Karunanidhi is now an old man who has clearly lost his marbles. First he installed he statue of Sivaji Ganesan at the Marina, putting him on par with Gandhi. (Sixty years from now, the life-size cutouts of various Tamil heroes put up by vendors on the sands could dot the Marina as bronze statues). Then he said no tax (or very little tax) for movies with pure Tamil names. Then he drastically cut the registration fee for people changing their names into classical Tamil (wonder why he doesn't lead by example and drop his Sanskrit name). Tomorrow, he could promise a free colour TV for those changing their names into classical Tamil. If that happens, I have already thought of a name for myself: Sakthivel. I could sell the TV to stock my bar.
Oh no, that was a long digression. I was talking about how the custodians of Chennai are a busy lot these days. They are preparing very seriously for Chennai Day -- or is it Madras Day? -- which falls on August 20. I guess the celebrations have come a little too soon because only last year, they had celebrated 365 years of Madras. Celebrating 365 days is fine, but to celebrate 365 years? -- but then, you don't expect the custodians to wait for another 35 years, do you?
That reminds me, when Madras turns 400, I will be 70. Where will I be then? I wish I could know, but you certainly won't catch me speaking at a seminar in Taj Conemarra or Taj Coromandel reminiscing my years in Madras. I hate seminars, and also people who attend or speak at seminars. My job is to write, and if things go the way I want, I would have, by then, written the most exciting book on Chennai -- part-Naipaul, part-Theroux, part-Bill Bryson, part-Henry Miller. Till that happens, it would suffice to reproduce what I wrote last year, on the occasion of 365 years of Madras:
A city is no different from a human being. It wakes up at the crack of dawn, stretches lazily and sets about its chores. It works during the day, enjoys in the evening and retires to bed at night. It has its good qualities and its flaws, as well as its eccentricities. And like all humans, it also has a heart and a soul. And its moods.
Sometimes it behaves like a pampering mother and sometimes like a sulking wife. At times it gives you a cold stare like a stranger and at other times it embraces you like an old friend. Only that a city has an infinite lifespan. The people who live in it are incidental: they come and go. But the city goes on. Like Chennai.
The Chennai that we know was born in 1639 as a strip of beach three miles long and one mile wide — acquired from the governors of Poonamallee by two East India Company employees, Francis Day and Andrew Cogan. That makes the city 365 years old. During this period it contributed to the history of modern India in different capacities — as the seat of the British power in the South, as the capital of the entire South India, as the venue of some defining political movements and, of course, as the capital of Tamil Nadu.
But what has survived the political changes, and is still flourishing, is the culture — something that accords Chennai its unique place. Idli-sambar, Bharatanatyam, Carnatic music... these are things you can happily take out of Chennai, but you can never take Chennai out of them.
It’s also a city awash with colour: walls in the entire city are wrapped in posters while gigantic cinema billboards unseen anywhere else in the country tower over prominent junctions. And in the nights it’s not uncommon to pass by illuminated larger-than-life cutouts of gods and goddesses and also of politicians. It’s only here that politicians enjoy the status of gods.
Amidst all this Chennai exudes warmth — something rarely found in the other metros. Bombay is too busy while Delhi loves to show off — every Delhiite thinks he or she is a nephew or niece of the Prime Minister. Calcutta, on the other hand, is too snooty — it never tires of celebrating itself.
As the celebrated British journalist, the late James Cameron, wrote in An Indian Summer: “...I have a sort of trust in Madras... It is an agreeable, rather boring place; it is the sort of place I would be if I were a town.” The accompanying impressions celebrate not only Chennai’s birth anniversary but also the trust Cameron has talked about. But hang on, whose anniversary are we celebrating — Chennai’s or Madras’? Now, what’s in a name! Thayir saadham tastes as good as curd rice.