New wine in the old bottle


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Ohhh, how many aspersions have rained down on my home town over the years. It’s been called iddliville, thayresaadamtown, sambarsuburb, dhotiville. At one time when it was known as Madras, it deserved those names. Madras might have been the capital of the vast sprawl south of the Vindhyas called Madras Presidency but it had never had any pretensions to capital lifestyles. Frankly, it was a village well into the mid-20th century.

At dusk, the town went to sleep as everyone maintained those old village habits believing that without natural light one slept, and woke before dawn for a day’s healthy work. Our visitors were few and far between, and spent most of their brief stay whining about the heat and the humidity and, above all, nothing to do apart from sitting on our famous Marina beach watching the tide come in and out. We probably had a red light district but I was damned if I knew where it was, unlike notorious Bombay with its Grant Road that I’d only heard about.

No one dreamt of eating out in a restaurant, not that there were many to choose from – either a thali or the famous Chunking on Mount Road. If I had dared to suggest lunch or dinner in a restaurant my grandmother would drown me in guilt. ‘Why? What’s wrong with my food? Isn’t it good enough for you that you have to spend money to eat rice and sambar in a restaurant? Is restaurant food better than mine?’ Of course not, I’d reply meekly, beaten by her logic, and settle for her excellent cooking.

Food forms one of the basis of any cultural identity and, quite rightly, we were identified by what we ate. The British had honed foody insults into a fine art. You were what you ate. The French are still the ‘frogs’ for their fondness for this delicacy, and it has a sharper sting than being called ‘snails’. While the Germans remain ‘krauts’ because of their fondness for sauerkraut. Many Asians in Britain are called ‘papadoms’ which may reflect the old Empire’s dying imagination for insults.

We Madrasis were conservative in our eating habits, and conservative as people. We were not big drinkers, that’s if we could get a drink between the bouts of prohibition that came and went like a bad flu. Tandoor was a foreign word and a foreign food, and Madrasis resisted any invasion of northern Indian culinary favourites. We allowed in the biryani but slyly subverted it by making it with vegetables and changing its taste and texture. Way back then in those traditional days the first time I tasted a tandoori chicken and nibbled on a naan was in a flock-papered Indian restaurant in London.



I left my town, we couldn’t call it a city back then, for a long time and returned a few years ago. It had grown up suddenly in this last decade; it became hot in more ways than just the constant heat. Today in its new avatar as Chennai, the city, yes it can be called that today, has leapt over centuries to become a gourmet’s delight, if not a paradise. It’s as if with the name change we took on a new identity, not backward looking as the ancient name suggests, as it was called that when the British christened this strip of plantain patch on the Coromandel coast as Madras.

We’re a 21st century people now, welcoming exotic dishes from all over the world. You want lobster thermidor, you’ve got it; want steak au poivre, you’ve got it. You can wallow in cannelloni, spaghetti with pesto sauce, duck à la orange, enchiladas, fish and chips, couscous, tortillas, paellas and wash them down with Australian and French wines, along with Indian brands. And this is not including Korean, Japanese, Thai, Chinese, tandoori dabbas, Chettinad, Gujarati, Bengali restaurants and hamburgers, pizzas and chicken kings.

Sophisticates in the other metros may mutter ‘So what?’ but this is a quantum leap for the Madrasi. We may still consume an idli or two for breakfast but for dinner we’ll dine on lamb cutlets with a delicate béarnaise sauce, washed down with a Pinot Noir or a Burgundy. Now we’re harder to define as we straddle our past and the future. We’re sliding somewhere in the slipstream of cultural homogeneity, trying to keep our balance in the whirlwind rush of changes.

One day we had graceful girls dancing the Bharatanatyam at weddings, now we have belly dancers at Mehendi’s. Unbelievable, and as villagers we all crowd around to get a glimpse of this vibrating belly when we barely glimpsed a belly button in the old days. The older generation would have swooned at such sacrilege. A friend from Mumbai, however, sneered and whispered to me that belly dancing was passé in his city. ‘In Mumbai we used to have them but no longer,’ he added with somewhat of a sneer. I figured in Mumbai they had to be into lap top dancers at the city weddings or even the dancers from the Crazy Horse, and no doubt Chennai will catch up with that trend, even if a few years late.



But we’re getting there, running as fast as we can. We’re getting over our social and sexual inhibitions. Another friend, condemned to two weeks in Chennai and resigned to spending his evening watching television in his hotel room, made friends in a disco and spent his evenings skinny dipping in private swimming pools along the East Coast road. He was ecstatic, proclaiming Chennai was more hip than his Mumbai. It was his luck to fall into the right swimming pools which I never knew existed.

All these changes have sort of snuck up on Chennai when it was still contemplating its masala dosai, until one day it went to sleep to the soothing sounds of a veena and was awakened rudely by rock/pop music on Radio Mirchi, the latest FM station with non-stop music and non-stop chatter. Chennai slept, dreaming of its girls wrapped in six yards of saree – Kanjeevaram, Mysore silk, voile – and woke to find them all now in jeans and sweat shirts, racing around on their scooters with cell phones pinned to their ears instead of malipu. Not a hip-hugging saree in sight, except at weddings and even there you’ll see more skimpy salwars than chaste sarees to hide their sexy south Indian figures.



Girls meet boys openly now, flashing the latest fashions in the discos that have opened up in the city hotels, five, four and three star, but like so many cinderellas and cinderfellas they have to vanish back into the city at the midnight hour as the cops don’t allow the discos to remain open until dawn. They’ll re-appear mid-afternoon into late evening, and all weekend, coming out of the woodwork to hang out in the Ispahani Centre on Nungumbakkam High Road.

You may think that the winds of change sweeping through sleeping Madras blew in from the West, along with ‘Spiderman’ and ‘Sex in the City’. Far from it. The winds, like those ancient conquerors, swept down from north of the Vindhyas. Anyone from north of that chain are Punjabis, whatever their origin or their language, even as every Southie is called a Madrasi in the North. Our invaders drifted into the town gradually, bringing with them their social habits and imposing them on us unsuspecting Madrasis. They changed the dress styles of our women for a start. Before they brought their influence into Madras, all the women dressed in demure sarees. If some of our young women took to jeans, the others discovered and embraced the salwar with enthusiasm. I don’t see a saree-clad college-going girl anywhere today and even the older women working in banks, IT, or insurance, are in their uniform salwars. They all give the same reason – easier to wear, practical and not so much angst ironing a six yard saree.

Where once dinner parties were docile affairs, finishing long before midnight, our Punjabi invaders kept us up drinking until well past midnight before serving us tandoori chicken, saag, kebabs and naans as the sun rose. They changed our Deepavalis into Diwalis, a time to eat and drink, and taught us to play poker all night long while cleaning us out. They taught us sangeet and mehndi and, most blasphemous of all, introduced us to liquor at wedding receptions when all we’d ever had before was a vegetarian thali and a lime juice.



All this was infectious. Soon we Madrasis too began to include these boisterous customs into many of our weddings; admittedly not all families followed suit. The more traditional remained steadfast to the six am muhurtham, followed by breakfast and an evening reception, alcohol-free. I believe I now have more ‘Punjabi’ friends than Madrasis. They brought in their exuberance and didn’t like the idea of staying at home every evening, eating home-cooked food. They ventured out into the night and soon the hotels had to have twenty-four hour coffee shops, but that wasn’t enough. My friends wanted Italian and French and Spanish food to break the monotony, to escape from the city on the magic carpet of their palates to distant lands, so the city responded by opening up these escape holes to Europe and America. Punjabis flashed their money around, but we Madrasis retained our conservative spending habits.

Oh yes, we Madrasis were quite parsimonious with our money, and we still are. I know multi-millionaires who dress humbly in shirt and trousers and drive around in Hondas or Skodas although they can afford a few Mercs. Even though Nalli, the man who created the saree mega store with branches in London and LA, moves around in a Merc, he still wears his simple white dhoti and jiba and, whenever I see him, he hurries away from his acquisition as if in embarrassment.

Unlike their counterparts in the North, we wealthy Chennaites don’t like to flaunt our wealth. It could also be to avoid the notice of the tax man but it’s ingrained in the culture to keep a low and humble profile. The man sitting next to you at a sabha or a dinner in his dhoti and jiba could be the wealthiest in the city but you’d never guess it. But a quick glance at his wife, overloaded with gold, diamonds and rubies like a Christmas tree, will correct any first impression.

Until a decade ago, we were happy to shop in the old parts of the city – Rattan Bazaar, Flower Bazaar, Parrys Corner. They supplied the necessities, nothing fashionable or flamboyant. Or, if we craved for the ‘phoren’ goods there was always Burma Bazaar, a thin stream of shops flowing outside Madras port where you could buy anything from French wines to an Italian cooker.



Then something mysterious began to gradually happen in this sleepy village. A shopping mall or two popped their heads up, nervous as gophers on a prairie. Would they survive or scuttle back into their holes, defeated by the conservatism and penny-pinching Madras habits? The malls weren’t the grand expanse of capitalism to be found in the US or Europe, merely three or four floors of shops. You must remember, unlike Bombay, Madras is a horizontal city, not vertical, and three or four floors of shops at one location were unheard of. It’s also a city without a centre. There’s no Times Square or Oxford Circus, no downtown.

The humble malls changed this. They were attractive, certainly not stunning, architecturally. They drew people in, not merely to shop but to hang out and by hanging out they shopped. Alsa Mall in Egmore was the most popular. It had a coffee shop, British Airways, Titan watches and couple of men’s clothing stores. Soon malls sprang up like mushrooms in a damp cellar. Some thrived, others withered but most importantly they had arrived. And as the survivors thrived they became bolder, more stylish and the shops began to specialise in fashion, accessories, jewellery, furniture.



The most successful one today is Spencer’s Plaza, the biggest shopping mall in India. Back in the old days when the British were still here, Spencer’s was the biggest department store in Asia. Then a few years ago the old Spencer’s mysteriously burned down and like a phoenix rising from the ashes came our new high rise Spencer’s with floor upon floor of shops. We changed with the times as the city’s name changed and today you can buy anything from a gold Rolex to a Sony digital camera, from designer clothes and every foreign label to Lee jeans. We may not match Mumbai with its vast range of consumer items and fashionable designer clothes but we have enough to satisfy our moderate tastes for the modern.

But the past has not lost its hold on us. The patina of modernity lies lightly on our souls, we have adapted to it to make us more accessible and acceptable to all the new breed of invaders – Punjabis, the Brits (again), Americans, French, Germans, Japanese. In the South, Bangalore has changed from its Britishness to its Punjabiness; they have even imported in their gangsters to lend it additional character. But Bangalore always had an unstable identity. A friend remarked that the Tamil and Tamilians are cohesive, and difficult to submerge in any new identity. We remain a courteous and gracious people, and have not yet picked up the abrasive habits of the North or the West. We visit our temples regularly and draw the morning kolam outside our doors, even in the new flat-style living we’ve adapted to.



Unlike the North we have such a strong and unshakeable belief in ourselves and our religion that we do not practise any communalism. We have kept this slate, so badly stained in so many parts of India, clean. Christian, Muslim, Jain, Sikh live among us without the dread of a riot or a pogrom. They’re confident that, over the centuries, we have always treated them with respect. I admit our politicians do try to stir up hatred, and succeed from time to time especially out in the rural areas and smaller towns, but it doesn’t work in this city. In that, we have resisted the north Indian animosity towards different faiths. Those remain still north of the Vindhyas.

On the surface, as you drive through the city, you may imagine we have totally discarded the saree. But walk into Nalli’s or any of the new chic saree stores anytime and you’ll find it crowded with women buying their sarees. From being an everyday dress it’s now taken on a fashion as a formal evening attire.

We’re still book lovers. Recently, a writer from Delhi came to give us a reading of his new book and though he was unknown, he was surprised to find around fifty people waiting to hear him. He remarked at the start of his talk that in Delhi he would not have even bothered to have a reading as no one would show up. After all, the South does have a much higher literacy rate than the North and this is reflected in the popularity of books, both in English and the regional languages.

The jewel in our crown is our festival season. During November and December we still have a cultural feast of music and dance which is attended by both Madrasis and visitors from all parts of India and the world. I have Indian friends in America who regularly fly over to immerse themselves in this cultural lake which renews and invigorates them for the rest of the year in their America. No other city, anywhere in India or the world, has such a cultural extravaganza annually. Over a period of 20 days 1500 musicians, singers and dancers perform in 20 venues (sabhas) around the city.



The basis of the festival is, of course, to celebrate Carnatic music but we also have dancers and musicians from all over India vying to be included in this cultural orgy. The programmes begin nearly at dawn and finish only around midnight, and the sabhas are packed. And if you think it’s only the old attending these concerts, think again. I’ve seen eight and ten year old children sitting still as rocks for three to four hours listening to classical music and keeping the beat. They might then go out and listen to their MTV but deep down they still retain their cultural roots through their music and dance. What other city can offer its people such a deep cultural and traditional mooring?

Cities retain their characters, no matter who invades them, and you can sniff it in the air. New York smells of the manic infectious energy, London of the staid and historical stability, Paris of possible romance and beauty. The Madras air, beneath the new odours of Chanel and pesto sauces, and even its name change, is still replete with odours of sambar and rasam and, more significant, is soaked in culture and old traditions.