Aboard the Madras Express
The memory of a political class could have its own distinctive merits as well as flaws, but they do immeasurable harm when they start tampering with historical facts. For example, the city of Madras was founded by the Brits, almost four centuries back in 1644 when the Fort St George was built by the British East India company—but in a sudden stroke, its name was indigenised, to Chennai. Nevertheless, the city retained its basic characteristics flowing with the time.
Nirmala Lakshman can say much about her city, which fortunately in her descriptions is still Madras, but in Degree Coffee By The Yard, she has chosen to present a short biography instead. Her sense of history is immaculate and undisputable, as it is hindered by no barrier of ideologies and shows no alignment with specific camps within historical debates. She gives the readers an outline, and in patches descriptions too, about how the city, established by the British, rose to become a site of powerful nationalistic movements. Lakshman also charts the later phases, describing the glory of this city in independent India, despite its formidable distance from the seat of power, Delhi.
This was not a mean feat, because identity politics of any kind, too, had to thrive on the Centre’s ‘assistance’ — and on different occasions it became evident, especially in post-reform eras, when the politics had been in the grip of sinister business interests than issues on ground. Although it was and still persists as a universal phenomenon, Madras, as a hub of shadowy politics, is neither unique, nor too typical.
The city has a quaint vigour, charming characteristics and the people live with them, as Lakshman reminds us about the little intricacies that make Madras different from other Indian metros. Lakshman, a senior journalist herself, has, over the years, strengthened The Hindu Group of Publications—so, directly or indirectly, she has made the city’s biggest and strongest brand more popular and inclusive.
Lakshman’s accounts of her family and their standard publication interests — spanning RK Narayan, literature, authors and books, over dosa and coffee — give a sublime quality to her narration of the city. While looking back on bygone Madras days, she appears more a preserver of heartwarming, conventional practices rather a conservative harping on tradition at all costs. Of course, she admits the essentiality of change and sees the partial Western cultural invasion into modern day Chennai, with ease. With the world fast turning, old things are making peace with the fact that now their existence would probably be confined to being items in a curio shop or the museums of memory, stacked neatly, although, often falling out of people’s minds.
Still, some incorrigible inheritors will not cease to intertwine old symbols with life style. As a brief history (but of course not as semi-history) of the city, the book chooses to not dwell at length with the state’s parochial politics, where the culture of succession is an accepted reality now. Cinema, too, has not given extensive coverage, probably to not enter the usual discussion on its unhygienic nexus with Tamil politics.
The book, consciously, has a leaning for music and public life. That places it closer to ‘people’s history’ rather than resembling with an official charter on Madras. The readers would be delight in reading Lakshman’s personal views on her city, who helps them recall a Madras minus the clear and present fears of political vandalism or the atrocious dictates of Shiv Sena’s Tamil counterparts.
Probably, this reflects the differing temperament of the two mega Indian cities. Whereas, recalling Bomaby is taboo, Madras can be still used synonymously with its present name, Chennai. Lakshman believes, Madras can be known better through its culture, language and heritage rather than with politics and history.
Thus, she dwells on the caste and language movements in the state with the prism of the city’s softer attributes, rather than any rigid polemic. Understanding any part of India requires flexibility and informed inquiry to decipher some of its qualities or lacunas. Lakshman, a visionary and veteran journalist at The Hindu, has distilled that gist with perfection for this book. It reads well, both as a precise work of history and a short memoir of a city, about which most of us need to know more.
The author is a New Delhi based journalist and editor of India Since 1947