I know very little about Madras. Oh yes, I do know that it is called Chennai now, but what’s in a name? I don’t believe all that they say about colonial heritage and the legacy the British left behind- it would mean doing away with so many things. I like the sound of ‘Madras’ better, maybe because I’m averse to change. The debate over names will probably lie dormant until the next big change comes up, so I’ll let it be. Anyway, what I want to talk about is the city itself, not the names.
I last visited Madras in January for a wedding, and promptly fell in love with the city. As I do, every time I go there (three occasions that I remember). What exactly did I see in Madras? Not much, really. I haven’t even done the regular sightseer’s route. I’ve only been to the Mylapore Kapaleeshwarar Temple, the Triplicane Parthasarathy Temple, Spencer Plaza. I liked the old-worldly charm of Triplicane- the temple, the narrow streets, the temple pond, the little shops- as if they’d all sprouted from the earth, not been made by man. They just seemed to belong there. We passed the Chepauk Stadium. And yes, I went to Marina Beach too, which was on a Sunday, not a very memorable/enjoyable visit. I could only catch glimpses of blue from amongst the sea of human heads.
The ambience of Madras enchants me. The sights, sounds, colours and smells. To be sure, you can see temples and smell jasmines in Hyderabad, and feel the tepid waters of the Bay of Bengal in Vizag. But just being in Tamil Nadu gives me an inexplicable feeling of coming home to where I belong. All of a sudden, everybody seems to be speaking the same language that I do, which makes me a little wary of speaking to my mother in public- people can actually understand what I say. (Never mind if my aunt in Madras says I don’t speak proper Tamil- I know I do.) In Vizag, I enjoy the confounded expressions of friends when I have rapid conversations with my parents in Tamil- they pick up a word hear and there, and try to decipher the meaning of what has been said. Shopkeepers hear us converse and ask us if we’re Tamilians. It’s nice, this feeling of uniqueness. But I lose it in Madras.
On my January trip, I had my eyes and ears wide open. I wanted to absorb the flavours of Madras. For some reason, understanding Tamil became quite a challenge, and I couldn’t quite follow the garrulous man who brought us coffee at the hotel. I realised then that while in Madras, I’d have to relegate our Iyer-esque Tamil to the back of my mind and try and make sense of the delightfully colloquial version that seemed to pervade Madras. It was fun.
We experienced the essence of Madras. We got fleeced by the auto drivers, walked about in bright (wintry) sunshine, felt the humidity (though Vizag has definitely conditioned me for it, and could give Madras a run for its money). The rickety green buses that I saw didn’t seem very fit for travel, but I’d have liked to try out one of them. Maybe next time. We went shopping. Now shopping can have various connotations. It can mean window shopping in malls, browsing for books in a cosy bookstore, or the bizarre variety that some women seem to enjoy. Sample this- two women (with my uncle and me in tow) revelling in the vegetable market at Villivakkam (I had considerable trouble recalling the name that evening when my cousin asked me where we’d been) behind the railway station, the sun shining down in full glory, pungent odours floating in the air. They had a whale of a time ‘shopping’ for traditional medicine, herbs, face packs, vegetables, fruits, roots, turmeric, powder for the Diwali concoctions- everything they laid their eyes on, while my uncle and I watched in impatience. Laden as they were with bags containing numerous little packets of brown, yellow and green powders, they looked as happy as kids with new toys. But this was a Madras experience, and though it was one o’clock in the afternoon and I was hungry, I tried to enjoy it. My aunt and my mother are still talking about it.
Strangely, while I was in Madras, I found myself missing Telugu a little bit. A thrill of familiarity ran through me when I saw a theatre playing the Telugu movie Vaana (‘Rain’). I have got used to hearing Telugu being spoken all around me, and to reading the Telugu script on movie posters, hoardings, buses- everywhere. All my friends come from Telugu-speaking families. I know the kitsch and the entertainment of Telugu movies, I enjoy some of the classic old songs, Shankarabharanam is one of my few favourite movies. Despite my aversion to spicy food, I relish the fiery avakkaya (mango pickle) my friend’s mother makes. The Godavari is my favourite river, and I feel an inexplicable affinity to it. Ugaadi (New Year) is coming around, and my friends will wish me, too. It doesn’t matter that I’m not Telugu. They say I am, though I’m also the Tamilammaayi (Tamilian girl). Maybe it’s the ready acceptance that has made things easy for me. They ask me questions about Tamil lifestyle, food and festivals. They listen to Appadi Podu; a senior in college told me when I was in the first year that he loved Tamil film music. Many people here tell me they think the language sounds beautiful. They inform me when Ajit’s next movie is releasing, and often watch Tamil films on TV. I’ve even known girls from college watch soaps on Tamil channels. Now that, I think, is going a bit too far.
You might think it’s no big deal, that I’m not an expatriate experiencing a culture shock. But sometimes you do like to identify with a single place. In my case, it’s just that I can’t make up my mind. But do I have to? I can surely belong to more places than one. So can everybody, and in the wake of all the recent protests in the country that have further divided people linguistically, I hope everybody realises this truth.
My roots are in Tamil Nadu, but I’ve thrown out shoots elsewhere. I’m lucky, for I’ve experienced different worlds.