My favourite (Madras) things…

Posted on August 16, 2014

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On the eve of Madras Day, Baradwaj Rangan celebrates the city he knows and loves.

Can you truly know a city? Possibly – if your job entails a lot of travel, or if your home is in the southern part and your school somewhere up north, and you have friends in the east and family in the west. But this is rare, and to most of us, celebrating a city really comes down to cherishing the parts of the city we know. But of this, there can be no question. If you’ve spent your growing-up years in a city, even if only in these parts, then that city is your home – all of it. And Madras Day is as good a time as any to think about what Madras means to us – well, at least to me.

Madras, to me, is the beaches of my childhood, the mornings filled with huffing walkers and the distant tang of fish being hauled in and, above it all, a sun that rises as it does nowhere else, over water that mirrors its every mood – a sight that quite adequately compensates for the desecration of the nearby sands by the clutch of ugly, deserted stalls that, in the evenings, will tempt visitors with roasted corn and balloons waiting to be shot.

Madras is the stainless steel davara-tumbler of freshly decocted coffee, the ritual of pouring the frothing liquid from one container to another as imperative as the taste.

Madras is the irritation when any visitor to the city thinks only of filter coffee when asked what they like most about Madras, along with jasmine flowers and Kanjivaram saris and idlis, which are almost always described as humble, as if anyone ever ran into a vainglorious idli.

Madras is the suppressed snicker from watching non-Tamils come here to cover the Music Season and struggle to say “Margazhi,” as if gargling through a mouthful of marbles.

Madras is the sight of Kalakshetra dancers cycling to class or back home in hoicked-up cotton saris worn over salwars. It is also the sight of a Carnatic musician singing his heart out to twelve people in the audience, at least two of whom have buried their noses in the Hindu crossword.

Madras is the Hindu crossword.

Madras is the twinge whenever you come down Gemini Flyover and glance to the left and see the rubble that was once Safire theatre, with that proudly cursive “S” on the outside, and, inside, the names of every single film that played in these premises, beginning with Cleopatra.

Madras is the look of horror whenever you have to meet a friend or keep an appointment in T Nagar, especially when it’s around the stretch that sells clothes and jewels, and more clothes and more jewels, and you finally know what it’s like to be a lone fish in a shoal that’s being swept along in a surging current.

Madras is the tennis ball that lands at your feet when you are walking past a playground where boys are playing cricket. Madras is the cry, “Uncle… ball!”

Madras is the realisation that to this city whose streets you scoured as a footloose kid you are now an “uncle”.

Madras is the Tamil that only people from Madras can tolerate, even love, even they’ve only heard this Tamil in Kamal Haasan’s comedies.

Madras is the eternal question: “Are you a Rajini fan or a Kamal fan?”

Madras is the guilt at having gotten used to calling it “Chennai”.

Madras is the anger that, somehow, the rapes and robberies that happen here are less visible to the national media than the ones that happen in Delhi and Mumbai. It is the sad awareness that the spectacular heart run that saved one life minutes after another one left this world, a logistical marvel that involved everyone from traffic cops to ambulance drivers to alert medical professionals, would have been 24×7 headline news had it happened elsewhere.

Madras is the mild impatience whenever an elder in the family goes into raptures about the Peach Melba at Jaffar’s Ice Cream Parlour, at New Elphinstone theatre, which now exists only in those memories.

Madras is the annoyance whenever someone from Delhi or Bangalore or Mumbai comes down and sighs that there are no good bars or hangout joints. Madras is the belief that one has to earn the right to mock a city by living in it, not just by dropping in for a weekend.

Madras is the radio station that wakes up with ‘Gaana’ Bala and goes to sleep with Ilayaraja. It is the TV set with a hundred Tamil channels and not a single movie worth watching on the rare afternoon you’re at home. It is the feeling when you return after a trip abroad and walk into a small restaurant, one of those nondescript “Bhavans,” and tuck into a nei roast, listening to the people around you chattering in Tamil, smiling softly at the occasional English, and keeping an eye on the clock, because you have an auto waiting, along with a driver who’s sure to complain about how long you took, and expect an extra ten or twenty.

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