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(ARCHIVE) VOL. XXII No. 15, November 16-30, 2012
A Chennaivaasi's Chennai
By T.K. Srinivasa Chari

T.S. Tirumurti.

As a Director in the Foreign Service, stationed in New Delhi between 1998-2001, it was the busiest time of his career, and T.S. Tirumurti used to return home late in the evenings. Too tired to drop off to sleep, he sat down to flesh out the story of his first novel. Getting it published was the last thing on his mind, but Penguin liked it and, thus, there appeared Clive Avenue in 2002. Tirumurti's debut novel whetted his appetite for writing. The seeds for his second novel were sown while writing the first. But in the ten years since the second was conceived, work took precedence, and Tirumurti could write only in his spare time. But in that time he gave it everything he had; he once wrote for six hours at a stretch during a transit stop at the London airport after he was done attending meetings and tying up loose ends.

Tirumurti showed promise as a writer in his youth when his short story was chosen as one among the hundred best in Asia in a contest organised by Asiaweek in the 1970s. He resumed his interest in writing again only in the late 1990s when he wrote a travelogue, Kissing the Heavens: The Kailash Manasarovar Yatra, and it was published. Described in the travelogue are Tirumurti and his wife's experiences of the 25-day trek to "a land where mountains, religions, myths, a vast tableland and rarefied air merge." The group trek was organised by the Indian Government's Ministry of External Affairs.

A graduate in Commerce and Law, Tirumurti joined the IFS in 1985. His work did not have much impact on Clive Avenue but his experiences in Gaza and Washington D.C. during his postings there are reflected in his second novel Chennaivaasi released earlier this year. Chennaivaasi takes off from where Clive Avenue left off, not in the sense of being a sequel but with the Madras (Chennai) and TamBrahm setting remaining intact. The author's upbringing and grounding in his own milieu obviously affect both novels, which are, in this sense, autobiographical. Taking seriously his uncle Tamil writer Bharanidharan's (aka Marina) advice to be non-judgemental and authentic, Tirumurti takes readers on a journey through vignettes of life in the Madras of the past coalescing into the Chennai of the present. Besides Bharanidharan, another uncle, R.K. Narayan, inspired Tirumurti in his evolution as a writer. Narayan's view that one of English literature's underlying qualities was understatement has had a bearing on Tirumurti's writing.

Get Tirumurti talking on Madras and he tells you that Madras hasn't been taken away entirely from Chennai. While the young have greater opportunities in Chennai, and a 'Chennai Superkings' cricket team with a great hoop-la around it has now been formed, conservatism his never stopped Chennaivaasis from being liberal. Chennaivaasis show more equanimity in dealing with their daily lives; ostentation is much higher in other metros. In the final analysis, it is people who make a city what it is. You could be living in highly developed cities like Geneva and Manhattan and not know who your neighbours are, but live in the Palestinian territory of Gaza and you will enjoy the warmth of the people around you, he says of a place he recalls with affection. That same affection is reflected in the journeys in Madras/Chennai that he takes readers on.

Tirumurti's must-see sights for a visitor to Madras (Chennai) would be the Aruvattu-moovar festival in Mylapore in April, Kolu-seeing during Navarathri, the Music Academy and other sabhas during the December music season, and the San Thomé cathedral during Christmas. And talking of the Chennai he flies in and out of nowadays, he mentions a locality in Nungambakkam named Tirumurti Nagar after his grandfather, the famous Dr. T.S. Tirumurti. He himself lived for 20 years near Kasturi Ranga Road, off Dr. Radhakrishnan Salai, and studied at Vidya Mandir and Vivekananda College. Since then it has been only occasional visits.

In Clive Avenue, the course of the novel is charted from the Tamil month of Margazhi (December-January) to the season of cyclones in November-December. The city is one where cows hold sway on the arterial Anna Salai (Mount Road) and looming cinema cutouts tell their own story. Moore Market has been destroyed by a fire, only two English dailies are published in the city, the grandeur of the social dos are measured by the names of the kalyana mandapams they are held in. Going back in history, even Robert Clive is visualised looking northwards at what must have been Madras (Chennai) three centuries earlier.

Making a fine art of having fresh filter coffee in tumblers, consultations with astrologers, offering prayers at the Kapaleeswarar temple and the Anjaneya temple on Royapettah High Road, following superstitions and raising a toast to the Chennai beach are recurring incidents in both books. There are occasions in the books where an eye is kept out for both sets of Hindu 'Bad Time' (Rahukalam and Yamagandam).

Another common thread running through Clive Avenue and Chennaivaasi is that the protagonists of both stories return from the US. If it is 'Clive Avenue', the road where it all happens, it is Sundari, the ancestral house in the case of Chennaivaasi. In Clive Avenue, the hero Rajan agrees to look for a bride from within his TamBrahm community whereas, in Chennaivaasi, the hero Ravi comes back with his Jewish American girlfriend Deborah, determined to marry her. The families in both books are close-knit, and the extended circle of uncles, aunts, neighbours, friends, domestic help and members of the community make their voices heard in direct proportion to their importance in the stories.

Tirumurti's women are strong characters. First, it is 'Paati' in Clive Avenue. An educated woman commanding a sense of respect and affection from the family and friends, at one point she shocks her own son and daughter-in-law with her liberal point of view. Then there's a TamBrahm girl-seeing ceremony where Rajan meets Gayathri who turns out to be the artist type. When the two go out to the Park Sheraton for their first outing, she surprises the US-educated Rajan when she orders chicken tikka and has a smoke. Later, she shows a proclivity for drinking and dancing with her male friends at the disco. In Chennaivaasi, Deborah is rooted in her strong Jewish upbringing but goes the extra mile to learn the ways of the traditions of the TamBrahm community. Twice she kneels down to do the Tamil traditional namaskaram in front of her parents-in-law. Then there is Kamala athai, who welcomes Ravi and Deborah into her house, and does her best to make Deborah feel at home in a TamBrahm family. Deborah's maidservant Chinamma, a refugee from Burma, is another strong-willed woman, who takes the initiative to help her mistress when she is in trouble and, eventually, succeeds.

While Madras (Chennai) is the constant factor in both books, there are bits of the US and Paris in Clive Avenue that figure in the exchange between Rajan and his childhood friend and neighbour Dominique. The author also gives his take on life in Delhi as compared to Chennai. The canvas of Chennaivaasi is much larger. There are descriptions of the Ithaca campus of Cornell University in New York State and of Washington D.C. when Ravi and Deborah visit each other. Deborah's mother describes her visit to Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Tirumurti writes about the former Jewish presence in Madras, in what was called Pavalakarar Theru or Coral Merchants' Street, the synagogue nearby, the Jewish cemetery on Mint Street and a Jewish corner in the Christian cemetery on Llyod's Road.

Being a voracious reader since his boyhood days, reading authors like Narayan and Ernest Hemingway has contributed to his craft. He counts among the many books that have been an education Arundhati Roy's debut novel God of Small Things and Rohinton Mistry's novels and anthology of short stories based in Mumbai. The Tamil voice, he says, has not been adequately heard. In helping to make that voice heard, Tirumurti permeates both books with a strong flavour of the city. Both the Tamil and Chennai voices are heard loud in both this books.

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In this Issue

INTACH invited to restore 5 HC buildings
Will the latest plan reduce T'Nagar chaos?
Five years on, still no power from Udangudi
A great address to have
A Chennaivaasi's Chennai
Of tennis and impromptu clubs
Juicy success
The pleasure of walking at Elliot's Beach

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for your Diary


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