Madras to me…

I never knew Madras. I was born here, back when it was still called that, but that’s all I know of “Madras”. I spent a couple of years in the late nineties living in what was then considered the outskirts of Chennai, before shifting to Bangalore.

For me, there is no Madras of the past — no visits to the Birla Planetarium in school uniform, no day long excursions to Vandalur Zoo, no family trips to Mahabalipuram, no Sunday morning trips to Parthasarathy Kovil. To me, Madras always meant summers at Thatha-Paati’s West Mambalam house — holiday homework, paruppu-aracha karamedhu, vendakka and vendhaya kuzhambu, evenings spent on terraces watching the sun disappear behind a building far far away, Sundays spent milling about T. Nagar, followed by visits to the beach with Amma, followed by the routine cone ice cream from Kwality Walls on the beachfront, and the 12G back home, pants rolled up to the knee and feet wet with sand.

Studying in a college which housed a lot of Chennai-ites ensured that I’d often live vicariously through their tales from school. By the end of my first year, I knew almost everything there was to know about schooling in Chennai — from KK Anand to TRS and Ravi Shankar, from DAV’s not-so-co-ed schools to PS Senior’s epaulettes and PSBB’s branches, from the various culturals that happened during the academic year to the football stories from Bessie Beach, and was thoroughly enamoured by each of them. Sure enough, there were occasional pangs of jealousy, as this was in complete contrast to my schooling life on the other side of the Cauvery, but as often as I participated in arguments on which of the two cities was better, there was a little voice that yearned for a childhood in Chennai.

Second year brought a new Chennai connection to me — The Landmark Quiz. I still vividly remember getting awfully lost on the way to The Music Academy, standing up for the national anthem with pride, and then going on to do rather decently in the quiz (by my own standards). For the last four years, I’ve kept my date with this singular Chennai tradition every Independence Day, not missing it for anything or anyone. In the years following that, my visits to Chennai increased as I got to know more people — in fact, it was while returning from one of those short weekend trips that I happened to meet some of my ‘good/nice/dear’ friends (who will duly understand this reference) and my best friend — and soon enough, I was travelling just for the heck of it. Another of these weekend trips took me to Gujarati Mandal off Broadway, that oh-so-awesome Gujju place that offered delectable meals at extremely low costs, while yet another introduced me to the erstwhile Funk ‘n’ Jazz.

In my final year of college, I spent the last six months here on my project, all the while learning possibly every bus route and stop from West Mambalam to Pallavaram, and definitely every station on the Suburban line. More importantly, I discovered Besant Nagar beach in all its glory, took long walks in and around Pondy Bazaar in search of Sri Krishna Sweets (now on Venkatnarayana Road), stood in the heart of Mylapore with Google Maps open and asked around for Tank expecting a giant water tank somewhere around, discovered the existence of ECR and OMR, thoroughly confused the two, tried Saravana Bhavan’s Special Pure Filter Coffee for the first time ever, took in the beauty that the Anna Centenary library is, attended my first play in ages at the Museum Theatre in Egmore, watched Viswaroopam with a screaming audience, enjoyed excellent popcorn at Escape, ate brilliant Italian food at Pasta Bar Veneto, and most importantly, I got to share each of these moments with friends — most of them new, some of them old, all of whom made each discovery that much more memorable.

A few months ago, I quit my job in Bangalore to take one up in Chennai, leaving the familiar confines of home, the warmth (ironically) that the place brought with it, and memories of the year gone by. But moving to Chennai presented me with a new opportunity — to discover the Chennai whose idiosyncrasies and intricacies go hand in hand, whose potti kadais have longer legacies and tastier food than famous restaurants, whose beaches you can have amazing conversations on, whose roads you can meet the best people on, whose aroma of freshly brewed decoction early in the day starts off your day, whose cricket fans are crazy enough to inspire a whole new generation of followers and whose buses and autos inspire the choiciest of words from their respective drivers. To me, Chennai is not great because of its past, it is great because of the future it offers me. To me, Chennai represents the hope that’s remaining when Pandora’s Box of evil is let loose on the world.

Here’s to a happy 375th Madras, as you were once called. May you live on long past Nicholas Flamel.

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