Author Nirmala Lakshman affectionately narrates the stories of her city in Degree Coffee By The Yard

Talk about Chennai, and images of frothy filter coffee, ancient temples and the Marina Beach rush to our minds. However, this is also a city of fishermen who live in matchbox houses, devadasis who lead radical lives, and people with prejudices. These untold stories come alive in Degree Coffee By The Yard, written by Nirmala Lakshman.

When publisher David Davidar approached Nirmala to write a book on Chennai, she was struck by the nature of the assignment. “I felt burdened by the idea,” she said at a book reading session organised by Coimbatore Book Club. She said she was nervous, as she narrated the story of her city in her voice. “I spoke to experts on Chennai such as Mr. Muthiah and A.R. Venkatachalapathy. Their depth of knowledge was overwhelming,” she said.

Stories of simple people

Though the author has travelled and lived around the world, Chennai is home and always special. “The book shows my affection for the city in the form of impressionist essays. The history of a city is not always about chronological events but also of stories told by simple people and their reminiscences,” says Nirmala, director, The Hindu Group of Publications.

The book, which begins with ‘Madras’, a poem by Arundhathi Subramaniam, takes you through the history of Madras before it became Chennai, its architecture, cricket madness, elai saappad, madisar maamis on scooters and its never-ending love affair with coffee.

Srividya Sivakumar, the moderator of the session, asked Nirmala whether being so close to the city was an advantage or disadvantage while writing about it. Nirmala said that even though she felt personal about Chennai, she had to armour her work with facts. While writing non-fiction, one should collate personal voice and perspective and present it with facts, she said. “And, the facts should always be right. You have to marshal your work with facts and research. But tell them in a personal voice so that it resonates well with the readers.”

Srividya said the book tries to go beyond the stereotyped symbols of the city, as perceived by non-Chennaiites. “For instance, the book talks about M.S. Subbulakshmi singing at a church and about a land donated by Muslims to build a temple,” she said.

The book highlights the syncretism of different cultures, the influence of the British, the Mughals, the Armenians (immigrants settled in George Town) and the Portuguese. The vestiges of these influences can be seen even today, the author said.

She mentioned how the city had made an impact on the lives of personalities such as nationalist poet Subramania Bharati and thinkers such as J. Krishnamurthy and Annie Besant.

Nirmala met many memorable people while researching for the book. One of them was Gnanashekhar, a fisherman. He lived in a cluttered house on the shores of the Marina, with his ill wife and two daughters. “He told me that he might have to stop his daughter’s education because the area they were living in was not safe. I asked him if he needed help. He refused to take a single penny. ‘I will find my own way,’ he said. I was shaken by his grace,” she recalled.

The author also mentioned a lady in Kannagi Nagar who is like a ‘baroness’ of the locality but still has a vulnerable side. “Her husband was murdered in front of her; she had to take on this role for a living.”

Nirmala said she had a fascination for words since childhood. “I used to avidly read the Illustrated Weekly of India. I graduated from one writer to the other as I grew up. From Charles Dickens and Louisa. M. Alcott to Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, everyone has had an effect on me.”

During the interactive session, the audience shared their accounts of old Madras — about the trams and the city’s gradual transition from colonial Madras to a culturally-rooted Chennai.

The city has more stories to tell, and Nirmala said she would like to take them up in her next book. “If time permits, I would go in for a much deeper Part II and follow up on the many untold stories — of the Anglo-Indian community, personalities such as Chitra Madhavan and Poochi Venkat…” “Because, this city has more to it than just idlis and dosais,” she said.

The book priced at Rs. 295 is available at bookstores.