A place called home

Writer-dancer Tulsi Badrinath with her book. Photo: M. Moorthy

Writer-dancer Tulsi Badrinath with her book. Photo: M. Moorthy  

Just off the confusion of Adyar’s M.G. Road, is a sliver of a lane that leads into an oasis of quiet. Enter this residential colony, and a few houses in, stands a red gate with a profusion of greenery gushing over its name board: Badrinath. Born in Madras, to parents brought up in Uttar Pradesh, Bharatanatyam dancer and writer Tulsi Badrinath has nourished her insider-outsider relationship with Chennai from this house for about four decades now. Her latest work of non-fiction, Madras, Chennai and the Self, looks to people and neighbourhoods far from her own to paint a picture of this city.

Structured as a series of interview-profiles, the book reflects the city as a pastiche of the people who call it home. The story that emerges is of a city with a foot each in modernity and tradition. “All our lives straddle Madras and Chennai simultaneously, subconsciously. But, somehow, there’s that simplistic understanding of Madras as boring and rigid, and Chennai as hip and happening, which isn’t true. Madras, when it was formed, was modern for its times; it saw the kind of events and changes that the world experienced only subsequently,” emphasises Tulsi. To tell this dichotomy, Tulsi chose for the first of her 12 subjects K. Seshadri, a Hindu priest who went on to make a life as a black-belt in karate. His tale, for Tulsi, embodied that delicate present-day balance between the desires of the individual and the constraints of community.

The famous and the everyday share page space in Madras, Chennai and the Self. In the story of actor Vikram, Tulsi draws out what it means for a man who’d achieved “the dream of millions in the city” to be confined to a hospital room during his accident: “We see him as the superstar who has everything, but its his very fame that curbs his freedom of movement, restricts his experience of the city to the areas where he won’t be mobbed,” says Tulsi. For memories of the city’s tryst with cricket in the ‘70s, Tulsi interviewed V. Ramnarayan, and found the “modern game” co-existing happily with the deeply traditional roots of the classical arts magazine that Ramnarayan edits. And with gynaecologist Uma Ram, Tulsi notes that for all the city’s progress, some of its superstitions are entrenched far in the past. To prove further that all is not rosy in this oft-romanticised city, Tulsi speaks with civil engineer A. Faizur Rahman, from North Chennai, who tells of the landscape from his childhood staying static through his adulthood, for development had often overlooked his slice of the city.

Threading through these stories is Tulsi’s own. From her birth in a house at Foreshore Estate that embedded forever in her the “sound of the sea”, to her years as a dancer, the book slips in quick snapshots from Tulsi’s early memories. “I started learning dance when I was eight. It was there, for instance, that I inherited a whole host of kinship terms — athai, mama, etc — all of which I’d never had, but was now proud to own,” she recalls. Despite her upbringing with non-Tamil parents, Tulsi says, with her “ayoos, and ayyayoos”, she’s grown to be very Tamil in her thinking. It’s these vignettes of her relationship with Madras that fed into her two books of fiction — Meeting Lives and Man Of A Thousand Chances, as well as her previous work of non-fiction Master of Arts: A Life in Dance, set in Chennai’s classical dance milieu. The Madras in her latest book, though, is one that Tulsi says she had little control over: “That’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction, right? With the first, you can set the scene as your imagination wills you to; here, you reflect with honest the story that reveals itself to you.”

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2020 4:39:44 PM |

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