“I wish I had said that” I thought ruefully, through many paragraphs of the book. I am a hard core Chennai-vaasi (having spent over two-thirds of my life in Chennai) whereas the author is, at best, a Bengali immigrant of 10 years. Magically, many of his comments seemed straight from my heart— except that he has expressed them much more elegantly than I would ever have.
I got the book as a gift and forgotten all about it, till one day my internet connectivity failed. I picked the book and just could not put it down. “Tamarind City – Where modern India began” by Bishwanath Ghosh is an excellent story of everything that Madras—‘Namma’ Chennai — was and is. It is as much a book for the natives as it is for tourists. Amazingly, he enthralls both audiences, at once.
The first chapters are for history buffs: a breezy history of Chennai that would make V. Sriram and S. Muthiah proud. (Incidentally there are lovely bio-sketches of both these Madras historians in the latter part of the book. I wonder though, how he has missed Dr. Chitra Madhavan, another eminent Madras historian, who has also broken gender barriers. )There are interesting vignettes about Royapuram (the oldest Railway station in India) and the Madras Regiment (the oldest Indian Army Unit) and so many other historic establishments. He covers the traditional institutions of Madras with aplomb — Kollywood, Music Academy and the Temples of Triplicane and Mylapore.
In 10 years, Ghosh has met all kinds of Chennai-vasis and mined extraordinary biographies from seemingly ordinary people. There is a story of a middle class educated girl who is forced to sell samosas on the Marina because of a wayward husband. She goes on to become a millionaire who runs a huge Catering Agency. I must confess my eyes were moist when I read it. There is this brilliant artist who joins the legendary Chandamama to draw pictures for fairy tales and mythological stories. There is probably not much money in it, but he is full of gratitude that he has been in gainful employment for over 6 decades— a great success story because he has found fulfillment in what he does.
He addresses conflicts and contradictions of Chennai with ease: Karunanidhi Vs Jayalalithaa, DK Vs. Brahmins, Orthodoxy Vs. Atheism, Iyers Vs. Iyengars etc. Never once does he take sides, but portrays the facts with great sensitivity. Throughout the book he maintains the keen observation of an outsider but delivers the insights of an insider. That perhaps is the secret of his success.
A lovely book. Even if you are merely passing by Madras for just a day — read it!
Title : Tamarind City – Where modern India Began
Author : Bishwanath Ghosh
Price : Rs. 295