M-A-D-R-A-S. I have not wrapped my mind around calling this city Chennai. It’s always been Madras in my head. It’ll always be. But why, you ask? Well, Chennai reeks of Marina, Sathyam Theater, AVM Studios and many other clichès that have been entranced upon it. Madras, on the other hand, feels like neo-noir. A film photograph. A vintage cassette. A classic. Madras isn’t a place but a feeling that one can’t help but soak in. I know it’s a clichè. But it is what it is.
When we say Madras, the first thing that comes to our minds is the Madras Bashai, the language of Madras. This dialect is Madras’s own which is strewn all over the city. Be it the flower vendor akka who cajoles you into getting 2 muzhams of malli poo or the old man sitting on a bench who gives you exact directions when you seem lost in a busy street. It’s about the little phrases that always linger in the air, no matter the day or time. They are the words that instantly bring you back to the streets of Madras even when you’re really far away from it. They are also moments of beauty nestled between the monotony of the day. What Madras presents you with are little parcels of ecstasy in the most unexpected moments.
“Chennai Managaratchi Ungalai Anbudan Varaverkirathu”
(Greater Chennai Corporation heartily welcomes you)
Growing up, Madras has always been the city of my dreams-the promised land. I remember being thirteen, looking starry eyed at the newspaper’s city tabloid while lying on the tiled floor of my house and deciding that I’d make Madras my home, someday. Fast forward a few years, I was this naive first-year student, standing at the heart of Madras, awestruck by the cultural cosmos of this city. Everytime I’d go back for vacations, my introduction would start with “Ava Madras la padikira” (she studies in Madras) as I’d be beaming and nodding in unison. It took me some time to make this city home but once I did, no other place that really felt like it. The share-autos I’d hop into in a hurry, the podi dosa from the street end kiosk, the tambaram railway station, the scurry of busy people, getting lost in unpronounceable areas and most importantly, the sense of belonging I shared with Madras, where else do I get to experience all this?
“Rendu ticket, Guindy”
(Two tickets, Guindy)
If you haven’t already been on an MTC bus, yelling over the din of the hour, asking for the ticket and finally settling in jannal oram, you might not know why a bus scene tops the “iconic scenes” list of Tamil cinema. How many new friendships have been forged over the fact that they travel in the same routes and buses? Listening to each other’s favorite songs with one earphone in each ear until one of us had to get down and wave a half-hearted goodbye is a bittersweet memory that I am reminded of every time I untangle my earphones. Several years of being a regular in these buses has me knowing the bus routes by heart and I have developed the ability to answer the question “Bus eppo ma varum” (When will the bus arrive?) with eloquence. Every sunset I’ve ever watched through the jannal of these buses has lived inside me, slowly turning the insides into warm shades of yellow and orange whenever I find them as photographs on my phone.
“Chennai kadarkaraikku sellum adutha minthodarvandi innum satru nerathil vanthu serum”
(The train to Chennai beach will be arriving on the platform in a few minutes)
My pastime is finding tickets nestled between the pages of a book or buried in my jeans pockets, reminding me of the hurried mornings or hazy evenings that were spent sitting on a train. Usually I listen to my playlist that I made exclusively for journeys like these. Listen once and the bustle of Madras will find you.
When I’m not lost in these melodies, I eavesdrop into random conversations, meet different people and try to weave them into stories. I vaguely remember a typical, hot Madras afternoon when I finally got into the train and found myself in the company of a chatty toddler in a pink frock with two pigtails. This girl took me to the land of four year olds with her stories and anecdotes. It was a fest of words, gestures and giggles until she alighted. The reason I still remember this is because she taught me how we are designed to tell stories. We just forget to, as we grow up. I don’t have a photograph of her. All I have is an entry in my notes app as a reminder to never stop searching for stories.
If there’s one thing about these trains that occupies a soft corner in my heart, it is the ladies compartment. Hop into it and you’ll be transported to “Ladies Coupe” by Anita Nair, only much more personal. Every woman in that compartment claims her own space. They assert whatever space is available to themselves and firmly sit there till their journey is over. But then, they also make sure the women sitting with them also have enough space to sit comfortably. A life lesson? Well, yes. While they string flowers, read books, engage in a conversation or simply sleep, I have wondered how this compartment becomes a temporary haven where they can be themselves, in all leisure.
“Anna, intha valayal evlo?”
(Anna, how much do these bangles cost?)
You haven’t experienced the true essence of shopping in Chennai if you haven’t set your foot on our good old Ranganathan street or Parry’s corner. From dusty kiosks to airy multi-storied buildings, it is the ambience that’s changed, not the experience. The streets are decked up with arrays of earrings, bangles, bags and what not. You name it, they got it. You’d even find a deal or two in the gap where you wait for the auto anna to arrive. In Madras, everyone is Anna – Uber Anna, Swiggy Anna, Tailor Anna and the list goes on. But trust me, nothing beats this word. It is the warmth that people of the city share gives me a sense of comfort. You could go up to any auto anna and ask for a route and they’d happily direct you there, adding a tip or two as to how to reach there easily.
“Rendu tea, oru vadai”
(Two teas and a vadai)
Tea Kadai. This place is Madras’s very own cultural, social and political arena. At any point of the day, you’ll find people of Madras swarming over, with permutations and combinations of tea, cigarettes and newspapers in their hands. You’ll be welcomed by the swishing of tea in slo-mo with the tea master doing it like a pro. Some of my best conversations have happened in a tea kadai over a lemon tea, while the sky played hide and seek. Many times, the coffee-samosa combo has saved my month-end self from going hungry to classes. We have had lengthy discussions on life and art while sitting on the tea Kadai bench while losing count of the number of teas we’ve drowned. These discussions, a few days later, reveal themselves as a photograph, a blog or a speech. Collecting conversations from a tea kadai and channeling them into art, that was life.
When someone refers to this city as “Chennai”, my first thought is always — can we please go back to calling this city Madras again? I go about making postcards out of this haven called Madras. Every person and place is a souvenir of its spirit and I’ll be in pursuit of them as long as I can.