Sharanya Manivannan wishes her adopted city’s old façade of a cosmopolitan cradle for the arts were as real as its new capitalist candour.
Sometimes, Chennai feels more and more like the Kuala Lumpur I moved here from,” I told a friend recently. I meant this mainly in terms of material comforts—the international franchises, the brands, the dining options, and so on. More personally, I meant that had the city been this way eight years ago, I might have suffered less cultural discomfort. I might have slipped more easily into a cosmopolitan stream instead of being as conspicuous as I was: a young woman who didn’t look at her feet as she walked, who bared her arms and shoulders, who knew that poetry belonged and breathed in bars, and so went to them alone.
In many ways, this eager veering into commercialist comfort belies the fixed narrative of Chennai as a quaint city of civilised coffee drinkers who start their mornings with classical music and end them on some erudite crossword. It is a narrative that always discomfited me, because as an interloper, I could see the cracks in the gloss. I saw how much other lifestyles were actually coveted. I saw structural inequities, like the palpable suffocation of gender discrimination. I saw the way moral policing had created a binary: the seedy underbelly of clandestine sex and the cubicle of marriage, and little romance in between. Gradually, I began to see caste, with its complicated layers of co-opting, suppressing and entrenchment, and like all ugliness, it became difficult to unsee.
But I live here now. I have transplanted myself into this soil like a eucalyptus, a gulmohar or a coconut: far-forged trees so ubiquitous they have become naturalised citizens. And in my 30s, I wish the old façade of Chennai as a place that honoured the arts and the province of the mind was as real as this new capitalist candour. In a true world city, they could co-exist.
This eager veering into commercialist comfort belies the fixed narrative of Chennai as a quaint city of civilised coffee drinkers who start their mornings with classical music and end them on some erudite crossword. It is a narrative that always discomfited me, because as an interloper, I could see the cracks in the gloss.
So to imagine that city into being, I’d start with the imagination itself. As I write this, there are two notable bookstore-related happenings. The famed Giggles at the erstwhile Connemara hotel—one of the few remaining holdouts for the physical bookstore in this city—is facing closure. And a secondhand bookstore—one of the first I’ve seen that doesn’t operate from the street pavement—has opened up at Parsn Complex. Some years ago, I wrote in Kindle that I hoped pre-loved bookstores would spring up even as retailers of new one shut, losing ground to online ones. Voracious readers are the first sign of a healthy society.
High-rises measure ambition, not development. Even extended pavements, such as those near schools, are overrun by motorcyclists (and we who walk are almost run over by them). This is a city of so many trees, of cawing crows and colour. It needs to be pleasant to manoeuvre by foot.
When I first moved here, I thought people had such hostile faces. It was only when I began to wear one myself that I realised they were just masks. They were how people negotiated a city of everyday elitism, passcodes, and invisible lines. Ultimately, if we don’t address the deep inequities in our society, we as individuals will never be able to live unfettered. It’s easy to say our public spaces need to be more diverse when it’s our personal modes of engagement that need to be more sincere, and more welcoming.
When I first moved here, I thought people had such hostile faces. It was only when I began to wear one myself that I realised they were just masks. They were how people negotiated a city of everyday elitism, passcodes, and invisible lines.
In a moment in my first year here when I was jarred by something parochial, I asked a friend what Mumbai had that Chennai didn’t that made the former more open. “The trains,” she said simply. “They are an equaliser. No matter who you think you are, you travel with others who are not like you.” Chennai had them too, but not a Metro. A first phase opened last year; the project is still in progress. If nothing else, perhaps it will help with environmental pollution and traffic.
It’s impossible to imagine a Chennai of the future without noting that at the end of last year, the city suffered devastating floods. Much has been said about the giving spirit of citizen volunteers, but in the months since, rigorous public appraisals about the disaster, the role and responsibilities of authorities, and preventative and rehabilitative measures have been scarce. We are not demanding enough in this country. We forget, most of all, that in democracies, power is a temporary lease given by the people, not lorded over them.
And this speaks to a key component of envisioning. In order to look far into the future, one must have an equally long memory.