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Vol. XXXI No. 1, April 16-30, 2021

Coffee and the City

A teacher, a family friend and a rigorous task master

Nirmala Laxman

That chronicler par extraordinaire of the city of Madras Mr. S. Muthiah, was a transformative force in the way in which I came to appreciate and understand this beloved city of ours. Like many others who live here, while I was somewhat aware of the specific historic significance of the agglomeration of buildings, streets and monuments, I did not burrow deeply enough until I began to read Mr. Muthiah’s books on Madras. I had known and admired him as a teacher and family friend for several decades before I sought him out to channel his insights and knowledge into a regular column for The Hindu. It turned out to be an astonishing treasure trove of information on many unknown aspects of the city. When I started to write my own book on Madras, he was a rigorous task master and checked on my progress periodically wanting to ensure that my perspectives remained true to facts. I was privileged to have his direct involvement and inputs and his own passion made me see the city in a new and layered way. As I was writing, I was conscious of his looming presence which inspired me to stay on track. Mr. Muthiah’s generosity and kindness knew no bounds and his guidance was the touchstone for my writing.

– Nirmala Lakshman

Degree Coffee by the Yard

In his remarkable tribute to New York City, E.B. White described the city as a ‘goal’, ‘a final destination’ for those who come ‘in quest of something’… As with White’s New York, so it is with Chennai. As that indefatigable chronicler of the city S. Muthiah points out during one of our conversations, most of the residents of Chennai do come from somewhere else, from their ooru or place, in search of better opportunities…Muthiah himself comes from a prominent Chettinad family. He lived and worked in Sri Lanka before settling in Chennai where his parents were. A prolific writer who has written more than thirty books on the city…Muthiah’s is the final word on the city’s colonial heritage. With a private tabloid called Madras Musings and through the annual Madras Week celebrations, Muthiah has, more than most people in the city, rallied its citizens to the cause of heritage and conservation… I owe much in this book to the long conversations I was privileged to have with him as we sat and talked in the beautiful lounge of the Madras Club, evocative of the era when the city actually came into being.

Interestingly, as Muthiah tells me, even when families have been in the city for a couple of generations, they still have strong connections to their places of origin. It is not uncommon, as I have often noticed, within a few minutes of introduction to a person to be asked in that peculiar Tamil brand of English, ‘And you-er native?’

* * *

There is much in the Chennai…of today that is till Madras. Orhan Pamuk, writing on Istanbul…speaks of the spirit of the city and its stabbing beauty, its “huzun” …” a way of looking at life that implicates us all…a state of mind that is life-affirming as it is negating”. In recognizing this he pays homage to the splendours of an older civilization… Similarly in Chennai…the spirit of old Madras leaps out of unexpected corners. It hovers in the smoke-filled mornings the day before Pongal… when the sun moves to the northern hemisphere and people filled with the resolve of new beginnings burn old rubbish in their houses; it exists in the still thriving kilijosiyam or soothsayer parrots who with clipped wings and starved bodies are trained to pick cards that will tell your fortune; you can see it in the eyes of young girls brightened by kohl or kan mai, their dark plaits thickly woven with fragrant jasmine strands. It rises from hot, freshly ground ‘degree coffee’ (an import from Kumbakonam) in roadside tea stalls, made with expert hand movements that draw the attention of passers-by. The echoes of old Madras also persist in the alleyways and streets of extended neighbourhoods, in small white houses with green louvered shutters, and roofs ablaze with climbing bougainvillea, hidden away behind ungainly concrete and steel buildings.

The best cricket is still played in historic Chepauk Stadium, where legendary players …once entranced crowds of frenetic cricket fans. Many of us have memories of afternoons spent in the pavilion eating buffet lunches and watching the exploits of the men in white; most memorably Garfield Sobers’ smashing 95 runs on one never to be forgotten occasion. Our real hero was the dashing Nawab of Pataudi, whose elegant strokes we applauded with delight.

In December, the city’s great traditions of art and music come alive, a tradition that began in the early twentieth century. From the august Music Academy to the more modest thatched roof halls, every year both locals and outsiders including non-resident Indians get their fill of classical dance and music…Along with symposiums discussing the intricacies of talam and tani avartanam, – the rhythm and expert solos of expert musicians, connoisseurs savour a range of tiffin – medhu vadai and masala dosai being popular favourites. The mamis with their diamond nose rings and silk saris, for once abandon their homes and the ubiquitous Tamil serials on television to savour the delights of the season, trading gossip as well as in a more serious vein, discussing the poetry of Andal, the Vaishnavite woman saint…

* * *

Coffee was a big deal in my family, especially in my mother’s family. They moved to Madras from Thanjavur in the fifties and brought with them a passion for coffee along with a propensity for intellectual pursuits, politics, lengthy discussions on philosophy as well as all manner of public affairs…It seemed to me as a child visiting my grandparents that there were always tumblers of strong delicious coffee, available at all times of the day; sweet enough for a child sometimes and at other times strongly brewed and dark like some sinister potion that would at once bestow special powers on the drinker…when we were old enough we took great glee in actually handling the customary tumbler and dabara…from which the coffee was drunk. Our greatest delight was to raise our tumblers high and pour the hot liquid into the dabara from as great a height as we could manage…

* * *

Chennai, like many other cities, is rife with disparities, with disaffection; flowers adorn footpaths while impoverished families wonder if they will survive another day… However, given the testimonies of endurance and voices of hope that I heard, I am reassured that this city will carry on…

…The people of Chennai not only want to understand the city, but themselves too. Amidst the colour and confusion is a deeply felt sense of belonging which I heard in all the stories that were told to me. This city is like the coffee it brews and drinks: degree coffee – rich and full-bodied and beneath the surface of the foaming hot milk, a substance that keeps your pulse racing.

Extracts from the book: Degree Coffee by the Yard.

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