A Tamarind City by Bishwanath Ghosh
Back when I was in college, one of my favourite things about Sunday was reading the Magazine and Metro Plus supplements of the week’s The Hindu newspaper. The kind of stories published and the style of writing had a refreshing quality to them. When I read this book, I got a similar vibe and instantly loved it. You live in a city for 25-30 years and yet you’d be surprised how little you know about it. For instance, do you know the history behind the name of your street? I didn’t until recently. Likewise, I came to know many interesting stories about my city through this book. I stumbled upon this book at a time when I felt (feel) claustrophobic in my own hometown. Well, it put a smile on my face and gave me a fresh perspective on some things.
For the past few months, I have been honing an interest in History. Especially, Indian history – pre-independence. So, naturally, I was quite excited about the first chapter which explains the colonial roots of Chennai (or should I say Madarasapattinam?). My first surprise was Fort St George. I didn’t know it was at the core of The East India Company’s operations in India. Leased from the Vijaynagar empire in the year 1639, the fort was completed in 1640. Being at the threshold of Colonial history, the fort has had some famous residents. An 18-year-old, very depressed Robert Clive tried to kill himself in the fort quarters! The first marriage registered in the fort’s church was that of Elihu Yale! This book is full of interesting anecdotes about the city. The book quotes a Glasgow businessman’s description of 1862 George Town as follows, “… boxes of lace and artificial flowers from Pondicherry. -gold and silver ornaments; articles in coral and amber…..– From the close, crowded precincts of the Black Town it is a refreshing transition to the adjoining esplanade, whither, as in Bombay, European ladies drive every afternoon to meet their husbands and accompany them home”. Minus the European ladies, I think George Town has still retained its’ colourful chaos.
The Author touches upon various topics which reflect the core beliefs of Chennai like religion, the famous Iyer-Iyengar feuds, Cinema and the People. With a chapter dedicated to each, there is not a dull moment anywhere. I am not going to write about them all here because I think it will be best if you discover it for yourself. But I will tell you about my favourite parts. In the chapter “Sex and the City”, the author interviews a leading sexologist in Chennai and boy, do we get some laugh-out-loud moments! The fact that sex, to some extent is still a taboo topic in Chennai only adds to the hilarity. Another chapter which I totally loved was “Chandamama and Madras Miscellany”. If you were a kid who grew up in the 90s or before that, I am sure you would have at least heard of Amar Chitra Katha and Chandamama. So, in this chapter, Ghosh narrates a hide-and-seek type meeting with his childhood idol Sankar, an artist who drew for Chandamama magazine. In our digital age where we can just “google” pretty much anything, this obscure quest to meet his childhood hero was very touching to read.
So that’s that. There is so much to unravel about your own city, huh? Ever since I read this book, I badly wanted to visit Fort St George and the Egmore Museum. I did a quick visit to the latter recently (Next post on that!). If you happen to come across any heritage walks to the Fort, please do let me know.
So, do you have a fascinating story about the place you live in? Any historical facts or anecdotes, I would love to read your story 😊
P.S: This book brought back a fascinating piece of information about my street, which had been locked in the back of my mind all these years. Ramanujam, the renowned Indian Mathematician lived a couple of houses away from mine, although briefly. For someone who dreaded Math like a dementor all her life, this is very ironical huh?