THE SUNDAY DIARY In Chennai, the men in khaki take over as soon as the clock strikes eleven. When will they stop behaving like the nagging grandmother? asks Bishwanath Ghosh

During the past six weeks, this Chennai resident happened to spend a few days each in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata — often forgetting which city he was in, especially when roaming in malls or visiting cineplexes.

In globalised India, it is quite natural to forget once in a while where you are, because the shrines of globalisation look — and smell — identical. Body Shop is Body Shop, Marks and Spencer is Marks and Spencer, KFC is KFC; it doesn’t matter where on earth you are. Only when you walk out of the malls does reality strike you — in the form of road signs, public behaviour, the lingo on the streets, and so on. For example, if you find an army of autorickshaw drivers waiting in ambush, carrying the knives of obscenely-inflated fares, the city’s got to be Chennai.

As I relished my stay in each of these cities, wishing I could stay on for a few days more, a silent part of me kept itching to return to Chennai. Home is home, after all. Moreover, I was visiting these cities to promote a book that I’ve written about Chennai, and each time I extolled the virtues of Chennai during the promotional events, I felt like returning to its arms.

But that did not stop me from comparing life in each of these cities with that in Chennai. In fact, the city-hopping only encouraged me to make the comparisons. I know what it is that Chennai has which the other cities don’t — which is precisely why I still choose to live here — but what do other cities have that Chennai doesn’t?

After pondering over the question for some time, I found the answer in the orange rays of the setting sun. Really, there is not much to do in Chennai once the sun sets. Law enforcers here seem to want the citizens to go to bed by ten o’ clock, forgetting that many people these days are able to get out of their offices only by ten. Where should such people go if they feel like loosening their ties and having a pint of beer before heading home? Nowhere. Chennai simply does not provide them that luxury.

Chennai is the only city in the country — and perhaps in the world — where standalone restaurants are forbidden to serve alcohol. Only those that are part of a hotel (with a minimum of 20 rooms) are allowed to do so. No one seems to know when and why this rule was invented, but it continues to be in force without anyone wanting to question it. Which effectively means that if you walk into Tangerine, which serves the best sizzlers in town, you will have to make do with fresh lime soda. But, walk into one of the restaurants in the nearby Chola Sheraton and you can order all the booze you want. Does it make any sense?

I am not equating night life or having a good time with consumption of alcohol — though there is nothing wrong in that — I am only talking about the attitude. Take Buhari, for example. As far as I know, this restaurant on Mount Road is one of the oldest existing non-vegetarian restaurants in Chennai — therefore an institution by itself — and it serves no alcohol. So popular is its food that it recently opened a branch on G.N. Chetty Road.

The USP of this restaurant is that it is open till late in the night, thereby attracting many wanderers who might have missed dinner. But very often, when I pass by Buhari on Mount Road around eleven or eleven-thirty in the night, I find a bunch of policemen posted outside the eatery. As if late diners pose a security threat.

At 11 o’ clock, forks and knives are still clanging against chinaware in restaurants on Park Street in Calcutta; customers are still queuing up at Bade Miyan, the kebab outlet right behind the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai; and lovers of Mughlai food are still struggling to find a table at Karim’s in Old Delhi. At these places, the only uniformed men you run into are the waiters and the doormen.

But in Chennai, the men in khaki take over as soon as the clock strikes eleven. When will they stop behaving like the nagging grandmother? They should know that Chennai is now a grown-up kid.


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