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Tales of two cities

A coffee-table book with a novel format unwittingly captures the contrast between Madras and Chennai

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan 

Author: Nanditha Krishna, Tishani Doshi and Pramod Kapoor
Publisher: Roli Books

Pages: 240
Price: Rs 2,975

Despite my very impressively Tamil name, the longest period I have spent in Madras, as it was known then, was in the
summer of 1969. My father had rented a house for two months in Adyar.

So when in January 2012 the editor of the Hindu Business Line (for which I was working at the time) asked me if I would like to move to Chennai for a year I readily accepted.

A cousin found me a spacious ground floor flat just below hers in the Adyar area. It was a wonderful arrangement - as long as I did not step out of the compound.

But once I did, Chennai could not have been more different from the Madras of yore. In the intervening 44 years a large, clean town had turned into a filthy, crowded, vulgar and ill-mannered city in a degree that no other metro in India is.

This subtle coffee table book captures that contrast between Madras and Chennai perfectly. But that, of course, is perhaps not its intention as becomes clear from the very carefully modulated text.

The pictures, however, tell their own story, and leave one greatly saddened.

The book has a curious format. You can read it from either end - the Madras end or the Chennai end.

The text for the Madras part has been written by Nanditha Krishna and for the Chennai part by Tishani Doshi. Pramod Kapoor, who dug out the photos, has written the introduction.

The Madras part is about 130 pages of old black-and-white photos. The Chennai part - whose title 'Misunderstood Metro' reveals the authors' dilemma - is made up of colour photos of contemporary Chennai.

While the black-and-white photos remind us of what Madras was, the colour photos underline what Chennai has become.

You only have to look at the aerial shots of the Foreshore Estate behind the 300-plus year old San Thome Church at one end of the lovely Beach Road to see why. The area is an abomination even by our lax standards in such matters.

Or the Cooum River, which the authors gently say is highly polluted. Those two words don't tell even a tenth of the story. The river looks blue and serene in the photo but you can't smell it there, can you?

In Chennai, you can - a mile away. And guess what stands on its banks? The Madras Gymkhana that Rahul Gandhi can never visit. In the evenings, it has well over 50,000 attentive mosquitoes on call.

That said I must hasten to add that there are lots of wonderful old photographs. There is one of Sivaji Ganesan, MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha standing together in a line. Three of these worthies went on to become chief ministers. In the photo, they are still young but unfortunately the date is not given. Early 1970s is perhaps when it was taken.

Another photo, of five musicians playing at what looks like a garden party being attended by the sahibs and their mems, is a real gem. The scene is utterly and deliciously incongruous.

For me personally, the 1914 photo of smoke billowing from the fuel storage tanks in the harbour after the German cruiser Emden had been shelled holds a special appeal. My grandfather must have told us about that incident at least a hundred times.

Two other photographs, placed side by side, hold your attention. One is of the old Madras Club which merged with the Adyar Club that was situated along the banks of the river Adyar. The other is of the new Madras Club, as the Adyar Club was renamed.

The old Madras Club became the Express Estates. It is now a huge mall. The new Madras Club looks exactly as it did during the Raj and won't let you enter the dining area without shoes, not let you walk in the park without walking or running shoes.

It also would not, I was told, serve vodka and orange juice as a mix because it was not on the menu. But vodka separately and juice separately?

At once, saar!

First Published: Fri, November 29 2013. 21:48 IST