Meena Kandasamy, poet, writer, activist and translator, on the city, its people, sights and sounds

Give it to Chennai for chutzpah, for her courage to take on the world. For all the laidback calm, she launched the Home Rule League to overthrow the British, the Anti-Hindi Agitation to show New Delhi that she wouldn’t accept another tongue being thrust down her throat. If you care to learn her whole history, listen to it come away in layers, like the names of old, unforgettable lovers: Pallava, Chera, Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagara. Empires who held her close, coveted, almost concealed, since the seventh century – a port city on the Coromandel Coast. Then there were those who colonised her: the Portuguese, the British, and sometimes in between, the French. The earliest sale-deeds date to 1632, but who bothers about such barter? Her soul is as old as the sea by her side.

Chennai began as a group of villages; the rural roots reflect in her fondness for gossip. She is sometimes harsh in her judgment – even an off-the-cuff remark about chastity sends her women marching on the streets – but she is always hush-hush in her affairs. Trust her to be tight-lipped about her secrets. Success-stories of her booming economy merely provide the subtext: auto-manufacturing plants eating into faraway suburbs, software giants clamouring to claim real-estate space. Rumpelstiltskin-like when labouring, she only shows you the garish gold.

She is famed for her margazhi dance and music concerts, but anyone here can demonstrate the dappankuthu: endless, drunken dancing to funeral drums. When you learn to appreciate her refinement, brace yourself for her rawness.

Etched in memory as Madras, she is also a city of moderation. She boasts of masjids and mutts. She caters to 1,000-year-old temples and temples under traffic lights with equal panache. She enshrines a bleeding cross, and in her most ornate cathedral, Santhome Basilica, is buried one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus.

She harbours a fetish for fair skin, but her men are mostly dark and moustachioed. Her women, grace and grievance combined, deserve a separate treatise. A diehard cinema fanatic, she houses India’s second-largest film industry. She crawls to a stop whenever there is a movie shoot nearby, but makes no fuss over the fact that A.R. Rahman brought home two Oscars. For all her mood-music, she relies heavily on Ilaiyaraja.

Three of her rivers are remembered because of the bridges built over them, but otherwise their names aren’t taken in polite conversation. It is this sea that sways us. Even the 2004 tsunami did little harm to Marina Beach, the 12-kilometre-long sparkling seashore that defines this city.

She considers Mount Road her lifeline, its Spencer Plaza the mecca of malls. A movie date would have you ending up at Inox, CitiCenter. A wedding in your family would land you up in a shopper’s paradise called Pondy Bazaar. Driving down her East Coast Road will satisfy all your hedonistic urges. Even as you splurge, she will look away modestly.

Since she is humble, she wouldn’t even point out that she has produced more Nobel Laureates than all other Indian cities taken together. She would be more pleased if the monsoons were on time. Every fifth person is a migrant and no other city invites people with such open arms. Periyar EVR was a Kannadiga; MGR was a Malayalee – but try telling that to anyone here. She celebrates kinship, everyone is hers the moment they set foot, much before they even settle down.

She is also the city of garrulous graffiti, city of cramped slums and flyovers, city of laughter, city of slaughter. She unfailingly stars in the dreams of the eight million men and women she shelters. Once ravaged by famines, her standard line after every salutary smile is, “Saptengala?”. Have you eaten? She hates to see anybody go hungry.

She speaks a language with a legacy of 2,000 years; she understands every word of English. She romps around with jasmine on jet-black hair, night or day. No other city shall ever seduce you in Chennai’s Tamizhachi style: with sultry, sidelong looks; with spontaneous speech; with all her selfless, surplus love.

Click here for video by B. Aravind Kumar http://thne.ws/madras-meena

This article originally appeared in Time Out and was used with the permission of the author, who has the copyright.