Weird, warped, or plain wonderful?
IT was apparent quite soon after my arrival as a young bride twenty years ago, that Chennai, or Madras as it was then known, was very different from any of the places I had lived in before. It wasn’t just the North-South difference, though this was the source of a big handicap in the beginning – my lack of Tamil. It was also in the very manner of absolute strangers. Somehow, in the first conversation, such people seemed to want to get to the roots of my identity. Was I a vegetarian or non-vegetarian? Did I live in my ‘own’ house or a rented one? Was I a Brahmin or non-Brahmin?
Having just arrived from Mumbai, or Bombay as it was then known, I found such a concern with matters personal amusing, irritating, disturbing or distressing as my mood and circumstances dictated. While I understood it as a need to slot me into neat mental categories, obviously important for people here, I could not help comparing it with the carefree cosmopolitanism of my Bombay upbringing. What did it matter if one’s friends were Hindu, Parsi, Muslim or Christian? Why should the state of anyone’s home concern us, whether it was in a chawl, a block of flats on Warden Road, or more discreet lodgings in Grant Road? We lounged at Regal or the Gateway, Kala Ghoda or Metro and never saw the insides of our friend’s houses, far less probed into their eating habits.
So Chennai felt like moving back in time – a place where social, religious and cultural categories really counted for a lot. I was standing at a bus stop when a woman turned around and said to me, absolutely out of the blue, ‘You are not from Madras, isn’t it?’ I confessed to the crime, out of sheer surprise. She nodded, comforted by her diagnosis being confirmed. ‘I can make out by your jewellery,’ she said. Her reference was to the silver I wore, in personal preference to gold which is the standard ornamental uniform for a woman from the South. Now, twenty years later, neighbours and friends view my continued preference for silver indulgently. Then, it was another factor setting me apart.
I railed and ranted at the provincial mindset as I perceived it, and burst into occasional tears (a pardonable excess of youth), till slowly, other aspects of Chennai’s difference from other cities, especially the metros, began to sink in. The modest ordinariness of high achievers was something that seemed to characterize life around me. The elderly gentleman, quietly letting himself out of the gate to his house at 4.30 am in the morning, could have been a scientist at one of the country’s leading research establishments (and often was). But that did not prevent him from going to fetch his own milk from the booth. Or the most celebrated nightingale from the South who would answer her own phone and artlessly respond to all callers without a trace of snobbery. I observed that humility and high personal and professional standards had a big place in Chennai’s mind and heart, and this took away some of my initial discomfort. Over the years, this discomfort has changed to a fierce love for Chennai, the oddest of metros.
Unlike Mumbai, where Parsis provide sufficient lore in the chronicling of eccentrics and eccentricities, Chennai does not have a resident community of oddballs. But this in no way diminishes the possibilities of eccentricity creeping into many visible areas. In fact, Chennai is highly tolerant of many examples of ‘way, way out’ behaviour, which goes completely against its staid and stolid image of a conservative metro. Consider, for instance, our politicians. It was Chennai that first showed how dark glasses, usually synonymous with Mafia men, could actually be such effective instruments in the creation of a political persona. MGR’s dark glasses are still the most distinguishing feature when rustic children dress up like him for fancy dress events. As for Mr. Karunanidhi’s, they enable him to have a rosy-tinted view of the world, when everything else is quite literally, dark.
Other quirky accoutrements of Chennai’s politicians have been the saree-matching capes that Ms. Jayalalithaa sported the last time she was CM, and the same-sex companion that she flaunts with impunity whether she is CM or not. In fact, this single appendage is the source of much grievance and resentment, but however much people may speculate about the exact nature of the companion’s relationship with the CM, there is no denying that there is public acceptance of this arrangement.
There are other, darker aspects to the eccentricity of politicians that are only whispered about, but which border on the bizarre. These range from the tales of Karunanidhi marrying a Brahmin virgin when in his seventies to revive his political career (this has to be seen in the light of the Dravidian parties avowed anti-Brahminism, apart from being condemned from a feminist perspective!), to the many yagnas and homas performed by Jayalalithaa for the annihilation of her political foes (most people consider these to have had a supremely successful effect). In swallowing the superstitious, recidivist and reactionary eccentricities of its leaders, Chennaiites show a tolerance that is in keeping with the most avant-garde of the millennium.
In fact, when these eccentricities are brought into the public glare, through the medium of cinema, for instance, they are not well received. Thus, while Mani Rathnam’s ‘Iruvar’ was a film much loved by critics, it could not wow the box-office with its depiction of MGR’s love life and Karunanidhi’s, or its projection of Aishwarya Rai as the young Jayalalithaa. Perhaps this reluctance to focus publicly on the oddities of its leaders is also part of Chennai’s very clear attachment to privacy for the famous.
For a city whose dwellers think nothing of probing into your personal life as soon as they meet you, Chennai is a city very committed to guarding the privacy of its celebrities. Nobody here, not even the models and film stars, much less the corporate big wigs or their wives, is rushing to make it to Page Three. In fact, the highest grossing film star of 2003, Vikram, lived in a modest rented house in Besant Nagar till he bought a larger place, and his wife works as a de-addiction counsellor at TTK hospital, unsought by any film journalists or society columnists. Their comfortable obscurity is in stark contrast to the media-savvy manoeuvering of Mumbai and Delhi, where the likes of Parmeshwar Godrej, Nina Pillai and Nafisa Ali pepper the newsprint with uncanny regularity.
The distinct social and cultural divisions in Chennai resonate with their own eccentricities. There is the genteel Brahmin, classical music and dance loving culture of the December music festival, and the robust, Dravidian, Chicken 65 and punch-up culture of the hoi polloi. When it comes to the music festival, it is difficult to know where eccentricities start and where they end. For instance, one can go and sit next to a gently dozing elderly lady ‘rasika’ at a music concert, who has her more alert, mufflered husband (any day when you do not actually sweat is extreme winter for Chennaiites, and calls for protection), sitting and moving his head in appreciation of the music, right beside her.
When Kadri Gopalnath’s powerful saxophone strikes its opening notes, the lady gets up and notices. ‘It’s Kanyakumari,’ she remarks to her husband, referring to Ms. A. Kanyakumari, who generally accompanies Kadri Gopalnath on the violin. ‘She’s wearing a mango-coloured saree, isn’t she? She always does. Nothing but bright mango coloured silk.’ Her husband merely grunts in acknowledgement of this bit of superior knowledge, but as an overhearing listener, your mind can be teeming with a hundred questions and observations.
Is it common knowledge that Kanyakumari only wears shades of sunflower yellow or bright mango colour? Does everyone know that she also gets up at 3.30 am every morning and has already bathed thrice and done many pujas before most people get up? What about this lady rasika and many like her and her husband? How do they manage to sleep in such damned uncomfortable chairs? Is the Chennai December festival a celebration of music and dance or a fiendish conspiracy to inflict torture hatched by cunning aliens? Weird thoughts come naturally in one’s mind in these surroundings.
Ms Kanyakumari is also not the only eccentric musician on public view in December. Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, another famous violinist, has made his smeared-with-red-sindoor-forehead, accompanied by kindly leer, a familiar sight for many decades, apart from his special individual style of playing which consists of giving the violin strings regular ‘pings’ with his fingers in the midst of the normal bow plying. Balamuralikrishna can compete with Kunnakudi in appreciation of pretty young female ‘rasikas’, and his hair is growing a more jet shade of black in direct proportion to the passing years. Musicians are pardoned their highly individual styles and manner in Chennai, as are certain high-profile ‘rasikas’ like Mrs Y.G. Parthasarathy, redoubtable head of a group of educational institutions, who arrives for concerts assisted by a three-footed cane, covered with chains of different stones and metals, and always sits in the first row, because that is where she belongs.
Cricket, like music, has its own passionate following in Chennai, and some very distinguished names of the sport have their special quirks. S. Venkatraghavan, current international umpire, former Indian spinner and captain, who was rumoured to have been a suitor to Hema Malini at one time, is also known for the choicest Tamil expletives that flow smoothly off his tongue. In fact, cricketers from the league level of the game swap his most memorable ‘gems’ among themselves. Another memorable character is T.E. Srinivasan, a right-handed batsman who scored oodles of runs against fast bowlers in domestic cricket. His talent and run getting were not sufficient to draw the selector’s attention, however, and he made a late entry into the national team in 1980-81. When the Indians went Down Under to play the Aussies, T.E. is reputed to have declared, ‘Tell Lillee T.E. is here!’ in reference to the dreaded fast bowler of those days, a statement so brimming with confidence that it is a pity it was never put to the test as T.E.’s services were not called upon by the team management.
Customs and rituals may seem to be a sign of collective weirdness for some, but in Chennai they acquire a significantly dynamic form. The Kanchi Mutt of the Sankaracharya and his junior Sankaracharya, exercise a powerful influence over Chennai society, just as globalization and western concepts do. What the Chennaiite, ever adaptable, does is to achieve a balance in habit and belief, to suit both. Thus, in the last couple of decades, New Year’s Eve was an occasion for many Chennai citizens to head for their neighbourhood temple. What better way to usher in a bright new year than in the presence of God?
So, on New Year’s Eve, the neighbourhood temple was jam packed by 11.30 pm, never mind if drunken revelers were shouting and screaming immediately outside. The nadaswaram and thavil were played to herald the New Year darshan, while the deity was hidden from view by a velvet curtain. Only when the temple clock showed 12:00 did this veil lift, to the accompaniment of audible gasps from assembled devotees. In addition, there was usually a scuffle, and much jostling and shoving to be the first to receive the aarti from the lamp that the priest had waved around the deity. In this adaptation of Western Gregorian calendar to Eastern worship everyone was happy.
Not so the Sankaracharya. This year, he declared in advance that the Shastras did not recommend this practice, as it clashed with the hour when the deity was at rest in the temple sanctum sanctorum. In conceding to the popular thirst for midnight darshan, he did not prohibit temples from staying open at the midnight hour, only advised that the ‘aarti’ flame be shown to devotees from within the sanctum, rather than be brought outside in the normal way. This was duly followed, so that from New Year’s Eve 2004, temple-goers received their ‘darshan’ and were even spared their scuffle! If only this clever example of Hindu adaptability would teach something to Shiv Sainiks and VHP venomists.
Another year, the Sankaracharya had declared that it was auspicious for married women to receive green sarees from their parental homes. More green was sold that year than in any other time, and store-owners must have rejoiced at this particular harvest. However, the choice of the colour green for this pronouncement is not without its significance. Was the Kanchi religious head also asking his followers to take a more affectionate view of the adherents of another religion, for whom green is worthy of reverence? A definite shot in the arm for secularists.
In fact, for all its overt Hindu religiosity, Chennai finds it easier to keep the communal peace than some other cities because anti-Muslim sentiment is not rabidly expressed in the public arena. This is partly due to historical reasons – Muslim looters from foreign lands only managed minimal damage to the splendid Hindu temples and monuments in Tamil Nadu. It is also because of the cheek by jowl coexistence of orthodox Hindus, mostly Iyengars, but sometimes Iyers also, with Muslims. Triplicane in Chennai is a fine example of this, where, if you are a newcomer, and cannot find your way to the Sri Parthasarathy temple through the maze of lanes, some kind person in a skullcap and beard will give you directions. While leaders of the hate-spewing kind undoubtedly exist in Chennai’s midst, so far, they seem to have been kept at bay by the necessities of Dravidian politics. Touch wood, and amen.
After two decades in this seaside metro, I am more at home with the quirky traits that make Chennai special, than I was as a Mumbai exile with youthful expectations. It is true that these twenty years have made Chennai more and more like the other cities in many ways – the same shops, malls, designer labels, restaurants that the other cities offer. But in many significant ways, Chennai retains its original spirit, its own special way of doing things, which is usually remarkably efficient and impressive.
Chennai does spoil you for other places, because the people who serve do it with an added personal touch, which makes the gesture far more than a casual thing. The times when I have had a vehicle breakdown because of a burst tyre, or engine failure in pouring rain, we have always been rescued by passers by, who, after picking you up to give you a lift in their car, discover that you live in the same street as their brother-in-law, or have a child in the same school as their niece. Many years of this has given me a different perspective on the personal questions too. So what if people are more than necessarily curious? They are also very often genuinely concerned about you as a person.
Besides, the lack of a need to maintain surface appearances is very reassuring in Chennai. As a friend of mine put it years ago, ‘Bangalore’s great for a visit, but I could never live there – people put on lipstick and chiffon in the morning when they go to buy bread and milk! Our Madras is the best, at least we can buy vegetables at our gate in a nightie, with our hair in an oily knot, and its perfectly ok!’ For a city to retain this outlook in times of FTV is indeed remarkable.
In the final analysis, what Chennai has is plenty of individuality, rather than just eccentricity. While originality does lend interest to dull routine, and many Chennai practices might appear weird to denizens of other metros, Chennaiites themselves will cling to these examples of weirdness as an inseparable ingredient of the quality of life they perceive for themselves. Chennai is a city of very hard-working people, beset by water problems, ruled by strange leaders, and crammed with the latest gleaming cars in India. The fact that so many of its people seem to be marching to the beat of their own special drums makes it even more desirable.