It took me a while to settle into this book, but once I did – what a treat.
“Tamarind City” is the story of a man’s discovery of the southern Indian city of Chennai (though lots of people still know it by its older name of Madras).
Bishwanath Ghosh is a journalist, a Bengali, raised in the north of the country, and at the age of 30 – “single and commitment-phobic” as he describes himself – he decides to move down south to Chennai. He initially plans to be there for just a few years, to discover the south of the country about which he admits he knew very little. Ten years on, he is still in Chennai, happy, content, married and by now “an honorary Madrasi”.
“Tamarind City” is the story of this decade of discovery, and is an unabashed love song to his new home.
For Mr. Ghosh is clearly very much in love with a city that moves and speaks and eats and plays to a different rhythm than the harsher, colder, more impersonal north.
He opens his story with his long train ride across India, travelling down south from a freezing foggy Delhi, gripped by miserable wintery weather, to the heat of Chennai :
I said at the outset that I found it a little difficult to get into the book. It was really just the opening chapter or two, as Mr. Ghosh settles into his otherwise lovely narrative. Some of his reflections on the train are at stylistic odds with his otherwise well-written and easy-to-read prose :
As are his reflections on the mobile phone, of all things :
After this, the narrative flows.
Mr. Ghosh’s approach to his story is to take the reader along with him, as he walks and rambles through his new home. As he gradually gets to grips with the city, so do we. His time line is ours. His narrative is not linear, but follows his own voyage of discovery.
We do, however, start with a necessay chapter on the history of this city, which is fascinating and bolsters the claim on the book cover – “Where modern India began.” Armed with this background and perspective on a city that has never quite glowed with the popular brilliance of Delhi, Mumbai or the johnny-come-lately Banaglore, we learn about Carnatic music and the food of Tamil Nadu. We learn about temples and factories and slums and the beach, about the close intertwining of politics and films, but all at a delightfully relaxed pace.
By the end of the book, you can almost feel yourself slowing down to a Chennai rhythm, one where tradition and progress sit side by side. Although that sounds like the ultimate cliché about a city, Mr.Ghosh discovers that is the truth. Modernisation may have changed much of his beloved Chennai even during his time there, but this is still a city where classical singers have the status of rockstars.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and learned a lot about a city that I have visited, but a long time ago. Whenever I go there again, as well as packing this delightful book, I shall also join one of the Sunday morning heritage walks, as the author does.
I love the way he puts the Chennai/Madras equation in perspective :
When the guide on that early walk around the historic heart of Chennai speaks ruefully about the lack of heritage conservation, you feel the author’s approbation :
Madras, Chennai – call it what you will, this city is the star of the book, and a very loveable star it is too.
Published by Tranquebar in 2102, the paperback costs Rs 295 and if you wish to buy it, simply click on the link below :
A good read. Recommended.