The city by the sea

The city by the sea

For the initiated, there is something all-encompassing about the name ‘Madras’ — stitched together by millions of narratives, the city has perennially been on the cusp of tradition and modernity, warmth and cruelty, glamour and grime.

Madras on my Mind, Chitra Viraraghavan, Krishna Shastri Devulapalli, HarperCollins Publishers
An anthology that explores the multiple narratives around Madras, a city perennially on the cusp of tradition and modernity

Book: Madras on my Mind
Author: Chitra Viraraghavan & Krishna Shastri Devulapalli
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India
Pages: 207
Price: Rs 350

Stripping itself of the weary cliches that haunt the city, Madras on my Mind is a kaleidoscope of 20 stories, allowing readers to discover a new tapestry every time they turn its pages. For the initiated, there is something all-encompassing about the name ‘Madras’ — stitched together by millions of narratives, the city has perennially been on the cusp of tradition and modernity, warmth and cruelty, glamour and grime.

It is no easy task to present even a partial picture of the city. Tasked by a formidable publisher to do just that, even Marundeeshwaran — the blue-necked god who built the city with his consort ‘Thirupu’ (Thirupurasundari) — flounders in ‘The Destoryer’, written by K Srilata. ‘Flowers on the Madras Train’, written by Bujjai, tells of a Madras of wonders in the 1930s, brought to life in the eyes of the narrator by every train that passed through his small town. Led through iconic parts of the city such as Moore Market, Spencer’s and Parry’s Corner, the story speaks of a life-long love affair between the outsider and the city of his dreams.

Nostalgia is one of the thematic components of the book, as one story speaks of a fading Anglo-Indian community (‘A Passing Show’, ‘Harry Maclure’), or an age of “curd-rice cricketers” (‘Curd-Rice Cricket’, ‘V Ramnarayan’). However, this nostalgia brings with it little of the funereal energy that often accompanies such a tone. Detours into wistfulness are not made at the cost of the story or its pace, and are often accompanied by a healthy dose of humour.


The book takes care not to linger too long in the past, catapulting to more recent times with stories such as ‘Water and After’ (P Balasubramanian). The author makes use of a clipped, sterile narration to describe his foray into the flooded city during the heavy rains in November 2016. The event was a defining moment in the city’s recent history, and, for those who lived through it, the story will need no embellishment.

Other stories stand outside the conventional boundaries of time, simply on the strength of thematic universalities. The story of an arts student in a run-down Taramani hostel, struggling to cope with finances as well as consistent bullying from his seniors (‘Still Life at Marana Vilas’, K Raja) is an all-too-familiar one, likely to garner winces of sympathy from most people who spent their college days in Madras hostels. ‘Orange, Like Firecracker Flowers on a String’ (Priyamvada M Purushotham), on the other hand, is about a passionate tryst between a tour guide and a French tourist. Firecracker flowers act as a visceral element, grounding the passion firmly in Madras long after the two go their separate ways.

In one particularly memorable story, the protagonist, who finds out that her husband is cheating on her, takes a walk to the Kannagi statue in the city. “This is the venerated Tamizh ponnu?” she thinks to herself with contemptuous anger, considering the qualities that make the mythical character so revered. Such stories prove valuable in adding layers to the book, taking it beyond the glories of past and present.

Another such tale is ‘House of Powders’ by Sanobar Sultana, which subtly examines tensions between two major religious communities in the city. Caught in tensions between the two worlds as she grows up, the author paints a sobering, but ultimately joyous and hopeful portrait of her experiences.

In choosing from such a wide range of elements, in terms of time period, tone, style, themes and subject matter, the book inevitably lacks an element of cohesion. ‘Triplicane to Taramani’ (G Sampath), for example, presents in 27 points the life of a man and his special “awa” (‘She’ would indeed be a poor translation of the word). While the story certainly fits the brief for the book, delivering snapshots of the man and Madras through an intriguing, unusual style, it ends up falling short in terms of content.

Editors Chitra Viraraghavan and Krishna Shastri Devulapalli mention, in their ‘Notes to the Reader’, that their way of mapping out the city would be through stories. In this, they have succeeded despite all flaws, proving why only the uninitiated would choose to go by the much more one-dimensional name ‘Chennai’.

At the end of this anthology, every reader will have a bit of Madras to take away with them, even if it is only the near-instinctive urge to grin widely whenever they are hit by the smell of freshly-made rasam.