Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tamarind City

A city is a lot like a woman. You may fall for it because of a certain physical attribute — the eyes, the smile, the dimple — but it is the chemistry you develop over time that eventually makes you stick to it.

Millions of people visit Agra every year to see the Taj Mahal, but how many choose to settle in Agra just so that they can have a glimpse of the architectural wonder on their way to work every day? Mumbai, on the other hand, can be very harsh on its citizens, yet people who have spent a few years in the city almost always talk of it fondly — that's chemistry. That's what happened between me and Chennai.

When I came in January 2001, I had no idea I would end up spending eleven years here — and god alone knows how many months or years more. I came here more as a tourist-journalist, who wanted to experience Chennai and use it as a base to tour the whole of south India in the next three or four years before returning to Delhi to settle down there.

Then something happened. Just the way I had discovered Chennai as a conducive place to be in, Chennai also discovered the writer in me. Thus began a lasting love affair, the result of which is Tamarind City, whose cover pages I am finally able to share with you today.

The book is a tribute to the city I've called home for eleven years now — the city that nourished me as a writer and at the same time let me be (Chapter 5 is titled 'Sex and the City'). I hope it is liked by readers and reviewers alike.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Pongal Diary: Eleven Years In Chennai And A Book

For nearly two months I slept with them — books, notebooks, various pens, newspapers and the laptop, which formed a heap on wife's side of the bed. No matter how often I changed the sheets, the books and the notebooks would grab their place sooner than later, leaving very little space for me. At nights when I turned to the side while sleeping, I would often find my knee placed on the cold, glossy cover of a book.

On Sunday morning, the morning of Pongal — the date is relevant here too: 15 January 2012 — I decided to clear up the mess. It took a couple of hours to make the bed look like a bed, after which I prepared myself a decent meal: rice, bitter-gourd sambar and raddish-carrot-tomato salad. In between, I also mopped the entire house (someone in the maid's family always happens to fall sick when wife is not in town).

Finally, at two in the afternoon, I poured myself a glass of pre-lunch wine and lit up a cigarette and lay down on a fresh sheet. The bed smelt good. I felt good. For once, my laptop was not on. From the bed I looked outside the window. I could see the sky and a coconut tree, its leaves a sparkling golden in the gentle sunshine. A beautiful day for Chennai! — you have the sun out, and yet cold enough for you to keep the fan on low speed. An ideal day to be outdoors — maybe in Mahabalipuram or on the Marina. But I was happy to be indoors, resting my back on the same bed on which I had just finished writing my book on Chennai.

It is one thing to be working on a book, quite another to actually finish it and mail the manuscript to the publisher. I had been working on the book for two years now — chunks of it were written in Chennai, in Kanpur, in Gurgaon and in Kolkata, but it was on this bed that I finally wrapped it up and clicked on the 'send' button.

Wrapping up can be as painful as writing a fresh book, especially if you happen to be the kind who is deeply embarrassed rereading the chapters that were completed long time ago and wants to rewrite them all over again. And so, for those two months, the bed served as a torture chamber as I wrote the unwritten chapters, rewrote the already-written chapters and at the same time went to work to justify my salary.

On Sunday afternoon I was a peaceful man. I had finally managed to dispatch nearly one lakh words. The unwritten book no longer tormented me: I had finally written it. And so I looked out at the gentle sunshine and told myself what a beautiful day it is. That's when another thought struck me: have I not just completed eleven years in Chennai!

It was on 15 January 2001 that I first set foot in Chennai, little knowing that I would end up staying this long. The book — called Tamarind City, to hit the stands in April — intends to be evidence, hopefully lasting, that I spent the best years of my life in the city.