A Meditation on Madras

This piece was written to mark the 376th ‘Madras Day’.

Anirudh Belle

Note: This story was originally published on You Speak India’s web-publication. It has been republished on this blog with permission from the publisher and the author .

22nd August 2015: Madras Day

One’s youth is a deeply formative period. Its climax is an entry into the ‘real world’ (whatever that means). As I enter this strange new place, I’m looking into myself, carefully, to develop an understanding. In the wilderness of creation, an artist may often pause and question: where from did this come? The technique, the clay, the wheel; what is this curious unfolding that is manifesting through me?

Much of myself – personal, political, philosophical – has been assembled under the auspices of my home-city, Madras. Gazing at her from the top of the iconic Lighthouse on Beach Road, she can be seen breathing beneath a vastness – an eclectic tapestry of masterly structures, slums, streets, traffic, open fields, and peopled with every sort of human being, from the sublime to the silly.

Under the Company Raj, much before Her Majesty’s Government took over the administration of India, Fort St. George was erected as a symbol, tying a scatter of tribes, villages, townships and kingdoms into ‘Madras’. Presently, the building houses the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and other official buildings.

Even today, when walking through the city’s streets, a glimpse of its exotic legacy is visible: in the various tossings of street-food, in the types of tea and the aroma of coffee, in dialects both crass and sophisticated, in posters and podiums of prevailing superstars or politicians, in the shrines of local street deities (each with an obscure name and a delightful legend), a unique story is being told. These are stories of people who, when occasioned to think of ‘Madras’ or ‘Chennai’, make an equal and cherished claim to it.

In this delightful potpourri, the entire world has found its home. The Santhome Basilica is a stamp of the Roman influence that stitched through Tamizhagam (the land of the Tamils) during the Sangam age in South India — 200 B.C.E to 300 A.C.E. More obviously, of course, it commemorates the entry of St. Thomas the Apostle into India in the first century A.C.E. St. Thomas breathed his last on what is known today as the St. Thomas Mount, just across the Chennai airport. Nawab Muhammad Ali Wallajah, Nawab of the Carnatic, built the sensational Sunni Wallajah Mosque in Triplicane somewhere between 1749 and 1795; close to it, of course, is Thousand Lights – home of Ghazi Moulana Ghulam Mahadi Khan – among the grandest Shia centres of worship in India. Remnants of the great Jain history of South India still stand in the temples of Sowcarpet. Near by, in Burma Bazaar, is an old settlement of Burmese Tamilians who fled back to India in 1947 and, in a second wave, during the xenophobic military rule of General Ne Win in 1962.

Madras has also been a fulcrum of global ideation. Thinkers and reformers ranging from Dr. Annie Besant and Shri Jiddu Krishnamurti to Swami Vivekananda and Swami Chinmayanda sowed their beginnings in its soil.

The history of our nation-state too would be incomplete without an invocation to Madras. Four years of pursuing Gandhiji eventually led to Rajaji’s (Shri C. Rajagopalachari’s) first meeting with him in March 1919. This was at the home of Shri Kasturiranga Iyengar; it presently stands as the Chola hotel on Cathedral Road. Rajaji took to Gandhiji’s path of non-co-operation with fiery enthusiasm. The die was cast; Rajaji and Shri T. T. Krishnamachari were symbols – to name only two from many – of the formidable role Madras would play in the making of India.

Looking back at this rich and wonderful history, how does it inform my understanding of Madras, of my roots?

A most intimate recollection from my childhood is of an afternoon nap; I was perhaps only a year or two in age. After a filling bowl of rasam saadam, I dozed-off on my mother’s lap. I suddenly woke up, startled, and she gazed, with infinite affection, into my eyes asking ‘enna da?’ (implying, in Tamil: ‘what’s the matter, son?’).

Sitting on memory’s lap, I summon, with deepest sincerity, my idea of Madras. I’m instantly surrounded in a magisterial presence. A complex and mystifying humanity is peering into my mind’s eye. It places its hand on my cheek and offers, ‘enna da?’.

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