Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 11/28/05 5:20 PM

Feature: Madras, the Different City

Rocking to a different beat
Chennai city is different from all the other metros. This is its strength and it is high time that the difference is celebrated.
It could be an apocryphal story but it isn`t. Two young men were `timepassing` in Spencer Plaza on Anna Salai (forever Mount Road to me),  in the city of Chennai that will forever be Madras to me. One of the men remarked to the other that every time an international rock group hit India, Madrasis had to travel to neighbouring Bangalore to catch the show.  “Why da,“ he mourned.
His friend thought for a while, then pointed to a passer-by and said simply and succinctly, “Because of him.” The man he was referring to in this rather indiscreet manner was young, sported a caste mark on his noble brow and wore shapeless trousers and a shirt that clashed horribly with the aforementioned trousers. Try as you might, you somehow couldn’t visualise him swaying to the sound of Joe Satriani’s guitar or jumping to Mick Jagger’s lyrics.
The point is this: to repudiate that Madras is all about young men with kuris on their foreheads, maamis in voluminous silk saris despite the sweltering weather, larger- than- life billboards featuring not exactly lissome men and women in about-to-be-released films, and rows of restaurants advertising ‘pure vegetarian’ fare, would be to repudiate the very essence of Madras.
The point is also this: Madras has more to it than hidebound tradition. It has pubs and tapas bars, rock concerts on Saturday nights, and theatre groups active all year long. It is not a comfortable fit, but there you go.
I’ve done Delhi, I’ve done Mumbai, I was once and will be a future resident of Bangalore. And I will admit that Madras flags in comparison to most of the country’s metros and definitely so, when compared to the Garden-turned-IT-City next door.
It`s not the climate, as some will have it; Mumbai has equally steamy weather for a large part of the year. It`s not the roads or the traffic, bad as both are in Madras; the traffic in Bangalore, with neither the zombie orderliness of Mumbai or the good roads of Delhi, have to be traversed to be believed.
It could be the perennial water problem, though I have been in belts of small-town India where water is a story best left untold.
So what puts Madras at Stand Two? It could be that modern will always play second fiddle to tradition here. It could be that the city has just one shopping mall worth its name. it could be that the hippest of happening PYTs and supposedly dashing young men, incumbents of an as-yet non-existent Page Three, all look mere wannabes when you compare them with their counterparts further north, just as the adverts seen around the city are horribly gauche and the models in them still belong in the hillbilly category.
It could be that the few watering holes, as indeed the restaurants serving Mediterranean fare in
the city, are frequented more by the moneyed than the connoisseur.
It could also be that an astounding 82% of people here do not eat ready-to-eat packaged meals. Indeed, it could well be because Madras downs its shutters by nine pm… it always did and probably will always  do so.
The very air in the city is conservative; there is no getting around that. Pretty much all of Madras is populated by Rules Ramanujams – prototypes of the staid character played by Vikram in the superhit film Anniyan. No one seems to want to break the mould in terms of dress, food or behavior. Madras, thus, exists in a time warp.
And that, to me, is Madras’s strength. It has a comfort zone seen in very few cities in India, leave alone the world. You don’t even need to go scouting this comfort zone, it envelopes you in its pattu folds the moment you become a part of the city.
It’s a large, invincible zone, comprising its friendly denizens, its many temples with colourful gopurams, the bantering sundal sellers on Eliot’s beach. Marghazi, the winter season of music and dance, the plethora of jewelry shops, Pondi bazaar which is definitely not Madras’s answer to Mumbai’s Fashion Street, the Saravana Bhavan chain of eateries with its mouth watering (vegetarian) fare, all fall in this comfort zone.
The art galleries, the ubiquitous posters and cut-outs of the CM-with-the-marvelous-complexion, the ever slicker Tamil films that roll off the production line, the dhapaankuthu or street dance that follows the one-two beat… all of this falls in the zone, too.
For all the condescension of the outsider, Madras has got much going for it. A recent India Today
poll put Madras near the top in the Best Cities to Live In, Law and Order, Primary Health and Agriculture categories. Madras has AR Rahman, Madras has the Asian College of Journalism. Madras has The Hindu, a newspaper that does not talk down to its readers. Madras has the veteran theatre group, the Madras Players, worth their weight in gold. It has the Cholamandal artists commune, the gorgeous Museum Theatre.
So, okay, its not as if I don’t sometimes hanker to see one of the new feature films in the beyond-plush PVR cinema. It isn’t as if I don’t wince when I meet with blank stares while asking for some specialty bread or blue-veined cheese. It isn’t as if I don’t yearn to call up some female friends and go pub-crawling. It isn’t as if sometimes, most times, if I am honest, my overheated skin doesn’t crave the touch of real winter.
Bu the cravings pass. And as I drive down the autobahn- like East Coast Road, I catch a glimpse of a striking bone structure tautly covered by skin the colour of cappuccino in the car alongside. Elsewhere, I breathe in the fragrance of mullapoo (jasmine) in someone’s hair. I hear the mellifluous voice of the incomparable MS Subbulakshmi over some loudspeaker. And I am back in the comfort zone.
I’m doing okay in Madras, thank you. In fact, Madras is doing very well, thank you.
2013 disclaimer: So, this was written eight years ago, and Madras has changed, as change it must. However, its comfort zone heart remains the same, thanks be. 
This ran in the SIMPLY CHENNAI supplement of INDIA TODAY on 28 Nov 2005. 
a different cityChennaiFeatureFeaturesMadras

Sheila Kumar • November 28, 2005

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