August 02, 2020
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Chennai Diary

Chennai continues to have a robust image and is still, as the song goes, Madras nalla Madras

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Chennai Diary


Although its politicians tend to dull its shine (2G, Jayalalitha’s antics), Chennai continues to have a robust image and is still, as the song goes, Madras nalla Madras. Some see it as the education capital of India, some as a medical tourism hub, others as the most industrialised state of the south—although its power crisis takes the sheen of this claim; or, with its clutch of car companies, call it the Detroit of Asia. It is a pulsating, cosmopolitan megalopolis, which has a nightlife that belies its conservative image. The revenue from liquor (sold by the government) in the last financial year was Rs 18,000 crore; during the recent five-day Deepavali fete, Rs 250 crore worth of booze was downed.

Years ago, hearing Hindi or seeing a woman in a ‘churidar’ (as salwar kameezes are called here) was rarer than rare. The booming IT and construction sectors make the anti-Hindi agitation that put DMK chief M. Karunanidhi on the map a receding memory though politicians continue to make anti-Hindi noises come election time. While most locals don’t know it—still not taught in schools—Hindi is not an alien language anymore. The Hindi Prachar Sabha does its bit. ‘North Indians’ live not only in Chennai, but even in smaller cities. In February, the police shot dead five alleged bank robbers who were migrants in a flat in Velachery. When the police started tenant verification—human rights activists allege it was anti-north Indian—there was a huge outcry. That’s all blown over now and north Indians live in amity although my neighbourhood shopkeeper says he prefers to employ locals—he can track them down to their villages while an erring migrant “will take the first Howrah Mail out of here”.

This Old House

The assembly-secretariat complex, a Karunanidhi showpiece, was built by Hindi-speaking workers. He threw a bada khana to show his appreciation. What he—and most Chennaiites—don’t appreciate is the white elephant that the monstrous Rs 500 crore complex on Anna Salai has become, with current CM Jayalalitha refusing to step into it. Only the Madras High Court, which turned 175 years recently, keeps her from turning it into a super-speciality hospital! But neither Amma or Ayya are lovers of heritage. Karunanidhi’s magnum opus stands on the debris of the stately Admiralty House; Jayalalitha was all set to sacrifice the then 96-year-old Queen Mary’s College overlooking the Marina in 2003 till heritage lovers stopped her. Unfortunately, INTACH’s list of 600 heritage buildings has no patron since, though the city was founded in 1639, there is no Heritage Act in place yet.

Roping in Trouble

Chennai’s streets are a work in progress. When I arrived five years ago, my friends claimed unanimously that Annanagar was the place to stay because of its leafy green avenues, colonies and parks. It is a place where every shop worth its name has a branch, every convenience is at your doorstep and it’s free of “bureau pullers” (thieves lassoed a bureau to the window and cleaned it of 200 sovereigns of gold and Rs 2 lakh in cash recently in Choolaimedu while the residents slept in the next room, oblivious, with the AC on).

But Annanagar, like other parts of Chennai, has changed irrevocably because avenues lend themselves to the metro, one phase of which is expected to be inaugurated end-2013. Now, we have fractured roads, parts of the footpath have been extended to accommodate the burgeoning traffic, chaos and traffic jams. Tamil Nadu has seen a 95.5 per cent increase in the number of cars; it’s 100 per cent for two-wheelers, while dependence on public transport has declined by 32.8 per cent in the last decade.

The Run On Meters

It’s old hat that Chennai is probably the only metropolis where autorickshaws ply without meters. Not that they don’t have them. Recently, Kannammapet in T-Nagar offered a rare glimpse of autorickshaws (the city has 66,000) with working meters! They had all lined up for their annual fitness certificate. One driver laughed, “But both the rto officials and I know that it is a one-day drama which happens every year.”

But the ones who are being fleeced don’t think it is funny. For decades, drivers have said their meters don’t work and that the fares don’t keep pace with the fuel increases. But despite a recent campaign by a newspaper and US-returned Chennaiites starting online portals like, the meters are still just for decoration and you have to pay an arm and a leg for hiring an auto. But with the “saits” (owners) being politicos and policemen, it’s a cosy club where drivers are rude and greedy (their angle being that they have to look to their margins after paying owners) and the customer loses. A friend from Bangalore once joked, “Twice you hire an auto; the third time it’s cheaper to buy one.” Many have switched to call taxis, where you pay a bit more for an AC ride, but driver are pleasant and meters work.

I was about to

Cross the road, negotiating garbage on the pavement-less road, when I spot an auto ready to mow me down. “Idhu one-way (this is a one-way),” I shout. “Nee traffic constableaa (are you a traffic constable)?” he retorts cheekily. A concerned citizen asks, “Neenga okayaa?” I manage, “Supera irrukain (Oh, I’m just super).”

Eyewitness to the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, Pushpa Iyengar is our outgoing Chennai correspondent; E-mail your diarist: pushpa.iyengar AT

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