Courtesy: The Times of India, 24.8.19
It has been close to three decades since I came to Chennai. Of this, I have spent 18 years of my life in Mylapore, a place I consider a city in itself. Mylapore’s sights, sounds, people and culture have coloured my consciousness for as long as I can remember.
The beach, which is a five-minute walk from my house, and the neighbouring Pattinampakkam fisher community, have given me some of the most poignant stories to remember. Something as mundane as a visit to the beach every morning to buy fish for my cats teaches me a great deal about these people and their ethos. The first time I watched the fish seller scale and clean my fish for a whole hour before packing it up for me, I thought she would charge me a handsome sum for all that painstaking work. She astounded me by asking for a mere ₹40, and wished me a good day with a smile on her face, before she got back to her next batch of fish to scale.
The Sai Baba temple in Mylapore transforms into a wonderland every Thursday. Looking at the swarm of people of all ages and backgrounds, and a road full of shops selling just about everything, I often imagine that perhaps the only thing one may not find in these stores is a live elephant.
I think of Chennai as a city of parodies. I feel these streets exemplify the concept of ‘aram’ (ethical values), ‘porul’ (wealth), and ‘inbam’ (desirable pursuits) that the Tirukkural talks about. The scores of devotees thronging the temple per sonify ‘aram’; just around the street corner, the stage is set for a local party’s political meeting every fortnight, as scores of people gather to watch it like a spectacle. This characterises ‘porul’. And ahead of every such meeting is a showcase of the most frenzied koothu, as young men and women dance away with feverish energy and abandon. This personifies ‘inbam’. About seven decdades ago, this was the same neighbourhood that also hosted kutcheris by M K T Bhagavathar.
These sights, smells and sounds make their way into my work, breathing life into my characters and their narratives. As a writer living in Chennai, I have reconciled to the fact that there is little impetus in the society here for literary thinking and workmanship. That is a spot taken over by cinema, which I believe is in the air, and engrained into the hearts and minds of the people here. I have learned to quench my hunger for literary inspiration, poetry and art from elsewhere across the world, such as Paris or Santiago de Chile that gave us role models like Pablo Neruda and Victor Jara. But that said, this city has taken over my consciousness in a way unique to itself.
To me, this is also the soil that has given the literary world some of the most commanding names such as Ashokamitran, Na Muthusamy and T Janakiraman. While they strove to tell stories of struggle, history and the human spirit to a sparse readership of a few hundred people, they found their roots in this city’s culture, society and evolution. While I wish they had received the reverence and reach they truly deserved here, I see huge potential in the future. I believe there is a large market waiting to be tapped in translations of Tamil literary works, and if done with the smart use of marketing, technology and quality resources, Chennai too will find its rightful place on the global literary map.