Madras and Chennai came into existence almost simultaneously in 1639, as two contiguous areas. While Madras went on to lend its name to the larger southern peninsula or Madras Presidency, it also absorbed Chennai into its fold as it grew. Debate over the origins of the words Madras and Chennai continues long after the Tamil Nadu government’s decision in 1996 to officially change the capital city’s name.
Madras, Chennai and the Self: Conversations with the city by Tulsi Badrinath was commissioned to commemorate Chennai’s 375th birthday. The twelve people she chose to profile lived in different parts of the city. Each chapter is delightful, since it immerses you in the city — sharing her thoughts, reflections, observations and being alive to the sensuous experience. Every single person profiled is done very well, with the author allowing the personality of the subject to shine through. Two of the profiles really stayed with me after I had read the book — M Krishnan, naturalist and Kiruba Shankar, digital evangelist. Without being overly inquisitive and making the reader a voyeur in the process, Tulsi Badrinath balances her profiles of individuals by giving select insights into this character, personality and life, not necessarily compromising their privacy. For instance, M Krishnan cooking as his wife did not particularly care for it or Kiruba Shankar recounting how he came to be a digital expert and a farmer as he is known today. If publishers shared their material then the chapter by Tulsi Badrinath on M Krishnan could be included in a revised edition of Aleph’s Of Birds and Birdsong, a selection of writings by the naturalist–it would add immensely to it.
The last book on Chennai which was super was by Nirmala Lakshman, Degree Coffee by the Yard, an insider’s account of the city. Tulsi Badrinath’s book is a good companion to it. It is immensely likeable.
Tulsi Badrinath Madras, Chennai and the Self: Conversations with the City Pan Macmillan India, New Delhi, 2015. Pb. pp. 230.
30 March 2015