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Right at the outset, I must admit that I was totally hooked by the word Madrasi in the title. Being a Madrasi myself (person of Chennai, erstwhile Madras origin), I have only heard it used in a pejorative sense; south of the Vindhyas, rice eating, brown-skinned. Was Narayanan making a point using it in the name of her book?
I am afraid I don’t know the answer to that. Apart from her Tambram (a word Narayanan uses frequently through the book) origins, there is not much Madrasi-ness about the content, unless the author was using the word in the sense it has come to convey.
This book is the story of a community—the more progressive individuals among a still conservative community—told through the story of her own family. The way her parents and their own parents dealt with the thorny issues of caste, class, religion, education and widowhood find a place in the narrative.
As someone from that very socio-cultural background that Narayanan describes in the book, the story touches an occasional chord. The most interesting parts of the book are where the struggles of balancing a Western/modern/rational mind with one’s Indian/traditional/ritualistic heart are addressed. The whiskey-sambhar amalgam, in her own words.
And there are little moments of delight—like finding out finally that peengan, the Tamil word for porcelain is derived from Pyongyang, which Narayanan describes as an ancient centre of fine ceramics in Southeast Asia.
However, I could not personally move beyond the question of whom this book was written for. I mean, what is it with the short, squat format? And the language used through the narrative—a deconstructing Indianness for Westerners approach—that compels Narayanan to explain payasam as a rice pudding and call appalam “poppadum” (a spelling I have only seen in the UK). This book works, at best, as a slice of community history. As a memoir, or the personal story of a family, it fails to grip.
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