Candid about Chennai

Journalist-author Bishwanath Ghosh's latest book “Tamarind City” attempts to analyse and define Chennai with honesty and sensitivity

May 16, 2012 05:24 pm | Updated June 14, 2012 04:20 pm IST

AT THE LAUNCH FUNCTION (From left) V. Sriram, historian, Bishwanath Ghosh, journalist-author; S. Muthiah, historian; N. Ram, Director, The Hindu; Sunandha Ragunathan and Aarabi Veeraraghavan.

AT THE LAUNCH FUNCTION (From left) V. Sriram, historian, Bishwanath Ghosh, journalist-author; S. Muthiah, historian; N. Ram, Director, The Hindu; Sunandha Ragunathan and Aarabi Veeraraghavan.

Ghosh did not set out with any pretensions of being a younger rival to Muthiah, said N. Ram, Director, Kasturi & Sons and former Editor-in-Chief, The Hindu, during the launch of “Tamarind City”, a book on Madras, by journalist-author Bishwanath Ghosh. After handing its first copy to the acclaimed chronicler of Madras' history, S. Muthiah, Ram explained that the book did not claim to be an exhaustive or authoritative study of Chennai and its culture. A candid and semi-autobiographical work, it was punctuated with interesting propositions, hypotheses and assertions.

Ghosh's attempt at dissecting and defining Madras was softened by a rare sensitivity, because choice — and not chance — had led him to the city. Ram explained that lured and slowly seduced by Chennai, Ghosh took a ‘cold-blooded' decision to sever all ties of the heart, which included leaving his girlfriend, and move to the city a decade ago. Rajiv Menon's “Kandukondein Kandukondein” had partly shaped this decision — Ram stopped short of explaining how and why.

An outsider's view

Ram said the work had a tone of modesty that was appealing — a modesty born out of the writer's realisation that he was a Kanpur-born outsider who had spent most of his life outside south India. Ghosh, who is now City Editor of The Hindu , said that as an outsider writing about Madras, he had to work hard towards making an objective assessment of its people.

Stating that the book, published by Tranquebar, bore the stamp of the journalistic craft, Ram provided snippets of the interesting encounters it reports, which include an interview with the number two sexologist in the country and the chance friendship of Pugazhendi, a journalist-filmmaker, who takes the writer to a place imbued with the authentic sights and sounds of Chennai.

Ghosh discusses how Chennai is now the stage for a marriage between tradition and transformation and a chapter on sex in the city sharpens the focus on the subject. Commenting on the chapter, Ram said there was nothing salacious there. Written tongue-in-cheek, it held a lot of surprises.

Despite an overarching lightness, the book deals with some dark themes such as recurring reports of self-immolation, sometimes a fall-out of politics. Quoting from the book, Ram narrated silly incidents that triggered grisly acts — a woman upset by her husband's disapproval of her dinner menu immolating herself and another woman setting herself ablaze because a few misguided youths had directed lewd comments at her — and termed it a social malaise. He also pointed out the culpability of political parties in perpetuating this ghastly practice.


Summarising the book, Chennai's cultural historian, V. Sriram, referred to its three-dimensional nature. Besides analysing the present in the backdrop of the past, it anticipated the future. It nailed the contradictions and paradoxes that make Madras what it is. Atheism is a public posture, but religion continues to be strong, explained Sriram. He lauded Ghosh's effort at projecting the insider's view — to give just one example, the book looks at the obsession with Kollywood, not through the eyes of a critic, but a yesteryear heroine's.

Muthiah said the tagline — ‘Where Modern India Began' — that boldly confers the title of ‘first modern city in India' on Madras was a perfect illustration of reality. He expressed joy at the rise of younger chroniclers of Madras such as Ghosh, on the horizon. He said N. S. Ramaswamy and Harry Miller started out on the Madras trail and he (Muthiah) had followed them. V. Sriram was the answer to the question: who next? When the question was asked again, Bishwanath had come up as the answer.

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