Chennai is India’s oldest modern city and yet not many tourists are aware of this fact

Bengalis love to travel. Take Tagore, for example. Even old age and constant suffering from piles couldn’t stop him from crossing the seas and writing about people who fascinated him abroad. Those not as fortunate as him make do with travelling within India (right from Kashmir to Kanyakumari) or within Bengal (Darjeeling, Digha, or Puri in next-door Orissa) — but travel they must. It still escapes me why we’ve never had a Bengali Bruce Chatwin or a Paul Theroux.

So there I was, sitting next to a Bengali family on the morning flight from Kolkata to Chennai. I was returning home after spending an eventful Puja in the City of Joy. For me, the holiday had come to an end, but for my neighbours in the plane, the holiday had just begun. After celebrating Durga Puja in Kolkata, the family of four was now headed for Thiruvananthapuram. They were going to divide the next 10 days between Kovalam, Kanyakumari, Tiruchi, Madurai and, finally, Chennai.

The man unveiled his travel itinerary for me after he had asked the basic questions: What did I do in Chennai? What is my connection with Kolkata? What was ‘madam’s’ (my wife’s) occupation? Did we have any issues (as in children)? He then told me about his recent visit to Assam (he had gone there alone, on work) and even plucked the Sony Vaio from his son’s lap to show me pictures from the trip. Soon after, I dozed off and woke up only when the plane touched down at Chennai.

As the aircraft taxied to the parking bay — the family was to remain seated for the onward journey to Thiruvananthapuram — the man pulled out a notebook and a pen and asked me: “So what are the places to see in Chennai?” My mind suddenly went blank.

I didn’t know what to say; even though this is one question I should be able to answer even in my sleep, considering that I work for the largest newspaper in Chennai and have even written a book on the city.

After an embarrassing silence, I reluctantly suggested Mahabalipuram (which is not even within city limits), Marina beach (would they find it any different from the beaches at Digha or Puri?), Fort St. George (I wasn’t even sure if they would be easily let in) and Mylapore (what if they are not interested in visiting temples?). The man dutifully noted down the names of the places, thanked me and shook my hand.

As I climbed down the ladder and got into the airport bus, I asked myself: “Why didn’t I have ready answers when he asked me, ‘What are the places to see in Chennai?’ Does Chennai really have no places for the tourist to see, or is it just me?”

So when I walked into office that afternoon, I decided to throw the same question at a bunch of colleagues who sat in a small circle exchanging gossip. “Imagine I am a tourist coming from Mumbai,” I told them, “What will you say if I were to ask you what are the places to see in Chennai?”

There was silence. Everybody was thinking hard. Finally, someone said: “Marina!” Another said, “How about Mylapore?” Yet another suggested Mahabalipuram. So I wasn’t the only one to scratch my head before reluctantly coming up with names of places. Chennai isn’t exactly the destination for a tourist: there is nothing much to see within the city, as testified by The Rough Guide: ‘Hot, congested and noisy, it is the major transportation hub of the South, but most travellers stay just long enough to book a ticket for somewhere else.’ Why so, I know.

Chennai may not have a Red Fort or a Marine Drive or a Victoria Memorial, but it is India’s oldest modern city and yet not many tourists are aware of this fact. Forget tourists; even several friends in Kolkata were not aware of the fact that their city came into existence a good fifty years after Madras was born. They thought — and still foolishly think — that Calcutta came before Madras. Clearly, Madras has not been presented in the right perspective by the tourism industry. To understand India’s oldest modern city, — and to understand how modern India began — a whistle-stop tour of Chennai is not enough. You need to spend some time here and soak in its flavours — just like tur dal soaks in tamarind juice during the preparation of sambar. Suddenly you will realise there is so much to ‘see’ here.

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