For, all the signs are that Chennaiites (a dubious improvement on that much-maligned term, 'Madrasis') have finally unhinged themselves from the force of ingrained conservatism. Time was when in the much-touted puritan milieu, eating non-vegetarian, even drinking and smoking (in that order), was strictly taboo. Call it the effect of movie and TV-mediated westernisation or the spell of the market, a new liberal spirit is sweeping across Chennai's social strata.
The Marina beach and Elliot's beach, once harmless weekend leisure-zones for families, have now been transformed into popular teenage "hangouts". Check out the streetside showbiz here-vibrant yuppies, zooming around on bikes or swinging to the beats of Vengaboys or Aqua in flashy Fords, Opels and Pajeros. Pot-bellied cops are the only oddities who stand out for their stiff appearance and ineffectual efforts to control an energetic crowd letting its hair down with a "who-cares" attitude. Popcorn, peanuts and cotton candy pale in contrast to "Cozee" chicken and seekh kababs, Chinese fried rice and Singapore noodles.
The hot spots are the eateries and restaurants that've spawned in every nook of the city. From Italian pasta and pizza, Japanese chicken cooked in teriyaki sauce to Goan fish curry and vindaloo, people are making a beeline for anything that promises to tickle their taste buds. Hot Breads for quick snacks and tea-time take away, Korean House and Wang's Kitchen for those who relish far-eastern cuisine, Eden, an old-time favourite of veggies who care for continental and north-Indian delicacies, Red E Food Court for multi-cuisine lovers, Chilly Club which offers spicy Thai curries, Tex Mex and Picos for Mexican enchiladas are where the epicures congregate. Besides, walk down any residential area in the city after sundown and you'll find the young and old alike chilling out at roadside joints. "The so-called traditional city houses people with a high disposable income. They're widely travelled and more aware of other cultures and lifestyles. So they're willing to try out anything new," says Manish Tandon, general manager, Pizza Hut, Chennai.
And of course, the once-soporific town has finally stirred to experience nightlife. Parents don't seem to harbour any qualms now about children keeping late hours. Though the pub culture remains the privilege of Bangaloreans, guzzling beer or hot spirit is no longer hush-hush here. Strangely, the law does not issue liquor licences, except to star-rated hotels. Discotheques, though still few in number, are a growing fad. Teenage boys and girls clad in throbbing western colours-hot, cool and everything in between-pour into After Dark at Sindoori Hotels, Sucko in Ambassador Pallava and Gatsby 2000 at Park Sheraton.
What strikes you is that people in their forties and fifties are on the go too-dancing headily to the beats of Daler Mehndi and Backstreet Boys. Of course, it's still the Saturday Night Fever syndrome! "The crowd is thin on weekdays but peaks during weekends. People here are now on par with other metros-keen on dressing and entertainment," says George Mathew, DJ and entertainment manager, Park Sheraton Hotel and Towers. Sure enough, given the changing attitudes in the city, which has seen the software industry growing, cybercafes too dot the new townscape. But catching up fast as an afternoon sport for weary executives and a getaway for effervescent college students are the video parlours, bowling alleys, karaoke, snooker and pool tables. More than a dozen have sprung up over the last year-Billiards Point, Down Under and Planet Bollywood to name a few. "These are hot spots for school kids' birthday parties-something unheard of even five years ago," says 23-year old Neetha Prabhu, a student. "People in Chennai always had the potential to spend, but didn't have many options. Give them value for money and they're willing to bite the bait," says Karti Chidambaram, director, Kiwi Sports (P) Ltd which runs Down Under. Be it indoor games or outdoor treks and nature clubs, the hidden-and hitherto unsuspected-streak of adventure is finally showing through.
Whetting the passion for variety and excitement are glitzy malls and glamorous one-stop shoppes that've edged out the traditional Nadar kadai (provision store). "It's a discerning crowd. Purchases are normally need-based and practical. A Chennai shopper is more money conscious compared to their counterparts, but he's not a skinflint. That's why we came into India with our first store in Chennai," says H.L. Ratan, president, Lifestyle International (P) Ltd. Little wonder that others like Food World, Westside and Globus are sinking in crores to encash on the changing lifestyle here.
In a city where the dress code barely went beyond pattu sarees and pavadais till a decade ago, now jeans, skirts and designer salwar-kameez are all too common. Traditional saree shops too sell ethnic tops, skirts and chic salwar-suits. Home decor is an area every woman in the upper middle-class segment is now conscious of, though only the very elite indulge in costly antiques. "There's so much variety now in all walks of life," gushes Vinithra Shekar.
Special to Chennai, though, is the peaceful blend of opposites. New-age cool comes not as a brash violence, nor as an awkward superimposition-it sits well with the old ways, filling in the blanks with colour, spicing up the dour, not erasing all that was rich and vital. The Chennaiite continues to fondly relish filter-coffee, steaming aviyal and the exotic vetha kozhambu. South-Indian fast-food chains, like Saravana Bhavan, Ramaas and Sangeethas, are mushrooming. Pongal or the Tamil new year is celebrated with as much fervour as, say, New Years or Valentine's Day. Likewise, the pattu saree, a big investment for all occasions, will never fade into oblivion. The Chennaiite is still a connoisseur of Carnatic classical, though Tamil pop-an infinitely more sophisticated cousin of what happens elsewhere in India-is an industry rippling with life.
The changes weren't rapid, though the entry of expats and mncs and the software boom hastened it. "In opinions, young Chennaiites are on par with anyone. One reason why this didn't translate into behavioural anarchy is that people in Chennai crave for societal sanctions. But the youth, like everywhere else, are questioning parents, their beliefs and attitudes," says Dr D. Narayana Reddy, consultant, sexual medicine, Apollo Hospitals. Parents too, though paranoid, are adjusting. "We cling to traditions, but we just have to accept change. After all, it's not something that's happening only here," says Vaani Anand, a mother of two children.
Are traditional moorings to blame for the late arrival of 'modernity'? Or are they actually a stabilising factor in a levelled-out, cosmopolitan culture? That's an open question but the fact is, right now, Chennai is swinging. Recalls Parul Bhatt, who lives in posh Anna Nagar, "When I came here 15 years ago from Ahmedabad, I'd to get my dresses from Bombay. Neighbours raised eyebrows when I wore trousers or skirts." Today, the stereotype has taken a U-turn. Even the Mami next door has taken to change graciously-what with her mattuponnu (daughter-in-law) wearing designer cholis and grandchildren getting gung-ho about the hangout down the street.