Madras To Me Is …..
I travel a lot as part of my job as a project consultant with the state wide maternal health initiative project. I get to attend health camps and conferences in every nook and corner of our state and sometimes nationwide too, to benchmark our performance to other states. Most of these trips take place at short notice and I am always ready to pick my packed bag and just go. And I don’t generally miss my hometown madras till the day of my return. As the train slowly chugs its way in past the last but one stop Basin Bridge station right into the very heart of Chennai’s central station- that exact moment is when I realize how much I miss madras. Exotic locations are very well as holiday spots but home is where the heart is and the heart is right here in madras nalla madras. And it takes a journey away from the city to serve as a wakeup call to all that we feel about our city.
When we talk about a city what do we generally refer to? Venice is all about the gondolas and canals and taking life easy. Paris? Paris is synonymous with good food- baguettes, romance and oh, that skeletal, stripped down apology to a pyramid- the Eiffel tower. And London? London is all about the beefeaters and selfridges and playing weatherman all the time- agonizing like hamlet on the question- will it rain or not every time we go out. But madras- if you were to ask me what is madras’s unique selling point- I would ask you to look all around you- it’s the people. The people of madras are a bunch of large hearted people so very rare to find, unless you travel right round the globe to another large hearted city-San Francisco. Madras like ‘Frisco has a temperate climate and warm people.
Stop a pedestrian in uppity Bombay (p.s. can you really stop one in Bombay at the fast rate at which they walk?) and ask for directions- all you get is unsolicited advice to take a cab and ask the driver about it. Do the same in snobby Bangalore and you will get a stare worthy of lord voldemort at his nastiest. It’s only in madras that every pedestrian (and his uncle) would stop to ask you the full details and give you detailed turn-by-turn instructions which will beat any GPS. The good hearted madrasi will even see you off in the nearest public transport to where you want to go and in passing recommend you to the especial notice of the conductor to wake you up and put you down when your destination comes. Now tell me isn’t that the very definition of adhidhi devo bhave- the guest is like god?
The reason that madras welcomes and makes everyone feel at home is that historically madras has been a city and a culture which has been inviting to immigrants and never imposing on them. Right from the time the English landed here during the 1600’s, followed by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and right up to modern times when we have people from other Indian states moving to the city- madras has opened its hands wide and welcomed everyone. There are Keralite associations, Andhra clubs, Orissa associations, Bengali Mandals, Punjabi clubs and even Tibetan associations to be found cheek-by-jowl all over town. Not to mention the Koreans, the Japanese and the Malaysians who have moved beyond their consular gates to stamp their presence on the cultural scenes of madras.
And this reflects in for example, the food scene where you can have breakfast at a Punjabi Dhaba, followed by a piping hot lunch at Bengali Mandal and end up by having dinner at an authentic Japanese restaurant- all within a few feet of each other. The Hindi of Sowcarpet spoken by the Marwari’s who have lived there for generations and the English of Royapuram spoken by the Anglo-indians who are such a bright addition to the city’s cultural scene- reside cheek by jowl on either side of the authentic Madras Bhashai spoken by the people of Mint Area. Our differences are not sublimated into a uniform culture (as in so many other cities) – it is instead celebrated wholeheartedly and each allowed space to thrive by itself- that alone makes Madras culture unique, doesn’t it? We also celebrate all festivals with gusto- be it Pongal, Diwali, Holi, Basant Panchami, Guy Fawkes Day or Fourth of July. Now tell me where else do you get this kind of community togetherness celebrating differences wholeheartedly. And all the credit for this goes to the common man of our city- you, me and everyone who is our neighbor.
For madras day we celebrate our city’s heritage, its architecture, its culture and language. But to me the celebrations should highlight our most compelling asset- our people. Here’s a toast to the people of Madras for, to me, Madras is you. You complete ME (with apologies to Tom Cruise).