As a kid I used to believe India has two communities except Bengalis - Punjabis and Madrasis. The divide between the north and south of India is possibly one of the most overrated and underrated beliefs of our times. Overrated as it actually keeps employable talent, infrastructure investments and people in general curtailed to one region while it could be more porous. And underrated as there really are a few essential differences which are way fundamental to be bridged in a few generations.
Up north people love wheat. Down south people love rice. Up north people have summer and winter. Down south people only have eternal summer! Up north the big fat Indian wedding can last a whole week. Down south it lasts a whole day. Up north you typically need to own a big bungalow and car to have arrived in life. Down south its enough to have arrived intellectually to where one desires, and walk around in Bata slippers. I could go on and on , but the point is that despite belonging to somewhere up north (if Kolkata qualifies as that) , I feel more connected to the south. And to me Chennai is the epicenter of the 'Madrasi' world.
It might be an exaggeration of sorts to say there is no downside to Chennai. Of source there is the aggressive auto guy , the constant chettinad restaurants and the overall conservative homogeneity on the surface of things. However , this city has some character and unlike other cities I have seen. The trigger to putting stuff on paper is the visit to Mylapore this evening.
Mylapore is like a very traditional New York. Busy. Crowded. Street hawkers. Heavy traffic. Interesting little curio shops. And tonne of character. The air smells at once of fresh ground filter coffee , camphor and incense. The fulcrum of the area is the Mylapore Kovil or the Temple , which is very old and extremely beautiful. It’s intricately carved and there is a traditional water tank inside the temple. All around it is the temple linked economy that has grown over years. Small shops sell idols of gods, earthen dolls , toys for kids and knick knacks. In Mylapore you have some of the best Sari shops with exquisite silk weaves from all over the south of India. People jostle around trying to buy stuff. But there is nothing aggressive about the place. The heat is unbearable. It’s sweaty. However people are gentle. And it’s a gentle evening.
A very dear friend recommended I check out Mylapore and the small curio stores there, and I am glad I did. The place echoes what I like most about Chennai. The people. Educated and simple, non-flamboyant and layered. There just might be an unassuming rocket scientist sitting next to you on the public bus with a packed lunch box of curd rice, but you’ll never realize it!