Conservative or not conservative?
Of late, every now and then, a handful of people in Chennai engage themselves in a debate whether their city is truly conservative or merely perceived to be conservative by ignorant North Indians, especially the North Indian media (which means the Delhi papers). The debate began when a Tamil paper front-paged a picture of a Chennai disco, where dozens of couples where dancing and some of the women had their arms thrown around their men. The paper, in the caption, demanded to know if such behaviour was in comformation with Tamil culture. The controversy generated by the picture led the police to shut down the disco.
Almost at the same time, actress Khushboo, who at one time was accorded the status of a goddess by Tamil fans, said in an interview that she saw nothing wrong in women having pre-marital sex as long as they took precautions – or something to that effect. Hell broke loose. The media from Delhi came running – what turned them on was the fact that such a spicy controversy had erupted in a ‘conservative’ city like Chennai. But Chennai’s ‘five-star’ crowd was, rightly, livid – not only at the foolishness of the whole controversy but also over the fact that the Delhi media had thought them to be the inhabitants of a conservative city.
These ‘five-star’ people, after all, consider themselves to be the citizens of not only Chennai but also the globalised India – where men and women mingle freely, have a drink together, and even dance together. And why not: they are no different from the party-hopping Bombaywallah or a Delhi socialite. Yet the conservativeness of Chennai is tattooed on their forehead like a stigma. How sad!
I think I have the answer, because by now I have lived in the city for more than five years, and in those five years, my lifestyle has alternated between the ‘five-star’ culture and the popular culture. I have had my Scotch with celebrities, I have also had Indian whisky with labourers in dingy, dirty TASMAC bars. I have also had… no, I am not going to reveal any more, except my verdict: if conservativeness has anything to do with ‘Western culture’ and mingling of sexes, then Chennai is conservative.
People who get livid at Chennai being called conservative are the ones who travel in their own cars that have an aircon (oh yes, they no longer say AC). People who get a little less livid, but livid nonetheless, are the ones who take autorickshaws – people like me. But for the masses that travel in buses, the whole debate makes no sense because they are programmed to be conservative. And mind you, the masses matter.
I took a bus the other day – my first-ever and the only bus ride in Chennai – from Ambattur to T. Nagar. It is a distance of about 12 km. Maybe 15. Translated in time, it amounts to nearly 45 minutes. The very reason I hopped into the passing bus – instead of haggling with a autorickshaw driver – was that it was empty. “Since I will get a place to sit, why spend Rs 150 when I can reach home with only Rs 5,” I told myself as I jumped in. But I stood, in an empty bus, for 45 minutes.
The right row of seats was filled with all kinds of men. The left row, however, had a number of seats empty. In each of the left-side seats, a woman sat by the window – but the aisle part was empty. I instantly sensed that the row belonged to the ‘ladies’. In places like Delhi, you could sit on a ladies seat till a ‘lady’ arrived, but here no one was venturing anywhere near those seats. I kept waiting for a man to take one of those vacant seats, so that I could follow suit, but no one did.
Finally, the woman sitting on the front row, just next to the front door of the bus, got down. An entire seat is empty, I thought, so why not? If a ‘lady’ comes, I shall vacate. So I sat there, by the window. Another man, perhaps gathering courage from my act, sat next to me. The next stop, a bunch of women got in. The next thing I hear is the conductor calling me out and saying something in Tamil. Even though I don’t understand the language well, I got what he meant: “Please get up, that seat is for ladies.” So we – the next me to me and I – got up promptly, making way, as I realised, for just one woman! She could have done by vacating just one man, not both the men – but that’s the rule.
As I stood up, holding the overheard bar, I noticed the woman: even though the whole seat was empty, she meekly sat on the edge, as if an invisible bulky man was still sitting there and threatening to paw her. Now if they can be wary – or shy – of even an invisible man, then… well, that’s real Chennai for you. Wake up and smell the coffee.