13 reasons why Madras wasn’t just about the filter coffee

It is tough to pigeonhole Indian metropolitans. They are Dickensian by nature. Often, their identities shift, like tectonic plates, under the pretext of urbanization. All the while, they play a game of cat-and-mouse with the past, whether good, bad or ugly. They are works in progress or experiments in terror, depending on how you see it.

Similarly, citizens of metros can seldom be typecast. I figured it out a week after my city suffered from its worst natural disaster ever. During the chaos, we bonded together, like squealing piglets suckling on a giant loving mammary gland. Everyone talked about how brave and selfless we were. A mere week later, we went back to being weak and indifferent – with flashes of politeness. But nobody was paying attention to us, by then.

I was born, bred and fed in this city. I am a son of the soil, for all practical purposes. But I don’t like filter coffee. I have no memory of attending any Carnatic music festival. And maybe, I have been three temples throughout my life.

Unfortunately, in India – one’s exposure to the arts, culture, food or lifestyle is influenced by religion. Being Catholic by birth, I went through a set of experiences different from what is usually referenced . Because the average Chennai person is seen to be a part of some Hindu community or the other.

While growing up, I never realized that Chennai was represented in a way I couldn’t relate to. Only as an adult, I realized that cultural marginalization is an identity thief. That it robbed many of us of our roots and left us to be adulterated by Western influence. And that everything I had left behind, as my memories of Madras, may soon fade away.

Since yesterday was Madras Day, here are 13 reasons why my city wasn’t just about the filter coffee. (an updated repost)

Spotted Owlet, Chennai

  • Madras was a nice-smelling book. Our confidence in sneaking into backyards of neighbors to steal mangoes and guavas. That special minute it afforded us to feel like Huckleberry Finn. The melancholy over Oliver Twist’s streak of bad luck. The excitement of adventuring with a stranded Swiss family. And the consolation of befriending Famous Five and Secret Seven, who were unlike those we were acquainted with.
  • Madras was the World Wrestling Federation. The battle between good, and evil as it reaches a climax in a four-square ring. The moves we stupidly practiced on each other during lunch breaks at school. The Bret Hart and British Bulldog posters that basked in the dim light of our bedrooms. The heartwarming message the wrestling world sometimes left us with – that nice guys didn’t always finish last.
  • Madras was magic. The vanishing finger magic trick which frightened us, as wee kids. And made us believe in miracles, albeit rather irreverent ones. All the birthday parties that featured P James, in all his ridiculous glory. The PC Sorcar Jr. Show that had us wondering if he was a man who wore a lot of makeup or a mirage with some makeup on.
  • Madras was the pride of belonging to a chess club. The confused looks we get from behind classroom windows. The embarrassment of losing to adults during practice. The spit-laden scream when we finally beat them. And the fear as we watch the chessboard flying towards our foreheads, as we learn a valuable.
  • Madras was the thrill of spending time at a science fair by the shore of a beach. The warm wind that brushed our cheek while silly contraptions blew our minds off. And the lids of tons of possibilities, with a running thread of discussion on if science is awesome or not.
  • Madras was sexual frustration. The stories we heard about the bedside manners of the occupants of Blue Lagoon and Silver Sands resorts. The rambunctious tone with which at least one friend has described a hypothetical wet dream as though it was something that happened. The homophobic nonsense that we were taught at a young age. The public outcry that took sex education out of our schools, and put dirty thoughts into our minds.
  • Madras was tuition classes. The only chance that some had to meet the opposite sex. The awkward realization that the opposite sex attends them for different reasons. The grief that overcame us when our attendance did nothing but increase academic expectations.
  • Madras was Kodambakam. A derelict neighborhood flanked by a bridge that has been dying forever. The dreams that built the local movie industry. A breeding ground for the same love story, like the heart that Celine Dion sang about, just won’t go away. The suspension of disbelief for an hour and a half of escapism from the drudgery of modern living.
  • Madras was the one teacher who went beyond his scope of work to teach us how to color outside the lines. The intrigue of hearing the truth being spilled out, without the filter of a curriculum. The questions that rose from the freedom he gave us to think for ourselves. The disappointment of having been privy to every other teacher’s failure to impart knowledge since then.

Chennai

  • Madras was happiness, wrapped in glass or plastic, for less than 10 rupees. The joy of drinking Goli Soda, and surreptitious refills of rose milk. The confidence of owning pieces of Thaen Mittai and Kamarkats and walking towards a group of friends. The art of dining on various parts of a lamb’s head, the insides of a cow’s stomach, and the hind legs of an un-Orwellian pig. The acquired taste of blood drained from a goat, the moist edges of its brain, and the tender yet muddy texture of its kidneys.
  • Madras was the excuse we needed to bunk church on Sundays. The boredom of listening to same fairy tale ever single week. The perplexity of observing sinners parading as saints because they can memorize songs and poems. The payoff of attending midnight mass so that we could partake in a late Christmas feast. The effect of homemade wine and the hilarity of listening to drunken relatives laugh, like Muttley the dog, to their own anecdotes.

(Photographs: Chennai)

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54 comments

  1. The love for your Madras was an intoxicating, fascinating read. It’s incredible how well you write. I’m glad you share these things!
    Also, I really want to steal mangos now…embody the feeling of being innocently mischievous, then eat it under a young palm.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Wow! It’s always nice to read someone writing about the place one is born and brought up,it leaves the reader with a treasured nostalgic feeling, and that too coming from Christy (the jack and master of all trades). 🙂
    I hope you’re well. Have a nice weekend. Take care. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Was going through this post -http://www.buzzfeed.com/chelseamarshall/things-that-mean-something-different-when-you-have-a-cat#25j8zrw

    and Zoe was all I could think of 😀

    Like

  4. pink fairy floss and um rose milk? I want a kitten just like Zoe, called Rose Milk

    I wonder if she’s dreaming about flying in that utmost gorgeous photo? hopefully it’s not raining, Zoe’s too young for wet dreams

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Aww…not only chennai, but the typical life n ways of a south indian city captured in such fascinating way;) could recollect myself my seven years in all corners of madras, but kodambakkam was one place out of them that had its easily inherited flamboyance inspite of the buzxing streets n midnight fried rice shops n the happening bridge;)
    Tq fr this piece bharat

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “the opposite sex attends them for different reasons” Nope.
    ” Because the average Chennai person is seen to be a part of some Hindu community or the other.” Strangeness of perceptions. Born TamBram, raised in Catholic convent school and Protestant college – attended catechism classes, sang carols for Christmas (Soprano), attended mass in chapels, kneeled at the pew and prayed for good marks in exams, crossed myself when an ambulance crossed the road, lit a candle in front of the picture of Mary at the third floor of Apollo when my mother was critically ill, ate lot of homemade plum cakes made by friends’ moms, exchanged gifts for Christmas, and for a long time thought Madras was a Christian dominated city.
    Filter coffee. Myth. Tea kadai tea and porai, Madras reality.
    You forgot Spencers during Christmas time – brilliantly lit up, fantastic (if prohibitively expensive) cakes, Carols and cinnamon. Or are you of the post colonial Spencers generation?
    Cycle Rickshaw wallahs pedalling rickety rickshaws spilling with kids and bags
    Interschool debate/elocution/music/quiz competitions and the passions involved.
    Book fair. You forgot book fair. How could you?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hehe I can only imagine the subtext of all the gender politics in tuition classes, and socio-cultural misgivings outside, that went unnoticed. Well, we all live and learn, don’t we, sagodhiri!

      Thank you for sharing your snapshots of Chennai, I can relate to all of them! (ufffo, pre-colonial generation vonly).

      There was a part 2 that I removed from public view, and saved it for later. I was thinking that I’d post it at the end of the “Madras week”.

      Book fairs, eh. Yeah I wish I had gone to a lot more of them when I was a kid. But I couldn’t. My sources were dad’s and grandpa’s collections along with my sister’s borrowing library in Good Shepherd School. They had books on fairies, elves, gnomes, dragons, and everything!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ah Good Shepherd. The holy trinity of GS, Churchpark and Holy Angels, the last being my alma.
    Have a lot more snapshots too..shall comment on your part 2 post !
    Didn’t your school shepherd you guys to the book fair? Ours did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nah they did not. Instead, they took us five times to the Planetarium, and a million times to the Egmore museum, which was the next building to the Don Bosco campus. Our library sucked too. We went through puberty in there because of National Geographic magazines, but nothing enlightening or even barely poignant.

      In college (Loyola), the library was a lot better. There were some gems in there.

      And yesshh, please share more. In fact, why not write something about the Madras that you remember on your blog? Would love to read that.

      Liked by 1 person

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