Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXIX No. 9, August 16-31, 2019
(Continued from last fortnight)
Italian, Spanish, Thai and the many ‘Chinese’ restaurants are no threat to the local cuisine. Idli, Dosai, Vada, Upma, Utthapam etc. have gained global popularity. Just now they are the most popular non-local dish even in my village in Bihar. Pizza is yet to reach there, but idli and dosai frequently appear on our tables, and upma and uthapam are no strange names even there. Besides, no one has ever come to grief because of overeating idli-dosa. You cannot overeat idli-dosa. They are digested as soon as they are eaten. Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), a Bihari, asked for idlis as soon as he was allowed anything substantial after a surgery at Seattle. Idli hit the headlines it always deserved.
Tamil cuisine in chutney and pickles has also gained global popularity. Unlike in Andhra and Telangana, chilly is certainly not oppressive here. Chettinad food at times transgresses the redline, but then no culture caters only to the meek, and none but the brave deserve the ‘fare’! Chilly has been at the crest of India’s spicy culture, though some may say that this honour should go to pepper, which goes best only with bishi bela bath, popular only with those that speak Tamil in English accent.
Chilly, the crown jewel of desi cuisine, has reached perfection in its Tamil edition. Imagine eating Idly with a pepper-chutney, or curd-rice, thaiyar saadam, without fried pickle! You may as well eat sambhar without salt. Chennai may not have the hottest chilly in the world, yet no one has used it better. Chilly is used here in different hues, from green, as in kotthamalli chutney, mildly hot; to fried brown, as with thayir saadham, hot but not hostile on tongue; or blood red, as in Vengaayam chutney – fit only for the brave. In Chennai, chilli can be fried, boiled, shredded, or powdered before it appears on your plate. Telangana has it only in take-it-or-leave-it formats, like arranged marriages! Chilly, by the Buckingham Canal, goes like a love-affair in old MGR films – there are songs, dances, flirting and courting in an unhurried pace to culmination in some tastefully decorated kalyan mandapam resonating with at least three naadaswaram and one thavil going together. You could dance or dream with chilly soaked in curd, then dried and fried before landing on your tongue!
But just as the British are yet to make up their mind concerning chilly, they like it in no dish except vindaloo, which they must have on Saturday evenings, so that they can stay home on Sunday. Tamil cuisine is slightly confused with onion-garlic. Chennai can be best classified as pro- and anti- onion. Street after street can be marked as onion-eating and non-eating, non-piyaajii or piyaajii, using the Hindi name of its lovely shade of colour. Tenants and brides are selected accordingly. I can never apologise adequately to a colleague who turned up at every party organised by me, and ate only thayir saadham. I learnt too late that he could eat nothing else since they all had onion!
But onion or no onion, Dosai-Idli restaurants have business as usual. At lunch, you may have to wait for a vacant table at places like Woodlands, Mylapore; Sangeetha, Adyar; Saravana Bhavan, T Nagar or Cathedral Road, or even at new joints like Murugan Idli. The joint in the garden opposite American Consulate on the Cathedral Road, the drive-in Woodlands, was a popular place. Most cooks there were from Palaghat or Udupi. After a seminar at the American Consulate, my good friend Elango brought me here one day. Until then, I had not even imagined that a broom could also be a kitchen tool, but that is how oil was spread upon the metre-long Dosa pan here, with a broom. How creative and how practical! This was customised mass production. And guests had the option of eating inside on a table, or taking their order out and eating under any tree in that orchard of the unusual size literally in the heart of the city. Alas, it is history now. Its stone could as well read: ‘Here rests the memory of brooms that produced poetry on pans of steel!’.
J.P. reminds me of how names are shrunk, especially in Chennai. It may not be easy to call someone Sadasivan Thirunalvelli Balasubramaniam. By the time you finish, you forget why you called him. So use S.T.B, or S.B, T.B instead! Thus you have C.R for Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari, T.T.K for Thattai Thiruvellore Krishnamachari etc. Names of places are also abbreviated in Chennai. You have K.K Nagar, J.J Nagar, and, in the heart of the city, T.Nagar for Theyagaraya Nagar. Mostly only curious outsiders know this name of this almost 1 sq.km shopping area that sells everything from puu, flower, and kathrikaai, brinjal, to diamonds. It receives more customers than any other retail market in the world, and it takes more than money to buy there – it takes the art of navigating through 50 per cent of the population of Canada drawn in 1 sq.km! Buy one take three, 70 per cent discount for regular customers, shopping vouchers, etc. attract more customers of the real sort. T.Nagar has produced more and better marketing ideas than Philip Kotler, the marketing guru of B schools! Though under-recognised, it has produced more literature than any other sq.km., composed by those that became martyrs waiting for their wives and shopping bags to emerge from Nalli’s, Pothy’s and Saravana Stores! T.Nagar deserves an epic by itself!!
One evening with our five year old grandson, my wife and I were going to a wedding in Chetpet. It was a long way from Taramani. The boy was bored, as boys without Cartoon Network, internet or kurkure naturally are; so while here, I told our grandson that we were now crossing T. Nagar, soon we would be in Chetpet. And then I asked him if he understood what T. Nagar meant. He said yes, but did this place also have a chocolate nagar, he asked! He was not being sarcastic, he was just suggesting if the grandfather would gather some courage and halt for a minute by one of the many wayside kiosks there!
I do not think Kolkata has a C.R.D Avenue, for Chittranjan Das Avenue, or Patna has a D.R.P Marg for Deshratna Rajendra Prasad Marg, or an L.N.J.P Marg for a Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Marg, or…. But Tamil ingenuity and instinct to innovate has other manifestations best seen in the way they chop and use their own long names in pronounceable chunks. So a Balasubramani could become Bala, Balu, Subbu or Mani. Srinivasan could become Srini or Srinu; following rise in traffic between Chennai and New York, P.M. Krishnamurthi is not just P.M.K, he is also Krish now! And Subbu is changing into Subs, rhyming with cubes! But then there may be more than one Balu or one Sreenu/Sreeni or Krish in any group. We had two Balus in our office, they were both fair and tall, their wives were called Laxmi, their sons were called Gopal, etc. But Tamil genius had an answer- one was Typist Balu, the other was Draughtsman Balu. Maximizing returns on investment is part of the Tamil genius.
Tamil speakers know that their names are long and difficult for others to pronounce. Not all can manage Sezhian and Tenmozhi. But they do not mind mispronunciation by others. Devaki showed unfathomable levels of generosity in forgiving our German colleague who kept calling her as divaki, rhyming with lacky, just as the British could not be kept away from the Himalaya, the Ganges, etc. Newscasters in Delhi regularly play havoc with Tamil names, rendering Jayalalitha with an aspiration. But friends in Chennai do not mind; as long as Jayalalitha is not rendered as Sasikala, they understand and forgive.
Mispronunciation of names, actually, is mutual. Not many Tamils are famous for pronouncing or writing non-Tamil names properly. Many north-Indians in Chennai have difficulty finding poori, the deep-fried wheat flour bread, in boori; or, paratha in baroda, or barotta, etc. But they manage and move on. What leaves them annoyed is when they find ‘Pawan’ written as ‘Baban’, meaning vomit in Hindi; or “Gupta” written as “Kutta”, meaning dog in Hindi – not a very respected animal for most. Gupta came from Jharkhand to Chennai decades ago, with only heart within and God above. But Chennai treated him kindly,and he now goes catering upto Bangalore and Coimbatore, has a house, a vehicle, staff and wife and children now, the last attending expensive schools and colleges in Chennai. But he was in a murderous mood recently when he saw that his voter card read “Manoj Kutta”. It took him some time to reconcile to the fact that this card would be used only once in five years, if he had nothing else to do that day, and only he would know what else it meant and he could keep it safely away!
Errors are not tolerated on wedding cards, mostly bi-lingual now. Here, every word from Ramajayam or kotisuuryasamaprabhaah to B.Tech (Comp. Sc., IIT-Madras) must be printed correctly, exactly as specified by the family. Wedding is a big industry in Chennai. From cards to return gifts, there are a thousand things to be purchased and gifted. Halls are booked months in advance and some can accommodate ten thousand people – all talking, eating, arguing, chatting, singing, listening, sleeping in spite of the nadaswaram amplified by Bosé speakers. Kalyan mandapas in Chennai prove to the world that Indians know how to wait in a queue. They may be fidgety in Frankfurt or edgy at Heathrow, but will easily wait an hour or two for their moment with the lucky couple when they will give an envelope or a box, smile and be photographed.
During the wedding season, halls are booked by the hour. So receptions are organized before the wedding and invitation cards specify hours within which photography, gift-giving, wedding meals and musical performances happen. And everyone obliges. There can be no better evidence of the managerial talent of a traditional community. I think somebody was not wrong when he observed that Tamil Nadu could overtake Japan in ten years flat, only if it were not in India. Unlike the rest of India, there is no ‘corruption’ here – rates are fixed for everything, from darshan of the deity to the burning of the dead body at the crematorium. It is called bakshiish here, just as the British ordained it – you play your part, we do ours, and business goes on. That is why Nokia and Ford and Hyundai are not in Patna or in Gorakhpur.
But more than anything else, more than the scarcity of groundwater and plentiful air, rising levels of pollution and increasingly difficult traffic, one misses Chennai for its orderliness. In all my nearly three decades there, I witnessed only one street fight. Unlike many places elsewhere, buses, on this count, are disappointing in Chennai – you hardly ever witness any conversation there. Auto-rickshaws, to some extent, give you something to talk about. I can, however, recall one instance where it promised to be a memorable event, at Saidapet fish market. My wife was scared and wanted to leave. I said no, wait, it feels so much like home after so many years. But nothing happened – even while threatening each other, the parties retreated.
Unfortunately, like everything else, all good things come to an end. So, bye, good old Chennai!