Flying to Madras I was impressed by the poise of my fellow passengers. No one seemed excited by the journey and they weren’t being blase or anything: they were just being themselves. I hadn’t been to Madras in twenty-two years and I was amazed by how simple it was to get there. Just two hours and fifteen thousand rupees. The time was mine, the money someone else’s. No cabin baggage, just a bag in the hold. No paperwork, no interview, no proof of good faith because the airspace between Delhi and Chennai was owned by me; me and a billion Indians. Travel within independent India is underwritten by a romantic conceit—that the national movement made us (like those roving trucks on our highways) All-India Carriers, permanently licensed by Gandhi & Co. to go to Chennai without going abroad.
Travel must have been different during the Raj. The Frontier Mail’s journey from Calcutta to Peshawar was one of the great conversation pieces of colonial travel. You could see, says my mother who taught in Lahore, the men in your window getting lighter skinned and larger. The journey was a fat flip book and as the train thumbed its pages from east to west, Nirad Chaudhuri morphed into Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. I think the wonder that the journey inspired was a kind of awe at the ability of the Raj to hold these landscapes and species together. My mother’s licence to live in Lahore was derived from the colonial subjecthood she shared with its residents. She was connected to the city by the reality of the Raj’s reach and power, not the romance of a shared nationality.
The inside of the Jet Air plane wasn’t irradiated by the romance of nationality. We were more worried about the air-conditioning which they wouldn’t switch on till the plane began to taxi. The air hostesses were wearing fitted navy skirts that seemed to narrow at the knee, but they still managed to canter up and down the impossibly skinny aisle, sidling past loo-bound people. They moved differently from us. We walked splay-footed to stay stable in the lightly buffeted plane; they heel-toed like models even through turbulence, skimming daintily over pile carpet. I refused to feel clumsy. It was their environment, they were sky creatures, air mares. There was a matte finish to them which made them look foreign and their perfect grooming was almost a reproach: for so much effort we should have been flying to another country.
We could have been. It wasn’t till the China war in ’62 that the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) deleted secession from its manifesto. Till then, the so-called Dravida movement was constitutionally committed to a sovereign Tamil nation. The romance of Indian nationalism had been stretched dangerously thin in the Tamil country. Ramaswamy Naicker, Periyar to the Tamil world, and mentor to a succession of non-Brahmin movements had gone even further: he had refused to take notice of Indian independence. A rejectionist on an epic scale he dismissed the jubilation of 15 August 1947 as upper caste static. Yes, this could have been an international flight.
Who were Madrasis? My father had a reasonable claim to be one. Home for him was Mysore, the city and the erstwhile princely state. When Mysore became Karnataka, he became a Kannadiga or, more direly, a Canarese. But he also spoke Telugu and Tamil and he had spent most of his childhood in Madras. Ancestrally his family came from the Tamil country; he was an Iyengar, a species of Vaishnavite Brahmin. Theologically, Iyengars followed Ramanujacharya and his doctrine of qualified monism, vishishta advaita. But I knew none of this till I was nearly adult and really, the details were pedantry: added up, he was a Madrasi.
Twenty-five years later, Madrasi still seems a useful, truthful and accurate term. Useful in the same way as ‘third world’ or ‘backward classes’ are useful, as a kind of shorthand. Truthful because it reflects the way Bengalis and north Indians think of people from southern India. ‘South Indian’ has some currency but Madrasi is better. You can smell the sambar, see the checkered lungi, hear the tayirshatam being wristily slurped up. Consider the sterility of ‘north Indian’ and you begin to understand what an expressive word Madrasi is.
Even historically, it is accurate usage. Before the linguistic reorganisation of states, the province of Madras included Tamil Nadu, bits of Karnataka, of Andhra Pradesh and even Kerala. Malabar was part of the Madras Presidency. These Tamil-, Telugu-, Kannada-, Malayalam-speaking people were all Madrasis. Tamil politics has had two non-Tamil supremos in the recent past: the Malayali MGR and the Bangalorean Jayalalitha. Tamil cinema’s monster star, Rajnikanth, belongs to north Karnataka and began life as a bus conductor in Bangalore. Paradoxically, now that Madras has been scrubbed from the map, ‘Madrasi’ has been liberated from its misleadingly specific moorings and can be used without reservation to describe the existential condition of South Indianness. Thus: the plane I was on was crammed with Madrasis.
I was trying to find the words for the definitive Madrasi when, on my last day in Chennai, I found a picture that did the job better. It was a drawing on a T-shirt which had a picture of a very dark (well, black) man in pink trousers and a blue T-shirt (collar turned up), wearing goggles and chains round his neck. His hair was brushed into a curly bouffant and from under his Rajnikanth moustache, emerging from very red lips was a speech balloon. “Yelvis isn’t dead. I saw him in Jolarpet.”
If you allow that this is a caricature, I can tell you that the only English vowel this Madrasi would say right would be ‘u’ because pronounced ‘you’ it has a ‘y’ in it anyway. The first four would go: yea, ye, yi and woe. Five would be fie: no one within the city limits of Chennai sounds the ‘v’ in that number. In middle school in Delhi the standard way of getting through dull times was to get Suresh Govindraj to spell minimum. The joke, of course, was that all the Punjabis in my class (weeping with laughter at Suresh who was happy for them) were certain, they knew, that in between their machos and panchos they spoke Standard Received English.
The north Indian conception of south Indian manhood is not a single image, it’s a pantheon of pictures. Apart from young Yelvis, there is the more traditional Ravana-with-a-haircut-in-knee-high-lungi, the begoggled Madrasi neta in a white cylinder dhoti, the bespectacled stenographer in a bush shirt (namam tridented or triple-lined on his forehead) and most importantly, the bosomy fillum hero with the lipsticked mouth and pencil moustache. Sivaji and Gemini Ganesan plus MGR helped define Madrasi maleness for north Indians.
The north was bewildered: what did the south see in them? No Madrasi hero has made it big in Bollywood. Their heroines (Waheeda Rehman, Vijayanthimala, Rajshri, Hema Malini, Rekha, Sridevi, Shilpa Shetty, Aishwarya Rai) were welcome: we forgave them their accents and let them lead us into temptation, but we drew the line at their heroes. Why? It isn’t as if Hindi cinema’s heroes were lean, cleft-chinned wonders. Rishi Kapoor, his uncle Shammi, his father Raj, the awful Rajendra Kumar, dealt in two chins for most of their careers and were so buxom they gave their heroines a run for their money. So why did Kamalhaasan, a first-rate actor from the commercial mainstream who had a hit to start with (Ek Duje ke Liye) and good roles in two subsequent Hindi films (Sadma, opposite Sridevi and Saagar with Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia) never make it in Bombay cinema? Why didn’t Venkatesh click with Karishma in Anari? Why didn’t that boneless electric-heeled wonder, Prabhu Deva, make the cash counters ring in Hum Se Hai Muqabla or Pukaar?
In the beginning, with the earlier generation of Madrasi stars (the Ganesans, MGR, NTR etc) the problem was cosmetic. By the time they had finished with the pancake, eyebrow liner, lipstick and wig they looked (to north Indian eyes) more like Kathakali dancers than heroes. (In Tamil Nadu, where racist Brahmins fastidiously claimed a light-skinned Aryan origin, it’s odd that politically conscious non-Brahmin stars like MGR and the Ganesans used whiteface make-up instead of improvising a colour-blind aesthetic.)
The other problem was that Madrasi heroes were invariably whiskered and moustaches didn’t work with Hindi film audiences. In the last twenty years there has been just one successful moustachioed star in Hindi films, Anil Kapoor. Before that, from the fifties through to the eighties, you can count marquee moustaches on the fingers of one hand: Raj Kapoor (who was the only major star), Talat Mahmood, Shatrughan Sinha and the bewigged Raj Kumar. As a sidelight, it’s interesting to know that Rajnikanth’s tricksy, gimmicky style was inspired by that ‘B’ movie star, Shatrughan Sinha who made a career out of flipping cigarettes into the corners of his mouth and sundry other mannerisms. Had Shatrughan been given Rajnikanth’s start in life (in those Bangalore buses) who knows what he might have done?
The biggest obstacle to south Indian success right now is neither make up nor moustaches: it’s the way they dance. Song and dance sequences in contemporary Hindi cinema are aerobic routines crossed with sex appeal. It’s not that Prabhu Deva and Kamalhaasan can’t make the moves; the problem is that they make them too well. Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan, Hrithik Roshan dance like bodybuilders preen: the song is filmed like a music video and the steps and jhatkas are simply kinetic ways of conveying muscular sex appeal. Even Govinda, who has no visible muscles, uses dance in the service of lewdness. Kamalhaasan, on the other hand, is liable to dance like a classical virtuoso, more mudra than muscle. Prabhu Deva who’s the nearest thing to Jackson we’ve got, is a dancing stick insect, so narcissistically absorbed with moonwalking and other such ingenuity that his heroines are just necessary props, like parallel bars are for gymnasts. Venkatesh, every time I’ve seen him dance, does exactly the same movements as his heroine, synchronised dancing taken to such extremes that gender differentiation simply disappears.
What all three have in common is that they take dancing seriously, which makes north Indian audiences uncomfortable. These audiences don’t want to see male dancers, they want to see dancing men. Faced with the former, they experience the same discomfort that they would feel watching Birju Maharaj doing Kathak or Raja Reddy doing whatever he does: the stylised effeminacy of it repels them. Hindi moviegoers aren’t interested in dance as a form. Men in the movies, they believe, should dance in the cause of sex, not the service of art.
This still begs an important question: why do Madrasis like this stuff? More cosmically, why are they like this only? I don’t know. As I said in the beginning, more than twenty years had passed since I had seen them in their native habitat.
Sitting in a plane where the world isn’t north or south but simply below, it abruptly becomes clear that geography isn’t a subject—it’s a conspiracy. Mercator’s maps are a plot: they pump Europe up to the size of a continent and shrink India to the size of France.
Kanyakumari isn’t the end of the Indian earth and North and South aren’t directions, they are unequal castes. England sits on top of Europe but Sri Lanka hangs off India’s bottom like a sticky turd. Why? If this globe’s going round and round in black space with no beginning or end why should England be North and Sri Lanka South?
Think of the globe upside down. In this scheme of things the North Pole sticks out of the middle of the Antarctic like the Qutb Minar, and England becomes New Zealand. Kanyakumari isn’t an end but a beginning: the tip of India’s top. Once the south becomes the north it stops being a pit for Aryan waste, because turds don’t fall upwards. In this new map Tamil Nadu is a place on top, a top place (northern, you see) where the Dravidian Golden Age and the old culture of the Tamil country was saved from three thousand years of foreign goondas. Tamil Nadu is India’s forehead, wearing Sri Lanka like a peacock feather.
The waste of the north doesn’t drain into the peninsula now because the south is suddenly a font, not a sump, watering Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia… India is a net exporter of culture (specially with that Buddhist feather in its crown), a source, a starting place, not just a dead-end for itchy vagrants, Aryan, Greek, Hun and Turk. White imperialism is still white in this upside-down world but the words in which it is remembered are different. Instead of a dynamic northern civilisation falling upon a dark, lazy South, our children (looking at revised, rotated globes) will remember imperialism as a time when albinos left their homes in low latitudes to feed upon a noble, Nubian north. Words matter.
We landed. It felt like abroad because a corridor tube sucked us out of the plane and into the terminal. In Delhi’s domestic terminal passengers were decanted into buses then ferried across. The tubes were reserved for international flights. Madras, I decided, was a foreign country. They did things differently over here.
Outside the terminal I searched through throngs of noble Nubians for my friend.
Statues mark the road from the airport to the centre of the city like milestones. The journey into town strings them into a sequence that reads like a muddled political history of Madras. It begins with two northerners, first Nehru, then his grandson, Rajiv. Civil aviation is a Central subject, so given his location right outside the airport, Nehru has probably been cast as Mr India. Rajiv, I suspect, is remembered not for his life but his grisly Madrasi death. After him come the great shapes of Non-Brahmin politics: M.G. Ramachandran, Muthuramalinga Thevar, C. Annadurai, Ramaswamy Naicker a.k.a. Periyar, Madrasi men all, who, whether they stood for secession or not, saw Madras (or the Tamil country or Dravida Nadu) as a distinct realm. A few yards from Periyar stands a bust of his contemporary, George V. Further down the road the Congress makes a comeback in the shape of Kamaraj and fittingly, the last statue (or the first if you are headed for the airport) is Sir Thomas Munro, the man who invented Madras. No Indira Gandhi, I note with surprise—this memory lane is reserved for men only. They’ll have to find a place for the Chief Minister when his time comes.
Meanwhile I spot a hydraulic truck hoisting a giant green bin off the pavement, swallowing the garbage and putting the bin back. The Chief Minister’s son, Stalin, has farmed out Madras’s garbage collection to a Singaporean company. Stalin runs the Madras municipal corporation. The only Stalin east of Russia to run a political machine has privatized rubbish disposal in Madras. In this way does History right her wrongs. Mukund points out the house owned by the Chief Minister’s second wife. I look but I’m thinking of green bins and hydraulic trucks. I feel provincial. I haven’t seen this happen in Delhi. It is a thought that I will think several times in my time in Madras, a foretoken of Madras’ foreignness.
Madras emerges piecemeal, a partial Madras, a city I make for myself in less than a week. Like a good rube I remember Spencer’s Plaza best. Spencer’s Plaza for those of you who have never been, is a mall that makes Delhi’s Ansal Plaza look like a runt on short rations. I remember Spencer’s for its shops naturally—Simone Tata’s giant store, a kind of desi Marks & Spencer’s; an Australian cookie shop; a glazed, blue-lit place that sold computer mice that were also telephones— but also for its air conditioned atrium and its humming escalators. Spencer’s apart, retailing in Madras happens on a different scale from Delhi. Grocery stores were organised like supermarkets, and the bookstores— whitewashed neoclassical Higginbothams rising grandly on Mount Road, the cavernous comprehensiveness of Landmark — just made me jealous.
Colonial Madras has weathered well. The Victoria Technical Institute (with the Queen enthroned inside) sold me embroidered tablecloths edged with handmade lace. By the Marina, the great round Ice House which used to store in its depths great drifts of ice towed from lakes in North America, has been restored to a pink-and-white loveliness and handed over to the Vivekananda Foundation. The legacy of the modern reviver of virile Hinduism lives in a colonial ice house: there must be a lesson in that somewhere… or at least a joke. I visited The Hindu on Mount Road. Adjacent to it is the fine colonial bulk of the building that housed the Mail, a Madras eveninger, now defunct. The Hindu, though, goes on and on, using up great swathes of time and newsprint, supreme in Madras and expanding elsewhere. Its quiet, tended, expensive interior, hung with lifesize oils of its Iyer and Iyengar founders, its uniformed peons moving noiselessly through dark corridors like old college servants, its massive, complacent authority give it the air of a well-endowed if relatively new Cambridge college. Of the colonial colleges, Presidency survives in its original buildings which look distinctly the worse for wear. Madras’ colleges produced distinct species of men: thus, the Princes of Presidency, the Gentlemen of M.C.C. (the Madras Christian College), the Slaves of Loyola (gentled by Jesuits) and the Rowdies of Pachiyappa’s!
I meet Venkatraghavan, Test captain, off-spinner, great gully fieldsman, distinguished international umpire and, as I discover, working engineer at the Madras Gymkhana for a drink. I want to meet him for this piece because ever since I watched him play as a twelve-year old, he has seemed to me the southern gent par excellence. As a player he was good looking in a debonair way: Colgate teeth, trendily droopy moustache, long hair that he flicked back with some style. In his current avatar as respected international umpire, debonair has yielded to distinguished, and, truth be told, I feel vaguely nervous about meeting him because his umpiring manner is a compound of hauteur and ennui. As it turns out, he is affability itself. We gossip off the record about bowlers, past and present, who chucked. He tells me that the greatest batsman he ever saw play was Richards. Pause. He grins. “Barry, not Vivian.” I ask if his job during his cricket-playing days was a sinecure. He’s mildly affronted. “I worked from six in the morning till two in the afternoon and then played cricket.” He supervised large projects for India Pistons and retired as general manager. “It wasn’t a token job. I wouldn’t have accepted one.”
Venkat, Prasanna, Srinath, Kumble, the cricketer-engineer is a durable Madrasi stereotype. Even more distinguished is the tradition of the gentleman tennis player: the Krishnans, the Amritrajs and now Mahesh Bhupathi. Middle class men in Madras seem to routinely play something or the other, tennis, cricket, badminton, in a way that their counterparts in the north don’t. In Delhi sport generally ends with college.
The foreignness of Madras becomes clear to me when Mukund takes me motoring. Motoring, not point-to-point driving; driving as leisure. We set off down the East Coast Road in the general direction of Pondicherry with no fixed intention of getting there. We drive to Cholamandal, the artist’s village just outside Chennai where Mukund has friends. Resuming, we drive past unevenly developed coastline filled with unbuilt parcels of land, eccentric theme parks and five- star resorts, all strung along miles and miles of perfect beach. The road seems made for motoring because the highway runs elsewhere: no trucks bear down on us, no buses threaten to drive us off the edge. It is not like the road to Rohtak.
We drive past lagoons, salt flats, the brackish but beautiful Buckingham Canal, then stop to eat prawns in a seafood dhaba at Mahabalipuram. A few miles on we stop to explore two coastal forts, Sadras and Alambarai, which had been bloodily shelled into picturesque ruin by English gunboats in the early eighteenth century, when the Britishness of colonial rule hadn’t been conclusively established. Sadras is a Dutch fort; it has nothing left inside its walls except for half-a-dozen large gravestones with long Latin inscriptions. Alambarai, further down the road, was held by a Muslim notable. Outside its bombarded walls, on the beach, the hulk of a fishing boat lies bleaching.
So: a compact cosmopolitan city, full of shops and, to my uninformed, tourist’s eye, a sense of well being. There are poor women begging but nothing comes close to the misery I see routinely in Delhi at street corners and traffic lights. I give some money to a girl who walks up holding a framed picture of the Virgin and Child. Even this, perversely, seems benign: that she expects to persuade money out of people on the strength of that image is reassuring in these sectarian times. Wellbeing apart, there is a civility to ordinary transactions which, after the mechanical rage of Delhi, seems a benediction. Mukund is getting some work done in a friend’s flat. His dealings with plumbers, electricians, masons and potential tenants seem so frictionlessly matter-of-fact that I want to cheer. The men of Madras, past and present, have done well by their town.
On my last day in Madras, Mukund and I lunch at Ponnuswamy’s, once a hole in the wall, now an air-conditioned Chettinad-style eatery. We eat thalis on banana leaves, backed up by plates of fish, chicken, prawns, pigeon and rabbit. We pay less than two hundred and fifty rupees. Eating rabbit in Tamil, cheap, beats eating rabbit in French for a fortune, though you can do that too in Chennai, which makes it a proper city. Stupefied by lunch, we go to drink coffee in a Starbucks-like shop called Qwicky’s. Mukund and I, in our early forties, are by two decades or more the oldest people in that place. Besides selling a dozen kinds of hideously expensive and extremely good coffee, it also sells all manner of trendy gear which doubles as decor. The air-conditioning freezes the blood: like the vulgar sometimes say, we could have been in Amreeka. An old colonial capital is turning into a foreign country for which, thanks to the convulsions of 1947, I don’t need papers.
I set off for the airport, stuffed and cheerful. Passing the statues, their order reversed, I am impressed by their irrelevance to modern Madras. The anti-Brahmin battle won, the tide of ideological politics has receded leaving these statued men beached in the middle of the road, lonely on their roundabouts. Stalin’s municipality and Ponnuswamy’s eatery seem more important to the present and future of Madrasis than Karunanidhi’s party or the party of his would-be nemesis, Jayalalitha.
Sitting in the lounge, waiting to board, I think of those other Madrasi cities, Bangalore and Hyderabad, which share with Chennai a simple distinction: they are getting better rather than worse. What do these places have in common with Lucknow or Patna or Jaipur, slummy capitol towns, sodomised by politics? Or even Delhi, imperially bloated and flushed with subsidised self-esteem? How long before the inevitable happens and they dream up a Peninsular Indian Federation to protect their prosperity from the plague of northernness? The federation’s map is dead easy to draw: a triangle (for the peninsula), stood on end.
That’s over the top, I tell myself, and of course it is. But then I think of the pleasures of Palam at the other end and I know, that despite the domestic terminal, this is an international flight.