Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tamarind City

Many years ago, when Dhanno was still very small, we went on a long drive through the beautiful forests of the Banff national park in Alberta, Canada. After we crossed over to the land of the free, we drove through a green canopy of pines in northern Idaho and then, the desert in western Oregon. We had stopped at a small gas-station, next to the interstate,  in the middle of nowhere. And then we decided to grab a bite to eat.

While Dhanno-ki-Amma was browsing through the provisions inside the store, I decided to look at a
local map. And, the first thing that caught my attention was the name of a small town, not far from the gas-station, where I was munching on a tasteless hamburger.  "Madras, Oregon" was what the prominent marking on the map proclaimed. And  for some strange reason, I remember craving for Dosas and Sambar -- and the sweet and sour taste of tamarind.

Many years have passed since. Madras, Oregon -- originally named after Madras, India -- still retains its name. Madras, India, decided to rename itself to Chennai a few years ago, and now, there is a new book in town that celebrates the not-so-new city. And a certain funny reference to why the name Chennai may not really celebrate the part of Madras that the people who renamed it to Chennai, wanted to celebrate.

A few days ago, I received a neat package from an online bookseller. Inside, was the second book by one of my favorite writers, Biswanath Ghosh, called Tamarind City. Mr. Ghosh, who has an amazing flair for making people see the extraordinary in the ordinary, has written the masterpiece of a book. It took me three days of leisurely reading to finish it, and I learned a lot of things about this metropolis in India, that has largely avoided any type of publicity in the last few decades. And of course, while I read the book, the tamarind cravings came back,and so did the longings for hot idlis and crispy dosas.

One might wonder, why a Desi, who grew up in the north, would care about a city, whose name once used to be a sobriquet for the entire south. When I was growing up, Madras, represented the the land to the south. And the people who came from there, were Madrasis.  Now that I have spent some time in the South, I know how infuriated a Mr. Pillai from Kerala or a Mr. Reddy from Andhra would be, for being called a Madrasi. But then, we northerners are incorrigible -- and it looks like we shall be --  for quite some time.

Mr. Ghosh takes the reader on an amazing journey through history that is documented in textbooks and history that ordinary people like you and me make on a daily basis. His interviews with the denizens of this city are detailed, and sometimes, in spite of the wide cultural gap between the reader and the read, one begins to empathize. For some strange reason, when I read the life story of the author's Yoga teacher, who happens to be a traditional Tamil lady, I felt that I had tears in my eyes. I had no idea where they had come from, and as I flipped through the pages, they went away very quickly, as one emotion replaced another.

Mr. Ghosh is simply amazing with his words, he will dig out all the emotions that lie buried within you, as you read this book. And what an amazing tour it will be! At the end of my three days with Tamarind City, I feel that I am now better educated about Madras, and since the education came from a fellow Desi, I have a better understanding of what it means to be from Chennai.

 The book is sprinkled with anecdotes from people famous and infamous, and Mr. Ghosh in one place, performs the masterpiece of a comparison between Bapu and Periyar -- I have a completely new found perspective of the anti-Brahmin movement in Tamilnadu now, specially, as an outsider. And, in the same book, Mr. Ghosh took me on a guided tour of the Iyer and Iyengar strongholds of Chennai -- and I became an admirer of the Tamil Brahmins, for their perseverance, and resilience.

And oh, one more thing. This is not supposed to be a critique, since I confessed right at the beginning that I am one of the fans. But, our home does have a good number of opinionated people, my wife being one. Since we both took turns reading the book, I found that she was not very happy with Mr. Ghosh's insinuation that Chennai is the city where "modern India began." After all, for a woman who grew up in the city that was once British India's capital, that is a pretty tough pill to swallow.

Also, a few months ago, Dhanno-ki-Amma and I were standing at the Kappad beach in the beautiful state of  Kerala. In case you don't know, that is the beach where Vasco da Gama had landed in India, during times that could be reasonably described as "modern".  That "discovery" of India by Europe, during times that it was just beginning to wake up from centuries of slumber called the "dark ages",  merits the question about when modern times began, and who really brought modernity to India.

For some reason, I still believe that modern India began the day we launched our own satellite launch vehicle, the SLV. It was designed in India, by Indian engineers, and launched from a place called Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh, in 1979. When I looked at a map, I realized that Sriharikota is only eighty kilometers north of Chennai, and perhaps, at one time, as Mr. Ghosh will probably tell you, the lands of Sriharikota and Chennai were owned by the same Naidu ruler, after whom, Chennai was named. So, by my definition too, modern India did really begin in Chennai -- the Tamarind City!

Tamarind City is a must read. And, I hope to see many such books by Mr. Ghosh in the days ahead.  Go find your copy before this edition is all sold out!

1 comment:

  1. I also got some perspective on Chennai, Tamil Brahmins and Periyar from V.S. Naipaul's book, India: A Million Mutinies now. If someone doesnt want to read an entire book on Chennai, I would recommend that chapter, titled 'Little Wars'. And I would have no hesitation in saying that Tamil Nadu is at the forefront of modernity in India in many ways.