“Working in Chennai was seen as a punishment once, now it’s a privilege” – The Author
The above line is not very far from the truth.
So, CHENNAI!! It’s been my home for the past three years now. And it never fails to amaze me even today. It comes with its negatives, sure, but Chennai has so much to give that there can never be a dull moment if you just knew where to look.
So when I chanced upon this book that was curiously named Tamarind City, I thought time has finally come to read a travelogue on the city. Little did I know that this would turn out to be much much more than a mere travelogue. Bishwanath Ghosh (the “B” in his name should give you a clue as to his roots), arrived in Chennai in 2001 to work for the Indian Express and has made Chennai his home ever since. He is now a Senior Deputy Editor at The Hindu, the newspaper majority of Chennaiites swear by. I actually remembered him from the paper, they always put a photo of him whenever he writes something. Part of the reason why I went ahead and made the purchase.
And I have to tell you, how I wish I’d read this sooner! The book actually came out in 2012, very close to the time I first stepped in Chennai. As someone who’s always digging into the history of places and their culture, I would have had such a head start in my explorations. But nothing is lost yet. The book gave me enough to see and do, and more than enough to research on.
Here’s a sample of the little nuggets of information that Bishwanath drops in his book –
- Records suggest that Chennapatnam got its name from a Chennapa Naidu, a local governor of the Vijaynagar Empire. If that’s the case, Chennai was actually named after a Telugu-speaking Naidu!
- Without Fort St. George, there wouldn’t have been a British conquest. It all started here, in a little fort on the shores of Madras.
- And that Chennai is the home to India’s oldest standing railway station. No, not Central. It’s actually Royapuram.
And there’s a lot more. In crisp eleven chapters, the author takes you on both a historical and cultural journey of Chennai. The people who made the city, the people who broke the city, and everything else in between. He starts at the very beginning with the East India Company arriving, right up to the current globalization. And covers so many facets of the city and the localities that is hard to not straighten your spine and take a hard notice at the wonder lurking behind every corner.
It’s the conversations that Bishwanath populates his book with, though, that make this book. From the daughter of a popular yesteryear star Gemini Ganesan, to a French woman who made Triplicane her second home – each and every conversation adds a new dimension to the things you already know or thought you knew. It was fascinating to see Chennai through these people’s eyes, how it had been a sleepy town just a handful of decades ago and to its transformation to one of the world’s largest manufacturing hub. The author weaves a wonderful tapestry of stories, underlining his own journey in coming to terms with the city. He comes across as an amiable chap by the way, if you ask me.
Oh, and thanks to him, I have a much better understanding of the Iyengar and Iyer community now. Though I’m too sure when he says that every Tamil Brahmin girl receives education in Classical Music. (Vanchula, if you’re reading this, confirm!) But he is right in stating that Chennai rides on a chariot whose two wheels are “tradition” and “modernization”. I guess it’s only here that you see people still clinging onto their roots while not eschewing the modern way of life.
So who should read this book? If you’re someone who’s born or brought up in Chennai there’s a possibility that you have taken the city for granted. Ergo, this book. Or if you’re someone who’s new to the city and have been itching to dig deeper, this is the book again.
Either way, I promise that it will be an enjoyable read and you will come out wiser!
As for me, I guess I need to take that long procrastinated trip to Fort St. George ASAP! And I could kill for some Idly Sambhar right away!
UDAY-O-METER: Highly recommended!