A city is a lot like a woman. You may fall for it because of a certain physical attribute — the eyes, the smile, the dimple…That is how Bishwanath Ghosh looks at Chennai in his Tamarind City. It’s an odd combination, a Bengali who grew up in Kanpur moving to Chennai because at some point in time his parents had lived in the city and had fond memories of it. However from that arbitrary decision to move to Chennai from Delhi, came one of the first histories of Chennai – not so much a history in the timeline sense, though Ghosh does talk about how the British set foot in Madras and bought land in Masulipatam – but a history that shifts from physical attributes to spiritual to iconic in an attempt to capture the many realities of Chennai.
The odd thing is the subtitle, “Where Modern India Began” especially coming from a Bengali who one would imagine would hold forth on the first capital of British India, the much maligned Calcutta. However after careful reading one comes to the conclusion that the ‘where modern India’ bit refers in actuality to the physical arrival of the British. Charnock’s Brahmin wife was cremated in Madras, Clive tried to commit suicide there, failed and then decided that he was destined for greater glory, the Duke of Wellington as Arthur Wellesley fought Tipu Sultan and made his mark – the men who moved on to Calcutta came to Madras first and set up Fort St George. Even Elihu Yale who gave his name to Yale University was involved in shady deals during his otherwise laudable tenure in Madras. Of course, the reader is welcome to debate the issue of whether ‘modern India’ is quite the same thing as ‘colonial India’ but that is a different thing altogether.
From this background, Ghosh moves on to the squabbles between the Iyers and the Iyengers, visiting their strongholds and outlining stories of indomitable persistence, obstinacy and resilience. And he compares the reformer Periyar to Gandhi, a Brahmin who did not believe in god, saying that religion was invented so that Brahmins could prosper. Ghosh takes the reader on a guided tour through the sanctum sanctorum of various temples – with pink slips that allow people to jump the long snaking queues waiting for an audience. He brings in the film world with Sivaji and Gemini Ganesan and their families, because film and power is another of the dimensions of Chennai, and a larger than life one. There are interviews with Rekha’s half-sister, a well-known gynaecologist responsible for India’s first test tube baby and struggling to win her father’s admiration, who never knew that Gemini Ganesan had another family – in fact another two families.
Ghosh has a decade’s experience of Chennai so one would expect him to be a not quite insider – that comes out when he fails to recognize MS Subbalakshmi’s voice singing the Hanuman Chalisa in a CD shop. However, to do him credit, he does not admit that he knows everything and on occasion steps back to let his characters take over. Though one might have doubts about Madras the shy maiden with flowers in her hair confessing that Clive was the first to court her.
The good parts are when Ghosh takes the reader with him on tours of places that he finds interesting, where he can dig out the good story or the scandalous anecdote, which is why you run into a sexologist, a yogi teacher or a Dalit poet, or even an obstreperous peanut seller as he is sitting with his friend on the beach. Encounters can range from illustrators to the aftermath of the tsunami when Ghosh was luckily late in going to the Marina on that fateful 26th December morning since he was recovering from a post birthday hangover. Presumably he should have left out the bits on hospitals, business and the Nokia factory since those for him do not stand for the dimple in Chennai’s cheek.
Tamarind City by Bishwanath Ghosh
Published by Westland Tranquebar in India, April 2012
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