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Hot and orthodox Madras
During the 1980s there was a joke that used to consistently make the rounds - that to the average north Indian anything south of the Vindhyas was Madras. "And they get the name wrong too - Medross, " my fellow south Indians would chuckle. Perhaps it was the Madrasi's way of getting back at the several Hindi films that poked fun at the south Indian. Now it is Chennai and awareness about it has perhaps improved, but the name is still pronounced wrong, ranging from Chinnaai to Chinoy.
Madras was known to be conservative. It was a strict no-no for a couple to hold hands and walk on the Marina beach, but it was acceptable for two men to do that! As for eating out, forget it. There were hardly any restaurants and the only place where decent nonveg food was served (according to Brahmins who surreptitiously visited it) was Buharis on Mount Road. Chicken 65 on the menu was supposedly a big hit. The city itself was compact, with a business district (Mount Road/North Madras) and several self-contained residential areas. The latter would be spooky by 7. 30 pm as the thrifty Tamilians who lived in bungalows would turn off the lights and be fast asleep. If there was a glam element to the city it was supplied by Kodambakkam with its numerous studios and stars. Watching a night-show was the ultimate in thrills though there were stories of dubious cabaret shows in some of the so-called upmarket hotels where, horror of horrors, you could down beer (pronounced like kheer). The city had its share of non-Tamils, but even the most exuberant Punjabi chose to expend his surplus energy behind closed doors.
In 1996, Madras became Chennai and slowly set in motion a transformation. Liberalisation meant people from all over the world (and not just other parts of India ) were coming into the city. A last count revealed Americans, Brazilians, British, Costa Ricans, Germans, Japanese, Koreans, the Finns and Russians. No longer was it a matter of surprise to see a vellaks (slang for white skin) walking along Anna Salai, showing off most of it, what with the weather being what it is. In the old days such a display of epidermis would have demanded a squint-eyed ogle at least, but now nobody bothers. With such a bewildering array of foreigners and others, the city had to change and change it did - with a vengeance. Malls, multi-storeyed apartments (all of them with swimming pools though we are a water-starved city), spas, international schools, multiplexes, five star hotels, clubs, restaurants - you name it, we have it.
Faced with such an embarrassment of opportunities, the city's native population too has opened up. No longer is it a crime to be seen in mixed groups, no longer is a person who downs a peg or two dubbed an alcoholic, and no longer is gold the only safe investment (in reality it is, but that is another matter). And no longer do we have long names like Sriram Venkatakrishnan (shortened to Sriram V). Our dress code has changed too. The bell-bottom (ugh), which lived on in Chennai far beyond the rest of the country, vanished in the course of time. As for women, the sari is but one of the many options. A not so happy choice is the ubiquitous nightie, in which several of them go shopping, temple visiting and to drop children at schools. Somehow a foolish illusion exists that by the simple expedient of draping a dupatta on the nightie, the garment transforms into a salwar kameez. Everyone is also a gadget freak. Mamis send SMS to mamas who are busy listening to the latest on the ipod even while catching up on email on the ipad.
At heart, however, we are still conservative. There are signs of this, too, if you look a little carefully. Chennai's temples are thronging with devotees. Dress codes may have changed but the applying of vibhuti (sacred ash) on the forehead is still de-rigueur, even while attending an international conference. And as for the Carnatic music-Bharata Natyam industry, boom time is perhaps an understatement. Academics still rule - it is important to get a centum in math, though now you must also be able to play tennis like Roger Federer, swim like Michael Phelps and dance like Patrick Swayze. Eating out is considered fun but the places that do roaring business are still those that serve idli, dosas and kapi. We have south Indianised the dishes we like - Gopi Manjurian (the son of Gopi and Manju?), Gulob Jan and the Parotha. Joint families may be out but grandchildren spending time with grandparents is still very much in. Come summer, most of middle-aged Chennai-ites vanish. They go abroad to baby-sit the progeny of their NRI children, a service that is often referred to as IAS (International Ayah Service).
They complain of US life being more of a prison with parole every weekend but they still make the annual pilgrimage to establish the ways of the joint family. They return saddled with T-shirts (some with incongruous slogans such as 'TCP/IP certified', or, even worse, 'I AM HOT' ) and keds and go for early morning walks on the narrowing footpaths of Chennai, all the while saying that roads of the USA were a dream in comparison. And yet they are glad to be home and all of them agree that there is no place like Chennai.
That again is a unique Chennai trait. To the Chennai-ite, home is where the heart is. Bangalore is arthritic, Delhi too hot and too large, Calcutta is humid (and the sea 20 miles away); as for Bombay, life is too mechanical. At Chennai, you can beat the humidity by lifting and tucking in your dhoti at the knees and be yourself. So what if you neighbour is wearing the latest? Your dress has lasted and you know that it will go on forever like the city.
The writer is an entrepreneur and a city historian
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