It is always a debate, at least in one’s head, for folks from this southern city. Is it Chennai, is it Madras? Which one do we pick? Is one really a city, and the other, an emotion? For a city that is celebrating its 383rd birthday this week, this question has always been simmering under the surface, since the name change in 1996.
It glistens like the mirage the city roads become, under a blazing sun on a hot May noon, forcing one to choose, but also frustrating the choice. It’s not a judgement, whatever one decides, about whether you care or not, because despite what you pick, this city is an invitation to be a destination, the place you chose to be yours, where you live your life and the only city where you come to retire and roost.
S. Muthiah was very clear. For the late author and historian, this city was Madras, and he was, in some senses, the grand old man of Madras. Much of what we know about this city and its rich colonial heritage we owe to him. A talented raconteur, especially in person, enriched by a sparkle in his eye, and his tongue mostly in his cheek, Muthiah celebrated Madras, he wrote Madras out. Revising his books over several volumes, he chronicled a past but one that sashayed its way into the present, with an eye on the future. For how else do you describe a living city?
Guided by nostalgia
His 1981 book, Madras Discovered subsequently retitled Madras Rediscovered ran into several editions, was probably the beginning of the pursuit. A historical book that’s all nostalgia, is a guide for those who wish to find out more about his city. It’s what he discovered, through research, some solid leg work, speaking to the old families of Chennai, and some gossip, and he presents it to his readers. With some fascinating black and white pictures and maps, the book spans a wide berth in Muthiah’s usual style — industry, governance, politics, films, food, streets and gutters — because there was nothing that did not interest him. He said the book merely scratched the surface; there were several more books the city held in the bosom, ready to give it up to those who teased it out of her. So Muthiah had many more books — including Madras Miscellany, a collection of his columns that appeared in The Hindu Metro Plus.
Counting itself among the city’s own, The Hindu has brought out a couple of publications that showcase the metro, shining a light on its mutability, capturing the nostalgia caught in the web between the years. Icons of Madras and Memories of Madras help us learn about the city from its landmarks and celebrities, past and present.
If you have spent time with Muthiah’s books, then, do spend some time with A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s compendium: Chennai not Madras: Perspectives on the City. He harnesses his bilingual prowess to place himself on the other side of the Madras-Chennai spectrum, sitting comfortable with the latter, over the ‘anglicisation’ of the former. The book is a wonderful compendium of articles by a range of people, discussing vignettes and issues dredged up from the Tamil past of the city – Vallalar, Ayothidas, Potti Sriramulu, the labour movement, Ashokamitran, Prabanjan.
Coffee and history
If it’s a warm, emotionally-connected, enchantingly-told point of view you are looking for, then, Nirmala Lakshman’s Degree Coffee by the Yard is essential reading. A short biography of Madras, packaged so it could fit into a large pocket, the book contains sharp observations about the city by someone who has lived there many years, grew up in it and acknowledges the contradictions it holds. So, naturally, the author dips into Madras and reaches for Chennai, subtly melding one into the other, letting us know that they both come from one.
Two coffee table books on Chennai that will be a valuable addition to bookshelves are Madras Inked, and Madras Then/Chennai Now. While the former, released during the pandemic, is a visual collection of ink drawings by Manohar Devadoss, and notes on them by architect Sujatha Sankar, the latter harks back to the dichotomous city. The book, by Nanditha Krishna, Tishani Doshi, and Pramod Kapoor, produces fine archival images of events from the past drawn from museums and galleries and personal collections.
The real and the fictional
While clearly all cities figure in some way in a lot of fiction, Madras is a key persona in Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People which is set in 1990s Madras, and Padma Venkataraman’s The Bridge Home that deals with a key aspect of the city – children of the street. Well in the realm of non-fiction, Krupa Ge’s Rivers Remember: The Shocking Truth of a Manmade Flood, sifts through the drama of the 2015 floods in Chennai to shake out truths that rendered the city extraordinarily vulnerable, even given the scale of natural disaster. This book stands out because it knows the city, its lanes and encroached-upon lakebeds, the people that contributed to the disaster, and the ones that plucked it up and put it on its feet again.
If we began with Muthiah, then old jungle law dictates we must close with V. Sriram, who picked up the baton from his mentor, and his sarcasm. Chennai: A Biography, a recent publication about ‘all that is Madras’, is a tome that does just that. And as the wheels turn, again, the dichotomy pops up again, as it indeed will, repeatedly, but for the cognisant people, Chennai is where they live, and Madras, the city they celebrate.