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(ARCHIVE) VOL. XXII No. 15, November 16-30, 2012
A great address to have
GOPALKRISHNA GANDHI speaks at the release of T.S. Tirumurti's latest book
in Chennai.

Chennai is like a relative.

Not one acquired by marriage, but by birth.

You do not choose those relatives; they are chosen for you.

Now who, with his senses about him, if given half a choice, would choose, in strictly objective terms, half or more than half of such relatives?

Let me take my own case. Like everyone else, I have had two grandfathers. One of them had ears that looked like the handles of a giant tea-cup. The other had a nose which in length and curvature would beat an eagle's beak. But then whoever asked me before plunging me into their bizarre physiognomies?

I was once asked how the family managed to be lucky enough not to resemble those two gentlemen too much. I said, "Well, there is such a thing called the institution of marriage... The daughters-in-law in our family, please God, have flattened our ears and shortened our noses."

T.S. Tirumurti's novel Chennaivaasi is to a considerable extent about Chennai, our city. And he tells it, in his words, "with all its wrinkles, with all its warts". And we Chennaivaasi-s know how many those are.

How anyone with the faintest semblance of choice can actually opt to live in a city that is among those with the most uncongenial climate, the highest mosquito-to-man ratio, an indestructible population of the most audacious flies, a teeming mass of the most self-confident, self-sustaining and self-perpetuating torrent of stray dogs, possibly the highest population in any city across the globe of cunning and ravenous crows, the most stubborn species of rats of which foolish singletons get routinely bludgeoned to death and flung on the roads but which, as big-toothed and long-whiskered collectively, never say die?

And why would anyone choose, actually decide, to live in houses, be they tiny flats or sprawling bungalows, single-room tenements or under-the stairway hollows in which those beady-eyed, slithery, mini-crocs called wall-lizards hide behind portraits of gods and goddesses, grandfathers and grandmothers, and inside drawers and cabinets waiting for that other nightmare, the scurrying cockroach to lurch, blinking into its sudden death?

Much older than all of us, their human fellow-beings and, compared to us, almost sage-like in their acceptance of the desiderata of Chennai, all these forms of faunal biodiversity remain unceasingly engaged in proving Charles Darwin right and wrong, for all of them are winners, survivors, each as a species fitter than the other, defeating that great man's theory in the very jaws of its success. All of them must regard us, as we flock to our city's innumerable medical centres, with bored amusement.

These denizens of our city are Chennaivaasi-s no less than us. And my word, do they feature in Tirumurti's work of life-rooted imagination!

Like us and with us, these ageless and deathless species live in this city where roads are oftener than not very good, often quite good, but not unoften bad and occasionally very very bad. The difficulty, of course, being that perverse. Fate invariably ties up your individual luck with the last kind. The road I use most often, something like twice every day, is a series of potholes, dug up for some mysterious maintenance or augmentation, that get filled up like a chain of interrelated and mutually feeding reservoirs at the first and smallest semblance of rain. Walking on these roads of the lesser kind is as good for one's calves, knees and thigh-muscles as a multi-gym. To avoid the pits on that road, you have to be a tip-toeing Anna Pavlova. To save your skin from the wasp-like motor-cyclists who squeeze their way into that narrowest of narrow roads, you have to be a Pele.

Compulsive pedestrians like I co-exist with the rubbish that our use-and-throw times generate – thermocol packing from TV sets, a range of plastic carry bags, small and large, white, black, blue, often after many re-cyclings, containing kitchen refuse, food leftovers, medical waste, sanitary pads, used condoms, plastic gulp-size coffee cups, aluminium foil packets, gutka saches, cosmetic packing, chewed and half-chewed by stray dogs and cattle, or scattered by the remarkable ragpickers looking for 'better' stuff. Like it or not, this is our terra firma. We cannot blame the conservancy department of our Corporation for this. We are the authors of our rubbish, we Chennaivaasi-s.

We Chennaivaasi-s, who love listening to the Suprabhatam by early light and watch MasterChef late at night, we foul what we own and scowl at those who clean the stuff for not doing so better, faster, so that we can feel and breathe easy. We must face the hard fact that the lives we lead and the homes we live in, with their aromas of rare foods and the scents of prayer, the extraordinary books we have inherited and the music we have been blessed with, the luxury of gossip we indulge in and the gift of higher speculation we think we are adepts in, and the journeys we make, mostly in airconditioned cars, gliding over and past what we do not want to touch, are little bubbles, tiny eruptions, in a sludge of squelching squalid squalor which we have created.

Believe it or not, with great subtlety and finess, unlike me, Tirumurti leads us into and out of those scenes.

Add to this the fact that like in most Indian cities water in Chennai is in short supply, electricity erratic and traffic a veritable Godavari in spate. You could well be asked, "Would you still want to live here?"

The answer would still be, from most of us, believe it or not, 'I would'.

And that would not be only because we cannot disown blood relations, whatever be their looks. Nor because daughters-in-law keep coming to flatten ears and shorten noses.

Then, 'Why?'

Because life is not objective.

Chennaivaasi-s are about brains all right. But their brains feel and their hearts think. That is 'why'.

And Tirumurti's book tells us how that 'why' and why that 'how' work.

The more so in Chennai because Chennai defines for most of its residents a certain given role, a script, a status. There has to be that core, that still centre, for everything else to grow around it, contrastive, contrarian, controversial.

No veedu, no chinna veedu. No veenai, no vichitra veenai. No vaasi, no Amerika-vaasi.

Chennai reassures by its core continuities.

In Tiruvanmiyur, the suburb of Chennai where I live, street-calls virtually set the day. Next to my copy of The Hindu, they are the core of my start-of-day.

Keerai-k-keerai! Ara-k-keerai, mola-k-keerai, paala-k-keerai, mana-k-keerai, vaazhakkaa, vaazha-p-poo, vaazha-ththandoy


Phoneticised into Englibberish the call sounds like:

Clearay-c-clear! Are you clear? Molecular, Polycular, many-a-clear, Are you clear, Very-c-clear, very pooh, pooh-pooh, Clearay-c-clear, hey hoy!

In marked contrast is a demure little man, who comes not above but with a bicycle, peddling a single stock-in-trade. This is the finely ground rice-flour with which hearths are decorated. This wizened gentleman walks along with his bicycle on the backseat of which sits a sack with its finely-powdered ware and an iron measuring-cup, saying but not shouting



Phonologically this call bespeaks brevity, appropriate to a single-product announce-ment. Musicologically, its swings between two nishaad-s, corresponding to a very sober judge saying 'Order, Order!'

The gulf between the big and the wealthy on the one hand and, on the other hand, their opposite numbers are no less in Chennaivaasi-s than elsewhere. And yet there is a certain ease of relationship, a resilience between them. I come across this mix on the Tiruvanmiyur beach-front a refreshing coming together where I go for a walk almost every day.

It is not my intention to eavesdrop but I cannot help conversations wafting my way during my daily walk by the Tiruvanmiyur beach-front. The other day a group of women wearing keds came up with one of them saying – veettile irrukka mudiyale, maatu-ponnu tollai thaanga mudiyale... Almost immediately after them came another group of women, all barefoot, with one of them telling the others – verey enna velai namakku: perukkuruthu, tudaikkarathu, toikkarathu, araikkurathu, samaikkurathu...

She did not add another chore they do with elan – kolam podurathu. In how many cities anywhere in the world are house-fronts washed and swept and decorated with the most incredibly simple and complex patterns as in our city? A short and narrow street by the name, Tiruvalluvar Street in Tiruvanmiyur had, by a straight count, 91 motor cycles parked in front of its little street houses; it also had almost as many kolams drawn in front of each vaasal, the surest symbol of a mature culture in graceful repose. Chennai vaasam is a fascination.

If the noise of traffic and of raucous music blaring from speeding vehicles assails the ear-drums, where in the world, not excluding Vienna, can you have the chance to hear not just in the great halls of music but at street-temples Vijay Sive render an Ahiri with the delicacy of a twilight before moonrise or T.M. Krishna offer the emotionally wrenching Brindavana Saranga with the tremulous passion of a divine supplication or a tanam delivered by Sanjay Subramaniam with the aortic pulsation of the city's most robust heart? And where, after they have done, can you hear the listeners melt away discussing the recitals' finer points, their 'hits' and 'near-misses', their flourishes, their glides, the dizzy peaks of their scale, their deep plumbs? The dissection is surgical. After all, we are the nation's musical and medical capital.

We are also more split up as a people than other contemporary city-dwellers, one thing at morn, another at eve, one thing at home, another outside, neither traditional nor modern, hugging continuity, begging change.

Unable to shake off astrology, but glued to cutting-edge cyber-technology, chained to Rahu and linked to Google, Wikipedia and Microsoft, addicted to Ariyakudi and M.D. Ramanathan but open to a whirl with A.R. Rahman, are we hypocritical? Are we self-deceiving? Are we deluded?

We are none of these. We are Chennaivaasi-s, comfortable everywhere, content no-where.

We are adapters – reluctant but highly successful adapters. We will, I think, never quite be contemporary, but we will never be out of date. We will listen to timeless music from the newest music systems, eat ancient foods cooked out of young gadgets. we have, as I said at the start, a core.

How many do?

Tiru* knows his Gaza and his Washington D.C. He has had and will have great destinations. But what is more important is that he has an address.

Chennai is a great address to have.

* He is in the Indian Foreign Service.

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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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