Degree Coffee by the Yard: Nirmala Lakshman; Aleph Book company, 7/16, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 295.
A man who understands nothing of symbols knows little of Chennai, of its past, the poetry and the bruising reality of its life — a city that is still, as Nirmala Lakshman tells us early in the book, Madras at dawn before quietly settling to be Chennai, a metropolis seeking to claim its place among the busiest in the world. Much before the U.S. piloted the concept of ‘one world, one culture’, a Tamil poet from the city had talked of one world, one universe.
Inevitably, Chennai, for all its shades ranging from women who start their day with temple bells to men who wake up with azaan, comes across as a city with a common soul. The inequities of society and economy, the division of gods, the language wars…all fail to deprive the city of its unity of purpose.
It is something that shines through Nirmala’s writing. It is a work done with a lot of heart. And the heart is at the right place, enabling her to invest her time and energy in the right places rather than brooding too long over the unhealthy rubble of Tamil politics, outlandish cinema and garish hoardings that used to dot the city.
The work is many shades removed from silly sentimentalism; the author’s benevolence towards the city seeps through: when she talks of the Music Academy, of sabha culture, of its age-old residents and those like people of Rajasthani and Marathi origin who made it their home, and, yes, of degree coffee at roadside stalls.
The book, like degree coffee, comes invested with love. It is agreeable and likeable. In a world screaming for death penalty for rapists, of newspapers running banner headlines on the alleged chemical gas attacks in Syria, her stopovers to see the sun, the sand, the clouds and even the dogs in the bylanes of Madras are a balm for the spirit. No equivocation, no proxies, just a nice little glimpse of the private face of an increasingly public city. It reminds me of W.H. Auden’s lines, “Private faces in public places/Are wiser and nicer/Than public faces in private places.”
Madras vs. Chennai
She makes a persuasive argument for the Madras of old, the city refusing to yield all space to Chennai, its newer, smarter, go-getter version. Hailing the spirit of Madras, she writes, “It rises from hot, freshly ground ‘degree coffee’ (an import from Kumbakonam) in roadside tea stalls … the echoes of old Madras also persist in the alleyways and streets of extended neighbourhoods, in small white houses with green louvered window shutters, and roofs ablaze with climbing red bougainvillea, hidden away behind ungainly concrete and steel buildings.”
Her veneration for the place and the people comes to the fore often. “The appreciation of the intrinsic worth of people as opposed to their physical wealth is considered a dominant Chennai attribute. Along with this are values of tolerance and inclusiveness.”
Meant for “people of a certain age”, as Nirmala is wont to remind us ever so often, this is not a book where nostalgia is considered a sign of either vanity or escapism. She happily succumbs to the emotion talking of the early days down Marina. “The sand was whiter then. If you looked back, you could see the sunlight bounce off the tall columns of the police headquarters ... In the evening the balloon man would come, and along with him the man with the small handcart selling thenga-manga-pattani sundal, which we were, of course, not allowed to eat.” Of course she more than made up for the little joy denied then.
She backs up this trip down memory lane with a dash of history. “One can easily imagine that the Marina is still the grand promenade dreamt up and built by Governor Grant Duff in 1884 to rival the best of those in Europe.
Later, in the early decades of the 20th century, the fires of freedom were set ablaze on it as hundreds of people thronged the beach to hear the passionate speeches of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal against British rule. Gandhiji’s Salt Satyagraha, paralleled by the Vedaranyam march in south India, had its echoes in Madras when the satyagrahis broke salt on the Marina. Today, this road is one of the few stretches that stands testimony to the continuity of history.” She corrects the perception that the city had only a limited role to play in the freedom struggle.
Madras’s connection with Gandhiji, she writes, was special in many ways, “not the least of which was the fact that his son Devdas married Lakshmi, the daughter of his friend and fellow freedom fighter, Rajaji”.
Incidentally, Madras, directly and indirectly, played an important role in the First War of Independence where historians, erroneously often concentrate on Delhi-Awadh-Bihar belt only for centres of uprising. It is in recent years that we have been told that Madras Cavalry rose in revolt at Vaniyambadi during the First War of Independence. It was disbanded following the revolt in October, 1857 but the news was kept a secret.
Talking of attempts to impose Hindi on Madras, she insists that the DMK came to power riding on the anti-Hindi wave and followed up the electoral victory by renaming Madras as Tamil Nadu and naming streets after those who lost their lives in the anti-Hindi agitation.
Here and there she allows herself little asides. Of Karunanidhi, she recalls happily — typical of a mother — how her little son met Karunanidhi by the beach and exchanged pleasantries.
At another place, the astute observer in her comes to the party. Referring to a series of MGR’s films where he played a saviour, she concludes that this played a crucial role in making him a public icon even in his political career. Similarly, she calls Jayalalithaa as articulate and recounts the experience of R.S. Manohar who found her skimming through a book only to be surprised that she had all but learnt it by heart!
Read the book, experience a city. Rich with anecdotes, served with simplicity; it has layers of history, glimpses of its arts and culture and occasional bits of politics. All through, Nirmala writes persuasively, neatly sidestepping the shrillness of the early days of the DMK, the insular ways of some of its Chief Ministers and the like. As an old-timer, she had the privilege of preaching; she resisted the temptation, choosing instead to converse. Degree coffee, poetry, history ...
(Ziya Us Salam is a deputy editor with The Hindu in New Delhi)