2022 started with me calling Chennai my new home. Like many outsiders, for the longest time, a certain image of Chennai used to come to mind: its beaches, temples and, with the addition of my architectural education, it being the birthplace of Indo-Saracenic architecture, or as we refer to them, colonial buildings. A very cliched identity. However, the same education later made me realise that the identity of any place comes from its culture, politics, geography and people's socio-economic lifestyle. So, what have I learnt of Chennai’s identity?
As a fairly new resident, heritage walks have been a good segue into making sense of the unique layers to Chennai. In Chennai, several neighbourhoods are peppered with colonial buildings, most often taken care of by their owners and residents, who say they are holding out against the multistorey craze. These continue to remain distinct and memorable against several flashy structures of the 21st century. For some, I have learnt, these buildings survive as a memory of a place that brought quality goods and services to the Indian folk, while for others they are reminders of tradition and inheritance.
The walks have also helped learn how the communities are essential to the social fabric that have established themselves in the city have been nothing short of riveting. They have carved an incredible character of their own in the city. While a stroll through these places might capture one’s attention with its many sights, sounds and smells, these walks drew my attention to smaller details, the lesser-known facts - how a street got its name, which national personality visited a residence here twice in their lifetime, how the last remaining marker of a building is a stone plaque - have stayed back with me.
So have some of the many conversations I've had with people during these walks. They come from all walks of life and I am able to discover a new version of this city, one conversation at a time. Residents share local lores, the spots they frequent for a certain snack, or places of leisure that have been lost to city development. One person shared how they only thought of Royapettah only when they wanted to visit the Express Avenue Mall, having not recognised the rich history of the Anglo-Indian community and Nawabs prior to a walk. Another said they frequent a lassi shop in Zam Bazaar that's been a family favourite for a few generations now. However, my favourite exchanges have been where people have connected their life in Chennai to a small aspect of a heritage walk, like how someone realised they've read The Musalman newspaper in their childhood, not knowing it was printed in Triplicane.
In a little over two decades, I have lived in a handful of cities and some more houses. There was always a new room to set up and new friends to make. In retrospect, I most fondly remember the historic places I came across in these cities, often with an enthusiastic and chatty tour guide in tow. Seeing these older precincts and structures has always evoked a sense of nostalgia, though I’ve never called either home. I do wonder why it is so. Perhaps, home is someplace you feel that you belong, and I find a sense of belonging in these areas.
What sense have I made of these observations? For now, I will say that the city of Madras is part of a history which we have now adapted for our own as Chennai. The old-world charm of Madras has not vanished and yet the identity of Chennai is not colonial anymore. It is a city that continues to establish its identity over and over again. Until I can experience a certain side of the city myself, I can live it through these smaller details, local lores, conversations, and buildings. After all, in a city that is over three hundred years old, I can only experience it at this moment in time.