Chennai: From Quill to Keyboard

In honour of the approaching Madras Day, a little something I put together. I’ve long been a fan of certain writers, and thought I’d dig a bit about what they’ve written about our fair city. This is what I came up with.

“Chennai, formerly known as Madras, is the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu and is India’s fourth largest metropolitan city. It is located on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal. With an estimated population of 7.06 million (2007), the 368-year-old city is the 34th largest metropolitan area in the world. Chennai is the third largest commercial and industrial centre in India, and is known for its cultural heritage and temple architecture …”

Thus begins the wikipedia description of Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state of India: detailing statistics, the population, the languages spoken, the British Raj’s imprint, the IT explosion – trivia and minutiae that will quench the thirst of the most exacting encyclopedias, satisfy geography students and finish homework. The mind of a littérateur functions in a different manner, though …

He sees Chennai not through the eyes of an almanac, but through the lens of emotion: tinged grey and black, or vibrant reds and blues. His view of the city zigzags from the tree shrouded Mowbray’s Road of the late 1800s. to the bustling Parrys Corner of today; from the impossibly crowded Ranganathan Street to the inimitable Rathna café; from the flower-sellers outside Kabali Koil to the IT-enforced steel, chrome and deodorant of Tidel Park. He sees the people, the smells, the sounds and the little known scenes that never make it to the headlines; the neighbour next door, the demolished building next street, the vanishing swamps of Pallikaranai; the long and winding roads that lead to fresh horticulture gardens in Padappai; the clustered houses of Triplicane. To him, Chennai is alive, a moving, restless creature, or gentle, calm spirit. Like the vision through a multi-colored fragment of glass, it is ever-shifting. And like the hues, the view of every writer, through the decades, has been as different as chalk and cheese.

Sister Subbalakshmi certainly, was one of those who was refreshingly honest about the Madras Pattinam she knew. Born in 1886, she was the first woman – and a widow to boot – to complete what was then considered a comprehensive education, and created history by changing the fate of widows in the State forever. High sounding words, yes – but when she was a student, Subbalakshmi found every step excruciating, subject as she was to the unwelcome scrutiny of outsiders. Unthinkable for a girl to study – what then, might be supposed of a young widow?

But her natural courage and her father’s indomitable will made it possible for her to think of pursuing the Faculty of Arts Examination at the Presentation Convent in George Town – or Black Town as it was called in the early 1900s. And so, through the words of biographer Monica Felton, you can see Sister Subbalakshmi’s earliest views of the city she had lived in for years – but had never had the freedom to explore.

“… They would set off early, and presently the quiet, tree shaded roads of Egmore would be left behind. Subbalakshmi, sitting so far back in the shadows of the arched roof that passersby hardly noticed she was there, would stare out at the carriage and rickshaws and bullock carts that went up and down Poonamallee high Road, to and from the Central Station. Then, if the horse remembered to take the proper turning, she would be able to have a good look at the shops in China Bazaar, the busiest shopping street of the city. When the shutters were taken down in the mornings the goods would be piled up outside, so that it was impossible to be sure where the pavement ended and the shops began.

“There were rugs and carpets from Kashmir and from Kidderminster in England, and exquisitely thin straw mats from Muslim villages in the far south, all spread out for customers to look at. In front of the hardware shops were pagoda like towers made by brass and copper vessels piled accurately on top of each other. The cloth shops were festooned with Manchester cottons and Japanese cottons hung over high railings like many coloured banners, and it was possible to peep inside at the shelves stacked with saris from Conjeevaram and Benares and Lucknow and Kollegal and Bangalore.

“After that, if the horse took a wrong turning, Subbalakshmi would find herself in the street of the ironworkers and locksmiths, or the street of the glasscutter, where looking glasses made countless reflections of everyone who passed …

“She saw squalor too. Women in filthy rags, with naked babies crawling in the rubbish around them, sat on the pavement outside the walls of the High Court, lighting fires of dried leaves and waste paper, cooking evil smelling messes in vessels of sun-baked clay which looked as if they were never cleaned from one year’s end to another. Young widows crept along the streets, their saris pulled tightly over their heads to hide their disfigurement hardly daring to show themselves, yet unable to refuse to perform whatever domestic errand had brought them out into the glaring light of day …”

What she saw settled deep into Subbalakshmi’s mind – the richness, the squalor, the customs, and the people. Aside from her prowess as an educator, this would also make an excellent repository of memories, from which anyone could draw at will.

Writer Sujatha’s Chennai portrays a different scene, however. His city is rooted in the present; filled with high profile lawyers who zip around in Hyundai Accents, use laptops and Nokia cellphones, handle the largest cases in their tiny chambers clustered in the famous Lingi Chetty Street – and go through dead bodies faster than Perry Mason. Enter Ganesh and Vasanth, the deadly lawyer duo who go hunting for the murderer of a young woman whose body was first found floating down Wellington Bridge – now Kamaraj bridge – while wading through a rather odorous history of the River Cooum, circa the eighties.

“…as the car started, Nirupama said: “Drive to the Wellington bridge.”

“The Wellington bridge?”

“It’s called Kamaraj Bridge now. We saw the body down there, didn’t we? That’s when I started reading about the Cooum River, its source, destination … did you know that it flows to Madras in an S-shape? It almost touches the northern end when it runs through Chindhathiripettai – and the British built a canal to connect the two: they called it the Clive Canal, Penitentiary Canal – you know the one that runs beside the central Station? That’s the one.”

“It’s a little difficult driving along the Cooum. We could go by the Mount Road, join the river at the Casino theatre, and get to Chindhathiripettai. That’s the best way.”

The car meandered past the Kamaraj Statue, rumbled beyond the Estate, waited by the Anna Statue, inched past the mob that spilled out of theatres, tsowards the Wellington and did a U-turn …

As they crossed another bridge, “Chindhathiripettai,” announced Vasanth.

“We’ll drive by the canal,” said Nirupama.

It was as though the city had suddenly grown poor: a tiny Amman Koil nestled in a wooden alcove, automobile spareparts littered the roadside; posters shouting out the misdeeds of some D K political Party or the other were plastered over walls; the landscape was overrun by men in dirty dabba veshtis, and transistors with Vivithbharathi blaring from them. The horn bellowed until the car’s battery was in danger of being exhausted; children peeped through windows that looked as though they hadn’t seen a coat of paint since the times of Robert Clive. Film Companies, Printing presses, the Green Hotel, bread slices stuck inside glass jars on the hotel’s counter, arrack stalls! Eversilver vessels that dazzled in a row by the corporation taps …”

Sujatha’s writing is sharp; the malodorous sewage canals assault your nose as you read his crisp descriptions. The area comes to life in his capable fingers: Sujatha never distorts his vision; instead he presents the city as it is, letting the reader come to his own conclusions. In this novel, “Ethaiyum oru Murai,” his writing highlights a not so flattering part of Madras – a part, certainly, that the city’s tourism department will ignore. And yet, this, after all, is quintessential Chennai, with its own life, culture and people.

And so was the Madras painted by a veteran old-timer and 1940s writer S V V. His Mylapore was an area that enjoyed considerable importance; still nestled comfortably under the British Raj, understanding that their time was somehow drawing to an end, yet unwilling to let go of it. Mylapore was the centre, the core around which Madras thrived, the home of the greatest and most prestigious residents of the city – at the same time, housing the lowest strata as well. The twain met but rarely; their routes took them via the tram or the pleasure car, as may be. An excerpt from one S V V’s more detailed works “Vasanthan,” where Mylapore is revealed in all its glory:

“…In London, they say, the city is split into the West End and East End. The residents of the West End are nobles and lords, so they say; the residents of the East End are the lower middle class families, considerably poor and sometimes penniless.

The same holds good for Mylapore as well. It is, after all, held to be the most prestigious location in Chennappattinam. And the West End housed those of the likes of the gods and goddesses of wealth.

“Would you like to know the dimensions of Mylapore’s West End? Well, you walk around the four sides of the Kabali Koil, which roughly comes to the shape of a kite, and then follow it along to the Luz Church Road, which is the tail of the kite, and that, you could say, is the West End. As days passed, the kite’s tail gained more prominence than its head; wealth and prosperity made this road their home. Those with a monthly income of Rs 3000 – 4000, not to mention High Court Judges, Advocate-Generals, and Executive Counselors; men who earned more than Rs 40,000 or 50,000 per case, or Rs 2000 for even a consultation that lasted no more than half an hour, had established themselves here. The bungalows lining the road fairly bristled with pomp and splendour; the goddess Lakshmi verily ruled the territory. Each bungalow boasted at least three motor cars: the children went to school in one; the lord and master of the house journeyed to the office in another; the mistress sallied around the city on her errands in the third. Three cooks were in employ for each home; jewelry lined every limb of the women of the household. No one in the whole area ever wore a sari that cost less than Rs 120. No resident of the West End of Mylapore ever rode a tram or bus – should their car ever fall in to repair, their only alternative was to borrow their neighbour’s car and go on their business! For, in truth, wouldn’t it spell doom for their status and prestige, if they step inside a means of public transport? Such was the standing of those who lived in the West End.

Even this state of affairs, argues S V V on an aside, had been a thing of the past at the time of his writing the novel. Now it was just another place that had once boasted a hoary past, he writes jovially. But then … ah! Then, West Mylapore was the abode of the gods.

“East Mylapore ranged around homes peopled with a minimum of at least five families – such as the Mundaga Kanniyamman Koil Street, the Paripurana Vinayakar Koil Street, and the Kallukkaaran Street. Men who lived in these homes rose early in the mornings, walked to the Thanneerthurai vegetable market to buy the day’s provisions as well as petty quarrels and disputes., trudged next to the doctor for prescriptions for ailing children; the women of the household spent the morning hours cleaning the house, washing the vessels, while complaining to their husbands about their crying children. Husbands, meanwhile, tried to shush children, showing them hens, cats, and every other animals that might pacify the child, swallow a few hasty mouthfuls of hot food and rush to the office – when fate would conspire to stop them by hastening the tram. “Hold on! Hold on!” would yell the harried office-goer, running after the tram for half a mile. This, then, is East Mylapore.”

And it is only after this elaborate description that S V V settles down to begin his tale, a la the author of Vanity Fair, setting the stage, so to speak. And an engaging tale, it is, formed quintessentially of the men and women of an era now vanished.

Last, but not the least – to use a terrible, but valid cliché, is Kalki R Krishnamurthy, a diehard Chennaiite himself, though his roots be further south. Here was a man who grew from humble proportions to great heights, carving out a niche for himself in social drama, satire, gentle irony, and historical fiction. His articles were literally pounced upon by avid fans; his editorials sparked heated debates the moment they reached the hands of readers. In a sense, he ruled the literary landscape of Madras until his death – and no one could unseat this uncrowned king of words. Here is an excerpt from a humourous shortstory of his: “Kailasamayyarin Kabara,” where the protagonist is scared out of his wits about everything:

“… Kailasamayyar’s wife wished to visit her native village, since Deepaavali was approaching, and it was also to be her brother’s first since his marriage (the first Deepaavali after one’s marriage is always a special and grand occasion). “If this is your brother’s special Deepaavali, then that’s his twisted destiny; why do we have to share his fate?” protested Kailasamayyar. His better half did not heed this excellent argument, hence Kailasamayyar, who was well aware that one might even secure a place in Heaven, but couldn’t reserve a seat in trains, reserved seats for his family five to six days in advance of the journey.

It poured cats and dogs on the day they were to start.

“This isn’t a good sign,” announced Kailasamayyar. “I wonder what the condition of the railway tracks will be, if this rain persists. Lately, the Railway department has run into a lot of trouble…”

“Who cares? I insist on going,” declared his wife, and so, Kailasamayyar and his family got into the car and started. When they reached Mount Road, the rain had worsened so much that the car swam into the waters swirling onto the thoroughfare.

“At any rate, the worst fate that could possibly befall me is death,” murmured Kailasamayyar reassuringly, to himself. “Nothing worse than that could possibly happen, could it?”

“How much more morbid can you get?” murmured his wife in an angry tone.

They did manage to reach Egmore at last.

Good news awaited them at the Egmore Railway Station. It seemed that the Pallavaram Hill, mortally frightened of such heavy rains, had actually moved away from Pallavaram and flopped down onto the railway tracks. No amount of persuasion and cajolery from such eminent personages as the T.T.S and other officers, could serve to budge the mountain from the tracks. Another group argued that this news was nonsense, and gave the information that 50 feet of the tracks connecting Kodambakkam and Mambalam had washed away in the rains. Whatever the reason, it was obvious that trains wouldn’t start from Egmore that day, and further information made it clear that all trains would be starting from Madras only at the Tambaram Railway Station. Then, and only then was it revealed, that Kailasamayyar had been possessed by a demon of daring and courage!

“To Tambaram, at once!” proclaimed Kailasamayyar.

“Do we need to? Why don’t we go home?” pleaded his wife.

Kailasamayyar was adamant. “What’s the worst thing that can happen? Death, isn’t it? Well, so be it, then!” he argued courageously. “Oh, why aren’t those rascally Japanese showering bombs on us?” he sorrowed. “If they aren’t going to bomb us, perhaps we shall be struck by lightning,” he wondered eagerly. “I hope lightning strikes exactly at our car; then we shall have earned our reward for daring to visit your brother for Deepaavali,” he informed his frightened wife. These and other such encouraging words helped to keep up his spirits on their journey. Well aware that their father was in a dangerous mood, his children were as quiet as mice. The car swept over the road, tearing through sheets of rain.

They arrived at the Tambaram Station at last, which was as black as pitch owing to a power-cut. The whole building was thrown into gloom. Kailasamayyar, however, did not hesitate. His pulse was racing at 350 beats per minute, but he climbed the steps, stalked through the station, without once looking back to see if his family were following him, and reached the platform. His family found him out somehow and they huddled together in the chilling rain. The train was awaiting them on the tracks and everyone bundled into the second class carriage, which seemed empty. Silence reigned inside the carriage; darkness reigned outside.

A few moments later, his wife ventured to speak. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone about today…the carriages are so empty, aren’t they?” she asked cautiously.

“Yes, of course, what of it?” roared Kailasamayyar. “People aren’t going to be murdered simply because they happen to travel second class, are they? Surely you don’t need to remember details of someone being murdered while they were travelling alone on this train, someday…”

“Do stop talking this way. You’re frightening the children!” interrupted Mrs. Kailasamayyar.

The children had huddled in a corner of their seats, sensing their father’s anger …”

How Kailasamayyar’s hair turned black or white is another story – but Kalki’s penchant for humour comes through. Not to mention his take on Madras Pattinam, aka Chennai.

Each writer’s view, thus, is a different view of the Kaleidoscope that is Chennai. A myriad of colours, emotions, surroundings, operations. No one person sees it the same – even the curbside vendor of peanuts would tell you a different tale: about public toilet and late-night customers, probably. But perhaps that’s a story that will yet be told. By another enterprising writer, offering to look at Chennai through the kaleidoscope all over again. Who might potter at the keyboard, or write laboriously with pen and ink.

Why, dear Chennaiite, it might even be you.

Note: Translation of Sister Subbalakshmi’s oral narrative: Monica Felton
Sujatha’s “Ethaiyum Oru Murai”: Pavithra Srinivasan
S V V’s :”Vasanthan”: Pavithra Srinivasan
Kalki R Krishnamurthy’s “Kailasamayyarin Kabara”: Pavithra Srinivasan

7 Comments so far

  1. tsk tsk (unregistered) on August 14th, 2007 @ 7:04 pm

    This is a good topic, but the post should have been brief


  2. Anand Palaniswamy (unregistered) on August 15th, 2007 @ 3:35 am

    Nice selection of descriptions of Chennai. I would never have come across these myself. The translations seem to be very good and capture the flavour. Brings back memories of Chennai/Madras from my boyhood days in the 1970’s. What a change since!


  3. Anand Palaniswamy (unregistered) on August 15th, 2007 @ 3:36 am

    Nice selection of descriptions of Chennai. I would never have come across these myself. The translations seem to be very good and capture the flavour. Brings back memories of Chennai/Madras from my boyhood days in the 1970’s. What a change since!


  4. Anand Palaniswamy (unregistered) on August 15th, 2007 @ 3:36 am

    Nice selection of descriptions of Chennai. I would never have come across these myself. The translations seem to be very good and capture the flavour. Brings back memories of Chennai/Madras from my boyhood days in the 1970’s. What a change since!


  5. ashwin (unregistered) on August 20th, 2007 @ 4:16 pm

    Very interesting reading, thanks!


  6. chithra jeyaram (unregistered) on August 21st, 2007 @ 10:40 am

    THIS COMMENT IS FOR TETE-A-TETE WITH FIRE BRAND _ i have posted it here coz i am unable to post a comment on that article. I was trying to reach the author of the article.

    Leena Manimekalai a Con artist not a social activist. She is a self centered, self driven, opportunist.
    I met Leena in USA in 2004, She sounds to be very sincere, driven and motivated. That is how she captures people, later I decided to fund a film on Cauvery. She said the film will cost 3 lakh ruppees to make.
    I travelled to India with her along the river for three weeks, spent about 4 lakhs on the film ( does not include cost of my travel and loss of pay). All she wanted was a funder who will keep sending money without asking any questions.Leena had no plan for the film or regard for the issue.
    My husband and I did not feel secure to continue funding a project with an unprofessional person. Once she knew our stance, She did not respond to any of our emails or concerns about the film.
    She is unwilling to pay our money back, or give us the tapes or get into any kind of communication with us. My husband and i have tried to contact her multiple times in vain
    She is very disrespectful and is insensitive to other peoples time or money. It is over three years since the investment with no response from her. People beware of her.
    Do not be duped by her.She is a con artist.

    I have ample evidence for what i am stating. If you need to know more about it please feel free to get in touch with me _ my email address is chithrajey@yahoo.com
    If any of you have been cheated let me know as well.

    thank you for reading

    Chithra Jeyaram


  7. Ajoy Ashirwad (unregistered) on August 27th, 2007 @ 9:12 pm

    Dear Ma’am,

    I went through your blogs.they are brilliant and evoked many reactions. since i could not get your e mail address i have used your comment box to put my request. I am a student of Asian College Of Journalism in chennai. we are creating an website to showcase the works of Chennai bloggers as a part of our project for the course. so i wish to interview you in this regard if you are interested either through Mail or if you wish i can come down to your place and interview personally. so i place my earnest request to you here for this. hoping for a prompt reply.thanking you,

    yours sincerely
    Ajoy Ashirwad



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