Chennai is changing and Honey Singh is on the soundtrack

Any visitor to Chennai, before 2010, who has travelled by a Metropolitan Transport Corporation bus would have noticed that most conductors only spoke Tamil. Even if the commuter was obviously a newcomer (White Caucasians and Africans were exempt) and the conductor knew some English, the medium of communication would remain Tamil, even when haggling for change. This, after all, is the heartland of the anti-Hindi agitation; one of the two states Indira Gandhi called “islands of indiscipline”.

I was taken aback, on a recent visit to the city, when I heard a conductor say “Change nahi hai. Paanch rupaiya do tum.” (I don’t have change. Give me five rupees). In the home of the Dravidian movement, his utterance was sacrilegious.

Yes, the winds of change had been softly blowing for a few years. When my father went to college in Chennai in the seventies, commands in National Cadet Corps were in English and not in Hindi like the rest of India. By the time I had enlisted in the 1 Tamil Nadu Navy in 2003, commands were in Hindi.

During a felicitation of workers at the new Assembly and Secretariat Complex— currently being converted into a hospital— in Omandurar Estate, in 2010, Hindi songs were played. This was done as most of the workforce was from the Northern and Eastern states and they were more at home with Hindi than Tamil. When former Editor of The Hindu N. Ram pointed this out to M. Karunanidhi, then CM, he replied, “Hindi is all right for songs, but not needed for Tamil Nadu.”

Hindi has found its way from the construction sites and shantee towns to MTC buses and TASMAC liquor vends. This sea change has been brought about by economic compulsion. Our workers now speak Hindi. On every bus I took during my Chennai visit, I could hear Bhojpuri, Odia and Bangla being spoken. A decade back, someone would have commented aloud, “Yo, Tamizhnaattile Tamizhil pesu pa!” (Speak Tamil in Tamil Nadu!)

And it’s not just the chatter on the bus, Hindi songs play from the ubiquitous mobile phones of every third passerby. Hindi is on FM Radio and the drumsticks almost jumped out of my sambar when I heard Honey Singh singing on the radio at a Kaiyendhi Bhavan (idli-dosa pushcart) near Vadapalani Andavar Koil.

It sounded like a Tamil song at first, before the unmistakable “Yo Yo Honey Singh-uh” blared out. Controversial and popular Punjabi singer has recorded a song “Ethir Neechal” for a film with same name with Hip Hop Tamizha Adhi and Anirudh Ravichander, last year. It was produced by actor Dhanush, who was noticed north of the Godavari after his song “Kolaveri di” went viral in 2011.

I soon discovered that Honey Singh was everywhere— from Kutthu Parota stalls to Malli Poo corners. Like cricketer M. S. Dhoni, Honey Singh too had now become Tamil.

It is a ritual for most Tamilian youth of my generation, to share a beer (pronounced beeeeeeer in Tamil) with a friend before boarding a bus. I went to a watering hole near Valluvar Kottam to perform this ritual before I left town.

The place had two groups of boys and one large group of college girls on separate tables. The girls danced in revelry, unmindful of the lustful glances from the other tables. The boys, like most Chennai boys, were apprehensive to enter the dance floor. The tension gradually began to build. Just then the DJ put Honey Singh’s “Angreji Weed De/ Beat De” on the turntable.

One group of boys slowly made it to the dance floor. A couple of girls joined them. For someone like me, who had come from Delhi, this was a remarkable moment. This was not an upmarket pub. It was little better than a Haryana-border kind of pub where men are expected to be a little aggressive and women would be absent. Hell, it was Honey Singh playing. But here, it was peaceful and relaxed.

Also, these were regular Nungambakkam boys in a pub opposite Valluvar Kottam. Where did they find the guts to dance with girls? Chennai has changed. Yo Yo the Honey Singh-uh!