How the sights and sounds of Chennai gradually stole my heart

Auto drivers had a quirky sense of humour and shopkeepers were helpful

78-Madras-mail Illustration: Job P.K.

BUS NUMBER 11A came to a halt at the Safire theatre stop, and I plonked myself next to a window in the near-empty bus. A whistle and a singsong “righto” from the conductor flagged us off, and we were soon navigating the sparse afternoon traffic on Mount Road.

I craned my neck to observe the dramatic roadside hoardings, something that I had never before seen in the city where I had spent my childhood―Calcutta. It was a riot of colours, with glitter on the leading lady’s eyes, lips, and even blouse. The hero, dressed in a jazzy red suit, towered over everyone else. A few metres away, another hero, wearing a white veshti (dhoti) and a shimmering green shirt, pointed his menacing machete at passersby, giving a 3D effect.

“How on earth can these Tamil movies be so loud?” my inner voice condescendingly called out, reflecting my Calcuttan snobbery. Bengali films, in contrast, were more realistic, with definitely humbler hoardings.

“Ticket, madam,” called a voice, distracting me from my thoughts.

I smiled at the uniformed man with a pencil moustache, gave him a two-rupee note and stated my stop: T. Nagar bus terminus. He quietly took the money and returned with the ticket. Two stops later, he, along with another uniformed man, got down.

My thoughts began meandering once again as the bus made its way towards Pondy Bazar, the city’s shopping district. I spotted a familiar billboard of the Tamil film Billa, featuring two Rajinikanths―one a gun-wielding, suited and booted version and another wearing a lungi. “Enna maaa. Maharaanii!” A loud voice shook me from my afternoon date with Madras. I looked up, confused. It was the whistling conductor, the bag with jingling loose change slung across his shoulder.

“Why didn’t you get your ticket from me?” he hollered.

“I got my ticket, sir,” I said meekly. “I asked another gentleman.”

“Aah. Do not act smart,” he said. “That was the ticket inspector. Why did you not buy your ticket from me before heading to your seat? Because of you, I got a warning from the inspector.”

I was at a loss for words. “Actually… I… I... thought that you would come for the ticket….” The shiver in my voice was palpable. “That is what happens in Calcutta, my city. I did not know it is different here, sir,” I said.

“So, you are new to this place?” His tone was milder now.

“Yes sir. I came only on Tuesday,” I said.

“Next time, buy your ticket as soon as you get into a bus. This is Chennai, not your Kalkattha. Understand?” He sauntered back to his seat by the rear door.

I was relieved and embarrassed at the same time. In Calcutta, the bus rules were almost fixed by the passenger. The conductor would sometimes even plead with him to get the ticket, only to be shot an indignant glance accompanied by the bus passenger’s classic Calcutta one-liner: “Aree, ami ki palachchi? (Am I running away?)” Later, as if doing a favour, the passenger would part with that 40 paise!

Culturally so different!

But somewhere, I took refuge in my proud Calcutta roots and looked at Madras through a snobbish lens that I am not proud of today. I prided myself as a Calcuttan, defending the city in my debates with a Madras cousin.

Having said that, we were Tamilians to the core, settled in the Lake Market area of South Calcutta, where the whiff of sambar powder overpowered the fragrance of jasmine strands. Tamil shops sold almost everything that an average Tamilian needed, from coffee powder to Kalki, the weekly magazine. The Hindu hung there every evening, tempting the IAS aspirants whose other choice to help crack the civil services was The Statesman.

My grandparents, who came as refugees from Rangoon after their house was bombed in 1942, had rented the house that would be our home till the mid-2000s. We only spoke Tamil at home, as my appa (father) was too proud to let his identity get diluted in the Bengali cauldron. But at the same time, we were told, rather admiringly by Bengalis, that we spoke Bangla without a thick Tamil accent. “No endre pendre,” they said, a pejorative Bengali reference to the Tamilians there. It angered my appa, but somehow never challenged my sensibilities. I took those ‘Madrasi insults’ jokingly, trying to be even more of a Bengali than them.

Looking back, I still feel queasy about my shallowness. Every city has its own quirks and charm―its helplessness and frustrations―but they are all unique. I understood my appa’s sense of pride in an alien city, and admired the way he preserved it, even as he effortlessly absorbed the alternate identity of a non-resident Tamilian! I slowly began emulating that.

Madras became Chennai in 1996, and five years later, in 2001―two years after I made Chennai my home―Calcutta was reborn as Kolkata. But by then, Chennai had grown on me. My lens was no longer coloured by partiality or superiority. Auto drivers―who scooted around with the infamous tag of “hot metres and hotter tempers”―seemed to have a quirky sense of humour. Shopkeepers and bus drivers were helpful.

I began drowning myself in the city’s myriad cultural landscape. The one aspect that moved me the most was the “gaana paatu”, a style of music with stark lyrics and fluid compositions. To me, it seemed to resonate with the American Blues. The pain, the pathos, the exasperation of the urban slums―the gaana had it all, and it had me under its spell.

By now, Chennai had stolen my heart. But a small part of it still belonged to Calcutta, where my old, dilapidated Calcutta home was almost always the scene of my dramatic dream sequences!

Subhashini Dinesh is the author of the novel, My Iron Wings