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MOTION OF TRANSFORMATION

Hot and orthodox Madras

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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

Reader's opinion (29)

Seema Jan 9th, 2012 at 01:36 AM

Wonderful and captivating article. Kudos to the writer to be spot on!!!

Meeran HaroonApr 22nd, 2011 at 15:48 PM

though away from chennai for the past 28 years,it is the most civilized indian big metro be it cleanliness strict enforcement of building regulation,traffic discipline,educaton,lack of mob mobilization on language ,religious lines abscence of violence as a trait and state per capita rs70,000

Sarvesh SridharApr 19th, 2011 at 11:37 AM

I am from chennai and have spent the last three years of my life outside and I must say this article really sent a whole lot of memories and sentiments rushing in. Great writing! All thoe who ahve a problem with us I just want to say- Deal with it because we are like this only!! :)...

Vijay Apr 18th, 2011 at 15:40 PM

Nice article. Please post the next part.

Dhanesh Apr 18th, 2011 at 09:37 AM

It is always good to know the local langauge, doesn't matter if u r in Chennai or in Kolkata. Imagine surviving in Mumbai without Hindi!! But, once u know the local language, Chennai is the best city in India because of the nature of people. It is a good article and I enjoyed reading it

Gopalan MenonApr 17th, 2011 at 20:07 PM

I has sent my comments

Ashutosh DixitApr 17th, 2011 at 00:11 AM

It was spot on. i agree with Nishant that it isnt a welcoming city.

Indian SsApr 16th, 2011 at 21:47 PM

I am north indian and lived in chennai about a year. I liked chennai and neghbours were also friendly, chennai is changed a lot now people are open minded(business minded). Only problem I faced road signs and direction eihter do not exists or only in tamil. I should have hired a local driver.

Indian SsApr 16th, 2011 at 21:41 PM

I am north indian and lived in chennai about a year. I liked chennai and neghbours were also friendly, chennai is changed a lot now people are open minded(business minded). Only problem I faced road signs and direction eihter do not exists or only in tamil. I should have hired a local driver.

Ayan BandyopadhyayApr 16th, 2011 at 13:40 PM

For an outsider, Chennai is hostile, bordering on xenophobic. That is the only problem in an otherwise great place. God forbid if you're a north indian, you will be discriminated against. Localites need to shed some of their dislike for outsiders. Sometimes, chennai is stifling in its orthodoxy.

Arun DevApr 16th, 2011 at 07:30 AM

Chennai is good and has improved. keep it up!!! (Bengaluru has great climate though and must be improved.its a jewel lying in dirt. is it arthritic because of those damn slab stone pavements?)

Sath SampathApr 15th, 2011 at 18:58 PM

whats wrong in serving native food like idlies & dosas in restaurants as if restaurants in north'n part wont serve their own native items PAVBHAJI, PANIPURI etc! Ispent 22 yrs of my life in Chennai &i love it. there r ppl who moan there is nothing to do in Chennai, stop moaning getout n c 4 urself.

Vijay KumarApr 15th, 2011 at 17:07 PM

I like the way sriram has written.It has lot of shades from chennai life and the transformation in present day.I agree totally,at heart chennai public is very conservative and religious(contrary to the dravidian movements claim of naathigam)

Vaibhav GuptaApr 15th, 2011 at 14:25 PM

Being a North Indian - getting to know Chennai - in a humorous way was sure fun..
Kudos to the author for such poignant illustration..

Prakash VenkatasubramanianApr 15th, 2011 at 12:56 PM

chennai rocks....best place to live.

Srinivas NallaApr 15th, 2011 at 10:54 AM

Why dont u mention surrounding Industries Automobiles is one filed we are at par excellence than rest of the country ....

Subra NatarajanApr 15th, 2011 at 09:52 AM

Why only oogle at Southies baby sitting when I see white men and women baby sit their grand kids in good families.I live in New York Long Island which typically reminds me of Madras. What one does behind doors is no one's business since we do not know.

Hrishikesh VenkataramanApr 15th, 2011 at 00:50 AM

Chennai has definitely changed a lot and people have become more open minded....and the writer has been spot-on.....
But, on a whole can't say everything has been for good ....also the infrastructure is pathetic, really needs to catch up

Thahir HussainApr 14th, 2011 at 13:50 PM

Chennai is much better then you describe.

Bala DeviganApr 14th, 2011 at 04:15 AM

yes. Among all the other articles on 'metros' undoubtedly Orthodox Madras was excellent and has beaten others. This is not on account of partiality or by a sense of belonging, it is dispassionate view & I am sure those who had tasted the life in old Madras and new Chennai will fully endorse.

Bala DeviganApr 14th, 2011 at 04:14 AM

yes. Among all the other articles on 'metros' undoubtedly Orthodox Madras was excellent and has beaten others. This is not on account of partiality or by a sense of belonging, it is dispassionate view & I am sure those who had tasted the life in old Madras and new Chennai will fully endorse.

Rojalina DhallApr 13th, 2011 at 09:20 AM

Its the worst place in india

Dina RenganApr 12th, 2011 at 19:10 PM

well written and hilarious too. IAS was icing in the cake.

Mani BabuApr 12th, 2011 at 16:10 PM

What an article! Hits the nail on the head and cannot agree with it more. Having lived there for the first 28 years of my life, this article was like a movie unfolding before my eyes. Keep it up!!

Ps ManisubramaniApr 12th, 2011 at 13:33 PM

Being a senior citizen aged 82, and being a tamilian or Madrasi, I have lived in many cities in India in the north, south and west and many years in Chennai. Srirams, description of the evolution of the Madrassi is verey factual and interesting in its deescription, but is not due to rechristening.

Puthigai VenkatagiriApr 12th, 2011 at 13:32 PM

During seventies at height of hippie movement, Madras used to be transit point for them. From Goa they used to come and stay at Malaysia lodge at Armenian St waiting to catch MV Chidambaram to Singapore/Thailand etc. Those days parry's corner was full of scantily clad hippies.

devarajan shankaranApr 11th, 2011 at 17:11 PM

excellent

Nishant KannegantiApr 10th, 2011 at 18:57 PM

Imo Chennai isnt a welcoming city. Very difficult to be an immigrant there.

Arasan MjApr 9th, 2011 at 22:50 PM

Chennai is always the Best !!

 
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