(Published in Sify.com, on August 22, 2014, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/celebrating-madras-where-everyone-belongs-news-columns-oiwkOxeifeffb.html)
It is a lucky kid who grows up in a city by the sea. My childhood was an idyll. Every weekend, my family would do an ‘outing’ – to the beach, where my mother would stand guard by our footwear as we splashed around in the sea; to the movies, at a time when all the city theatres had rickety seats, enormous movie billboards and distinctive names; to Guindy Park, where we would press our faces against the glass in the snake park and then scream and run away, where the ‘big slide’ looked so much larger when we were children; to a ‘5-star hotel’ for dinner. And then the cycle would repeat itself.
As one grows up, one becomes familiar with the uglier aspects of one’s city – the perverts who ensure that every girl feels the city she grew up in is the most unsafe for women, because they choose to sexually harass the most helpless section of women: school and college girls, who are squirming uncomfortably in their changing bodies.
People emigrate and immigrate, changing the mindscape of the city. Builders poach for homes, and inheritors poach for money, changing the landscape of the city.
One feels enraged when colleagues ask why you don’t speak the ‘rashtriya bhasha’, a phrase that is nonexistent in our Constitution, which declares that we can have no one national language.
One feels angered by the reservation created to woo vote banks, which sends hundreds of us to foreign shores.
If one does stay back in the city, one remembers the lines every boy in IIT Madras uses when he wants to hit on a girl: “The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire” – fittingly borrowed from Voltaire.
One lives in new places and learns new languages, and wonders whether it is time to say goodbye to one’s home, which is so different now from what it was.
I lived in London and Delhi for years, and was happy in both. But when I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life writing, I knew I had to come back home. I needed the sea, I needed the music and the dance and the beat of my city.
Here I was, in my twenties, and I had grown up with the pulse of Madras, but only half-heartedly attended the dance and music classes in which my mother had dutifully enrolled me.
When I came back, I decided I had to know the city. It isn’t just the Marina beach, or the Mylapore mamis. It isn’t even just the turtle walks, or the pseudo-love we find in holding hands on ‘Bessy Beach’, or the make-out sessions in cars parked by Broken Bridge. It isn’t just coffees in Amethyst and Anokhi. It isn’t T Nagar shopping. It isn’t the Koyambedu vegetable market. It isn’t Landmark and the The Book Shop, and the childhood haunts to which we have had to say goodbye. It isn’t the clichéd vignette of the uncle drinking filter coffee with The Hindu, as the aunty perambulates the tulsi plant in the backyard.
As I enrolled myself in various classes that required me to travel across the city, I discovered that Madras works in pockets. Dance classes in Kalakshetra introduced me to the distinctive costume and airs that we students own. Rabindra Sangeet introduced me to tens of migrant housewives and small businesswomen, many of whom have only learnt English after moving to the city and meet to speak the one language they all know – Bengali. Urdu classes introduced me to Triplicane, where signboards may be found in Urdu and English, where people speak their endearingly hybrid version of Tamil-mixed-with-Urdu. Ballet classes introduced me to expats who had come to the city to learn Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi or Kathak, and were teaching their dance form to make the money to pay for classes in another.
I had loved the other cities I lived in because they drew their character from the people who populated them, and from their own history.
But Madras is a live history being made. What I treasure most about this city is that it will absorb people into its distinctive character, while also allowing their histories to mould it.
It belongs to the fishermen who cast out their nets and boats in the morning.
It belongs to the priests who walk or bike to their temples every morning.
It belongs to the expats who move here for corporate jobs, and find fellowship at consulate parties, just as it belongs to the metro construction labourers whose delight when they stumble upon Hindi speakers is obvious.
It belongs to the people who learn Tamil, so they may expand their carpentry businesses.
It belongs to the students who crowd into school vans or walk to school, swinging their lunch baskets.
It belongs to the already-tired college kids who hold out their bus passes in a 47A, for the conductor to punch.
It belongs to the people who walk briskly in the park and go ‘HA-HA-HA’ in those ridiculous laughter clubs at the Marina.
It belongs to the people who hunt for parking spaces outside the exclusive gym, membership to which costs less than their kits.
It belongs to people who meet every month to whistle out film tunes, or who meet thrice a week to run between 10 and 18 kilometres.
It belongs to the harassed people who fight their way along the IT corridor. It belongs to the people who head in the opposite direction, where the manufacturing industry has its base.
It belongs to the RJs who are so annoyingly bright and cheery in the morning.
It belongs to the motley crew that bands itself into various amateur theatre rehearsals in the evening.
It belongs to the people partying in clubs, and hoping the cops won’t catch them driving drunk.
It belongs to the cops who ask people to blow in their faces.
It belongs to the folks lying drunk outside a TASMAC store in the middle of the night.
It belongs to the people who push and shove past each other in T Nagar, crowding the jewellery shops when no one supposedly has any money to spend.
It belongs to the people waking up to wear new clothes and light sparklers on Deepavali, and who cringe and shut their eyes when the 10,000-walas take off.
It belongs to the dogs that go nuts on Deepavali day.
It belongs to the literary and theatre and music festivals, ticketed and unticketed. It belongs to the sabhas and the canteens that the sabhas boast.
It belongs to the people from across the country who met here, married and decided to call it home, speaking English to each other, because that’s the only language they have in common.
It belongs to the people of my age who steadfastly say ‘Mowbray’s Road’ and ‘Edward Elliot’s Road’ and ‘Village Road’– ‘Greenways Road’ and ‘Mount Road’ will never change – and to the uncles and aunties whose faces light up at those familiar names.
Sometimes, I worry that the generation that still calls this beautiful city ‘Madras’ will die out. But then, August 22 arrives, and I know that will never be the case.