Of the old & the new in Madras/Chennai

Nirmala Lakshman’s new book Degree coffee by the yard was launched on Wednesday. Photo: R. Ragu  

Chennai is as much about the old as it is about the new, as much about old grand colonial buildings as it is about displaced people in resettlement colonies whose voices are seldom heard. It is this confluence and dichotomy, among other themes that is explored in author Nirmala Lakshman’s new book Degree coffee by the yard published by Aleph Book Company.

“It was a discovery, or rather a rediscovery of my own city,” she said at the launch of the book on Wednesday.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi, chairman, Kalakshetra Foundation, who released the book said that it was an exceptional cover of an exceptional book about an exceptional city.

Referring to the ubiquitous ‘old number, new number’ found outside most homes, he said he had begun to identify the city through this. Chennai, he said, wants to become something new. “But it does not want to give up the old that easily. It wants to cling to the old while it gets into the new. Cling, move forward. Preserve, innovate. Conserve but also demolish, develop. All this together is what Chennai is about,” he said.

It is this great diversity, said Ms. Lakshman who is director, Kasturi and Sons Ltd that made her exploration of Madras and Chennai and what is means to so many different people challenging. While her memories of the city include gracious, old, white-pillared colonial buildings, wide avenue trees and Sivaji Ganesan, for the newer generation it is about pizza parlours and software towers. But the aroma of perfect degree coffee permeates it all, she said.

Ms. Lakshman also said it was important that the city remember those who have been silenced, neglected and remained unheard. “These are the people who built the city and contribute to it every day.”

Historian S. Muthiah said the book briefly looks at the history of Madras, but intersperses it with passionately written pieces about aspects of the city. “She talks about cricket, sport, food, coffee, music, films and everything the city is about. Nirmala has been able to meld both Chennai and Madras,” he said.

“What I like most about being a publisher is publishing a book that I hope will endure, because it has struck a chord or filled a need,” said David Davidar of Aleph Book House.

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 9:11:10 PM |

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