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Vol. XXX No. 8, August 16-31, 2020

The Travails of Two Cities

by Ranjitha Ashok

August. Re-invented as an incredibly special month for Chennai-that-was-and-still-is-Madras by The Chief and a group of like-minded enthusiasts sixteen years ago.

The Grand Old Lady’s Birthday Month celebrates her dual personalities, Chennai and Madras, as they weave in and out of each other, creating this unique fabric, with its inherent ability to expertly toss together the contemporary and the traditional with the skill of a Masterchef.

Do you have any idea what you’ve done, Corona? (By the way, hiding slyly behind an alias, ‘Covid-19’ like you’re some fancy new asteroid that’s been discovered along the Milky Way by a passing spacecraft won’t change the fact that you are the Supreme Pest above all pests, okay?) Look what you’ve reduced this month-long Ode to Madras/Chennai to.

August in the city is essentially about happenings – locality-based events, heritage walks, culinary shows, a proliferation of lectures, photo exhibitions, talk shows, film shows, cultural programmes and book releases based on the city’s traditions, history, and heritage.

The one essential component at any event is…? People. Take away the people – what’s left?

Corona, you’ve hit at the very spirit that shapes the month of August in this city. Everything, but everything, has been brought to a complete halt by something which, if experts are to be believed, can be put in its place by soap and a mask.

Lecture halls, auditoriums – all meeting spaces are empty. Bored chairs, stacked high one upon the other for months now, slumber in dusty corners. The bonda-bajji-‘one-sweet’- coffee/tea combinations are now bereft, abandoned. They wait in vain for human lines to form, hands clutching those hungrily empty plates. Specially missed are those indefatigable ‘Tea-ers’, who could always be depended upon to appear the moment they heard the delectable sound of a hot cup of coffee being poured.

With voices, both the well-modulated and the unfortunately-pitched, having moved on to virtual arenas, mikes now languish in dark spaces, longing for the days when they could go ‘scccreeech’ at awkward moments. They miss dashing up and down aisles with earnest volunteers, trying to reach the waving hands of those eternal ‘I-have-a-Question-ers’. You have to hand it (no pun intended) to these guys. Amazing. Give them a talk on how to peel a banana, they’ll have a hundred questions by the end of it. There was a time when seeing those familiar hands go up yet again made you groan and check the time, but now, you’ll give anything to see these irrepressible ‘enthu-cutlets’ once more.

From left to right: Sriram V, S. Muthiah and Quiz master V.V. Ramanan at a Madras Week event from the past.

Event-planners are choking on ideas they haven’t been able to use; ‘talk-ers’ are wondering if they should have chosen some other field, while MCs, who love the power that goes with their job, are a forlorn lot. They miss conducting programmes, which includes the particularly satisfying task of being able to cut the over-garrulous to size every now and then. A webinar doesn’t feel the same. The ‘mute’ button, the great leveller, has bestowed that power upon everyone now.
When every breath is loaded with that ‘maybe-this-time-it’s-my-turn’ threat, and a simple sneeze can cause a stampede, how is this city supposed to celebrate anything?

Well, yes, technology helps – but it’s not the same. Those who speak need the vibe of actual human presence, the shuffling, the coughing, laughter (sometimes), and the applause. Those who listen want to sit with friends and whisper critical comments about the speaker. Imagine being unable to share nostalgia during a show about iconic movies, while being transported back for a brief moment to that afternoon, when all of you ‘bunked’ class to catch a furtive matinee, hoping you won’t be discovered. Where’s the excitement in a virtual event that merely points out heritage spots in those fascinating, endlessly interwoven narrow lanes? Half the fun in being shepherded to these places is never knowing whether you are going to get run over by a vegetable-laden push cart; of being able to bite into a pakoda that has been deep-fried in well-used oil, with a liberal dash of vehicle emissions and random dust, or of becoming so disoriented by teeming hordes, you find yourself riding in an auto you never intended getting into.

Yes, you can watch vintage recipes being prepared while listening to lectures on culinary history. But what’s sensory about this? And imagine not being able to stand around later, chatting, exchanging gossip, while nibbling on the showcased dishes.

This is tragic. What have you done, you Virus-from-Hell? The Grand Old Lady’s voice grows soft this August, and Chennai-that-is-Madras is hopping mad.

FYI, Corona/Covid-19, the festival season has begun on the Indian sub-continent. And ahead lies the one-of-a-kind December Season here in the city. Maybe it’s time you packed your bags. You’ve had your time – you’ve made your point. Leave this city, this nation, this planet – alone.

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