A Perfect Ape

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

ByAnand Ranganathan
A Perfect Ape
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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.

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