It is tough to pigeonhole Indian metropolitans. They are Dickensian by nature. Often, their identities shift, like tectonic plates, under the pretext of urbanization. All the while, they play a game of cat-and-mouse with the past, whether good, bad or ugly. They are works in progress or experiments in terror, depending on how you see it.
Similarly, citizens of metros can seldom be typecast. I figured it out a week after my city suffered from its worst natural disaster ever. During the chaos, we bonded together, like squealing piglets suckling on a giant loving mammary gland. Everyone talked about how brave and selfless we were. A mere week later, we went back to being weak and indifferent – with flashes of politeness. But nobody was paying attention to us, by then.
I was born, bred and fed in this city. I am a son of the soil, for all practical purposes. But I don’t like filter coffee. I have no memory of attending any Carnatic music festival. And maybe, I have been three temples throughout my life.
Unfortunately, in India – one’s exposure to the arts, culture, food or lifestyle is influenced by religion. Being Catholic by birth, I went through a set of experiences different from what is usually referenced. Because the average Chennai person is seen to be a part of some Hindu community or the other.
While growing up, I never realized that Chennai was represented in a way I couldn’t relate to. Only as an adult, I realized that cultural marginalization is an identity thief. That it robbed many of us of our roots and left us to be adulterated by Western influence. And that everything I had left behind, as my memories of Madras, may soon fade away.
Since yesterday was Madras Day, here are 10 reasons why my city wasn’t just about the filter coffee. (updated).
Madras was the first time we saw cartoons on television. Every Wind in the Willows episode that got us excited about living in the wilderness. The excitement we felt every time Cringer transformed into Battle Cat during the opening credits of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. The music in Tom and Jerry that did beautiful but unaccounted things to our hearts. The spillage of sukku coffee from our noses, as Looney Tunes had us in splits.
Madras was a nice-smelling book. Our confidence in sneaking into backyards of neighbors to steal mangoes and guavas. That special minute it afforded us to feel like Huckleberry Finn. The melancholy over Oliver Twist’s streak of bad luck. The excitement of adventuring with a stranded Swiss family. And the consolation of befriending Famous Five and Secret Seven, who were unlike those we were acquainted with.
Madras was the World Wrestling Federation. The battle between good, and evil as it reaches a climax in a four-square ring. The moves we stupidly practiced on each other during lunch breaks at school. The Bret Hart and British Bulldog posters that basked in the dim light of our bedrooms. The heartwarming message the wrestling world sometimes left us with – that nice guys didn’t always finish last.
Madras was the pride of belonging to a chess club. The confused looks we get from behind classroom windows. The embarrassment of losing to adults during practice. The spit-laden scream when we finally beat them. And the fear as we watch the chessboard flying towards our foreheads, as we learn a valuable.
Madras was sexual frustration. The stories we heard about the bedside manners of the occupants of Blue Lagoon and Silver Sands resorts. The rambunctious tone with which at least one friend has described a hypothetical wet dream as though it was something that happened. The homophobic nonsense that we were taught at a young age. The public outcry that took sex education out of our schools, and put dirty thoughts into our minds.
Madras was a series of tuition classes. The only chance that some had to meet the opposite sex. The awkward realization that the opposite sex attends them for different reasons. The grief that overcame us when our attendance increased academic expectations.
Madras was Kodambakam. A derelict neighborhood flanked by a bridge that has been dying forever. The dreams that built the local movie industry. A breeding ground for the same love story, like the heart that Celine Dion sang about, just won’t go away. The suspension of disbelief for an hour and a half of escapism from the drudgery of modern living.
Madras was that one teacher who went beyond his scope of work. The way he taught us how to color outside the lines. The intrigue of hearing the truth being spilled out, without the filter of a curriculum. The questions that rose from the freedom he gave us to think for ourselves. The disappointment of having been privy to every other teacher’s failure to impart knowledge since then.
Madras was carnivorous. The art of dining on various parts of a lamb’s head, the insides of a cow’s stomach, and the hind legs of an un-Orwellian pig. The acquired taste of blood drained from a goat, the moist edges of its brain, and the tender yet muddy texture of its kidneys. Vegetables are nice too, but nothing beats the Madras experience like meat. We love the smell of extinguished life in the morning.
Madras was the excuse we needed to bunk church on Sundays. The boredom of listening to same fairy tale every single week. The perplexity of observing sinners parading as saints because they can memorize songs and poems. The payoff of attending midnight mass so that we could partake in a late Christmas feast. The effect of homemade wine and the hilarity of listening to drunken relatives laugh, like Muttley the dog, to their own anecdotes.