Visiting a book fair could be a risky and tricky proposition both. Despite my love for books, I shudder to pay a visit to gala book fairs for two reasons: One, I feel like buying far more number of books than frankly what I can afford and secondly, there is no guarantee I would get leisurely time to treat the new guests in my home library with the honour they deserve! And yet, giving a miss to a world event of books is a no-no!
But 'Madras' broke my 'firm' resolve instantly! Within minutes of my entry into the large pandals. Was it a firm resolve, I wondered to myself while flipping through its pages, a few months later. This little book tempted me no end. It drew my quick attention from the heap of some equally wonderful and competing 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 when I brought it home, as was the painful demise of Amma, barely a few weeks ago.
'Madras' is more of a literary fare and engages its readers, through small chapters, in a very absorbing manner, compared to city books on, say Hyderabad (reviewed in this column very recently). But it's not fiction, the stories the author tells you, give a complete idea of the city's past and present. It's a positive book and does not much bother its reader with the routine urban stuff of traffic pollution, water scarcity, poverty, encroachments and growing vehicular population. In a way, a much-needed relief!
Of late newer and newer authors like this 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's historical capital that has the Indian Ocean as its immediate neighbour.
Madras became Chennai officially in 1996 and the city's love for its traditions, religion, culture and love for cricket is too well known to be repeated. Remember the historic Chepauk stadium (latter MA Chidambaram 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 worst-ever tsunami India faced. Yet, The New York Times included the city in its list of 52 places to visit in 2014 and 'Lonely Planet' listed 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 it's well written records available.
If Chennai is known as the original '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. There are hundreds and thousands of amateur and professional dancers in this city and many dedicated dance gurus. In between the two, this coastal city offers many other things to its citizens, most of whom love it madly, not to talk of Indian and foreign tourists.
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 where beautiful large two-storeyed bungalows of the rich, giving way to malls and shopping arcades and gardens slowly disappearing. He also gets upset with 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 which no other city in India had. San Thome, a sprawling area of Madras near river Adyar was under the Portuguese but by 1662 it was in the possession of 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, environmentalist M Krishnan 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 how the great Pandit Ravi Shankar had played past midnight in 1960, to the capacity crowd at 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 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 attention of entire India as also after several days protests over the bull taming game's ban by Supreme Court. Madras was the focal centre for all.
Reading this book gives you a real different feeling about the massive metropolis, it's rich cultural tradition and so on. For those who have been to the city or have read about it, this book reintroduces Madras and Chennai in a very friendly manner; and those who want to know about the city, it provides some answers and leave a lot to be experienced through a sojourn in Madras. I mean upon reading this tiny book, sans any photos, you would surely think of a visit to Chennai. That is the success of this small book and its wonderful author.
Book name: Madras, Chennai and the Self-Conversations with the city
Author: Tulsi Badrinath
Publishers: Pan Macmillan India
Price: 299/-. Pages 230
[ The writer is a bibliophile and can be contacted at
Abhikhandekar1 or at firstname.lastname@example.org ) ]
Abhikhandekar1 or at email@example.com ) ]