Tamarind City by Bishwanath Ghosh – Book Review

“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!

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18 thoughts on “Tamarind City by Bishwanath Ghosh – Book Review

  1. Interesting review, Uday. You should add a third category of readers too – travellers and history junkies. 🙂

    I remember reading Ghosh’s Chai Chai a few years ago. A travelogue detailing travels in the Indian interiors, the book was so bland, I had to abandon it midway. But your high praise for this one has got my curiosity piqued. Will sure look it up.

    Regards, Ragini
    http://www.solitaryreaperwrites.blogspot.in

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    • The concept of Chai Chai did not interest me, it was next to this one on the bookshelf and had better reviews but I had an inkling I would not connect with it, and your comment only affirms that! Tamarind City was fascinating from the get go though and I’m so glad I bought it.

      Anyway, I didn’t think people who had no connection to Chennai would appreciate this book, but you are right. This one’s a gold mine for history junkies!

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  2. Uday, I don’t know if I will like a book with historic facts etc.. but I liked your review. It is interesting. I loved your deduction that Chennai is named after a Telugu Naidu 😀

    Many years ago, I worked in Chennai for few months. That’s why the sentence ““Working in Chennai was seen as a punishment once, now it’s a privilege” immediately attracted my attention. Enjoy the privilege of working in Chennai.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well the deduction is not mine but the author’s itself!

      It’s strange how people warn you against moving to Chennai but I find it to be a wonderful city actually. Even livelier than Hyderabad. if only Chennai had Pune’s weather, ah!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I lived in Chennai for 5 months near Tamabaram. What I liked about the city was that it is the right mixture of culture and couture. There is always a correct balance on both sides. I enjoyed that.

    Who am I kidding? I loved the Dindigul Thalapakatti Briyani’s and Anjappar’s more. 😀 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now don’t tell me you worked in MEPZ. Anyway, as a pucca Hyderabadi I can never bring myself to like the other varieties of Biryani. 😛 ( And I see that all Tamils spell it wrong)

      Culture and Couture. I like that!

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  4. I have got to read this one. You’ve shown the book in a light that makes me want to read a book that I would pick up and set right back down in a bookstore 😛
    Uday. Once a chennaite, forever a chennaite (okay okay, part chennaite owing to your proud hyderabadi roots) =D Hyderabadi biryani is like nothing else though. That’s hyderabad-1 and chennai-zilch.

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    • I would usually do the same too. I actually hardly ever read non-fiction. But somehow, the fact that it was about Chennai made me sit-up and notice. 🙂

      Haha. That’s only for the Biryani though. Chennai wins hands-down in a lot of other aspects that Hyderabad slightly pales in comparison.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Aarrghh I’ve always wanted to visit Chennai, such rich cultural diversity! And reading this made me wanna come there even moreee 😦 Promise me Uday that if I ever come there you’ll give me an awesome tour of the city :3

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      • The sad thing about my life is that I’m unable to go ANYWHERE due to lack of financial resources :/ But I do have some control on how much I study travel on the internet 😛 That’s why I know a lot about places but I’ve never visited them 😦

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      • Oh it’s not as if I can afford to either. I have never strayed anywhere that’s more than a night’s journey from my place. Except for Taj Mahal. 😀 But thanks to Google’s Street View, I have seen more places than I could ever be able to in reality! I was also looking into Islamabad and thought that it was better planned than most Indian cities!! Have to check out Lahore now! 😀

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      • Trust me on this, Islamabad is well planned but it’s one hella boring city. You wanna see hustle n’ bustle and lights, check out Lahore ^_^ Us Punjabis know how to LIVE 😉
        Btw, what’s that Taj Mahal story? 😉

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      • OH!! 😀 Awesome, AB! In that sense, I cannot call ANY Indian city as boring, this hustle and bustle permeates every single nook and cranny of us! 🙂

        And kuch nai, there’s no story 😛 I’m just saying Taj Mahal was the farthest I’ve ever been to. And I went with my PARENTS so don’t let your imaginations run wild 😛 😛

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