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Smell the Kapi

N Kalyan Raman

Degree Coffee by the Yard: A Short Biography of Madras by Nirmala Lakshman, Aleph Book Company, 2013

The book under review, tagged as “A Short Biography of Madras”, is a welcome addition to the steady stream of non-fiction books about Indian metros offered to the reading public since the early 90s.

There are at least two reasons for the surfeit in this genre. Until recently, we have not had the opportunity to develop local narratives about our metros, to reflect on our urban history free of colonial baggage. These books are a way of owning and acknowledging that history from the vantage of a free nation. Second, the recent transformation of our cities with the advent of globalization is turning them into homogenous zones of global production and consumption. The unique history of their creation and passage into an era of genteel optimism needs to be set down for posterity.

Nirmala Lakshman’s book serves these two objectives admirably, First on that list of what makes Madras special is the city’s history – spanning both the ancient, multi-faceted culture of the Tamil country and its heydays as a centre of colonial power forged by traders and conquerors from distant lands. Madras was also an important centre of the country’s freedom movement. In 1956, Madras became the capital of Tamilnadu. It was renamed as Chennai forty years later. The author’s recounting of this widely known history through her personal encounters with what has remained of it – old localities and heritage monuments – brings it alive for us in a more intimate way. Conversations with eminent historians of the city also enrich the author’s account.

A large city must still remain an imaginary even for a native resident. For writing this book, Nirmala Lakshman explored the many localities and layers of the city first-hand – ‘with the intent to relearn, to realign memory and fact’ – and ended up ‘recasting the city in a new light,’ an engaging way of coming to terms with the city’s present. Madras is acknowledged as a gracious city, anchored in tradition and, at the same time, comfortable with the new. In a chapter titled ‘The Layered City’, the author catalogues these impressionistic but genuine attributes of the city. The effects of this enlightened attitude on the city’s evolution are salutary. Any recent visitor to Pune or Bangalore will console herself that this particular paradise has not been entirely paved over—at least, not yet. In what has become Chennai, a global city on the make, gracious Madras lives on as pentimento, indelible and enduring as a shaping influence.

The pleasures of living in Madras, which has evolved into world-class venue of the performing arts, and its pre-eminence as a centre of film production are described with a measure of pride. The ‘knowledgeable Chennai crowd’ enjoying the vagaries of a Test match is the stuff of legend. The city’s quiet achievers stand testimony to the city’s credo of combining excellence with simplicity. There are notes here, too, about the city’s food culture, leisure spots and the one and only Marina beach, Nature’s gift to its denizens.

As the author discovers in the course of writing this book, ‘there were as many iterations of the Chennai story as there were people to tell it.’ Any individual’s view of a large city can only be partial, shaped inexorably by her personal vantage and scope. Some may find Filter Coffee…patrician in its outlook, but we need it as much as we may need “A People’s History of Madras” in the years to come. After all, it is such personal affinity and commitment on the part of its citizens that bring energy and value to a city.

Review published in The Indian Express on September 28, 2013


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