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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