TAMARIND CITY by BISHWANATH GHOSH

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 :

“Throughout the journey, I was fascinated by the newness of everything – each new set of fellow passengers, new stations, new landscapes. I was thirty years old but had never travelled down south before – a gap in my education, an omission that I was now going to make up for. I kept looking out, trying to get a feel of the expense of India as the train rapidly progressed from one state to another.”

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 is settling into his otherwise lovely narrative.  Some of his reflections on the train are clunky, and at stylistic odds with his otherwise well-written and easy-to-read prose :

“I was, however, accorded one last chance to speak in Hindi. As I stood by the door, smoking, I noticed a young Sikh emerging from the lavatory, wiping his hands. He stood next to me. I remembered seeing him the night before and what had struck me about him what’s the permanent smile pasted on his face. He was smiling even now as he wiped his hands and put the handkerchief back in his pocket.

‘Do you live in Chennai?’ I asked him. It had been hours since I had spoken to anyone.”

As are his reflections on the mobile phone, of all things :

Did they not worry to death about each other, considering one had no idea what was happening with the other until a long awaited letter arrived? I guess they did not. That was the time when one assumed all was well until bad news, if there was any, arrived. They did not have the device to worry. The device came in the form of the mobile phone. On one hand, it allows you to stay in touch, but on the other, if a close member of one’s family does not answer repeated calls or if the phone turns out to be switched off, you panic.”

After this, the narrative flows beautifully.

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 :

“Soon they begin to arrive, in one car after another, the well-to-do people of Chennai who have come to discover the old Madras that is very new to them.”

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 :

“People in the van are eagerly looking out the windows. Most of them live less than twenty kilometres from George Town, but in terms of architectural ambience, they are travelling some two centuries back in time. They are tourists in their own city.

‘In any other country,’ Sriram tells me, ‘most typically any city in Europe, this would have been declared a heritage quarter where people could go about, mingle with hawkers, see the old buildings and generally absorb the atmosphere of the place. But that is not likely to happen here in the near future. There is complete ignorance on such possibilities. None of the heritage buildings here has any documentation on site so that tourists can read and know.”

Madras, Chennai – call it what you will, this city is the star of the book, and a very loveable star it is too.

Timid. I had heard that before. It is because of their so-called timidity that people from the south are still preferred as tenants in the north. They pay the rent on time, hardly make any noise to disturb the landlord or fellow tenants, and promptly vacate whenever they are asked to. Clearly, it was the case of civility being mistaken for cowardice. But such finer qualities are often lost on north India which is still driven by the old saying ‘jiski lathi, ski blains‘ – the one who wields the stick owns the buffalo.

A good read.  Recommended.

Published by Tranquebar in 2102, the paperback costs Rs 295 and if you wish to buy it, simply click on the link below :

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