It’s exactly a week since Madras day and many weeks since I thought of writing about Lessons Learned from this city I call home.
Madras has enlarged my mind and expanded my vision in myriad ways. I moved here decades ago from Calcutta, when it was still called ‘Madras’. Perspective comes in shades of grey and Madras has unveiled a canvas with dollops of grey here and there. Let me flow forth on my lessons learned in this city – good, bad and ugly – without classifying them, as many a time, what is good for the goose is gross for the gander!
Lessons in Simplicity
Everyone I met – native Tamilians, naturalized Madrasis (in the city for a few/many years) – breathed simplicity. They could be affluent, holding high positions, doyens of art and culture, movers and shakers in their domain, middle-class, lower middle-class and they were all swathed in simplicity. Simplicity of demeanor, dress, lifestyle, food and – I would go out on a limb and say – outlook. An authenticity that translated into an inner aura of enveloping warmth, sans any affectation. That was Madras and continues in Chennai!
Lessons in Faith
Never before have I witnessed such allegiance to religion and observance of tradition. My neighbors would flock to the temple almost every other day and mandatorily on Fridays and I would join them. The whole process of prayer, offerings, circumambulation, and then spending some quiet time in the temple compound, followed by conversation in the temple square was a revelation and a learning as well. Back in Calcutta, I could possibly count the number of times I visited temples and this is not a reflection of any lack of faith. My family was like any other family in Calcutta – god-fearing, ritual observing and puja-performing at home and occasionally at temples. But the clockwork regularity of temple visits, which I witnessed in Madras, was an eye-opener. And as I soaked in more of this city, I realized that this ritual imbued in deep faith, permeating the consciousness and everyday life of the average citizen had probably forged his/her sense of equanimity and centeredness.
Lessons in Functionality and Economics
I have clubbed these two as they are intertwined in my experiences in the city. One of the first questions I was asked by my new nine-year old neighbor was what was my father working as, and how much rent were we paying for the house. I was stumped, shocked and silenced. A nine-year old so clued in, all those years ago? Maybe the question wouldn’t have thrown me off-balance in 2014, when children are really no longer children in terms of awareness and exposure. I very quickly realized that economics was a genetic thing for most Tamilians and awareness about money at any age, was quite the norm. Most of the ones I knew saved money easily and well, and spent only on items that were perceived to be of use, essential and functional, not for mere admiration. I was once was invited to a neighbor’s beautiful house only to discover that inside, it was a bare home with only the minimum essentials – a couple of chairs, a TV on a stand, mats rolled out in the bedroom – spartan in its simplicity and functionality. It was not for want of money (they were rolling in it) but for faith in function and utility that equaled to saving money.
Frugality extended to food too. Eating out was considered unnecessary, a taboo for the orthodox, and a luxury from the typical ‘Madras’ standpoint.
Functionality almost dictated academia as well. I remember feeling chilled to the bone when I heard there was talk of removing non-functional, non-utilitarian subjects as English Literature, Sociology, the Humanities stream essentially, from college syllabi. As it was Humanities students had very little to choose from here. Till then, I had never known that this noble, nurturing stream of education could actually classify as non-utilitarian. To me that was at the top of the heap. But in Madras, Humanities translated to poor in studies, poor in jobs, poor in remuneration – in other words, non-functional, non-utilitarian.
Lessons in Caste Consciousness
I was almost denied admission in a college of my choice thanks to my caste status. This was a world I had never inhabited in Calcutta. There was no classification on caste, at least not overtly and no flourishing or talking about it, except possibly in matrimonial alliances. To think that I had almost lost a seat (despite scoring the highest in the entrance test and viva) was mind-boggling to me. (My husband wasn’t that lucky. He had to give up his, for another of a different caste with lower marks.) I had always known Merit to be the yardstick. That belief was overhauled in Madras. The endemic nature of this ‘creature’ if I may call it came home to me, when I heard a couple of classmates nonchalantly claiming that their families had managed to get a particular caste certificate years ago, to enable easy access to plum seats in academia and beyond.
Lessons in Work Culture
Work is work in Madras/Chennai, even in the government or governmental institutions (which are justifiably maligned in many other states) – be they banks, railways, post offices, educational institutions, companies, crafts showrooms, tourist offices, All India Radio or hospitals. Order, structure, professionalism, discipline, courtesy is more the rule than the exception, unlike possibly Calcutta (is it better now, Kolkattans?) and one enters the institution fully expecting the work to be completed, if not immediately, at least within a reasonable time. The government-nationalized/private divide is not a chasm as it is in many other states, thus benefiting the citizenry. Public servants truly serve here.
Lessons in Sanctity of the State Language
Though we had come to Madras at the height of the anti-Hindi agitation, I hadn’t felt compelled to learn Tamil with much gusto, till an experience as a Management Trainee in a 5 Star hotel knocked the complacency out of me. Stationed at Cash that evening, I was handing over a wad of notes to a gentleman when he said something in Tamil that I did not comprehend and hence excused myself with a, ‘I beg your pardon?’ He unleashed a verbal Tamil tidal wave and my colleague quickly took over from me in Tamil. After he had left the venue, my colleague translated the Tamil torrent for my benefit. Very plainly put, “You are representing a 5 star hotel in the capital of Tamilnadu and you cannot understand and speak the language!” Obviously a lacuna that was lamentable in his eyes (he was incidentally a leading politico) and not acceptable.
That experience was a blow to the gut. The least I could do was to learn the language of the state (at least basic Tamil) that was obviously my home now and seemed to be averse to let me leave. “Learn Tamil in 30 days” became my companion as did translation requests to my colleagues and friends. And did they all help! Ice melted sooner than it had ever before!
Walking the Middle Path
I came from an ‘adda’ culture, where conversation was music to the ears, debate was entertainment, and voicing opinions were derigueur– the more, eloquent, deep, intellectual, philosophical, lyrical, distinguished, different, fluent, avant-garde, the better. It was deeply ingrained in every Calcuttan’s character. Madras was all about the middle path, moderation and neutrality especially on political, historical and economic subjects. Very seldom would someone offer a contrarian view or go against the current grain. Most often he/she would just proffer a gentle smile and a soothing “Let it be”. Which meant that no conversation would reach a crescendo, there was no threat of conflict looming on the horizon, and most significantly no unpleasantness on account of expression of strongly-held views, no mental and concurrently no physical agitation. Everyone departed in peace, calm and comfort.
Lessons in Adjustment
‘Konjam adjust pannikonga’. A venerable, pervasive Madras-Chennai statement – seated at a bus stop, sitting inside the bus, taking a day off from/coming late to work, at a super-market without small change, at the temple, in a queue, in a bank, a dining hall at a wedding, restaurant, doctor’s, hospital, hotel room, Electricity Board, Metro Water … the list is endless and all-encompassing. So is the reality. Citizenry here are truly much more accommodating and adjusting than their brethren in many other parts of the country. ‘It is my Right, and I must have it’ is diluted in the face of a common goal, and eschewing from argument and conflict.
Tending to Tradition and Meeting Modernity
Long before Madras metamorphosed into Chennai, mamis in madisars were eating burgers in Cake Shop of the Taj at Annanagar, with ease and grace when Madras was carving small, careful steps in the culinary corner. Now everyone eats out with fulsome ease and discernment while filling up on home-cooked fare where poriyal balances pesto, as Italian food remains the flavor of the year, and sushi becomes a favorite weekend indulgence after the flavorful sambar. Children straddle the world of classical arts of Bharatnatyam and Carrnatic music and unwind with tennis and Playstation. Women flaunt trendy skinnies together with tiny bindis with elan.
Margazhi classical music and dance festivals rub shoulders with modern dance, drama and art without losing any of their silken shine and ardent votaries, while the sheen of the latter gains ground with growing audiences, not always different. Fusion endears itself to open-minded audiences. Literature festivals start, flourish and hopefully endure. New writers in Tamil are discovered and feted just as much as Indian English authors are. Social networking sites foster the ‘adda’ culture as bloggers, writers, readers, artists, entrepreneurs, foodies and many more birds of similar feathers create and nurture online groups that periodically meet for the adrenalin boosting ‘adda’.
Traditional art and furniture nestle cozily with modern, edgy knick-knacks, both in stores and at homes. Old does not give away to new. Instead there is happy, peaceful cohabitation. Ancient yoga with a new twist draws the young and old in hordes. Inter-community/region/caste marriages are more smiled upon, than frowned-upon. Gay pride marches, running for a cause, walkathons, marathons, Chennai is the living epitome of a happy marriage of tradition and modernity.
As the tide ebbs and flows and the waves alternatively crash on and caress the majestic Marina Beach, ‘Live and Let Live’ whispers the wind as it tousles the hair around my face. Indeed you do Madras-Chennai, my home and my hearth – Live and Let Live.
About Leela Pal Chaudhuri
Currently a consultant with Adventum Technology Consulting where she runs recruitment, writes content, organizes training programs, manages eLearning and communication projects, lends voice for eLearning, corporate projects and anchors events as MC.
A dyed-in-the-wool Bengali, food is her first love – for the mind (books, reading, writing, adda, theatre) and for the stomach (savoring the finest, the homeliest and everything-in-between food fare from all over). Married to an un-Bengali techno-commercial-sales-strategy expert husband, Leela is based out of Chennai which she calls her beloved second home – albeit, one she had almost careened away from, caught in a blitzkrieg of a culture shock decades ago!
She would love to hear from you.