'When I chanced upon J.N. Bellin's 18th century map of Madras, I felt proud of my connection'
Long before I moved to Madras, its maps moved me. I had been here as a child, of course, dragged reluctantly from one relative's house to the next, my cheeks pinched by unknown aunties in between endless and unwelcome tumblers of Horlicks. But when I chanced upon J.N. Bellin's 18th century map of the city — or, more precisely, Fort St. George and its environs — at the stall of an antiquarian book dealer in Buenos Aires in 1995, and Herman Moll's 1726 street plan, I felt proud of my connection to those yellowing outlines of early urban life. I lived in New York at the time but was headed back home to Delhi. Sixteen years later, in September 2011, I finally made Madras my home.
A former colleague in Delhi warned me about what living in Chennai would involve. He had once dropped in on someone in the evening for a lengthy chat but the expected sundowner never came. After an hour, as he made to leave, his host said, “I say, let's have a small one.” My friend gratefully settled down again, only to see his host reappear with two small tumblers of ... Horlicks.
After five months here, I can testify that things have changed for the better since then. But truth be told, Chennai does not command the affection of newcomers in the same easy way that some other cities in India and abroad do. I knew Chennai would look nothing like the cartographic depictions and early photographs of Madras I had grown to love from afar. The wide empty spaces on those maps have been filled in, as they had to be, to keep pace with the city's growing population, but, as in other Indian cities, this has happened in a haphazard and unlovely way, with wilful neglect of its amazing architectural heritage.
Even if I make allowances for my enforced bachelorhood — my wife is waiting for leave from Delhi University, where she teaches — the demands of my new job have not allowed me to explore the city and claim it as my own. I have yet to walk on the beach. Or wander aimlessly through the streets of Triplicane or Egmore or Mylapore that seem, from a distance, to be filled with mystery and promise. In the entire Margazhi season, all I managed to fit in was a (brilliant) performance by Malavika Sarukkai. I find the traffic, especially the drive to and from the airport, atrocious, not to speak of the airport itself. But boarding a train from Egmore is a pleasure, as is stopping to browse for a book, walking in the Theosophical Society grounds or grabbing a quick roadside snack.
As I devote more time to exploring the city, I know I will feel more rooted and settled here. But in the meantime, here's a fairly arbitrary list of the ten things I like very much about Chennai.
1. Driving to work via the beach road in the morning, with the Bay of Bengal on one side and beautiful old buildings like the police headquarters, Presidency College and the University on the other.
2. Having a civilised snack of idlis or pongal at the airport, the perfect antidote to the frenetic drive to reach there.
3. The concept of “meals ready”, the quality of the coffee and the care my local coffee merchant takes to grind her beans down to the perfect consistency for my espresso machine, the varieties of bananas available in the market — a huge improvement over the standard yellow Cavendish that you get in Delhi and elsewhere in the world — and delicious Dindigul-style biryani and other non-vegetarian dishes, most of which I never ate before, let alone associated with “Tamil food.”
4. The smell of mallipu, or jasmine, on the streets and markets, in offices and everywhere.
5. The fact that villains are called “rowdies”, that they have their own argot and come with evocative names like “Punk” Kumar, “Boxer” Vadivel and “Military” Kumar, and that Chennai has Ladies' Detective Agencies who may not crack serious cases like Hollywood P.I.s but who help assure nervous parents that the “alliance” they have struck for their daughter is a safe one.
6. The great bookshops the city has such as Higginbothams and Oxford and the fact that young people in Chennai care enough about reading and learning and about the public institutions that sustain these that they would launch a movement to save the Anna Library from being needlessly relocated.
7. The ease with which friendships are made and people open up. Unlike Bombay, where money and status are important, and Delhi, where connections are flaunted, the Chennaiite seems more down to earth and welcoming.
8. The Government Museum, with its outstanding collection that can keep one occupied for hours, and the active art scene, typified by the number of talented city artists and by events like the recent Art Chennai.
9. The new Assembly complex opposite The Hindu. A marvellous, innovative example of public architecture, I was hoping the State government, which decided not to move the Secretariat there, would turn it into a cultural centre that would be the pride of India. Alas, that is not to be.
10. Spaces, the wonderful open air complex on Elliot's Beach Road where, one March evening, I heard the local poet Tishani Doshi recite her work and decided, finally, that Madras may have made way for Chennai, Horlicks may still be the malt of choice for many, but the city is definitely worth living in.
Siddharth Varadarajan is the editor of The Hindu.