After talking about it, blogging about it, dreaming about it, and tweeting about it for so many years, it is finally here. I am moving to a new place. I have been living in this city for 22 years, 1 month and 14 days. I will be here for another 42 days and I don't know when I will be coming back again, hopefully soon. I write this not to evoke emotions about the city or appreciate Madras. If that was my intention I would go ahead and link the several wonderful pieces on/about Madras that people have written over the years, accompanied by photos on Polaroid and 2mp vga cameras of Madras to DSLR and Instagram photos of Chennai. My intention is to write, as it seems like forever since I wrote anything meaningful or anything I would go back and read again, for my own satisfaction. Apologies in advance for sticking to the soon to be NRI theme of writing about home town.
It has become a cliche to describe Madras. It has become a cliche to call it Madras as a group of people collectively decided that we would feel closer to the city if we shun the name Chennai. Madras is beautiful like that, it makes your possessiveness come out.
For me Madras is not about Mylapore or Mambalam, for the only Mambalam I know is Ranganathan street, and some textile shop I used to visit twice or thrice every year to buy clothes - uniform, Deepavali clothes, and birthday dress - and all the Mylapore I know is from attending Landmark quiz year after year, taking 29c from Mylapore station and then back. I am probably the most non-Madras Madras fellow. I still haven't visited Broken Bridge (okay Broken Bridge is Chennai not Madras), and I would ask for directions at least twice if you ask me to come anywhere that does not involve Mount road. For me Madras is about my house, my school, and sathsangam theru (street).
I have moved houses only once in my entire life. At the age of 11, we finally reached a point where the most popular middle class dream was no longer a dream, we bought a house. It was just before the real estate boom, when the actual middle class (not the middle class from movies where they have a car and a house with a garden in the middle of Adayar or Tiruvanmayur) could still afford to buy houses with general help from the folks at ICICI. We bought a two bedroom house with a kollapuram and a thunithovaikkara kal (backyard and a wash-stone), which were my paati's favorite thing about the house.
My family didn't travel much, we still don't. We went to Kodaikanal one summer, Kanyakumari one summer and back when my athai and athimber were in Calcutta (the name was changed to Kolkata the year after I visited), we went there one summer. It was the only place I had gone outside the state till I went to Bombay just 2 years ago. It was fun in Kolkata where I actually found practical use for the English I learnt in school. I stayed there for a good month and a half, made friends in the neighbourhood to whom I actually conversed in English (my mom, an English teacher was so proud), and played cricket every evening. So to say, all my Madras experiences come from home, and I don't see Madras and home as two different entities.
I am sitting here while it is raining outside trying to recollect as much as I can, trying to relive everything that meant to me, scared that if I fail to do this there will be too little from this place I will be taking with me.
I am not boasting here but when I was born I was a favorite in my neighbourhood. My first house was an apartment, and my parents had lived there only for a few months before my arrival. My parents are wonderful neighbours and fortunately everyone around were also wonderful. They helped us out a lot, especially with me being a toddler and both my parents working. I still remember Archana akka, Asha akka and their mother playing with me. Even today at my place I talk about how Archana amma (that's what I called Archana akka's mother) scolded me every time I went outside the house without underwear. Fun times.
There is paatu maami across the house we lived in. My sister went for classes ever since she was 4. Even before that, when I was about 1 year old, her students who were my mom's students at school used to come home and play with me. I still remember paatu mami's daughter Mahi akka, and her student Gayathri akka playing with me. (looks like I was popular among the ladies back then :D ) I believe I am still their favorite, a couple of decades later. Me riding the tricycle, being chased by puppies and developing a scare for dogs ever since then, everything happened at home. I will take all these with me when I leave Madras.
All these happened in Sathsangam street, which used to be a quiet neighbourhood (except during the December kutcheri season) in Madipakkam. Kanchi Sankaracharya visited Sathsangam (it was two doors from our house). The most brilliant bajji stalls used to arrive every year as the December season started. The number of apartments and houses on the street slowly increased and I made a lot of friends over time. Your childhood gets even better when you do the growing up together. In a street full of middle class families, there was nobody under the age of 12 who spent their time playing video games or watching cartoons. We were outside the house almost all day. Since everyone knew everyone else, there was no scare, no hesitation in letting kids out to play. It was perfect. I wouldn't trade it for any memory.
We played a tonne of cricket. There have been days when I returned to the house only to have lunch and dinner. We started playing at 8 in the morning and it was cricket, seven stones and what not till it was too dark to spot the ball. After sunset we played hide and seek, in a way nobody would have. Imagine about 20-25 kids hiding in a street with about 50 houses and apartments. It was a riot. A single game used to last for hours and it went on till 9pm or whenever everyone was called in for dinner. For me Madras is about this madness.
Once I moved to the new place life slowed down. I had grown up. I played with a different bunch of people, my classmates. My school is famous for being strict but I couldn't have had this amount of fun anywhere else. I have and had such wonderful friends. From going to Birla planetarium as school excursion to getting caught in class 10 for playing cricket in the middle of exams, we did everything that we were supposed to and everything that we were not supposed to. I still remember watching Venkat Prabhu's 'Saroja' along with 25 other people in the local movie theatre. Handsdown, the best theatre experience I've had. I doubt I will experience anything similar again.
I think I grew up at the perfect time period, the 90s and the early 2000s. Then suddenly everything seems to have changed. I still thank the stars that I was late to the internet, the mobile phone and everything that makes up my life today, because I would have missed on living through most of my wonderful memories.
Whenever someone says Madras, people seem to have this image of a person who went to PSBB, IIT coaching, Kapaleeswarar temple, and likes HSB-Filter coffee's fan page on Facebook. I did none of those and I secretly feel good about taking memories of Madras that are not stereotypes, incidences that can never be guessed. Like Bajji from stalls outside Sathsangam, being in the marching band at Prince school, climbing my first stage in a large event at Chutti Vikatan school quiz, getting yelled at by KP Latha for not drawing margins, and always receiving a 'not enough' from my correspondent while receiving my exam papers no matter whether I got a 95 or a 99.
This is home for me. My Madras which is different from yours, which I am sure is unique in its own way, because none of the stereotypes can define anyone from Madras. Madras is like the definition of love, everyone thinks they know how it is when two people are in love, but can never point and say this is it. I think only you know how you love Madras, while only I know how I love it.