We may not – indeed, we cannot – like its looks, its smells, its noise. The city ranks staggeringly high among those with a disagreeable climate, a formidable mosquito-to-man ratio, an indestructible population of the most audacious flies.
Its roads routinely get logged at the first and smallest semblance of rain. The rubbish that we throw directly onto their sides – thermocol packing from TV sets , plastic carry bags containing kitchen refuse, food leftovers, medical waste, sanitary pads, used condoms, are our creation, our contribution. It is we who create the huge ankle-length and sometimes knee-length puddles of water on the roads.
And, like in most Indian cities, drinking and washing water in Chennai is short, electricity erratic and traffic a veritable Godavari in spate.
Yet, we still want to live here. Why?
As I felt when reading T.S. Tirumurti’s new novel ‘Chennaivaasi’, this is because life is not objective.
It is about what we receive here, what we are given.
In Thiruvanmiyur, the suburb of Chennai where I live, street-calls virtually set the day. Next to my copy of The Hindu, they are the core of my start-of-day.
Keerai-k-keerai ! Ara-k-keerai,mola-k-keerai,paala-k-keerai,mana-k-keerai,vaazhakkaa,vaazha-p-poo,vaazha-ththandoy Keerai-keeroy!
Very different is a slightly built man, who comes not on but with a bicycle, peddling a single stock-in-trade intoning its name softly – Kolam! Kolam!
Whenever I see a woman washing her tiny vaasal-padi and then on that small surface, despite cares and anxieties, ill-health and a demanding day ahead of her, draw an amazing kolam, I offer her an invisible namaskaram. Perhaps the Euclidean balance of dots and loops, lines and curves on that little drawing give her the inner balance life denies her.
I do that too when crossing a modestly paid woman raking the garbage – created by you and me – into bins and from bins onto trucks.
Where in the world can one have the chance to hear , not just in the great halls of music but at street-temples, Vidwan T.M. Krishna offer the emotionally wrenching Brindavana Saranga with the tremulous passion of a divine supplication, Vijay Siva render an Ahiri with the delicacy of a twilight before moonrise, a 'tanam' delivered masterfully by Sanjay Subramaniam with aortic pulsation and Aruna Sairam, Bombay Jayshree, Sudha Raghunathan, Souwmya, Sangeetha Sivakumar and Nityashree invest in their singing the gold of their great gift ?
And where other than in Chennai can we hear the listeners melt away discussing the recitals' finer points, their 'hits' and 'near-misses'? The dissection is surgical. After all, we are the nation’s musical and medical capital.
If there is one reason above all why I feel what I do about Chennai is that despite irritating exceptions, Chennai has in abundance the one thing that is priceless, nambikkai. And nambikkai is at the core of one person’s respect for another. It is either there, or not there. It has, simply, to be.
Chennai personifies nambikkai.
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is the former the Governor of West Bengal. He is the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari)