where they snuck in big time? In fact, there’s a whole novel waiting to be written about Dupleix, the French general, who lost the Carnatic Wars to the British. Dupleix Road in Lutyens’ Delhi commemorates that worthy foe — though, going by the cultural confusion of Pondicherry and the way those poor Algerians and Moroccans fare in France, I suppose we ought to be glad the French lost.
In Madras, this architectural masala, fiercely fought for by INTACH, is even headier with old, living temples. This is a huge happiness factor, because all around you is the assurance and ease of a city that is very open and comfortable about worship, without needing to broadcast it loudly and unmusically. Faith blooms at five o’clock each evening on the edges of the pavements with the flower-sellers: strings and strings of white malli (jasmine), orange kanakaambharam (aboli in Marathi) and marukozhunthu, a clustered, spicy green leaf to pattern the veni with. The women of Madras buy them every day for their long, glossy braids and it’s refreshing to see them celebrate their exuberant non-purdah culture. Heads here are adorned with flowers and held up proudly and gladly in thanksgiving to the heavens. Though I can’t help remembering that Tamil Nadu, along with the Punjab, has India’s highest female foeticide rate: has that thanksgiving a surreal edge?
The other big luxury in Madras, as in all Southern cities, is the neighbourhood hot chips shop. Banana, tapioca, potato, karela, jackfruit; with hing, with masala, plain — heaven in a packet. If that’s a gift of geography, history is subtly here in other goodies: you get perfect crisp triangular sambusa exactly like in Iran, Central Asia, or in Mumbai’s old Irani cafés, more elegant and crunchy than the misshapen fatties of my hometown, Delhi.
What cracks me up though is the South Indian spelling of North Indian words: thandoor, sholay-bhathoorey, manthir, the last for a cybercafe. But when I snicker, my friend (get this, he’s a Yadav from Gurgaon domiciled since decades in the Big Idli), makes tart remarks about the Punjabi way of saying leisure, pleasure and measure (leyyur, pleyyur, meyyur). This is an old battle; he defends the South as passionately as I defend my dear old North, back from when I realised I knew the Roja song only as Dil hai chhota sa while he knew it only as Chinna chinna aasai. Sweetest yet is meeting the Sikhs and Gujjus of Chennai, who love their city. Why? “Life is good, people are pleasant and the children get a high standard of education,” they say offhandedly to such foolish queries, crooning “Kutti paapa!” (little baby) and “Chellam!” (darling) in Tamil to their tumbling pedigree puppies.
There’s more love in the air along the breezy beach in south Madras, which is dotted liberally with cuddling couples. Nobody even looks at them, certainly not the Chennai police. The night sky is splendid with the moon throwing gold over the water. The strong, cool sea breeze lifts your hair and tugs at your tee, the dim lights of ships anchored out in the harbour speak of far horizons. Who could be petty enough in this great open space to disturb lovers? Obviously, not the Madrasis! Instead, they’re buying grilled cobs of American sweet corn from rediwalas or masala peanuts prettily dressed with frills of raw mango. Or, at Bella Ciao, a nice Italian restaurant in the garden of a beach bungalow, they’re forking up the farfalle to holiday plans for the Great Barrier Reef and praise for the fabulously restored Museum Theatre, or arguing madly about music — Carnatic, Hindustani, western classical, jazz. I can’t bear to speak about the Madras Music Season (400 concerts in one month, every December-January) because I’ve missed it for years.
We laugh instead about the latest Madrasi invention, the cellphone sari, which has a pocket on the hip that sits amazingly right irrespective of hip size. Want to weekend in the Nilgiris, they coaxingly ask next. No, I say, my heart dropping like a little granite idli on my toes; I have to get back to Delhi.