Is it the hot bajjis or is it the filter kaapi, the traffic at Anna Salai or a drive along ECR? Shopping at Ranganathan Street and Pondy Bazaar or the newly established malls? The MTC or MRTS or the Metro? Old buildings or new modern structures? Is it the rapidly changing cultural landscape or the long-established cultural practices that make the city? Adyar River or Cooum or Buckingham canal? Gaana paatu or the sabha hopping during margazhi? The people or the localities? What do you really think makes Chennai the way it is?
I have asked these questions to myself umpteen number of times and every time I have a new experience, it raises the mark of what is Chennai for me or what makes me call it home! But, one thing that has been constant in my perception of the city is that the background and the setting make for the greater part of the story rather than the destination! It is the journey of getting to a place that has offered me perspectives, that the places haven’t yet matched; and these perceptions and the many layers of this city have come together and made it a holistic experience.
I remember visiting Madras for my childhood vacations and how there was no trip without visiting relatives and beaches, accompanied by staple eateries or restaurants. Fast-forwarding to today, a lot has changed - some places have lost their charm, some have managed to retain their essence, and the city in the background has evolved but is also able to create the same feeling as it used to in the past! In this article, I pen down these journeys that I cherish in the city!
The city has a lot of extremes that are juxtaposed together, which, in my opinion, makes me feel at home. For instance, one might feel overwhelmed by the honks, the plethora of colours, crowds of people moving in and out, a range of aromas from eateries and goods, and multiple languages as you walk through the streets of George Town, yet attain satisfaction in no time when you find the thing that you went on the search for, or spot an old building that has many stories. Ah, the treasure trove that the old precincts of Madras are! Well if you feel George Town and Mylapore are clichés when it comes to old precincts, I must recommend a walk through the streets of Santhome which is also another older precinct with a rich history that can calm your soul and make you feel one with yourself. The old houses and the white spires of the churches have a way of calming you.
If you are a foodie at heart, like me, the city has got you covered too! It wouldn’t be fair to not mention some well-known spots/ experiences - people standing in queues to thulp hot vadais or dosa or a kaapi in the morning in front of messes of Mylapore or the crowd in front of the Jannal Kadai for an evening snack or the famous kaalan shops that tempt you as you walk past them, the suda suda bajji at Marina or the mangai in the summers, Kalathi’s rose milk or Anmol Lassi’s lassi, the variety of food and the range of eateries, are innumerable!
The city of Madras, or Chennai as it is known today, is a treasure trove that has innumerable things left to explore. It definitely is an experience that can be perceived by everyone on their own terms. For some, it's the shopping, for some it’s the business, for some the architecture, for some their home and for some a transit halt but for me, it will always be the locality that has anything and everything in the world, with the comfort of stories and evidence of the past that can cheer you up and give you the hope that even an old precinct can outshine the newer ones.
Well having said all that, it's a shame to confess that I remember answering everyone who asked “Eppadi irukku Chennai, pidichiruka?” (How is Chennai as a city, do you like it?), “Illa, enakku inga irukka venam” (No, I don’t want to stay here!) when I had moved to the city. Today if someone had asked me the same question I undoubtedly have a more evolved answer! Who would have known the city would embrace even the ones who weren’t a big fan of her so well?! And who would have thought that I would have changed my notion about the city altogether? Well, that is Chennai for me, and I am sure there’s a lot more that’s there to explore and look forward to.