Author: Bishwanath Ghosh
Publisher: Tranquebar Press (Westland)
Price: Rs 295
Genre: Non Fiction / Travel
Chennai is usually never on the radar of city hoppers - too hot, too humid, too far, too conservative, and so on and so forth. Friends who visit the city for short periods like for training, want to get away as fast as possible. I always thought their prejudices were unjustified.
I have been to Chennai a couple of times. First as a tourist, visiting the usual beaches and temples. The second time, I stayed in Chennai for 4 months while I was preparing for MBA entrance exam. My brother was working with an IT company there. I finished my graduation, and joined him for coaching and big city exposure. It was certainly my first brush with city life. And thankfully it started with the conservative Chennai, because coming from a small place I would have been more scandalised by other cities.
Staying there, even for a short duration of time, I never had a problem with Chennai. In fact, that period has been one of the high points in my life. I didn't mind not listening to enough hindi, I didn't mind the idli-dosas ( I love them), I didn't mind the extreme climate much. Getting up very early, with the sunrise, getting 'The Hindu' at my doorstep, and watching women draw kolams on their porch was as much my routine as it were theirs.
However, 'Tamarind City' is a different experience altogether. Bishwanath Ghosh opens my eyes to a fascinating Chennai, which I now regret not exploring enough. His 300-odd pages book captures the essense of Chennai for an outsider - from history to historical relevance, from culture, religion and social set up to political history, from distinguished people to ordinary, from temples to beaches; he has covered almost everything. The history part was a little overwhelming for me though.
Throughout the book we meet different people, learn about important events and places, and each provide a window to understand the city better. To give a few glimpses, the book dwells into the historical importance of Fort St. George and its connection with illustrious men from the East India Company; the rise and fall of the once successful Appah and Co.; how religion is part of everyday living; the feud between Iyer and Iyengar Brahmins; the apparent Dalit and non Dalit segregation; the delectable South Indian food at Ratna Cafe owned by a North Indian; Susie, the transgender, who is forced to take up the world's oldest profession because the society does not offer any other option; Dr. Narayana Reddy, a much sought after sexologist in an otherwise conservative city; the increasing old age homes; Gemini Ganesan, the film industry's king of romance, who took his title seriously in real life too; Chandamama and its famous illustrator Sankar; S. Muthiah, the passionate historian educating people about the city's rich heritage and culture, and author of several books on Madras; the beaches, Tsunami, the Music festival and Carnatic Music, medical tourism, manufacturing hub and so much more. But eventually for me the line that describes Chennai best in comparison with other metros is:
"In a place like Delhi, you'll have to hunt for tradition. In Kolkata, you'll itch for transformation. Mumbai is only about transformation. It is Chennai alone that firmly holds its customs close to the chest, as if it were a box of priceless jewels handed down by ancestors, even as the city embraces change."
The book does not adhere to any strict format, so occasionally the author takes the liberty of digressing a little. But that does not impact the narration, rather makes it interesting.
The title and cover page are apt. The language and narration work for me, wherein occasionally the author takes the voice of people who he meets.
As an outsider, I cannot judge whether he has done complete justice to his subject. I don't know Chennai that intimately. But the fact that his book inspires a curiosity in me, and makes me want to visit the city again, explore those places, see those structures, meet those people and take in the surroundings, so the book definitely succeeds in its purpose. It helps an outsider to look beyond the stereotypes.
Reading Tamarind City for me was illuminating as well as nostalgic. I recommend it to everyone who loves travelogues or reading about culture and people.
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