Happy Birthday Madras!

The skew, in a ledger of Chennai’s pluses and minuses, would be decidedly negative. Its famously hot and humid weather leading from the front. Followed by pitiful infrastructure: a subway still under construction and lagging decades behind Kolkata and Delhi, the worst airport of the metro cities, no decent flyovers to speak of, and traffic jams fast overtaking notorious Bangalore statistics. Then there is the flooding when it rains. And the scarcity of water when it doesn’t.

And yet, there is something about the city that compels one to stay. Like it did us.

An enduring simplicity. A value system that seems less eroded than others. A sense of true culture in a highly intelligent and humble populace. It felt like a safer, more grounded place to bring up our teenage daughter when we decided to pull her out of boarding school in Bangalore over two decades ago.

Moving here from a small town in Karnataka failed to be the upheaval we anticipated. Madras, as it was known then, was a big city with a small town vibe. And more tolerant than its neighbours. While Bangalore chased Tamilians out at the slightest provocation, the warmth of the Tamil welcome never wavered. The one thing that ruffles Tamil equanimity though is the forcing of Hindi down their throats. After all these years, R and I are equally irked by disrespectful telemarketers from the North who just assume we can, or ought to, speak Hindi.

While the Portuguese and the Dutch already had settlements in the region, it was the British East India Company that on this day, 375 years ago, laid the foundation of their first settlement in India – and of the future metropolis – on a three mile strip of land acquired from a local chieftain.

The fortified settlement erected by Francis Day and Andrew Cogan, was completed on April 23 1640, coinciding with the feast of Saint George. So ‘Fort Saint George’ was the natural choice for title, and the edifice remains the seat of the state administration until today. The crowded township that sprouted around the fort is also still called George Town, while the original name of the strip of land, Madarasapatinam, was anglicised to Madras.

The change to Chennai in 1996, after Chennapatnam – an 18th century incorporation of neighbouring villages – is a controversial one. And quite like Calcutta, it remains ‘Madras’ to most of us. Retaining the flavour of Madarasapatinam even after all these centuries!

This song launched in honour of Madras Week by the Murugappa Group in association with The Hindu, is a celebration of the “memories & magic of Madras” as viewed through the eyes of a young girl unexpectedly stranded in the city. All in Tamil, excluding the smattering of ‘Tamlish’!

On this special anniversary I wish happiness and great progress for the people of my adopted city…….but without any erosion of her tenacious hold on her cultural identity. For what would Madras be without her Kolams and Kutcheris? Without sundal on the beach? Without the evocative fragrance of karpuram, malli poo, and especially of filter kaapi?

Happy Birthday Madras!

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The City I Call Home

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

80 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Madras!

  1. I could almost taste the rasam rice and tali in the banana leaf restaurant. And the Am-bas-dar garis reminded me of my many road trips squashed in with what seemed like 24 happy Tamils. Happy Anniversary Madras as it will always be known to me. Thank you for the reminder I should never give my good wishes in the Hindi Jai Hind there.

    1. πŸ˜€ Jai Hind is fine Ian. But I feel extra empathy for the French when I deal with ignorant telemarketers πŸ™‚
      I forgot to mention the Rasam/ Sambar! Thank you for reading.

  2. Chennai perfectly summed up! Exactly how I felt when I visited there πŸ™‚

      1. Hi Madhu. Nice to meet you too. I love your writing. I am trying so hard to set up my website for the past six months but can’t seem to get everything right. I have four posts sitting in draft at the moment. I love travelling and whenever I cant travel in reality, I travel through other traveller’s blogs. I love india and visited there 4 times but it was only on my last visit that I visited the South and fell in love with the people as well as the country.

    1. Appreciate that coming from a Bangalorean! I have most of my family living there, and not one has anything nice to say about Chennai! πŸ™‚ Thank you for stopping by.

  3. Hey… that’s a nice post on your adopted home town… I’ve been to Madras only twice and never for more than 2 days at a stretch. My bad luck, I guess… So, yeah! Happy Birthday, Madras!

    1. Thanks Paritosh. Madras isn’t easy to like at first glance. You need to live here to understand its nuances.

  4. Oh Happy ‘Porundanal’ Madras! – I learnt to swim on a brief afternoon stop at the Connemara Hotel many years ago – It seems to have changed since my childhood – except maybe for the mad traffic… and lets not talk about the airport – love the movies though! Grew up watching Kamal Hassan movies – my fav was Salangai Oli (the dance one)

    1. Nannri!!! πŸ™‚ Our brand new airport that cost over Rs.2000 crore, is the pits. It is unfair that Bangalore and Hyderabad get swanky private run airports while ours is still run by the AAI.
      I used to be a Kamal Hassan fan, not any more. My eternal favourites are ‘Nayagan’ and ‘Thalapathi’.

      1. Nayagan was good – don’t know about Thalapathi.. must look it up .. yeah we had time to kill at Maa airpot and other than 1 small shop and a small terrible coffee place… one day they will get there as they say in Tamil Nadu it will be ‘Naliki’..

  5. I had some good time in Mdras but not so good time when it became chennai πŸ™‚ two visits and both of them completely different

    happy birthday madras πŸ™‚

      1. hmmm yes maybe πŸ™‚ only if you promise to feed me he he he he he πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you Valentine. Always a pleasure to see you here. I have been awfully remiss with my blog reading. Shall be over to catch up soon.

  6. Interesting info about Chennai. I doubt I will ever get to Chennai, but I didn’t know the infrastructure and traffic were so bad! But regardless, happy birthday!

    1. Thank you Lynne. You couldn’t have swapped any of the destinations on your itinerary for Chennai. There isn’t that much here for first time visitors compared to Rajasthan and Kerala. Next time, if you pick up enough courage to give India another go! πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you Colline πŸ™‚ In true Chennai style there were no fireworks or any such thing!! Going on a ‘British Trails’ heritage walk tomorrow morning.

  7. Madras looks like a really vibrant and exciting city. I really enjoyed the video, especially the food, music and dancing. I found it a bit strange to see a motor bike on the beach. Is this quite usual, or just for the film? Happy Birthday to your adopted city, Madhu. πŸ™‚

    1. Exciting, not so much. But it certainly is steeped in culture. The motor bike must have been for the movie. There is a road parallel to the beach where it is allowed, but not on the beach. Thank you for reading and for your wishes Sylvia.

    1. Thank you. Hubby is actually more at home here than I am. He can read and write Tamil, but only learnt to speak Kannada when we lived in Hassan for a while! Iam kind of ambivalent πŸ™‚

  8. The life and colour on your streets equates to nothing here in the West, does it, Madhu? What a lovely young lady in the video πŸ™‚
    Did you have a good anniversary? Now you can have a slap-up celebration with Madras too.

    1. Certainly not Jo. But you have to understand most movies, and even to some extent my photos tend to romanticise what is essentially an ugly city 😦 The model is a non Tamil girl who debuted in a Tamil movie and won rave reviews. Haven’t seen the movie yet.

      The highlight of our otherwise quiet anniversary was a most amazing Pan Asian meal πŸ™‚

  9. Happy Madras day Madhu! you know I always wanted to like the name Chennai because of its origins but never could quite chose it over Madras.

    1. Thank you Gilly. Me neither. I can’t understand why they couldn’t just revert to the original spelling like Bangalore (which is now Bengaluru) did, or even Calcutta/Kolkata.

  10. Such a beautiful post Madhu and I loved the video. She had so much fun indeed! It’s such a beautiful city! Happy Madras day hon. Have fun! πŸ˜€ β™₯ Hugs β™₯

  11. Our prayer group at the time raised money so one member could go to the meeting held by the ecumenical community of Taize in 1985 in Madras, (http://www.taize.fr/en_article3220.html
    It began an important piece of Taize’s connection in a larger world, and for my friend — it was a life changing experience. I’ll never forget what she said: “It was like always before I had needed to use an oxygen tank, but here I was breathing my own air.” (My friend is not Indian, she is Irish-American Catholic.) The meeting was held in poor neighborhoods, but, she said, the joy everywhere was thrilling. This glimpse through Therese’s eyes has always colored my feeling about Madras. A very happy birthday to your city!

    1. Thank you Judy. Strange how each person relates to a place isn’t it? Madras is far from pretty. And it has always been more conservative than the other major cities. Large brands and fancy restaurant chains see this as a less lucrative market and come here last if at all. And that outward perspective is what most modern urban young dislike about it. Apart from the weather of course. I can see that lack of artifice might have been what appealed to your friend.
      Had never heard of Taize before! Three of the four Southern states host larger Christian communities as compared to the rest of India, excepting Goa and the North East. And each state follows a different tradition….(mostly) Anglican in Tamilnadu, Catholic in Karnataka, mainly in Mangalore and Orthodox in Kerala.

    1. It is…in its own way! πŸ™‚ And we had the best cricket team as well πŸ™‚ Pity the way that went.

    1. Glad you liked it Frank……the song is very Chennai πŸ™‚ Even I don’t understand all of the lyrics!

  12. I couldn’t help thinking that the lady in the video could easily be a younger version of you, except for the selfie-taking! I’m writing this from Singapore and it is wonderful to hear the lilting tones of Tamil being spoken in the streets and in MRT announcements. Bama has repeatedly told me how much he wants to visit Tamil Nadu so we are thinking of coming late next year, with Chennai/Madras being the obvious point of entry. And we’ll get to meet one of our favourite bloggers too. πŸ™‚ Happy Birthday Madras!!

    1. Great James!!!!! Look forward to your visit with anticipation! Let me know your dates in advance, so I can make sure I am not wandering someplace else πŸ™‚
      And thank you for the compliment. Chuckling at the ‘Selfie taking’:-) The model in the video is from Karnataka, from a small place bordering Mangalore that is renowned for its coffee plantations and beautiful girls.

  13. I managed to convince James to visit Tamil Nadu. I have made a long list of places I want to visit the most in the state, maybe too many for the time we have in Tamil Nadu. But we’ll do our best and we’re sure to ask some advice from you, Madhu. πŸ™‚

    James is right about the young model in the video. We can see the same palpable spirit for exploration in both you and her. πŸ™‚

    1. Ah Bama, thank you both for brightening my day!! πŸ™‚ It will be a pleasure to catch up with you guys. Let me know your dates and plans…..delighted to help in any way.

  14. Happy Anniversary and enjoy the celebrations Madhu – I do declare I could feel your happiness, pride and contentment in this piece which says so much about a place. So happy for you!

    1. Thank you Patti. I am content yes, but I would happily shift to (the more happening) Bangalore if I had to. Hubby is the dyed in the wool ‘Madrasi’ πŸ™‚

  15. Wow! This is indeed news. Having stayed so close all this while, I never knew…
    And loved the song! Thank you for sharing this with us. πŸ™‚

  16. That was a lovely birthday greeting Madhu. Enjoyed the video very much. And I agree – the humility of the people is truly endearing.

  17. if someone tells me that he understood Chennai … I think he did not. Chennai is too complex ! even for Tamils .. so for tourists like me or for foreigners .. forget it !

    1. I agree. But that is the same with all of India. We are a complex lot πŸ™‚
      Incidentally, I have just published a post on Armenians in India. I have uploaded the photo of you and your family. I hope you are OK with it. If not I shall gladly remove it. Appreciate your visit and comment Berdj. Thank you and have a great day!

  18. Even without the big and efficient modern transportation systems and such, the values you enumerated and made you fall in love with Madras make the city great and special. The values of the people give the city its heart and character. That is something that no modern infrastructure can equal.

  19. The video shows your adopted city as a fun place. I am sorry I came late for your celebration. Terrific video, Madhu πŸ™‚

    1. No apologies needed Paula. Happy to have you over any time πŸ™‚ And happy you enjoyed the video. I thought it was fun as well.

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