Lit for Life

A city in stories

Veteran writer Sivasankari’s Madras is a very different version of the city that it is today. “I am a T Nagar girl who was born on Boag Road and grew up on Thirumalai Pillai Road,” she says. The T Nagar of the Thirties and the Forties, was far removed from the traffic-snarled, building-clogged shopping hub of today. She remembers with fondness the deserted, open space that surrounded her big house. “My pet was a deer. You can imagine what it must have been like back then,” says Sivasankari, who was recently part of a discussion titled ‘Chennai and its Chroniclers’ held to celebrate Madras Day.

The discussion, organised by The Hindu in association with Starmark Bookstore, Express Avenue, is the first of a series of events leading up to the publication’s annual Lit For Life event to be held between January 14 and 16, 2018. The talk, that was introduced by writer-columnist S Muthiah, also featured city-based writer Krishna Shastri Devulapalli and was moderated by music historian and heritage activist, V Sriram. Through that freewheeling discussion that skimmed across Chennai’s evolution, its lost treasures, the way it inspires literature and the people who made it what it was and is, one was able to explore a myriad, multi-faceted city, brimming with laughter and stories.

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears,” said Italian writer Italo Calvino. Devulapalli must agree. A T Nagar boy too (but the T Nagar of the 70s, not 40s), some of his fondest (and funniest) memories of the city he grew up in, are of watching “different” kinds of movies at the Rajakumari theatre here.

He chased those sessions with trysts at Blue Diamond, he says with a grin. “Rajakumari was about theory and Blue Diamond was about practicals,” he adds, while his audience at the Starmark Bookstore dissolved into peals of laughter.

Chennai, Madras rather, like most cities, is not a single one, but a complex amalgamation of them sliced and sutured by its people, history, places and heritage. Sivasankari’s Madras is slow and beautiful, punctuated by memories of silk saris from Nalli, masala dosas eaten under greenery at Woodland’s Drive-In, peach melba at Jaffar’s and an uncluttered Panagal Park. “It was a lovely place to grow up in,” she says, pointing out that the city was and still continues to be “culturally vibrant”.

Mixed metaphors

It can also be very unkind. At least it seems that way. “When I first started writing, people assumed it was my husband writing under my name,” she says. That hurt, as did the mud-slinging that happened when she wrote about somewhat controversial subjects like homosexuality, adultery and divorce.

“People used to say that I wrote about all this because I was like that,” says the force behind the one-of-its-kind Knit India through Literature project that saw her putting together four extensive bilingual volumes of writing culled from across the country. “But my husband said that it was the price I was paying for being popular,” she says.

Devulapalli, on the other hand, will probably not win a Mr Popularity prize. His friends and family often find themselves in his fiction, for instance.

“I change names so I don’t have to worry about law suits,” he says. And then of course, there is his penchant for finding the sacrosanct, highly “lampoonable”. Some of his favourite targets include the Carnatic music circuit, the publishing world, the NRI clusters, the TASMAC sub-culture and the film industry. “I grew up in a family of writers, dancers, artists, so I needed humour to get by,” grins Devulapalli.

Unfortunately, despite the wealth of culture and writing the city has to offer, it appears to be slightly neglected by most publishers and bookstore owners. “To get the logo of a North Indian publisher on your book is almost as difficult as getting Sunny Leone’s number,” quips Devulapalli, who incidentally has a book published by the same publisher as Leone.

Muthiah, who has spent decades chronicling a city he loves and knows it better than most of its inhabitants, agrees.

“There are at least 160 books (English) on Madras at the moment. Where have they gone?”

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 3:45:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/lit-for-life/a-city-in-stories/article19551484.ece

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