Published in Times of India – on 22nd July, 2019
Prominent citizens speak on what makes the city ‘chance-ey illa’ for them
I came to Madras in the early 1980s, to attend college. While life at Loyola was great, the city came as a cultural shock initially. For someone from Madurai, used to addressing elders in plural, it took a while to adjust to Madras Tamil. However, soon I realized that people here were friendly and helpful, and in no time Madras became my home.
While I missed the soft Madurai idli and the chutneys, the Woodlands Drive-in opposite USIS and other Udupi hotels offered some of the best masala dosas and coffee.
With its cuisine, I began to explore the city’s history. Working on projects with the late S Muthiah, the chronicler of Madras, made a huge difference to my understanding of the city. Till then, I had no idea that the Arcot Nawabs had a palace which was built in the late 1760s. Locating it hidden amidst the various government buildings, I was thrilled. Historical spaces had that effect on me and I least expected Madras to offer me such pleasure. While the colonial city, or what is now known as the modern day Madras, is around 375 years old, there are many older settlements such as Mylapore, Tiruvottiyur or Tiruvanmiyur. A Chola temple, a Portuguese church, Fort St George, a bridge funded by an Armenian trader, Arcot Nawab’s palace, a Parsi temple — the list goes on.
While working on the city’s history, I was amused by an account depicting the Arcot Nawab’s Hindu minister (dewan) and Muslim generals sitting inside the church on St Thomas Mount and singing praise of Mary. Three hundred years down the line, I still find the spirit alive. For where in the world would Hindu volunteers serve kanji or Jesuit priests hold an iftar party for Muslims to break their fast during Ramzan?
The early 20th century movement for social justice in Tamil Nadu, with its origins in Madras, was built on this shared heritage. The movement enabled Tamil Nadu better many social indices and today the city is going through another transformation, opening itself to more migrants from north of the Vindhyas. From hospitality to IT industry, their presence can be felt. Chennai, despite its strong opposition to imposition of Hindi, is safe for workers from Bihar, UP or the north-eastern states.
With its strong cultural and intellectual moorings, I am sure the city will assimilate them while retaining its own identity.