A Perfect Ape

For the past two decades nothing has changed in Chennai. Is its perfection going to be its downfall?

Apples must fall and naked men must float for bulbs to light up thought-balloons.

In my case it’s the attendant’s over-eager splaying of Kanjivaram after exquisite Kanjivaram on the Burma teak counter at Nalli’s one hot and sticky afternoon in Chennai, that’s done the trick.

“And how about this”, he says, beginning to get a little perturbed by my zen-like bearing. “The zari work alone has taken six months”, he adds as he runs his palm lovingly over the hurtful-to-the-eye embroidery.

I nod as politely as I can and prepare to leave his company for the next counter, and the next, and the next.

The Nalli store in Chennai’s T. Nagar, their first and established in 1928, is an immense cavern that runs, just like many South Indian temple mandapams, all the way to a dead end, the sanctum sanctorum, which here is presumably the owner’s glass and teak office.

From floor to ceiling all along this magical cave, in glass-pane cupboards, are arranged the saris, thousands and thousands of them. The prices start with as little as 300 rupees and go up to, I am informed proudly, an amount – that is then disappointingly kept secret from me – an amount that Sridevi and Hema Malini coughed up willingly only recently.

“Can I see the kind of sari Sridevi bought?” I ask.

By this time the elderly shop assistant, with the customary three swipes of vibhuti on his rutted forehead, knows I am a time-waster, a “rascal” who’s dropped in for free coffee. He restrains his true emotions, just, and tells me to walk till the very end and enquire.

The shop is teeming with women of all ages and shapes, and most are wearing Kanjivarams already. Kanjivarams that look identical to the ones that have been shown to me. Same designs, same patterns, same colours.

It is then that it strikes me: this Kanjivaram cave could’ve been operating in the Chola period and no one here would’ve noticed the difference. Nothing has changed in a thousand years. No new Kanjivaram has stormed the scene and set fire to Mami’s wardrobe, figuratively speaking.

I saunter to near the sanctum, where the creator resides, and notice an elderly gentleman happily distributing coffee to customers.

“Here”, he says, handing me the traditional davarah and the steel tumbler.

“Did you like any?”, he asks.

“They all look the same”, I complain. “All these designs and zari patterns are what my mother and my grandmother had on their Kanjivarams. I found nothing new, no innovative design.”

“That’s because they are all perfect”, he replies wisely. “You can’t improve on them.”

“Just like this coffee?”

“Yes”, he laughs.

Chennai: a city that I fell in love with when I was young (it used to be Madras then) and one whose sepia-tinted visions have soothed me whenever my South Indian core has felt assaulted by my daily North Indian existence. Those Punjabi idlis, the counterfeit filter coffees and Mysore Masalas, or those “Government of Jat” and “Gujjar boy” SUVs forever refusing to give way.

Chennai was everything that Delhi was not. A city whose music, sights, beaches, smells, haunted me even though I stayed so far from it most of my life. It wasn’t a great city, nowhere near as great as London in Naipaul’s The Mimic Men. No grand museums where one could stare at a painting for hours and comprehend the meaning of life, no pall malls or nightlife to lose oneself in merrily, and no palace pageantry to enthral its tourists. It could never be. Its greatness wasn’t real. Its greatness was imaginary, one that conjured up visions of a wonderful and simple life, a life that promised a perfect meal, a perfect cup of coffee, a perfect dance form, a perfect musical tradition, a perfect Kanjivaram.

Chennai was puffed-up Malgudi. It was a perfect city. Not great but perfect.

And here I am, returning to Chennai after a gap of nearly two decades, to attend a one-day conference at IIT, where I had spent some time as a student.

The IIT Chennai campus is extraordinarily beautiful. It is a forest, with trees that are huge and free. Trees that a city dweller, especially from Delhi, gets to see so rarely or never at all.

My host has picked me up from the airport and brought me directly to the IIT guesthouse for dinner, which we see has commenced already. People don’t talk much during meals here. Back when I was a student, I had put this down to the malnourished condition of the lot of us. But now I see everyone’s at it, concentrating on the thali in front as if it’s their last tiffin.

We eat to live. Steel plates, steel katoris, and a steel resolve to lick the plate clean.

The dinner is over quickly. The finger streaks – like Lord Ram’s on the squirrel’s back – are visible on the thalis as they are collected by the helper. People here don’t touch their lips to the tumbler. They pour the water down their gullets, their Adam’s apples shuttling back and forth. And then some of them belch, to indicate to the host your appreciation of the meal. Nice. After everyone has belched I am shown my room.

You see two people behave similarly and the seed of stereotyping or generalising is sown at once. So much for statistical significance. It’s a basic human tendency, perhaps even a need, to generalise – that is how tribes were tagged and nations were formed. Not all Brits have a stiff upper lip, not all Germans lack a sense of humour, not all French are amorous…but we enjoy this bracketing, and we take it as a broad truth.

For me, all Madrasis believe in “simple living”. They all have a Godrej at home, in which everything precious the family has ever owned is stockpiled. The clash of the metal handle, the movement of the vertical piston on the inside of the almirah panel, is forever etched in a South Indian’s mind.

Also, they eat in silence, while looking down at their grub. And they sleep on floor mats that they spread just in front of the Godrej, presumably to trip the burglar in pitch darkness. Finally, MS Subbulakshmi and RK Narayan are their mascots. If Chennai ever hosts the Olympics, expect to see soft toys and kiddie paraphernalia of these two in every shop and at every traffic intersection of Mount Road.

There is one other thing that Madrasis do. They resist change. Like the Nalli man who felt no need to formulate a new design, as perfection had already been achieved, we believe the same for our food, for our coffee and – crucially – for our music. It will forever be Palghat Mani Iyer for the mridangam and MLV for the vocals. Let’s not experiment, perfection was achieved earlier, or didn’t you know!

A local professor I meet at the conference tells me how difficult it is for his teenage daughter to suggest a modern interpretation to her Bharatanatyam teacher. The teacher always says, “Where’s the need. Bharatanatyam is perfect, there’s no point tinkering with it”.

Chennai is the only large city where I routinely find well-dressed people walking on the roads barefoot, people driving motorbikes barefoot, people driving cars barefoot. (My uncle told me once that the first time he wore slippers was when he went to college.) Where there are obstacles on the footpaths, barefoot men step down gladly to the soft earth, their feet forming little clouds of fine dust.

A village life is being led in the city, uninhibited and unreservedly.

I am reminded of one glorious passage in Nirad Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, where he remembers a village dust road:

…We held this soft deep dust in great affection. We felt…contempt for those who walked on this road in shoes, missing so much…The best part of the pleasure of walking was to feel one’s bare feet sinking in the dust, just as the keenest edge of the joy of kicking, that activity so natural in children and so essential for them, was in raising dust as high as the head.

I take an auto to the famous Mailapur temple, to see if anything has changed since I visited the complex last, two decades ago, when, to my outrage, I had seen the sign “non-Hindus are not allowed” plastered near the temple mandapam.

Nothing has changed. Same kind of shops – exhibiting heaps of steel utensils and ground coffee in equal measure – line the alleyways. And inside the temple, the same greased and slippery paths. The temple itself, same “perfect” exquisiteness of architecture.

The celebrated Higginbotham’s bookshop on Mount Road, that fabricated Harry Potter-like magical experience in the mind of a Tamilian kid in the Eighties, is still there, and is packed. The bookstore is grand, like a high-ceilinged ballroom of yore, and a wonderful musty smell sits everywhere like cigar smoke. I see only books in the bookshop. They are clearly resisting adding new sections like Landmark has, of video games and music and soft toys. The bookshop owner still can tell you about each and every book that’s stocked in his shop. I engage him with my eyes, and feel like asking him how he plans to survive in an age where less and less people are coming to bookshops to buy books. But I don’t. Something tells me I know his answer already: Higginbotham’s will survive – there’s no need to change.

Having bought half a dozen veshtis for Appa from a veshti shop at – unbelievable but true – Chennai airport of all places, and waiting for the boarding call, I reflect on my short stay.

Chennai, I feel, is living the life of a frog in a well that was once majestic but now its water level has receded and its walls have corroded and the bricks are undone and scum has taken over the surface of that same sweet water. But the frog is reluctant to hop and skip and try to clamber out of this well – a well which it thinks is perfect.

Cities die if they don’t change. They become relics, of an ancient and glorious past, like Benaras. Chennai will die because its people believe it is perfect. Chennai is that ape that resists further evolution. A perfect ape.


Image Source – http://www.flickr.com/photos/nimbupani/3009994543/



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  • Azous D’Pilid

    Not sure which part of Delhi your from, but you can’t take 2 steps without coming up against a tree. So frankly, you’re full of faeces.

  • Madrasi

    Not sure you are so stupid to hate this city or just trolling for pageviews

  • Techila

    Myopic and all over the place, sir

  • vinayak

    Article Gone Haywire.. Complete lack of vision.

  • Jairam

    I don’t know but I loved the piece. It I think should be read slowly, its not a routine travel piece, that I hate this city I love
    this in the city but a reflection, almost a pondering of what the city is and what has happened to it. Being from the south myself but not from Chennai I know exactly what Mr. Ranganathan may have felt…our culture and ways of living have
    remained largely untouched, there is not a lot of intermingling of cultures – even among the southern states. And the thing about simple living is so true…excellent piece that needed time to read and think about, and yes, rk narayan is god!!!

  • Am a Bangalorean and rue the opposite ! This city has lost its character and is today a hotch-potch retaining nothing that the Bangalore of yesteryear’s was !

    BTW I lived in Chennai (& like you as a student at IIT ) some decades back too and recently when I was there I was so happy to see that Chennai has retained its character !

  • Ace

    Makes no sense at all.. looks like the person who has refused to change is the author. Maybe you need to clean your glasses and take a better look. Chennai has changed for the better and it will keep changing.. Somethings will never change.. i.e the dance, the music, the sari’s because they are tradition and need to be preserved . But seriously open your eyes. I reside in chennai.. It was a horrible city 10 years back. Now it is much better than most of the indian cities. Prejudice induced article will not do you any good.

  • Ramesh

    1) It is still called IIT Madras.
    2) IIT Madras does not consist of Chennaites. It’s a bunch of students from all over India. It is a wrong sample to judge

    After that, I stopped reading..

  • I thought there was space for serious articles in news laundry. But it appears there is a need to be silly in content as well. The authour comes to chennai after 2 decades, spends less than 24 hrs, goes to 2 or 3 places and generalises and u call this content. Ur founder Ms. Trehan wdn’t approve.

  • Ok, am confused, what was the point the author is trying to make? if any? it is a random selection of thoughts and aspects of madras.. and i was quite taken aback at the closing statement that Chennai hasnt changed or refuses to embrace change.. in the 2 decades i’ve lived here, it has transformed quite a bit….

  • Ben

    Decent read. But you’ve missed out on seeing the other side of things. You’re making a generalization based on what? One visit to Nalli’s and a night’s stay at IIT? Why didn’t you go the full cliche route and go eat Sundal on Marina Beach as well?

    Madras, for me, is a lovely city of duality. You’ll find everything from Aaya kadai to Ascendas. You don’t have to travel far to find a quaint little shop selling Bovonto or Goli Soda right next to your local Supermarket.

    Not dissing the author but you can’t really write a ‘travel’ piece without travelling.

  • Just as he jumps to generalize Delhi & Chennai as truly representative of North & South, the writer fails to differentiate between cultural & physical changes in city lives. Banaras has not died, it is living & flourishing but it’s infrastructure has decayed & choked. The fault doesn’t lie with it’s people and their resistance to a better life, just as Delhi’s superior infrastructure is not result of Jats or Gurjar’s aspirations for metro and malls. If anything, this is result of what Government chooses to do or not to do for a city. The writer also mistakenly confuses purity of traditional art forms with resistance to experiment. Same Chennai has also produced great pop culture icons likes of A R Rahman or even Kolaveri which is antithesis to purists like Subbalakshmi. In fact it’s to credit of Chennai that it can preserve it’s traditions along with modern synthesis. Chennai has evolved but writer perhaps believes that all apes who evolved became blue eyed Caucasians.

  • oh! looks like the writer is confined to exploring city! Chennai will never die as it still is traditional, authentic rather other cities or metros of India would as they are no more what they were or used to be! No royalty, just westernizing! Chennai might be slow, but it has just transformed! I am a north India born here, brought up here and I have seen it changing ever since then.. 25 years and we are no more typical Madrasis! For your kind information Mr. Author!

  • Nacha

    “Mailapur” Really?
    “Walls have corroded and the bricks are undone and scum has taken over the surface”? With all due respect Sir, your language has all the frills in place, but the content is, like you put it yourself–> “We enjoy this bracketing, and we take it as a broad truth”.
    Seems to me like it is your mind that is inhibited. Also, 24 hrs do not qualify you to do the kind of bracketing that you have attempted to.

  • An ape who has evolved…

    I saw the title of the piece and saw the author’s photo on the right and thought this piece was about him…but looks like he has managed to write a piece about his vivid hallucinations of being in a city after consuming some heady stuff one is told is freely available inside the IIT campuses….A few fit-inducing laughs resulted reading these “Mailapur” (i mean, really?) “It will forever be Palghat Mani Iyer for the mridangam and MLV for the vocals” (oh! the levels of idiocy displayed here even while stereotyping an entire city with its paltry population of Tambrahms among whom even the most conservative 60+ yo would laugh at this nonsense) and the clincher “well-dressed people walking on the roads barefoot” (this scene is impossible to even hallucinate…considering how a walk like that would mean an immediate replacement of cooked foot).

    And finally, “Cities die if they don’t change. They become relics, of an ancient and glorious past, like Benaras. Chennai will die because its people believe it is perfect” Oh thank you Mr. Nostradamus, it was hilarious and puke-inducing in equal measure reading an idiot soothsayer’s account of a city i live in. Next time you visit the city, do try to actually write about it after really moving about the city instead of smoking up some psychedelic stuff from inside the IIT campus.

    I really hope the Nalli guys sue him for the bizarre “no new designs” or the author at least realises that the old man in the Nalli shop was simply trolling him by saying all that those fellows have years of experience to cull out the window-shopping guy-looking-to-just-write-nonsense from someone who looks like they know shit about what they want to buy in a saree shop.

    And hey Newslaundry, weren’t you, just last month or so, the same guys who published this article http://www.newslaundry.com/2012/10/of-bias-and-accountability/ criticising the stupid stereotyping of a city by firstpostin guys? Hypocrisy called to say that it’s about to die a death of irony overdose.

    • Ace

      nicely said.. seriously how can anyone walk barefoot in chennai? the ones who walk barefoot are prolly the beggars.. and that is not the city’s influence instead govt’s lack of initiative. and yes i do hope the author will note that it is spelt mylapore and not milapore. No one in this city believes it is perfect. Come on, who would? It is a great city.not the best but for the people who live here, there is no place on earth like chennai

  • Lot of things changed over the period of time but cannot access about the city in a dy’s trip, but still i am proud to call me as Chennaities

  • Anand Ranganathan

    I seem to have hurt and angered many through this article. I regret that sincerely, for it was never my intention to do that. Do take interest and keep commenting so I keep to the straight and narrow. Just home – 3 am – after having watched Jab tak hai jaan, I now realize how important it is to listen to the critics and pay heed to what they have to say.

  • Ramkumar

    I couldn’t get beyond half of your myopic article.. what Chennai doesn’t need is a sewer rat like you roaming its streets.. stick to trolling in Delhi

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  • who cares!

    Looks like something totally gone bad in your life. Better to consult some psychologist!

  • Pingback: The not so perfect ape | The Alternative()

  • Madhuri

    Its totally lame! Though I am not from Chennai I don’t see the author driving home any real, substantial point! Isn’t it normal for people to get back to their roots and see it unchanged and feel happy about it? It’s the other way round here. And so what if there is no “innovation” in the zari work of the saree or the Bharatnatyam? It still has its elegance, which is exactly why you see rows and rows of multiple floors of the saree. I think this post was written as a result of sudden unbearable heat and humidity of Chennai 😛

  • Bongastic

    Great piece but wow! Look at all the southi trollers having a field day!! I thought bongs were touchy about their hopeless coop of a city but I’ve been proven wrong. I guess frogs in the well are same everywhere! Grow up people, dare to shout and scream at your bosses instead or go to FP and hurl abuse at aakar Patel there. And one moe thing, the lot of you seem to take this guy to task because he said mailapur and not mylapore. What next. Are you going to say Cawnpore instead of Kanpur, or nag pore instead of Nagpur??!!! Actually this itself exactly proves the authors point…you all seem to suffer from a complex…a ‘Myla-Pore’ complex. What future for this country!!!!

  • VJ

    With all due respect… Mr.Author, I think it is better you stick to Chemistry, Dengue and Tuberculosis rather than “varied interests” …

  • Random Desi

    This ‘article’ started off like an aspiring stand-up comedian’s routine at an open-mic and alright let me be fair..i’ll hand it to you a little bit for some LOL-inducing moments especially the trip the burgler part..good one..but seriously where this got lost is when you decided to get all preachy and especially those 2 paragraphs at the end..Why in the lord’s name? why? now, I’m expected to take your “City modernization recommendations” seriously and this wasn’t a satire? Sorry, Bring the next comic on! or better yet – Enlighten the Preacher!

  • Someone who loves Chennai

    Pathetic stereotyping – If all he wants is a template-ized place, let him be wherever he is. This is an article written by someone who does not understand anything about life, tradition, family, culture. actually written by someone who is neither here nor there.

  • Preethi

    I think you should have lived and ‘truly’ travelled in a city before framing your thoughts/ opinion. Chennai is probably one of the few large cities where you can choose the life you want to live.

  • Bhuvana Ramkumar

    Apes are intelligent creatures, so I don’t take insult to Chennai being called an ape. What I truly feel is pity for internet-empowered retards like these who don’t understand a quality called “timelessness” !

  • Ayyappan

    How can the author generalise Chennai from the exclusive point of view of Brahmins? Is only Bharathanatyam dance or Carnatic music the only kind of music? Chennai is so much more. Very hastily written article which has reduced the credibility of news laundry a great deal in my mind.

  • Krishna Prasad

    What a pompous and shallow article trying to write like the modern day “Drain Inspector”. What is wrong with T Nagar shopping experience and the way of life? Does he want to replicate massive lifeless malls in the West where you’ve seen one and you’ve seen them all? Who are you to judge how people eat, live and organize their lives? Are you a certifying authority of modernity or what? Chennai is very much a thriving and lively city which has always adapted to change but is mature enough not to be swept off by it.

  • Raj Jain

    Mr Author…you are a very guy

  • Manoj

    Instead of going for a point-wise rebuttal, suffice it to say that the article is myopic, shallow and written in poor taste. And here we thought, News Laundry was to shame exactly this kind of creations in the mainstream media. I’m all for criticism and I’m sure many people in Chennai would be willingly accepting constructive criticism or difference of opinion.But, without an open mind and absurd arguments about cherry picked issues and people, you were certainly asking for the kind of criticism you’re receiving. Did it ever occur to you that you must take off the blind-fold and look at the jazzy Express avenues, IT parks, bridges, metros, manufacturing plants & ECR nightlife when you saw them? And by the way, if you thought bare-footed pedestrians and motorists are an exclusive of Chennai, you seriously lack the alacrity and skill needed to be a good writer whose basic characteristic is to observe the world around him/her. I’m not intolerant, i’m just in-troll-erant! 🙂 Goodluck with your future writings.

  • Ramya

    Its still IIT Madras. Nothing more to read beyond. Also, Mailapur…really?