Tamarind City by Bishwanath Ghosh
Chennai, a city that has been the true South India for me. And probably for most North Indians like me. Both because of its geographical location. And because whatever little we knew then about south was all Madrasi. Personally, the first ever south Indian city that I stepped foot on was also Chennai. And I was as curious about the place as the author of Tamarind City remains even after his decade long stay in the city. I still remember getting those Dosas with Coconut Chutney between the plastic sheets. The first sight of Coconut trees in every courtyard that I could see from my office window on Mount road. The drive to Mahabalipuram, eating raw mango and jackfruit on the streets. And buying those Kanjivaram Saris for from T Nagar.
Ok, the book Tamarind City is an outsider’s inside view of Chennai. The city that was first to be built by the British. And has always been one of the biggest cities since independence. After living in the city for more than a decade, the author set out to tell the story of the city. He starts with the lesser know history, starting with the British. And tracing the various people who lived in Fort St George originally the Madraspatnam village, the Blacktown outside the fort called Chennaipatnam, telling you how the city got its two names. The author Bishwanath Ghosh takes you through the old city which here too is in the North of the city. And tries to create the old world charm for you through various people, sign boards and stories, including the oldest working railway station in India – Royapuram.
He de-mystifies the Iyer-Iyenger rivalry for you. By taking you to the areas that belong exclusively to them Triplicane and Mylapore. And takes you through their temples and the people living around them. He finds that the exclusivity is not so stringent anymore and you can find Iyers living in Triplicane too. Stories of how Iyengers think they are superior to Iyers because they think their God Vishu is the one who runs the world are interesting. The two divisions within Iyengers Thengalais and Vadagalais and a distinct identity mark that they carry on their foreheads and their fight for the temple make a good tea side story. While he is there he takes you to the famous Ratna Café for a peep into their trademark Sambhar recipe.
He takes you through the perception of sex and sexologists in the city, musicians and their music, the December festival, hospital and its niche patients. And the stories of the famous film stars. He introduces you to the person who has been chronicling the city for many years through his newspaper columns. Which I am sure would have come handy to the author for the book. He takes you to the office of Chandamama and famous cartoonist Shankar. In this story, it is like meeting someone you always knew but did not know where he existed.
He very emotionally depicts the Sunday morning when Tsunami hit the Marina beach. And then slowly tells you the story of a courageous woman who took charge of her life by selling snacks at Marina beach. In the last chapter he tries to show a bit of new Chennai. And takes you to a manufacturing unit of an MNC. But here his own interest and enthusiasm are missing. And you know this part does not really excite him.
In every story of Tamarind City, he picks up a character and lets the character tell you the story. While author himself sits along with you listening and providing some background information for context. His writing style is so conversational and so non-judgmental that you feel like taking the next train to Chennai and land in the places that he introduces you to and see it for yourself. While I was in the middle of the book, I called up a friend in Chennai to tell him that I am reading the book. And next time when I come there I want to see these places.
What I like most about the writing is that author throws in a fair bit of himself in each chapter. Either as part of a walk that he takes around a place. Or as part of a personal anecdote. Or his personal connect with certain places like his old office on Mount road. His exploring the history of his building where he has lived for all his years in Chennai. Or the connection of his publisher with the city. You can see his love for stories hidden behind buildings, people, legends, and myths. And his curiosity to unearth the connections between various things.
Being a journalist, he tends to remain an observer, and he quotes as he listens, very rarely giving his take on what is being said. This is a common element in most books written by the journalists. It is good because you get to draw your own conclusions and it is not so good when all you know about the subject comes only from this one source. Though I enjoyed most of the book, most interesting part remain little tidbits about Chennai that can become a part of a quiz and there are quite a few scattered through the book.
Read Tamarind City to see the various faces of this city where as the author claims lie the roots of many modern Indian institutions, a city that is as traditional as it is modern and may still be the only big city in India that still holds a distinct identity and has not yet lost it to standardization.
I think I should read Ghosh’s first book, Chai Chai, as well now.