Celebrating A City That Embraces One And All — Never Mind The Autorickshaw Drivers And The Mess During The Monsoon
Bishwanath Ghosh | TNN
The Rough Guide, the equally authoritative cousin of The Lonely Planet, doesn’t mince words while introducing its readers to Chennai: "Hot, congested and noisy, it is the major transportation hub of the South, but most travellers stay just long enough to book a ticket for somewhere else." While these observations can hardly be disputed by anyone who ventures out on Chennai’s roads on a daily basis, they are also flawed.
Chennai might be hot, but the heat is not murderous as it can be in north India during the summer months. And what about the period between November and March? The fact that you wake up sniffling every morning during these months shows Chennai can be cold too. As for the congestion and the noise, well, this particular edition of Rough Guide was printed in 1999, when Chennai was actually a paradise compared to Mumbai or Delhi. The IT boom was just about beginning, and not many people owned cars, so congestion was out of the question. And as for travellers staying here just long enough to book a ticket to somewhere else, isn’t that only natural? When you are a traveller who is on a whirlwind tour of South India, you stay in Chennai for, at the most, two days before proceeding to Pondicherry or Bangalore or Kerala. You don’t expect them to make Chennai their second home, do you?
It is highly unlikely that such observations would offend Chennai, which has always been a prisoner of perceptions anyway. If it is Chennai, it only has to be about idli and dosa, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan, and Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music. Any deviation becomes news. In Delhi or Kolkata, the opening of a new pub or a mall is likely to pass off as a routine event, but in Chennai, at least till five years ago, such events were seen as harbingers of change. Chennai is changing, they screamed, every time a new pub opened. Chennai is changing, they screamed, every time a mall opened. Chennai is changing, they screamed, every time a continental restaurant opened. These days, they all say, “Wow, Chennai has changed.” And you thought only the other metros were entitled to ‘change’?
Yet, Chennai hasn’t changed a bit: the Margazhi festival is still held every December, actors still influence politics, and people still drink filter coffee the first thing in the morning. In other words, this is the only city in the country where you can witness, first hand, tradition as well as transformation. In a place like Delhi, you’ll have to hunt for tradition. In Kolkata, you’ll itch for transformation — though things are a lot better there now. It’s only Chennai that brings you the best of both. And most often, it is technology that binds the two Ts. For example, at the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore, Indian Bank recently set up a vending machine which exchanges currency notes for coins. The idea is that if you have a ten-rupee note in your pocket and you can't afford to spare the entire amount, you can always get loose change to make a token offering. What better example of tradition and transformation doing a jig under the strobe light of technology?
This is one facet of Chennai you can’t help admiring, doesn’t matter if you like the city or dislike it otherwise. And it’s the mix of tradition and transformation that has made it into a city where cosmopolitanism and culture co-exist in harmony. There is something for everyone — you could be a retired civil servant or a bright engineer, religious or rationalist, a Venezuelan or a Bengali. You’ll be given enough time and space to do your own thing.
"People here are more civilised. They let you be," says Pooja Dey, a 27-year-old homemaker who moved from Kolkata to Chennai ten months ago. "In Kolkata, they are overfriendly and that can get onto your nerves. Besides, I find this place much more developed and a lot cleaner." Pooja's husband Sushanto, 30, whose family runs the SreeLeathers chain of stores that sell leather goods and who is now set to open its outlet in Chennai, nods in agreement. "Recently, some parties called for a bandh in Chennai (the Feb 4 bandh in support of Sri Lankan Tamils), but life was normal on the bandh day. In Kolkata, a bandh literally means a bandh. Everything comes to a standstill. That way, law and order in this city is good.” Sushanto goes a step further to praise Chennai's roads and traffic, even though many hardcore Chennaiites would be hesitant in sharing his enthusiasm. “It is still a pleasure to drive in Chennai, at least when compared to driving in Kolkata, where the rickety Ambassadors really test your patience," he says.
Pooja and Sushanto must listen to what a Tamilian — who was born in Chennai but grew up in Kolkata and then returned to Chennai to study and went to Mumbai to pursue an impressive career and who has now returned to Chennai to spend his post-retirement years — has to say. “I still feel Kolkata is the best place to live among all the metros. People are very social, the cost of living is low. That will be my first choice," says G Ananthanarayan, who retired a few years ago as a vice-president of Larsen and Toubro (L&T) and now lives in Ashok Nagar.
Ananthanarayan’s love for Kolkata, in all probability, stems from the fact that he spent his growing-up years there. Things you grow up with — be it a city or a certain kind of music — always hold an appeal for you. As he himself says, "You look for different things in different stages of life. If you are looking for a career, then Mumbai is the place to be in. But in the latter part of life, when you are no longer worried about your career, Chennai is a better place to settle down."
Why Chennai? “Because I happen to be a Tamilian,” he laughs. But apart from that? "Well, Chennai is still green, while Mumbai has become a concrete jungle. And today, Mumbai is as hot as Chennai. And Chennai, like Kolkata, has culture. There is music here, Carnatic music. Also, the beaches are clean, far cleaner than the Juhu beach. I like Marina and Elliot’s Beach," says Ananthanarayan.
Says Hema Nair, 30, a passionate human rights activist who is more attached to causes than places, "I like change, so I won't mind staying in other cities but Chennai is where I would like to 'settle down', if ever I do that." Why? "Because this place lets me be,” says Hema, a native of Alappuzha in Kerala who was born in Kolkata and grew up in Chennai, where she co-founded the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care, and who has lived in places as diverse as a town called Mito in Japan and New York. "Chennaiites are tolerant, hard working, sincere and happy people. Everyone is welcome here as long as they don't disrespect or demean this city or its people. I hate the politics here, but then I hate the way it is almost everywhere else."
One can make a mathematical deduction now. People who've lived in Chennai at some point or the other — no matter if they had also lived in more happening cities and had the choice of making them their home — are always glad to embrace the warmth of Chennai when it comes to settling down. Clearly, there is a lazy, seductive charm about the city we call home.
From the first anniversary issue of The Times Of India, Chennai. April 14, 2009