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A City Has Many Names

N Kalyan Raman

Madras, Chennai and the Self: Conversations with the City by Tulsi Badrinath, Pan Macmillan, 2015

Rapid and uncontrolled change has overtaken Indian metros in the past thirty years. It is almost as if the city we’re living in is rewriting its own story in a language that we can barely understand. Even as the new era seems rife with possibilities for individuals and communities, we are also forced to witness the death of a lot that we have cherished over a lifetime. To make this mass of fractured experiences cohere and render the city intelligible again, we must try and weave them into a fresh narrative. But then, there are always countless stories folded into the story of a city, and no book can reasonably attempt to contain them all.

Tulsi Badrinath, the author of the book under review, has hit upon an ingenious device for tracking the changes that have come over her native city, Madras that is now Chennai. This device entails “conversations” with about a dozen individuals, some of whom are struggling to preserve the best of the past and others, being younger, are trying to forge a future of their own in a transformed cityscape. In the course of each conversation, we walk through the subject’s neighbourhood and its fortunes, the community that he/she is in negotiation with, and the opportunities/challenges faced by the subject in the teeming present. The result is a narrative of the city in which the life-force of the subject is always present, as is the physical fragment of the city they occupy along with the author herself – perceptive, observant, sympathetic, and even wistful.

The twelve chosen individuals represent a wide spectrum of predicaments and aspirations. The ones who have risen from an oppressed community to take their due place in the city – Sivakami, a bureaucrat, and Sarathbabu Elumalai, an IIM graduate and entrepreneur – dream of giving voice to the voiceless through political engagement. Sakthivel, whose family has been into manufacturing snuff for a dying clientele, is finding it difficult to sustain the business here but cannot bring himself to move out of the city where he has always belonged. There is Kiruba Shankar, a brash young man from the mofussil, who has blossomed into a celebrity and social media entrepreneur through being alive to the possibilities opened up by new communication technologies in the recent past.

Faizur Rehman, Beatrix Potter and the Prince of Arcot hark back to a time of cosmopolitanism, social service and communal harmony, whose spirit they strive to uphold in these more fractious times. In these pages we also meet Seshadri, an orthodox Brahmin priest in Besant Nagar’s Ashtalakshmi temple. Seshadri, who has grown to become a renowned karate expert and teacher, is also fond of fast motorcycles, but is committed to his priestly vocation. We also meet the more famous ones like V Ramnarayan, the gifted cricketer and writer, and Vikram, the superstar of the film world.

Each of these “conversations” is also about the self negotiating its destiny through the city’s limitations and possibilities, discovered in unique ways by each individual. Through these conversations, the novelist-author draws a rich and detailed portrait of the city, its culture and spirit. About half the episodes involve a journey within the city – measuring the city with your body, as the author puts it – that can be quite exhilarating in the sights and landscapes they offer the reader. Other conversations take place indoors - a palace, a stadium, a club, a gracious mansion marked for destruction, and a navaratri golu in a middle class living room, facilitating inner journeys towards cherished traditions and ideals of the past.

The pulsing life of a city, its endurance, is nothing but an assertion of its essential spirit. Those who love Madras and Chennai, among whose number I include myself, owe Tulsi Badrinath special thanks for such a vivid and eloquent celebration of that spirit.

Review published in The Indian Express on March 23, 2015


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