Chennai: A Biography review: Chennai that was Madras – The Hindu

Chennai News

A new book touches on everything significant to the city — history, art, food, the people, language, architecture, cinema, politics, and also the Cooum, its most infamous river 

A new book touches on everything significant to the city — history, art, food, the people, language, architecture, cinema, politics, and also the Cooum, its most infamous river 

Every city deserves to have its stories told, ideally, by a fine raconteur. Chennai, or Madras to some, has been lucky on this count — for decades now, people in love with the city have been telling tales of the city, unearthing nuggets of information, from time to time, regaling other lovers of the city with their discoveries. As we live on in the present, the past wafts by gently, keeping alive nostalgia, even intrigue, and contributes greatly to the pride that keeps a people anchored to a city, no matter where in the world they actually live.

V. Sriram’s recent book Chennai: A Biography ticks all the right boxes, and then some. An exhaustive account of all things Madras right through to its Chennai avatar, though some might argue that they are the same. But they are not quite the same, are they? Cities are not immutable; a vibrant city is a breathing, pulsating, non-linear shape-shifting crucible for the people in it. Sometimes, a road sign, a few bridges here, a few pavements there tell you how it has changed, and at other times, it’s just a perception, palpable and yet not exhibitable, for how the city you know has changed.

Sriram’s work captures this mutability and for a city that is officially 380 years old, but possibly truly over 650 years in the making, very well indeed. While he clearly loves the city, he has no compulsion to judge, allowing its acknowledged flaws to rise in the narrative, tackling it with his tongue firmly tucked in his cheek. In manner and form, Sriram’s narrative is not very distant from the style of his guru — the father of Madras history, S. Muthiah. It’s easy to see other similarities too — in his devotion to history, telling the stories of the past that seem to help you make sense of the future, the diligence with which he teases out a mere nugget from history, the green room gossip tales he seems to know of. But make no mistake, Sriram is striking his own path too, through this book, but also with his involvement with the city through social media, the history walks and the videos.

Extensive research

At every turn of the page, scholarship glances off the paper, the volume of research and the effort that went into this book are to be acknowledged and feted. From legging it to temples for the fading inscriptions on their walls, digging up old dusty archives, newspaper articles, plucking out references from old poems, historians’ accounts, other books, peering intently at the cupolas of the Indo Saracenic-style buildings that dot this landscape, clearly, Sriram has gone that extra mile to deliver content that is enjoyable, even while maintaining the rigours of academic research.

This book touches on everything significant to the city — its history, yes, but also art, food, aromas, the people, the civic administration, architecture, cinema, its politics, its language, temples, music, traffic, its constant aspiration to become Singapore but never quite getting there, Margazhi, theatre, hospitals and education, its gutters, slums, beaches, housing complexes, and of course, the Cooum, Chennai’s most infamous river. Most of these come with interesting anecdotes, like the nugget about how the famous muster roll scam interestingly came to light, or even more fascinating, the story of how underground sewers came to be in the world’s second oldest Corporation.

He reached into the folds of this reputably ‘conservative’ city to discover its fun aspects, its language (the etymology of the quintessential Madras Bashai, the lingo of Chennai), its tendency to make politicians of film stars.

There is no doubt that this well-indexed volume should be counted among the reference books on Chennai. It will be worth its value and more for schools, universities, students, researchers and even journalists scouting to authenticate references from past history. It’s also a good book to have on your shelves, if you consider Chennai your own, for a casual read at tea time, or to pick stories from to regale dinner guests. There’s a veritable smorgasbord of content available in this book, depending on the profession of your guests, or their political inclination even, a range that will sustain several dinners over.

Missing some pictures

And yet, with this book, one wonders if a few, well laid-out pictures of the city would not have been out of place. People who love to read about the past also love to dip their noses into sepia frames, or fading black and white ones, on glossy news print, perfect accompaniments to the ink on the pages.

One would assume personal and public collections might have plenty of authenticated photos that are within reach. Sriram has served what a resident of this city would have called a ‘top class breakfast’ of steaming hot idlis, but where are the mandatory accoutrements of sambar, chutney or even filter coffee? Maybe subsequent editions of Chennai will ladle out the sambar and coffee too, because somehow pictures are like the aroma of good filter coffee. They are touchstones that transport you instantly to a nostalgic past, even as Sriram’s well-crafted words do much of the job.

Chennai: A Biography; V. Sriram, Aleph Book Company, ₹899.

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