Psychiatrist Vijay Nagaswami This reluctant metropolis is probably the best sort of metropolis to live in
One of the things I find engaging about Chennai is that it's a reluctant metropolis. All the other metros carry the burden of specific cultural identities. Mumbai's is built around commerce and glamour. Delhi's around power, politics and ostentation. Kolkata's around intellectual debate, addas and the creative arts. But, look at Chennai. We don't have a distinctive cultural identity. We have some commerce, some glamour, some politics, some art and culture, some new economy, some old economy, some this, some that. Which really means, you don't have to come to this city for any one purpose. It can adapt itself to suit everyone's needs. And, I think it does this rather well. As a result, most people have an allegiance to their ‘little Chennais', and not necessarily to the city as a distinct entity. Madras used to be likened to an overgrown village, where people had a provincial mentality. Chennai is an over-grown small town, but without the provincial mentality. And, I think that's its greatest strength. You still don't feel you're living in an impersonal megapolis. It's still mentally small enough in most peoples' heads to be manageable. But, it's not rigid and demanding like provincial towns usually are.
I thoroughly enjoy the general feeling of closeness here. What makes Chennai intimate is that you don't belong to the city. You belong to a group of people. A friend once told me Chennai is very good for friendship and very bad for acquaintanceship. And that's true. When people move in, they find it hard. Chennai has a surface hospitability, but to be truly comfortable here takes time. The average Chennai-ite is able to generate more energy for other people. In a place like Mumbai, there are very sharp boundaries between home and work. It's not so here. The level of support from friends is strong. Not the ‘Yeh dosti', in-your-face friendship of Mumbai or Delhi, but a quieter, perhaps more substantial kind of friendship.
People keep saying this city is conservative. I've never found it that way. There perhaps wasn't much nightlife earlier — but in terms of forward-thinking people, the city's always been open-minded. With relationships, and how people relate to each other, things weren't too different in the 1960s and 1970s. It's just that people are becoming more conspicuous now, more brazen. Then, they were discreet. The conservative tag was something everyone took shelter behind. Almost to legitimise what they were up to. I hate the city's traffic. I hate it that the infrastructure has not kept up. That public transport is difficult to access. These things keep you from enjoying the joys of this city. Yet, this reluctant metropolis is probably the best sort of metropolis to live in. It lets you be, if you let it be, provided you too are reluctant to thump your chest too loudly about it.
(As told to Shonali Muthalaly)