Updated: June 2, 2012 16:19 IST

Madras mosaic

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Tamarind City is an outsider's attempt to unravel Chennai's complex character.

“Do you ever miss your penis? I ask her.”

This question isn't exactly representative of the curiosity an author needs to write a book about a city. Nor is the recipient of the question, a transgender named Susie who has undergone a sex reassignment surgery, exactly representative of Chennai. But both the question and Susie are certainly representative of journalist-writer Bishwanath Ghosh's method in Tamarind City, his outsider's biography of Chennai, put together over the first 10 years — 2001 to 2011 — of his life in the city.

Personal encounters

Tamarind City is a free-flowing trip between stories about the metropolis in the form of personal encounters between Ghosh and different people — or, in some cases, spaces — occupying the city. Combining the wide-eyed curiosity of the visitor with the dreary familiarity of the denizen, the writer traverses a landscape that effortlessly punches history with visual description, personal impression with a desire to unearth the objective facts. In the process, he produces a Chennai that is, arguably, far more fascinating than the city might actually appear to those who live and love in it.

Among those who populate the book are actor Gemini Ganesan's daughter Kamala Selvaraj, a famous human fertility specialist in her own right; there's Sundararajan, the Iyer elder from the neighbourhood of Triplicane who elaborates on the fault lines between his sect and the Iyengars; there's Meena Kandasami, firebrand Dalit spokespoetess; and there are places like Mylapore, which predates even Madraspatnam (as it was called when the British landed), and Popham's Broadway and Royapuram station.

Individually, none of them can claim to be embodiments of the city, but between them, they offer stories and experiences diverse enough to convey some of the complexities of Chennai, which, says Ghosh, wears its tradition and religious belief like a card-carrying member of the orthodoxy, but seethes beneath the surface of placidity with its own blend of emotion, desire and despair. Which brings us back to the penis question. It's by no means a question that haunts all of Chennai, but the story of Susie is one of the many tiles in the mosaic of stories that Ghosh perceives the city as.

Is the picture that emerges really one that inhabitants of Chennai will recognise? Being only an occasional visitor to the city, I cannot tell. But the Chennai that does appear out of the pointillist portraits — once one has stepped back far enough — is beguiling in its ability to adopt state of the art technology and systems while doggedly holding on to age-old beliefs that refuse to be swept away.

Curious position

Today, Chennai is almost certainly the most intriguing of India's metros to the rest of the country. Trapped in a cuisine- and accent-driven stereotype foisted on it by a national ignorance, the city is possibly too confident about itself to make any attempt to change the perception. Only in the past two decades, as global businesses ranging from automobiles to software have made a beeline for the city and its hinterland, has there been a steady flow of urban professionals to Chennai. Which is perhaps why the city is beginning to be discovered as a space to live, learn, eat, play — and pray — in by the rest of India. And by Ghosh himself, who travelled from the brash northern half of the country to the more introverted — but, arguably no less volatile — southern part.

The trouble — if that is the right word — with such a book is that the reader's exposure to the city is largely circumscribed by the intersections between the writer's life and his explorations. To be sure, Ghosh recounts history as well, economically sketching the political journey from Periyar's staunchly atheist rebellion against Brahmin dominance to the evolution of the Dravidian supremacy now manifested in the alternate cycle of power between Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. He also takes the reader back to the days when the British landed in Madraspatnam — well before they set up Calcutta — and makes a case that modern India began in the English stronghold of Fort St. George because everyone who mattered during the early years of British rule in India started out in Madras.

But such lessons in history — along with the geographical details — are just about the only rock-solid portions of Tamarind City. Most of the rest shimmers seductively, affording tantalising glimpses of Chennai that delight the outsider but may well appear inconsequential — or even unfaithful — to the insider. But if only for the captivating the cast of characters that Ghosh parades, comprising members of both the Who's Who and the Who's What of the city, his book is a source of both enjoyment and education.

Especially if you want to know what Susie's answer was.

Tamarind City: Where Modern India Began, Bishwanath Ghosh, Tranquebar, p.315, Rs. 295.

Keywords: literary review

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