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Updated: May 3, 2014 15:20 IST

Quintessentially Madras

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Degree Coffee by the Yard: A Short Biography of Madras by Nirmala Lakshman
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Degree Coffee by the Yard: A Short Biography of Madras by Nirmala Lakshman

An insider’s heartwarming tribute to the city.

There are far too few books on Chennai (as there are far too many on Mumbai) and as someone who spent many sweltering childhood vacations here arguing with my cousins over which was better — Madras or Bangalore? — I am naturally drawn to writings on the city. (I relished to the hilt Bishwanath Ghosh’s Tamarind City; anyone whose last minute inspiration to move to Chennai came after seeing Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondain, Kandukondain is a Chennaivasi after my own heart). Having perhaps slightly romanticised Madras over the years as an outsider looking in, I needed to hear a voice from the inside that would be tough-minded without being harsh, balanced and yet personal, intelligent and warm, sensitive and trustworthy and Nirmala Lakshman’s voice amply fulfilled this in Degree Coffee by the Yard, her admirable, sensible, and deeply felt introduction to Chennai that was Madras.

In fact, I knew hers would be the quintessential Madras voice to listen to when I first heard she was working on a Madras/Chennai book for Aleph’s short biographies of cities series. “Madras to me is my childhood,” she writes, “ringed by the light of fading summer evenings, cloudless blue skies and a small whisper of a breeze that would offer relief after humid afternoons. Madras is Munro’s statue, long drives in my father’s Plymouth down the Marina and all the way across Iron Bridge. It meant Jafar’s ice cream, cool red cement floors in old houses with high ceilings. It meant the sweet smell of earth stirred by an unexpected shower on a blistering hot May day, and the softness of my mother’s Mysore silk sari with the gold brocade mangoes, and a sense that all was well with the world.”

This finely drawn recollection will resonate with many who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in almost any Indian city, especially those cities where life is spoken of as what the city was once known by and what it is called now — Calcutta/ Kolkata, Bombay/ Mumbai and Madras/ Chennai. (Even before Bangalore/ Bengaluru, its residents had already partitioned the city in their mind as life in the city up to the 1980s and after). And as a writer who knew living as it once was in Madras and as it plays out now in Chennai (even as some of old Madras lingers in the present), Lakshman discovered “how impossible it is to compose a linear and totalising view of a living breathing, organic whole that the city is.”

One thing, however, can be ascribed to Madras with some definitiveness, and this is an aspect that isn’t known widely enough as it could be: the number of historical firsts the city can claim. Each time I read about the city’s origins in British India, especially the fascinating sections on Fort St. George/Black Town, I can’t get over how many things began with Madras that people probably think began with Calcutta. As Lakshman notes, “Interestingly, the country’s first mint, first school, first hospital and first Town Hall came up here, which is why Madras chroniclers correctly claim that the origins of the modern Indian state began in this city. When the Madras Corporation was set up in 1688 it became “the first structured administration in India, also the oldest of any city in India.”

I asked Lakshman if, in researching and writing the book, she had come away surprised, and she wrote to say that some of her assumptions of the city she has grown up in and has always called home had been both transformed and validated. “There was also a discovery of unseen layers of history that I did not know existed until I began this study. For instance, the history of the Armenian community was intriguing; here were early settlers who sort of co-founded the city and amassed a great fortune by trading and business and yet as a people they were extraordinarily simple and did not enrich themselves. The fact that the community has all but vanished in the present day seemed poignant when one considers their contributions to the creation of Madras.”

One can’t get enough of the old city’s food and coffee traditions that this compact biography explores so affectionately. “Coffee was a big deal in my family, especially in my mother’s family,” she writes. “They moved to Madras from Thanjavur in the fifties and brought with them a passion for coffee along with a propensity for intellectual pursuits, politics, lengthy discussion on philosophy as well as all manner of public affairs… I remember sentiments like ‘Coffeekku vazhi unda?’ which translates as ‘Is there a pathway to coffee?’ floating around the house as if the beverage were the path to enlightenment… As a true Chennaivasi, I too am always on the trail of that perfect cup and although I cannot always find it, I can recognise it when I taste it.”

Being vegan, degree coffee is out for me. And I can’t say I miss it much (there’s little substitute for coffee drunk black) but there are times, I admit, when it feels like the only thing that can follow a splendid South Indian breakfast or tiffin is degree coffee. I took notes (to be able to zero in on these places the next time) when the book made whistle-stop tours of the city’s traditional, bespoke eateries. The dosai (dosa to the tragically uninitiated) and the ladles of sambar at Ratna Café (sorry, Cayf!), meals at the Ramakrishna Lunch Home, and tiffin at the Karpagambal Mess.

Is there anything she feels she didn’t get to in this biography? I asked. “I think that the portrait of contemporary Chennai could have been sharper and more focussed. My other misgiving was that I could not tell enough of the stories that I heard and look forward to another opportunity to do so. However, in the end, this small tribute to a beloved city was a deeply satisfying exercise.”

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