I was born in Madras. Madras the city I loved, the city of the familiar streets, sounds and smells. The city where my mother, brother and I would take a cycle rickshaw for 10 rupees to my grand mothers’s house on Saturdays for lunch A pleasant drive through leafy shaded streets with us constantly chattering, and singing. A city of street cricket, cycle races, and mango ice in the summers. A city where I recited the street names everyday on the way to school, which was a cause of much pride to my listening family. They still speak about it fondly, and list it as one of my achievements. The city where I waved to the same police mama, everyday and toppled of the seat in excitement whenever he waved back. Apart from being a bus driver and a train driver, my brother and I really wanted to be the much coveted traffic police man on G.N Chetty Road.
Madras, the city with the beach where we would go every evening during the summer holidays and invert colourful plastic buckets to make sand castles. Madras the city which woke up early, really early. You can get steaming hot idly’s for breakfast at 5:00 am, and then wash it down with strong filter coffee. Madras the city, with the neighbourhood clubs where we swam, played tennis, made friends and felt like adults as we sipped on ‘cricket‘ and ate fries. Madras the city of bill boards, ( which have now been banned thankfully) sarees and carnatic music.
Somewhere along the way, the authorities decided to change the name of my much beloved Madras to Chennai. Che-nna-aye, we rolled the unfamiliar name around in our mouths and tried to acquaint ourselves with the strangeness of it. I firmly resolved that I would never call it Chennai, that no one could take my Madras away from me. But the firm resolve of a 13 year old can not compete with city branding, and somewhere along the way, Madras became Chennai. I still derive some strange joy while booking tickets for both the airport and railway station are still MAA and MAS.
Over the years as I have moved to different cities to work and study, and my love for Chennai has been on the steady decrease. Yesterday the other casually mentioned on how he misses Chennai because it has so much character. I could not help but strongly disagree, my biggest grouse is that Chennai has lost all of Madras, and is becoming a characterless urban agglomeration, with very showy politics and way too much cinema. It is a little overbearing when one face stares at you from bill boards, cutouts, and even tree guards! The people of Chennai have very little or no civic pride in their city, move around in capsules of comfort from work to home and giant malls have become the new public space. It breaks my heart when young children want to go and hang out in Express Avenue. As our argument heated up, he said Chennai had character that was similar to Mumbai and the language in itself was its character, which I can’t perceive as I don’t speak Chennai Tamil !!! (Yes, I am venting. I am glad I don’t speak Chennai Tamil, which I find rather crude) To add insult to injury he said my new home, beloved Bangalore had no character!!!
A friend once remarked that it is amazing how I love every place I live in. New cities hold a sense of wonder for me, and I revel in exploring new streets, new cuisines and language. My relationship with my city is like a new relationship, tentative at first, then we flirt, it is terribly exciting, we discover new things, break and form boundaries and then fall in love. Sigh…..
I barely knew any Hindi when I moved to Ahmedabad, the oppressive heat and a series of unfortunate incidents that involved me splicing my toe – go into shock – stare at the blood gushing out like a fountain -somehow make it to office – and then promptly faint at the reception, amongst several others made me hate the city. (I have to do a post on the series of unfortunate events) Boy I hated the city and I loved nothing more than to complain about it. Slowly, the zoo, the project, the old city, the street food, the project, my friends, the project, the festivals, the project won me over and I fell in love with the city I hated. It took the other more time, but more often than not he wistfully wishes we could go to the old city to eat fafda and jalebi for breakfast.
Now it is Bangalore’s turn. I love the greenery, the tree lined avenues, the flowering trees, the weather, and the glimpses of the past, glimpses of the British cantonment, and the amalgamation of cultures the IT boom has brought. What I love most is that Bangalore is relaxed, it wakes up late and sleeps early. People are ready for a drink anytime of the day or week, they are casual. Chennai takes itself very seriously, going out for a drink entails getting dressed, wearing make up and making it an event. In Bangalore you can walk in with your shorts and flip flops and make merry. I have seen people in their office clothes dance vigorously on table tops, laptops and office bags stuffed carelessly under the chairs. In Bangalore you can just be.
Maybe I judge Chennai harshly, as I have the highest expectations for the city. Maybe the alucobond facades, meaningless flyovers and political propaganda have disappointed me so severely that I have disowned the city, spurned the city of my childhood and now am trying to find a home, make a home elsewhere.
Where is home ?
I pondered over this all of yesterday, and it dawned me, home is where I am. Home is where I am peaceful and happy. Maybe Chennai will become home again, maybe Chennai will become Madras again, but till then I will carry my home on my back like a turtle.