Nirmala Lakshman’s second book, Degree Coffee by the Yard, will be released later this week. The writer talks about Madras’s transformation into Chennai and how the city became her muse.

Nirmala Lakshman’s association with The Hindu is a lifelong commitment. As the Joint Editor in charge of features, a post she held until recently, she was responsible for restructuring the Magazine, launching the Literary Review, the Young World and introducing the Newspaper in Education programme. This apart, she also has a long and close relationship with words and books via her column Lit by Books and her various articles in the newspaper.

She has also curated a successful annual literary festival (The Hindu Lit for Life), compiled an anthology (Writing a Nation: An Anthology of Indian Journalism, Rupa), and has now written an elegant and affectionate biography of Chennai (Degree Coffee by the Yard, Aleph).

In this freewheeling chat, the author discusses the book, and her muse — Chennai.

You’ve called this book a tale of two cities: a gentler Madras and a globalised Chennai. Where do you belong?

I think I’m somewhere in-between. I feel the need for us to be rooted in Chennai, but we cannot, whatever the politics of it, forget the heritage of Madras. The name change happened in the 1990s, and by then we had grown up in the city called Madras. It took me a long time to revert to Chennai, though I absolutely respect the notion of why the name — which has been vested with a Tamilian identity — should be there. For the next generation, growing up only with Chennai, Madras will only be a matter of history.

What got you into writing this book?

I hadn’t really thought of myself as someone who would chronicle the city; and there are many worthies like Mr. Muthiah doing it. When publisher David Davidar asked me if I would do a short book on Chennai, as part of a series, it made me re-look my own association with the city. But as a trained journalist and editor of 30-odd years — we’ve always said ‘keep yourself out of the story’ — I was chary to bring my persona into the book. It was David who really said, ‘Look you’re a voice and a city’s history does not have to be told only by someone with an authoritative background. It can also be personal, it is a testimony that you leave behind’.

I think I was a bit tremulous about it in the beginning and I became more confident after hearing other people’s voices, people willing to share their stories. My voice is like an invisible thread in the book; it emerged through questioning my origins and, at the same time, speaking to the plethora of people who built the city.

You’re a fourth generation resident of the city. How was it to research and explore a subject that is so familiar?

I started with the things that were familiar but I realised, when I read its history, that there’s a lot more to this city. But history is not just about timelines and those who administer and the systems that were put in place. It is about ordinary people, and their stories.

Once I started researching the book, I started looking at everything differently, from a journalistic point of view. Personally too, I have experienced a change in landscape. Visually, I have in mind a different Madras: broader roads, avenue trees, and no massive slums. But now, we’re headed towards exclusionist type of living, which I think is appalling.

Is enough being done to protect Chennai’s history? And, do the people on the ground care?

No, they don’t care. Whether it was the fisherman or someone living in Kannagi Nagar, they just want to get on and improve their economic status. Preserving the heritage is still seen as an elitist preoccupation. But it is important to connect the displaced to their history too; and that can come in only when food, shelter … the basics are factored in. It is important to include everybody; only then the city’s dynamics will grow.

In the west, there’s a reclaiming of local culture through arts, through the reconstructions of buildings; there are pockets of poverty, but every effort is made to integrate them. But because there’s such a sharp divide here, we’re not able to restore and regain the city. Whose city is it any way? Whom should we reclaim it for? How can you just restore a building, and have people living outside in little shacks? What do you do with them? Sweep them away? I think those are serious concerns. While I’m not downplaying the need to preserve the city, the dispossessed have to be taken care of too.

In one instance, you’ve written: ‘When the veneer of education comes off, crude prejudice is in evidence’. Have you experienced this?

Yes, I have, and I was very startled by it, because a lot of these people are wearing a liberal cloak. It’s a new thing that has seeped into Indian society as a whole; and it’s frightening when people of a similar background — in terms of education and exposure — reveal this prejudice. It also drives minority communities into a sense of seclusion. It never used to be a part of Madras. When we were growing up, our tailor (Nannu Jan) was like a family member. He made blouses for the whole family, and was more hawkish than our mother about the length of our sleeves! Religion never intruded but now it is becoming more and more apparent and I heard it in the voices of people I interviewed for the book. And until I set about writing this book, I didn’t know how potent it was.

Beginning with the title, there’s plenty of coffee in the book — especially the city’s celebrated filter-kaapi. Could you elaborate on the connection, which you call ‘communion with the god of coffee’?

The identity of the city revolves around this coffee culture. Coffee making is an art in itself, and families have different ways of making it. I think it is absolutely meditative.

Madras, you’ve written, harks back to a slower, gentler time, whereas Chennai comes with pre-packaged tradition. Would you consider that a strength of the city?

It’s a strength in that it serves a need in a fast, consumerist society. But I wonder if something is lost because the old-fashioned or slower way brought with it invisible pleasures.

This city, you have said, belongs to many people — to the fisherman, the Marwari businessman, and the maami. As a biographer, was it difficult for you to bring in all the voices?

Some people — like the fisherman — had no notion of the larger city; others had very strong notions about it. And whose version is true? Then I realised that I must just let them speak to the reader directly. Along with the poignancy of the stories that I heard, there was a sense of hope; Chennai might flounder, but it will survive and thrive.

Excerpts...

Reflections of a Chennai vasi

...To the Chennai vasi (resident) of a certain age, Madras and Chennai seamlessly meld together. For some of us who grew up when Chennai was Madras, there was an obtruding awareness that, in Tamil, it was always Chennai, and hence there was an easy coexistence of nomenclature when we spoke of it. This was because the anglicization of the family did not dilute our strong Tamil heritage and the name Chennai was never far from our consciousness. It could be argued, nevertheless, as the historian A. R. Venkatachalapathy points out, that a kind of ‘colonial’ echo revolves around the term ‘Madras’, while the ‘unsung yet glorious’ aspects of the city are very much alive in the more broad-based vernacular vision of Chennai.

Whichever way you have it, this is a city that has an uninterrupted flow from the past into the present. The name ‘Madras’ is now a repository of not just colonial memory, of the actual origins of a city, but also the name of a place that was a physical reality for most people of a certain generation. In other words, to state a rather self-evident truth, this is a place where we were children, and also where we became adults. ‘Chennai’, as another appellation of the city, has existed since the founding of Madras in the seventeenth century, and was the name used commonly by Tamil and Telugu speakers. Even though ‘Chennai’ became the official name of the city in 1996, in assertion of a wider vernacular identity, the name ‘Madras’ still represents the time preceding this period in many people’s minds.

John Company finds a plot

The historian S. Muthiah tells me that originally Fort St George (as the settlement was called after the patron saint of England, St George) comprised just a warehouse for the traders with a couple of armed guards to protect it. The area around Fort St George was named Chennapatnam after the father of the Nayaks, Chennakesava Nayak, who was also a relative of the Raja of Chandragiri. The dual name of the soon-to-be city has therefore existed from the time of its inception.

There has been much speculation about the origin of the name ‘Madras’. In Col. Love’s Vestiges of Old Madras, he records that the land was acquired from a fisherman called Madrasen. Another theory suggests that the name came from a wealthy Portuguese family called Madra. The origin of the name has also been attributed to the presence of madrasas in the area, but this is the least likely theory as the area was only occupied by a few fishing villages and was more likely to have been under the influence of the Portuguese in nearby San Thome.

Degree Coffee by the yard

...At four o’clock the milkman or paalkaran would appear at my grandfather’s gate with his doleful looking cow and would call out to the household to witness the milking and transfer of the milk from the cow’s udders into the container — which had to be examined to ensure that there was no water already in it to dilute it... When we were old enough (my mother ruled that we had to be twelve years old at least before we were allowed our first cup of coffee and it was of course restricted to one cup a day for a while), we took great glee in actually handling the customary tumbler and dabara (a wide saucer with high sides) from which the coffee was drunk because it felt like a very grown-up thing to do.

Our greatest delight was to raise our tumblers high and pour the hot liquid into the dabara from as great a height as we could manage in order to cool it sufficiently so it could be drunk. This movement up and down, transferring the coffee from dabara to tumbler and back would also enhance the frothiness of the drink. There was some competition among the cousins who gathered on weekends at our grandparents’ place as to who could pour from the greatest height without spilling any of it. Inevitably, there were accidents, and grownup reactions to these ranged from patient tolerance (and even a little admiration perhaps for a child acquiring a new and useful skill) to irritation at having to clean up the mess.

Another intriguing challenge had to do with drinking coffee from a silver tumbler which was shaped like a tapered beaker. You had to pour the hot beverage directly into your mouth without your lips touching the rim. I never quite got the point of drinking coffee this way because the metal tumbler (usually made of silver or sometimes of stainless steel) would be hot to the touch which would in itself be uncomfortable; add to that, the not very happy experience of pouring boiling coffee down your throat, and it wasn’t something that made much sense to me.

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