I have always loved Chennai! The topography is easy to navigate letting you have the bearings right, at least it used to be so with the city comfortably placed on either side of two main arterial roads. The relative orderliness, in spite of crowded areas and some congested streets, make it more people friendly, gentler, humane and hospitable. There are a lot more people walking the streets than in other major cities, not aimlessly so much as with some purpose. And this is apparent to all equally in the more crowded older parts as it is in upmarket areas. An overseas friend and visitor once remarked that she thought of the city as a busy hub of commerce and trade.
Chennai’s strategic location on the Bay of Bengal gives it an altogether different dimension. Unlike the landlocked cities, you can gaze across the horizon, well almost, at distant lands in the Indian Ocean, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia’s Perth. They all seem closer than they actually are. It is indeed India’s window to the rest of Asia and the Far East. A visitor told me recently how he collected some sea water in his cupped palms at Marina Beach and WhatsApped the image to his father in distant Germany. Symbolic though it is, these are a few of several things you can indulge in on the sea shore.
Much of my travels to the city have been of a personal nature, visiting family and friends. Lately, especially since 2000, my visits have been more frequent, thanks to work taking me there including a stint in industry.
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Notwithstanding Chennai’s sweltering heat, there’s an old-world charm about it. I must add, though, Chennai has lately seen a lot more temperate climate with rains ahead of its normal monsoon during November, the wettest month for the city.
Slice of history
Most parts of Chennai have a slice of history and a story to tell. One of the oldest I can recall is of the German battleship SMS Emden shelling oil tanks at Madras harbour at the start of World War I. Such was the ferocity of the attack that it terrorised people and Emden eventually entered the Tamil lexicon. Later as the War progressed, the ship was sunk by the Australian Navy’s HMAS Sydney off the Cocos Islands and several of its crew members were killed in the battle.
Parry’s Corner, the High Court building next door and further north-northeast the port, are all charming reminders of a vibrant city. As if to tell us about the past, southward on the road running parallel to the ocean is Fort St George, now seat of the state government, and further down is the University of Madras with its rich legacy as a great centre of learning. To the left, at the start of one of the world’s best beaches, are modern reminders, the memorials to post-Independence leaders of Tamil Nadu – CN Annadurai, MG Ramachandran, J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi.
St Thomas Cathedral Basilica
Past the beach and beyond the lighthouse that sweeps the land and the sea with its powerful beam, how can I forget San Thome’s impressive St Thomas Cathedral Basilica, beckoning me as it does every time I pass that way. I have been inside the Basilica. Nor can I overlook the spectacular and busy Madras Central (now Puratchi Thalaivar Dr. M.G. Ramachandran Central Railway Station), GH or the General Hospital – the once go-to place for medical treatment – facing the rail head, and the impressive Ripon Building that houses the Greater Chennai Corporation offices. I vividly remember being taken to the nearby Burma Bazar and the zoo, both have since moved to new premises.
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The cricket commentator’s voice on radio keeps ringing in my ears to this day telling listeners which end the ball was being thrown from. The Wallajah Road end always stirred a strong curiosity in me and conjured up a vision of the place. Much later I realised that it was a road in Triplicane, one of the city’s older localities. Close to Chepauk is the iconic journal of record The Hindu’s offices at the beginning of the equally historic Mount Road, now Anna Salai. As a child I’d a fair bit of idea on the import of Kasturi Buildings but it was only much later that I got to go past its hallowed portals. On Mount Road, other landmarks I have visited often are the Higginbotham bookshop and Express Estates.
I consider Mylapore to be somewhat in the centre of the city. Just west of Marina Beach, the gopuram of Kapaleeshwarar Temple can be seen from one end of the street leading up to the main shrine with the deity of Lord Shiva among others. The temple tank is particularly impressive and is representative of early Hindu temple architecture. On a particularly warm day, I recall having burned my feet as I circumambulated the temple, but felt an inner peace and happiness in so doing.
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Moving west on Anna Salai ahead of the clover leaf Gemini flyover is an equally famous landmark, the Thousand Lights mosque to the left and somewhat enveloped by Royapettah, an area that I am familiar with as I’d worked at Teynampet on the other side of the flyover and also near the Spencer’s building towards the east and close to the rather grotesque present-day Express Avenue shopping mall.
Paradise for foodies
Chennai is a paradise for foodies. Its delectable vegetarian food has had me licking my fingers every time I’ve had a meal or snack in the city’s myriad stalls and cafes. It boasts several restaurants, upmarket and also reasonably priced eating places, offering Chettinad cuisine, biryani and fresh fish delicacies. The city has also developed a taste for Korean food with, I believe, several Korean restaurants to cater for the large expat community from the peninsula stationed on work and business in the city. There’s every reason to believe that Korean food, culture and music have become hugely popular among the youth in Chennai just as it has in other parts of India. As an interesting aside, it is believed there are cultural and linguistic similarities between the Tamil and Korean peoples, in addition to commonalities such as rice forming an essential ingredient in foods in the two lands. Visit a Korean restaurant and you can see for yourself the ease with which Chennaites choose dishes such as Kimbap and Tteokbokki.
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A compelling reason for penning this piece is my recall and association with the city. Both my paternal and maternal grandfathers began their professional life in Chennai. My mother’s father was a gold medalist in English literature from Madras Christian College and had a strong affinity for Tamil literature of which he was a scholar in his own right, an interest he kept alive as he went about with his judicial career and postings in what was then the Madras Presidency.
Expanding in its own way
As with most cities, Chennai has expanded, which is just as well. Unlike so many of our urban spaces, including Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi, the city is not bursting at its seams. That said, I cannot help but notice some disturbing trends. Recently, I had occasion to amble along Elliot’s Beach at Besant Nagar. It was swarming with people, perhaps good for commerce that has mushroomed barely a few meters from the sea. But it’s equally important to not feel claustrophobic and be able to breathe more freely and enjoy the pure and fresh air, and just simply walk without stumbling on to something or someone. Unable to do that, sadly, I beat a hasty retreat taking the first available exit. Despite the experience, I have reasons to believe that Chennai’s expansion so far has been sustainable. No doubt since the opening of Tidel Park in 2000 by the then Prime Minister, A B Vajpayee, which I’d the privilege to attend, the city has progressed by leaps and bounds. On the coastal side, I see the expansion beyond Injambakkam and other localities, almost touching Mamallapuram. This is probably a historic necessity. Perhaps the founders of modern Madras, or Chennai, foresaw the coming together of the land of the shore temple and the capital of Tamil Nadu. Who knows?