The Madras syndrome


back to issue

A kind of shirt –

Madras: Loosely woven, fine cotton fabric. Vegetable dyed in plaids, stripes and checks. Tends to fade when washed.

‘Magical things happen to this shirt when you wash it.’

David Ogilvy


A CITY holds its name like its colour. Madras – Madras – Madras. It swims easily off the tongue. Means everything it says. Believes it can be India’s most romantic city because of its pure potential. A port city capable of magic with the second longest strip of beach in the world. And what it can offer is this: the freedom to arrive, explore, drift, dream. A home for illustrious beginnings, meandering middles, infamous endings.

Take away its name and you take away the strings that hold the fabric together. Change its name without its consent and you may as well drown the shirt in hot water, wring it out to dry in the unforgiving sun, and forget all about it. The act in itself is tantamount to allowing a thing of great beauty to fade – allowing an ageing diva to succumb to nostalgia and sing about the good old days when the city had a name you could believe in – when it shone in bright, un-weakened colours, and was full of paradox and tradition and fullness. When it balanced the delicate art of revelling in understatement and tooting its own nadeswaram.

1996. Following the feisty footsteps of the Maharashtra government, the city of Madras is renamed so as to put the ‘Tamil’ back into Tamil Nadu. Madras, they claimed, was not a Tamil name. Why should a capital city be named after a random Portuguese trader, or worse still his wife, whichever version of the story you wish to believe? So, they searched for an alternative. Something more authentic. And this is what they came up with – Chennai. Nai – Tamil, for dog. Chennai, a kind of chinny dog. A clunky, ugly word that feels like salt on your teeth and sand in your throat. A heavy name that falls upon the city, choking all its claims to romanticism. A spanner that falls into the works at the crucial time of transformation, as the city hurtles toward the 50-years-after-independence and where-the-hell-are-we mark. A moment in history where people have stopped to take notes. How much more traffic? How many more buildings? How many more people? Choked charm, inert canals, de-fragranced rivers. The second longest strip of beach – 13 km of now adulterated sand.

2003. Following the success of Kerala’s tourist campaign, the state launches what it hopes will lift the mantle that has stifled the city. A brand spanking new banner – Enchanting Tamil Nadu – Experience Yourself, with Chennai, the capital, as the obvious epicentre. A Seven Point Action Plan which involves unlocking the hidden treasures of the state, positioning Chennai and Coimbatore as destinations for international conferences, as ‘India’s eastern gateway to the world.’ Grabbing those global tourists (of which Madras receives fourth highest in all India), taking them by the hand to the new-improved, cleaned-up Mammallapuram (avatar of the previous Mahabalipuram) and onward to the purportedly plentiful, barely-breathed about gems scattered around the state, pocketing bits of euros and dollars along the way, and funnelling them back into the infrastructure. Severe repositioning. At least, that’s the plan.



No mention of the fact that it was much easier to sell when people had a name they could identify with: Madras curry, Madras handkerchiefs, Madras filter coffee, Madras silks, Madras mallipu, Mylapore Mamis, Medical Missions, mridangams, MGR.

A name 350-years-old in the imagination. A name lighthouses have favoured as ships came in to shore. 1883, Joseph Conrad passes through on the ‘Riversdale’ and later joins the ‘Narcissus’ at Bombay (sorry, Mumbai), which later forms material for the novel, The Nigger of the Narcissus. Later that same century, Jane Austen’s spinster cousin, Philadelphia, passes through as part of the brood of ‘good English women’, proceeds to have an affair with Warren Hastings, produces a daughter, returns to England and marries Jane’s brother. None of this material is apparent in any of Ms. Austen’s novels. 1878, the mystical Madam Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott pass through to set up the headquarters of the Madras Theosophical Society. Early 1900s, 40-year-old George Sydney Arundale arrives to head Annie Besant’s school of Theosophy, falls in love with the then 16-year-old Rukmani Nilakanta Sastri (later, Rukmani Devi Arundale, later, ‘Atthai’), marries her despite opposition, stands back to watch the unfolding of an exquisite dancer. 1930s, Somerset Maugham passes through Madras, moves on to Thiruvannamalai (the name stands) to meet Ramana Maharishi who becomes the ‘holy man’ in The Razor’s Edge.



A city of illustrious beginnings; birthplace of famous babies who later found other homes – William Makepeace Thackeray, Arnold George Dorsey (later renamed Engelbert Humperdink, in an effort to kick-start his singing career), former England cricket captain, Nasser Hussain. A breeding ground for scientists, mathematicians, physicists of good Tam-Bram stock, and others (John Henry Whitehead). A city of firsts – site of the East India Company’s first settlement, place where the apostle Thomas first stepped, from where Christianity spread its wings, first place in the world where payments were made for undergoing a vasectomy (Rs 30 a pop).

A city of meandering middles. Artists, philosophers, yoga gurus, dancers, singers, musicians. Jiddu Krishnamurti fleeting in and out, giving talks under the famous banyan tree. The mathematical genius, Ramanujan, who sailed away to England to work on algebra of inequalities, elliptic functions, continued fractions, partial sums and products of hypergeometric series, but came back to Madras to die of tuberculosis. R.K. Narayan, chronicler of small-town life in South India, making its subtleties available to the world.

Infamous endings: Rajiv Gandhi.

A city, in other words, of incredible comings and goings, but fallible, nonetheless. Because here’s the unearthed fact – Chennappa Naicker, Rajah of Chandragiri, who granted the British the right to trade on the coast, the major inspiration for the city’s new name, turned out to have faulty origins. Turns out he was a Telugu speaker from Andhra Pradesh. Close, but not close enough.

I still like the alternative theory to the Portuguese coinage – that the city was named after a local fisherman, Madarasan. Improbable, but Tamil enough, romantic at least, and in keeping with the image of the city.



Here’s an image of the city. Madras after monsoon rains wears its skies like a Kanchivaram sari: brilliant red, pink, purple, alchemised with those exalted elements of carbon emission, dust, debris, and omnipresent humidity, to create sunscapes of world calibre. A good place to catch one of the few uninterrupted views of the sky in the city is the Adyar Bridge. After crossing it, you can only catch glimpses of orange shards between the towering political cutouts, billboards and buildings. But December in Madras is a magical time. The trees are greener, early morning walkers semi-surface in their monkey caps and shawls, young people saunter about in jeans and long-sleeves without breaking into sweat. Even the cows and dogs want to leave their usual shady spots and congregate in the middle of the eternally dug-up roads.

This year, unfortunately, the rains duped us. She teased, taunted, lifted up her silken skirts, skittered about and left the entire state of Tamil Nadu in a dire state of emergency. Despite a massive rainwater harvesting campaign spearheaded by the Metrowater Board, the failure of the North East monsoon has forced water storage levels to an all time low and has created an uneasy sense of violence born of craving. For a city bordered by the sea, famed for its ‘placid and silvery Cooum’ (granted, this particular epithet hasn’t been true for a while now), these haunting images of water queues, and brightly coloured abandoned plastic water pots, seems surreal, unnatural.



But the problem of water is very real. A recent article in the Indian Express quoted the minimum water demand for the city at 180 million litres of water per day for domestic consumption. Now, the amount of hankering involved in the buying, selling, distributing and procuring of these precious litres from the water tankers – the new monsters of the road, who have well-surpassed the PTC buses, is a dangerous affair. By the end of November this year, there had been 120 accidents in Madras involving water tankers (both government and private), 30 deaths and 111 injuries. And these were just road-related accidents!

Even as I write, the death toll continues. An accident reported in this morning’s Hindu (December 26), described the gruesome crushing to death of a woman and her son by a water tanker, minutes after attending Christmas Mass. Then, take into account the aggression involved off the roads. People are losing lives and body parts (Mr P.K. Palani lost an eye to local thugs who had taken over water distribution in his street), in an effort to exercise their basic rights to available, clean, drinking water.

At the end of it all, there is the same resonance. No groundwater recharge, alternate day water supplies, dwindling reservoirs, salinity, increased water tariffs, serpentine queues. The same sad stories the residents of the city have been living with for years. Except, suddenly, we are on the brink. This was the make or break year. Everyone seems to be talking wells, bores, suppliers, harvesting, neighbourhood villages as alternative water sources (in complete violation of the Water Requirements Act 2002). Looking skyward, asking the prophetic question, what will we do next year? Buy gallons of mineral water and bathe our babies in it like the fearful expatriate wives?

Somehow, there seems to be a perpetuation of faith: the idea that something will happen. A depression in the bay, a rip in the sky, water tankers that will suddenly behave. Or even more miraculous, a sudden materialization of the chief minister’s cross-border visit to negotiate the release of Krishna water. There’s an incredible amount of belief.

Meanwhile, the state government has taken over water supply of a different kind.

In November this year, the government-owned Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) took over the wholesale distribution of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL). This involved putting 8,500 private owners out of business. The government justified this move, saying that it wanted to eliminate the sale of contraband and spurious liquor. This, in the only state which has licensed wine shops but not bars. Now, however, that rule has been relaxed, and liquor shops are allowed to serve the odd peg here and there. A subsequent chain of deaths related to drinking dodgy moonshine has followed.



Perhaps now is the time for retrograde. It being the end of the year and all, with the auspicious Tamil month of Thai approaching. January is a time for promises, hopes, wiping clean the slates, an ebb and tide kind of month. The month for marriages. It’s an auspicious time. It’s also the month of the harvest festival, Pongal, which is celebrated with great fervour throughout the state. Kolams, pujas, mass cooking, new clothes, decorated cows, an inexplicable exodus to the beach (on all manner of transportation), are part of the festivities, but there’s also Bhoghi, which involves taking out all the old, rubbishy things from our houses and burning them on the sides of the streets. A paradoxical event that symbolizes the cleansing out, purging, or uncluttering of our lives, but in actuality, de-cleanses, poisons, and clutters up the air with all kinds of toxic fumes.



Nevertheless, this is where we return to our frayed shirts and threadbare sheets. To the Madras syndrome. To David Ogilvy’s brilliant advertising gimmick – the shirt that’s guaranteed to fade, the Madras checks, the untapped magic. As a city, it has the same special qualities of the simple checked shirt lying in your cupboard. It’s what you reach for when you have nothing else to wear; it’s what you return to over and over for its blissful familiarity. It’s comfortable, doesn’t overpower, isn’t glossy, allows you to retreat or stand in the light. It’s real. And as we approach this time of bringing out all the achievements of the year to see if they sparkle, it’s easy to hold a sense of disgruntled disillusion. To complain that this shirt has had either too much or too little washing, water, or wear. It’s easy to turn into a group of snivelling, self-pitying sods, the only ones in the whole country forced to mope about in front of our non-set-top-box-enhanced televisions to watch news 24X7 or Tamil film songs.

But still, it breathes, allows you to be. Still, it has the capacity to welcome, to startle. These are new days ahead of us – not of sprawling houses and coy girls in pattu pavades and ribboned double plaits. These are days of burgeoning Bollywood stars, coffee pubs, and call centres. Great romances can still be born here.