Ode to Chennai, a metropolis with a mind of its own

Ours is a city where unknown and unnamed diseases incubate in uncountable measure because we are callous, short-sighted and downright irresponsible—Photo: M. Karunakaran

Ours is a city where unknown and unnamed diseases incubate in uncountable measure because we are callous, short-sighted and downright irresponsible—Photo: M. Karunakaran  

Chennai may have proliferating waste, sewer rats, mosquitoes and bad traffic but it is an intellectual city. Its people are real. It does not fake.

Respected Chancellor, esteemed Pro Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Teachers , Officers, Staff and Students of the University of Madras, I greet you on the occasion of your 158th Annual Convocation and extend to all those graduating from the university today my warm felicitations and best wishes for a future of great fulfilment.

It is customary for the Chief Guest’s address on a convocation day to be laden with words of advice. I am not going to follow that custom. Rather, I would like to invite the new graduates and post graduates, to journey with me, briefly, on a survey of life around us, of the scene here, in our very own city of Chennai and in our beloved state of Tamil Nadu. You belong, as I do, to Chennai, most of you, and to Tamil Nadu. So what I describe is what you and I are witness to, complicit in, and part of Chennai.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Let me start with three things that are good and great about our city, famous for having the largest number of temples, medical shops and posters to a street.

First, it is a real city. Its people are real. Their problems are real, their poverty, their misery is real. So are their joys and their sense of fun. Their creativity, their improvisations are real too. Even Chennai’s world of cinema, of makeup and make-believe has become a real part of its life. Chennai does not fake, does not pretend. And above all, Chennai handles real life, in a real way, making of that reality what it can. You could say India is like that and so it is but in being true to itself, Chennai can be said to be India’s teacher.

Who, tell me, or where, can make of one piece of rag, a roof, two broken branches of a tree two pillars and sell from under that contrivance, half a dozen vazhaipazham or koyyaa, with the pride of an Express Mall? Where else can you find an old dealwood box become a shop counter at which a woman makes and sells jasmine strings held together by the work of her fingers alone, no needle running the thread through. She is artist and vendor, that woman, apart from being a wife, mother, daughter. Before her open corner, air conditioned florist shops look like funeral parlours. Where else does an old tyre become a seat from which a man repairs shoes with the elan of a Bata Shoe Company?

Look at the expressions on the faces of these people of Chennai. When they are happy, which is often, they laugh out as loud as the roar of thunder. When they are angry, which is rare, their faces will show rage or contempt in a flash and their words will say it witheringly – like that ‘ Poyyaaa!’ can be said with a hundred inflections. T.Balasarasvati could have shown them in bewitching abhinaya. PO-yyaa, poYYaa, PoyAAA…Our women do not conceal their thoughts. No one can mess with them. That is good, honest and wise.

Second, Chennai is a metropolis with a mind of its own. It can, alongside Kolkata, be described as an intellectual metro. ‘Metro’, incidentally, comes from ‘mother’. A metropolis is ‘Mother City’. Mothers whether graduates or not, are highly intellectual, believe me. There is an old Hindi film song… Maa, meri Gita se bari…teri do batiyaan…’. You know enough Hindi to know that means ‘Your two words, Ma, are greater for me than the Gita itself…’ This intellectual mother city has corner shops and stalls that sell every variety of newspaper, superb journals, well-brought out magazines – including, I must say a lot of rubbish – with unflagging speed. Not just to the highly educated but to the barely educated, barely clothed. Its streets abound in reading rooms, small lending libraries, bookshops that sell first hand, second hand, third hand, first rate, second rate and of course third rate literature, but literature all right. Its walls have posters with intricate political messages, ideological statements which are read by passers-by with more than passing interest. If you see in a Chennai newspaper the list of that day’s happenings you will see meetings being organised by study circles ranging from Gandhi to Ambedkar, Periyar to J Krishnamurti, Marx to Einstein, every single day. No wonder a person like Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, born to a Telugu-speaking mother, chose this mother city as his home.

Third, Chennai is a city with the most extraordinary cultural resources. No other place in the world has as many music halls that double up as meeting halls, small or big, five star or zero star, as Chennai does. And each one of them is booked, day after day, night after night, with some form of high or trying-to-be-high performance, described sometimes simply as a concert, sometimes as a grand concert. And many of them, I would say, a majority of them, offer music and dance of the highest class which, in Vienna or Paris, would be termed high art. ‘All Are Welcome’ is a surely a Chennai phrase, signifying the bandwidth of the city’s cultural life. No wonder Tanjore Balasarasvati and Madurai Subbulakshmi became so comfortable in Madras, as the city was then called. Outside of halls, on the streets of Chennai, culture thrives, through the dust and smells and murderous heat, in the shape of what the rich call ‘folk art’ and the poor see as their moment of unrepressed self-expression. And, largely unacknowledged, is the presence of museums and galleries in the city, starting with the world-renowned museum at Egmore, that display sculpture and artefacts of unbelievable value and variety, paintings and photographs. We can be proud to be Chennaivasi.

But pride becomes conceit if it is un-accompanied by honesty. So, let me now turn to three things that are not so good or great and are, in fact, positively wrong about our city and therefore about us.

First, our civic sense. Chennai’s civic sense is an affront to the senses. Of what self-purifying or uplifting use, what earthly or heavenly use, can the temple-at-every possible step be if the Chennai male spits and urinates at every possible corner, crevice and culvert? Of what use, earthly or divine, is the triple smear of vibhuti on forehead, chest and arms, the daub of sandalwood , the pat of kumkumam and strings of charms or rudrakshams if everything around us smells as overpoweringly of human excrement? It is utterly hypocritical on our part to blame the civic authorities, our Corporation, of not keeping the city streets clean, if we maltreat our surroundings 24x7 as we do.

The conservancy staff that clears the mounds upon mounds of garbage we generate deserves not just our gratitude but our apology for doing its work without our help. Those nameless, faceless women and men who rake out the filth and heap it on mobile bins or on trucks are our silent saviours. And yet we resent the garbage lorries that cross us to collect our garbage, curse them in our minds for being slow, smelly, but, believe me, they are more important and more deserving of respect than the temple chariots that block our paths every so often in futile repetitiveness, or the tinted-glass air-conditioned Sumos carrying the mighty from one mysterious venue to another. We litter, we throw, we abandon our waste and in so doing abandon our claim to be civic citizens. We stop at shrine after shrine to genuflect, hands to ears or to forehead, seeking heavenly pardon or divine grace. Well, that is our practice, our need. If only we also stopped, even a fraction as often, to pick up plastic refuse and tetrapak or thermocol waste and, pausing at every garbage heap, reflect on the garbage we have created! Ours may be the city where Tiruvalluvar is believed many

centuries ago to have lived , where Mudarignar Rajaji, Thanthai Periyar, Perunthalaivar Kamaraj,

Arignar Anna and Sangita Kalanidhi M.S. Subbulakshmi lived, but the fact is that ours is also the city where sewage rats proliferate in their millions, mosquitoes breed in their billions and unknown and un-named diseases incubate in uncountable measure not because so-called ‘authorities’ are neglectful but because we are callous, sort-sighted and downright irresponsible. The authorities are not heaven-made. They are a limb of society. And we are that society. Make no mistake, dengue and chikunguniya today and - who knows ? – plague and rabies tomorrow will not be caused by an inefficient administration but by our own cynical life-styles. Have you noticed that almost all bird life except the crow has vanished from our city ? The crow eats carrion and human waste but it does not spare little nestlings and eggs of other birds. The crow has virtually decimated other bird species and squirrels. But the crow is not to be blamed for its murderous proliferation. It is we how are to blame for giving it the basic sustenance to breed by our life-style and waste-style. And, to cap it all, by some weird superstitious belief, we then also feed the overfed and clever crow! And stray dogs that survive and breed on human throwaways have reached alarming numbers. Let us not, again, blame the Corporation. It is we, not the civic body that create the conditions for the poor stray dog to breed.

All this is not just a matter of spitting and urinating and creating garbage in cynical abandon. We do not care about where all this is going, about how it is being disposed of. Is it polluting the outskirts of the city, creating rural mountains made of urban filth? Look at the way those who build and renovate their homes dig up the pavements, create little hillocks of rubble and debris, leaving them forever on the roadside. We are a real people, a brainy people, a cultured people. But we are also a callous citizenry, a self-absorbed, self-promoting, self-deluding and ultimately, self-murdering people.

Second, our road sense by which I mean the way we negotiate our movement on roads is scandalous. Other cities may be bad or worse but our problem is not lessened by that comparative fact. And the biggest offender, I might even say ‘culprit’ is the motor cyclist. No one is above the law except the motor cyclist. I take it that many if not most of you graduating students of MU are motor cyclists. So please take this as addressed to you. The motor cyclist competes with the mosquito is whizzing through every millimetre of space and how it stings! The poor pedestrian is the biggest victim of the motor cyclist’s dizzying hurry. His utter irresponsibility is nowhere more evident than in the way he treats his pillion-rider, invariably a woman or child. He doesn’t seem to care that he can imperil their lives, kill or worse, cripple them for ever. Head cocked on one side to keep the mobile phone pinned down, driving with his mind in another world, he is a hazard to life. Chennai’s motor cyclist should be made to realise what traffic laws are meant to mean. But the motor cyclist is really more than a traffic menace. He represents hurry.

There is another hurry around us. The hurry to build, which is accompanied by the hurry to destroy.

The sharp-toothed bulldozers of destruction which can reduce a building to pulp in a matter of hours and the large cones of cement which can build on the destroyed site within days, are about hurry as well, a hurry to reap in profits as quickly as possible. And the result? Roadsides that are permanently dug-up, footpaths with heaps of sand and cement bags on it. And huge water drawals, for building and later for piped supply to those vertical shafts of cement concrete. Gracious buildings, built with taste not haste are pulverised to create giant structures which have little aesthetic appeal and less social justification. Chennai is a city in a hurry. To get where, to do what? I wish I knew it knew.

This brings me to the third wrong, our sense of right and wrong. Chennai is overlooking some human tragedies being enacted right under its gaze. Simply put, this is the huge and widening divide between the very rich and the destitute in our city. If the number of cars and motor cycles has risen dizzyingly, the number of vagrants in the city is also rising at an alarming rate. And they symbolise the great divide. It is utterly wrong that sky-scraping buildings should rise in our city, both for residential and professional purposes, that will pull out ground water in profligate quantities, when thousands upon thousands of people in the city have to pump up water physically from derelict, broken down, hand-pumps at street corners. Just because some people have the means can they be allowed to build as if the sky is not the limit? Do we have a sense of our city’s water limit? Let us not again blame the authorities for giving permissions, clearances. Who asks for them? Who facilitates them? Is there any clearance without an applicant? To blame the government for our city’s unwholesome expansion is like a person whose life-style has given him diabetes, blaming his pancreas.

You, products of Madras University, can choose to be part of the greatness of Chennai or part of its problems. I hope you will choose right.

Tamil Nadu

We are rightly proud to belong to this state. Speaking for myself being a resident of Tamil Nadu, and descended from Tamil ancestors is an identity I cherish. Let me quickly enumerate three things that make our State great.

The first is its breaking the back of caste discrimination. The battle is not over yet but it has achieved phenomenal success, becoming a role model for the rest of the country. For this we have no one more to thank than Thanthai Periyar and the self respect movement that he started. We cannot also forget the pioneering role played by the Congress prior to independence against untouchability. And I do not doubt that Tamil Nadu’s example of success in reservations will help the nation counter attempts to reverse the policy of affirmative action.

The second is its tradition of religious accord. There is a dangerous wave of religious intolerance that is being set afloat in the county. Tamil Nadu can be sure to rebuff, stoutly and spontaneously, any attempts to introduce religious and communal majoritarianism on the wings of electoral majorities. For this we have to thank every major political movement in the state for having kept secularism and pluralism at the forefront of its agenda.

The third is the remarkable improvement in the status of its women, be it in the matter of the age of marriage, health or education. The curse of dowry is still with us and in pockets, child marriages still take place, but the woman in Tamil Nadu is no longer the under-nourished, under-educated and abused woman of some decades ago. The digital age has created a new gender deficit which enlightened policies should address.

These three contemporary achievements add to our ancient pride in our language, literature, in our civilizational heritage and its myriad manifestations. But let me now list three factors or three characteristics of ours as a people that should cause us to worry.

The first is our proneness to glorify success, success in politics, in commerce, in any field. It is not unconnected to our devotionalism. The glorification of success leads to worship of the successful and the powerful who are, by definition, successful. We as a people are inclined to trust, are ready to follow and more than willing to surrender disbelief to anyone who shows some intellectual, professional, political or moral leadership. Equally, to institutions or enterprises that show some higher purpose or calling. This has had its advantages. It rallies support for large public causes or goals. The social and political movements of the twentieth century in Tamil Nadu were strengthened by the spontaneous solidarity offered to them by our forbears.

But it is one thing to admire, to support and even to adore. It is quite another to make of anyone we admire, a cult. Cults are wrong because they deaden the faculty of reasoning, of analysis, of in fact, of understanding. They make choice irrelevant, making loyalty, not evaluation, the paramount test. This sway of cults is not confined to politics alone. It flourishes among the arts, too, and nowhere more so than in the world of the cinema and it flourishes too in religious orders, social and cultural groupings. The hold of religious orders, invariably ‘headed’ by a guru figure, never short of funds or vehicles, announcing paths to salvation, is stronger in Tamil Nadu than ever before. There is an unofficial star-rating among these religious cult personalities, some appealing to the poor and bus-using, some to the status quo-ist middle class, some to the upwardly mobile, some to the rich and very rich. But, all exploiting the devotionalism and piety of our people.

The second is our preoccupation with our regional, linguistic and cultural identity. This is self-depriving. We are looked upon – let us be aware of it – as a people who are wrapped up in our own self-importance. This is a very unfortunate image to have for our tradition is far from being that. Take the number of Tamils or residents of Tamilnadu who have become Bharat Ratnas – Rajaji, Sir CV Raman, Radhakrishnan, Giri, Perunthalaivar Kamaraj, MGR, the author of the green revolution C. Subramaniam, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Sangita Kalanithi M.S. Subbulakshmi. They were national personalities and I take this opportunity to say that it is a thousand pities that Periyar and Arignar Anna were not awarded the Bharat Ratna in their lifetimes. Take the number of Tamil soldiers who have fought for and died for the country. Take the number of Tamils in the All India Services who have served in areas far removed from their home state. It is time we corrected the misimpression that we want to live in an anthropological cave or a language enclave. We can be distinct, we should not be distant.

The third is our relationship with money. It is the most passionate. But in the case of the vast majority of us, the passion is also honest. Earnings, income and savings mean a lot to the Tamil man and Tamil woman, who is by nature, hard-working, industrious, not by any means a spendthrift, saving when possible, sharing, gladly, what he or she has. But it is a fact that we are too easily dazzled by wealth, be it the wealth of persons, corporates, or of temples. Even patronage is seen not by the height of the assistance so much as by the width of the money given. Look at the custom of presenting cheques to organisations or people. Facsimiles of the cheque are enlarged to jumbo size and presented with aplomb on the stage. Gold holds a place in the psychology of our people that is altogether unique. Temples covet gold for the deity’s crown, its jewels. Families covet it too. The hoardings for gold ornaments in Tamil Nadu have to be among the biggest such anywhere in the world. I was not surprised to find that a team of gold miners from South Africa came all the way to see the gold jewellery market of T.Nagar in Chennai. They said they did not realise until they came here that India was so affluent a country. If only they had seen the sight of the street opposite those shops. Money is blinding us. We may want to earn big, we should not let that desire blind us. Money lost can be earned back. Reputation lost is irrecoverable.

Manava-manavigale, keep all three sets of observations before you: remember what has made us great and that which keeps our great heritage from rising higher. Remember too that Tamil Nadu has as much to offer to India today and tomorrow as it did in the decades gone by. And nowhere more than in the physical environment. That is one area where Tamil Nadu has a message to give. The Tirukkural has told us far more than any meteorologist or climatologist can, what it is for the rains to stay off. We as a nation are passing through one of the worst drought ever. If the next monsoon fails, we will suffer immeasureably. I commend our Chief Minister for the farsighted steps taken by her in the matter of rainwater harvesting, desalination and solar power generation. These are critical initiatives and we should be justly proud of them. More, you should augment them by not aping sterile models of development which guzzle natural resources and waste energy but in imaginative, ecologically intelligent ways.

You have as yet reputations to make, none to lose. Make them with not just your minds but your consciences wide awake.

Former Governor of West Bengal, Mr. Gandhi is Distinguished Professor of History and Politics, Ashoka University.

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2020 2:53:56 PM |

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