On Madras, its women, and its evenings

A Madras Week essay


The best part of the Hyderabad summer, when I was there two years ago, were the mornings. They dawned cold and fresh, forcing me to gather my sleeping bag and run back into the house from the terrace. In another five minutes I’d be off towards the Banjara Hilla mosque, blending in with the crowd answering the muezzin’s first call to prayer.

This is still the memory that defines Hyderabad for me, a vision of the faithful in white kurtas and grey beards, walking towards a voice that seemed to lure them towards it. It seemed magical, and if you think about it some more, actually is.

I thought then, as I still do, that a little faith can be a beautiful thing.

I’d go straight to Ismail Chacha’s shop at the mosque gates, where I would be handed Irani Chai in a glass cupped within both his weathered, gnarled hands in almost lost Hyderabadi courtesy. Chacha would inquire about my health that morning and proceed to tell a story. He would start with “Jab Nizaamon ka zamaana tha, Sairam beta, tab Hyderabad main..”, and I would listen, tea in hand and my mother’s old brown shawl around me, to tales of the Old City.

Madras mornings, though, are different.

The wind is not wind, it’s breeze. The sea is Madras’s most conspicuous presence, and easily its most beautiful. But lovely as the beach is in the mornings, the city won’t give you enough time to enjoy it — the sun will be up soon, and you need to go places, see people, make money.

Sunrise, Thiruvanmiyur

Which means the best part of the unrelenting Madras summer is when the sun decides it has done enough damage for the day, and descends to the west, much to the relief of an assaulted city.

This Monday, a friend handed me two tickets to the Chennai Super Kings vs Rajasthan Royals game. It was half past six when we set out, on a summer evening in Madras.

Poet Meena Kandasamy had written a short piece in the Hindu for last year’s Madras Day, and I saved this passage from it –

“If you care to learn her (Madras’s) whole history, listen to it come away in layers, like the names of old, unforgettable lovers — Pallava, Chera, Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagara. Empires who held her close, coveted, almost concealed, since the 7th century — a port city on the Coromandel Coast.
She speaks a language with a legacy of 2,000 years; she also understands every word of English. She romps around with jasmine on jet-black hair, night or day. No other city shall ever seduce you in Madras’s Tamizhachi style: with sultry, sidelong looks; with spontaneous speech; with all her selfless, surplus love.”

It’s almost invisible, the subtle invocation of Madras’s gender in the passage, but I was struck by how natural it seemed. Maybe this is because we almost always describe cities and countries as female, but in the case of Madras, I don’t think it could ever be otherwise.

Madras can never be a he.

Streets, Nungambakkam

As I sat on the back of my friend’s expensive sports bike and took in my adopted city, Madras’s feminine nature asserted itself, in a way I never would have thought possible.

We drove through Thiruvanmiyur, where on a small side street clogged with going-home traffic, a pookari sat on a wooden stool and chatted animatedly with a customer, while her arms expertly measured out mozhams of jasmine blooms. We passed Adyar, where, as a college bus stopped to let down students, a horde of young girls jumped down, heads buried in iPods, hair free and voices high. Footwear in front of the temple on LB Road overflowed onto the street. Mothers and daughters headed in, as the slow humming sound of shlokas being recited wafted out in the warm air.

Mylapore came and went in a buzz of activity. Madras’s oldest neighborhood is a standing history lesson, and again, women are its chroniclers. We passed Bharatanatyam students in full costume returning from classes, maamis waddling around getting provisions and retired evening walkers gathering around the old coffee shops.

Coffee, Madras

We’d almost reached Santhome.

It isn’t widely known, but Santhome is an integral part of the story of Madras’s birth.

On August 22, 1639, Francis Day, an Englishman, signed the lease for a tiny strip of beach he had obtained from the local chieftain of the Vijayanagara Empire. It was a village called Madarasapattinam, only about three miles from the Portuguese settlement of Santhome.
Francis Day chose this particular village for a reason. He had fallen for a Portuguese woman; he was in love, and she was in Santhome.
The village became Fort St. George, and marked the birth of the city of Madras, the oldest modern Indian city.
This August she’ll be 374.

We passed the gorgeous Santhome Basilica, drove on to the Marina Beach Road, and the ancient lighthouse flashed to our right. Queen Mary’s came and went, and the lights of Chepauk appeared from around the corner. The roar of the crowd came a minute later. The captains were heading out for the toss.

My friend fed a little more juice into the bike’s engine.

There have been numerous attempts to decrypt Madras and its people, its conservativeness, its intellectual snobbishness, its aspirational atmosphere, all of it.

I have an explanation of my own.

Evening, Adyar

Madras is a small town. It is not a metro, and it never will be. It is a migrant city, populated by people coming from all over Tamil Nadu’s bazaar towns and villages. Madras is where their dreams congregate, this is where they come in search of success and fame. It may be one of our country’s biggest cities, a centre of art and culture, a business and technology hub, but the city’s people will always be from the small town.

And that explains everything.

In a Tamil village, where they are usually homemakers, the evenings belong to the women. They have finished the chores of the day, had their customary evening shower, and have descended, goddess-like, into the streets for their shopping, or are looking out from their balconies, or are gossiping at doorways or are going to temples, smelling of jasmine and turmeric.

Madras absorbed that village evening, and reflects it every single day.

Madras’s Premier League team, the Chennai Super Kings, is captained by someone the city loves to bits, Mahendra Singh Dhoni. They chant his name like a God’s, they fight his critics rabidly, they pay thousands to watch him play.

I know this, I do too.

The man from the small town of Ranchi in Jharkhand, is now claimed by Madras as her own.

MS Dhoni, Captain of the Chennai Super Kings

MS Dhoni wasn’t born in India’s major cricketing cities like Bombay or Calcutta, from where most of India’s players come from. He did not attend elite schools, which usually pave the way into state teams and then into the national team. He was not rich, nor did he have any influential uncles on selection committees. He served as a ticket checker when he played for the Indian Railways. He is from the working class, a boy from the hinterland.

Which makes Dhoni an underdog, like most of Madras. Of course the city loves Dhoni.
He is one of their own.

I got patted down by the security people at Chepauk and was shown my seat. Two rows behind me sat an elderly woman and a little girl wearing her hair in ponytails. When the Super Kings song came on, the little girl broke into dance and the old lady laughed as she clapped and sang along.

“Enga ooru Chennaiku periya whistle adinga”

I turned around towards the game, singing with them.


Notes

This was first written in April 2013, and its been on my blog since. Reprinting this heavily edited and rewritten version here for Madras Week, and because I have Richa’s extraordinary photographs to complement it with!

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