I wrote this piece for the Sanmar Group’s in-house magazine – Matrix. This was in connection with Madras Week last year.
Lets face it- this is a city that takes itself very seriously. You can see it in the way people drive around, clutching a cell-phone, talking into it all the time, taking time off only to abuse others on the road. You can also see it the way parents push their children into ten thousand different activities – keyboard, classical music, dance, drums, mental arithmetic using the abacus, tennis, swimming- all in the absolute certainty that they have given birth to a David Brian, an MS Subbulakshmi, a Kumari Kamala, a Sivamani, a Srinivasa Ramanujan, a Federer and a Spitz, all rolled into one of course. And you can see them walking up and down the length of the swimming pool forgetting that they cannot swim themselves, giving instructions to the poor child to now breathe, to now lift its arm, to kick its legs and now not to breathe, not to lift its arms and not to kick. As for academics, what is a child for if not to score that acme of Chennai perfection – the dreaded centum?
At one time centum was given as a blessing to all children with due reminders that everyone in the family, ever since centum was created, have scored only centums and nothing else but. Centum is a word that is hardly heard outside our city. But then so are so many other words used here. Have you ever reflected on how most words in Madras bhashai are actually not from Tamil? Thus you have naina, dubbu, duddu and dindu which are from Telugu, Peter, Mary, assault, regent (actually decent) and feed (speed) which are from the Queen’s own language and bejaar and galeej which are from Urdu. And what about kasmaalam which is actually from Sanskrit? We also have phrases from Hindi but they are crudely anatomical and no in-house journal of a corporate house can publish such things.
But to get back to the centum and its awful consequences. Somewhere along the line, most parents realise that their child will have to drop all its extra-curricular activities and focus on the centum. And having achieved that the child is shipped out to foreign lands. It becomes an NRI. And the parent becomes an IAS or an IA&AS. The former stands for Indian Ayah Service and the latter for Indian Ayah & Aduppumadai (kitchen) Service for which the parent is invited each summer to overseas lands to take care of the grandchildren during summer vacation, cook meals and also fill the deep freeze before leaving. While there the parents acquire sneakers and ten dollar T Shirts with slogans like “I am hot” or “TCP/IP certified” and come back home to don them each morning for walks. And the conversation during these walks invariably centres on “my son who is in Abu Dubai (wherever that is) or my daughter in Sunnyvale.” The children come back once in a while too and you can spot them a mile off. Not just by their sneakers and the ubiquitous water-bottle but also because of the time warp in which they are when it comes to India. To them Chennai is still Madras, with Safire theatre, Jaffer’s Ice cream and Moore Market. Their idea of cost of living has also rather unfortunately remained the same and so when they go shopping, what with their tendency to multiply/divide every price tag into their home currencies, they buy very little.
The brain-drain that sent these people away has also caused problems for Chennai’s bungalows. These vast houses, with huge gardens, plenty of rooms (but hardly any bedrooms) and one toilet, were meant for families of twenty and more and a domestic staff of like strength. Most residences like these also had the unmarried/ slightly dim-witted poor cousin (ammanji/atthan) who was general dogsbody. He worked the water-pump, did the shopping, tended to the sick and looked after grandmother when she had her spells. But over the years everyone migrated and as for dim-witted cousin, his children too have moved on and he now lives in a swank gated-community with an outlandish name like Abhirami Beverly or Alamelu Regency. And he looks down on you for still clinging on to your crumbling bungalow. And you are forced to clean your own water tank though you have vertigo. And when you go out, you have to make sure that you have locked all the windows and doors and switched off the water pump, or have you? Doubts begin assailing you halfway through the movie or the concert and so it is time to go home and check.
And so one day, the old bungalow is flattened and a multi-storeyed block of flats comes up in its place. No more closing of multiple windows or worrying about the leak from the back verandah. But then one day, a fly-over comes up just next to the third floor window. Through it, commuters can look in to see what is cooking for the day, who is using a size 36 brief and how often the interior of your flat is dusted. But then, very few are bothered. They are speaking seriously into their phones, even as they drive on, pausing only to abuse the others. But that is where we started did we not?