The Cosmopolitisation of Chennai

Mint, 2 September 2014

Of all the Indian metros, Chennai is the one I am least familiar with. I’ve visited it perhaps only four or five times in my life, and the last time was—if I remember correctly—a decade ago. So when I had to spend three days in the city last week, I went with the usual prejudices that many Indians who come from the north of the Vindhyas have about Chennai.

On my earlier visits, I had found it difficult to communicate with the average citizen—for instance auto rickshaw drivers and shopkeepers—because they insisted on speaking to me in Tamil, and I knew not a word of it. After a dispute over the fare with an auto driver—all I could understand was that he wanted to charge me more than what showed on the meter—I simply gave up and started to walk away. He came running after me, and explained in perfect Hindi exactly how much more he wanted. We then haggled and settled on a sum, and we parted on what I can’t honestly describe as friendly terms.

This may have been entirely my deluded suspicion, but I kept getting the feeling on every visit that I was being overcharged for everything all the time, because I was seen as a North Indian non-Tamil speaker.

During one visit, a Tamilian colleague of mine took me out for dinner to a posh restaurant, then threw a fit when he noticed that Urdu ghazals were being played to entertain the diners, had a long argument with the manager, and dragged me out in a huff, muttering about “cultural invasion” and “federalism”. We went back to my hotel and ordered room service.

In the mid-1990s, a Hyderabadi friend of mine, who had been posted in Chennai by a multinational and spent four years there, suddenly upped and went off to the US for higher studies. He seemed the most unlikely candidate to be interested in a PhD, so I called him and asked why he was moving. “If I have to live in a foreign land, I may as well live in a real foreign land,” was his reply.

So, yes, with apologies to all my Tamilian friends and readers, I carried a lot of baggage—whether justified or unjustified—when I made my way through the Kamaraj Terminal of Chennai Airport.

The first change I noticed was that I could ask questions in Hindi and get replies in the same language. The second—when I reached my hotel—was that most of the staff were non-Tamil; in fact, many of them could hardly speak Tamil.

When I found the room service phone number engaged for a long time, I walked up to the reception and placed my dinner order. The Tamilian gentleman at the desk picked up the phone, called up the kitchen and relayed the order in Hindi. When the food arrived, it was brought by a young man from Bolangir in Odisha.

In fact, over the three days, nearly every hotel staff member I interacted with was from either Odisha or Bihar or the Northeast.

For lunch, I was taken to a popular restaurant. The walls were covered with large framed black and white photos of Hindi film stars of days gone by: Raj Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar, Madhubala, Sadhana, Rajesh Khanna. The large plasma TV was tuned to a Hindi music channel. Salman Khan cavorted with his heroine on the streets of some picturesque European town. None of the customers seemed to mind. In fact, they took no notice.

I had gone to Chennai for a business meeting—and the four men I was meeting were all Tamilians, though one had spent much of his life in the North, and the other was settled in Bangalore. So I couldn’t help but ask. I had always assumed that Chennai was the least cosmopolitan of our metros. But clearly, the city I was encountering on this trip was not so at all. What had happened?

Various answers emerged. The software industry that had grown very fast in the city over the last decade had brought in thousands of people from other states. There had also been massive migration from the North and Northeast of blue-collar workers. This was not surprising. It had been predicted by a two-decade-old Planning Commission study. With the northern states, especially Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, having much higher population growth rates and much lower employment opportunities than the southern states, a shift in population was bound to happen.

But the Planning Commission member who had spoken to me about the study had not been too sure what the ultimate impact of this migration would be. How would the sons of the soil in the southern states react to this influx? The study could not help but mention the possibility that if this migration continued unabated, India could be headed towards dangerous and widespread social disruption and violence. The only way this conflagration could be avoided would be if population growth rates went down in the poorer northern states and employment opportunities rose dramatically.

However, from what I was seeing around me, that feared crisis appeared very remote indeed.

“All the menial jobs in Chennai are now done by the migrants,” said one of my friends. “So what are the Tamilians doing?” I asked. “Have they moved up in life and graduated to higher-level work?”

The replies I got were surprisingly cynical. “They are happily living off Amma’s welfare state,” was one view. “They eat at the Amma Canteens where meals are provided at extremely subsidised rates. They collect all their food rations from the public distribution system (PDS) shops and sell them in the market to the migrants. They make enough money. They are not interested in working any more. Life is easy.”

“When my family used to make its annual trip home to Chennai every year when I was a child,” said the friend who had been brought up in the North, “in the morning, when I woke up in the train and looked out, I knew instantly that I was in Tamil Nadu. There were rows of children in neat school uniforms carrying their bags walking to school. There were hundreds of women walking purposefully to their workplaces. I still remember the look on their faces—they were looking forward to doing their day’s work sincerely and well; for them work was truly worship. I don’t see that so much any more.”

So what happened? But here the conversation meandered. Both the major political parties in the state have focused only on welfare schemes to win votes. This has resulted in a big attitudinal change: from a strong work ethic to extreme consumerism. The only culture that Tamil Nadu has now is the mainstream Tamil film. Could I think of a single national-level cultural figure who has emerged from Tamil Nadu in the last two decades?

At some point in the conversation, the word Punjabification made its appearance. Everything is getting Punjabified, all my four friends lamented. Even our weddings now feature that Punjabi staple, Ladies Sangeet, a tradition that the Barjatyas, Chopras and Johars have spent lavishly on in their blockbuster films.

As a Bengali, I could empathise with that. Bengali popular culture, even clothes and ceremonies are more Punjabified than ever before, and there’s no end to the trend in sight.

But, I said, playing the Devil’s Advocate, hasn’t all this also made Chennai much less insular, much more cosmopolitan? Yes, a more cosmopolitan, inclusive Chennai is certainly a good thing and should be welcomed, my friends agreed. But not at the cost of Tamil culture and traditions. Even our cuisine is getting Punjabified, complained a friend. That certainly is intolerable.

I left Chennai with mixed emotions. I knew that I would now feel much more comfortable in Chennai than I had before. But I suspected that the middle-class Tamilian is beginning to feel less at home.

Richard Attenborough, friend of India

Mint, 26 August 2014

It was one of those coincidences. On Sunday night, with nothing much to watch on television, we decided to dust out an old CD of Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari. It was my wife’s idea: she had never seen Ray’s only feature-length Hindi film.

I had watched the film several times over the decades. But it is quite possible that the CD, bought some years ago, had never been played. Some minutes into the film, just as the audience is being introduced to General Outram, sent by Company Bahadur to annex Awadh, our disc gave up its ghost. We were left staring at the back of Sir Richard Attenborough’s head (the audience had not yet been shown his face), frozen on the TV screen.

We tried the usual tactics—fast forward, rewind, pop the CD out of the player and re-insert it and play it again—nothing worked. We accepted defeat and put on Amadeus.

Less than 12 hours later, I learnt on the Net that Attenborough had passed away during the night.

Most Indians—certainly I or anyone I knew—had never heard of Attenborough till Ray selected him for Shatranj…, but since the beginning of the 1980s, he has been a household name in India. His labour of love, Gandhi—a film he had spent over 20 years trying to make—brought to life the Father of the Nation for millions of Indians, and for a billion people across the world.

Of course, it won many awards, including eight Oscars, but the real impact of the film far transcended those ephemeral laurels and baubles. It inspired freedom fighters and human rights activists across the planet. In India, it became a sort of national cultural monument, with Doordarshan—and later private TV channels—religiously airing it on 2 October and Independence Day. As a result, many of its scenes are carved permanently into the minds of countless numbers of Gandhi’s countrymen.

The film had definitely served its purpose, though right from my first viewing of it, I found it unsatisfactory. Salman Rushdie tore it apart in a long essay which is available in his collection Imaginary Homelands. Rushdie’s point, if I remember correctly, was that it was finally an Oppressor’s view, a subtly self-serving recounting of history that pretended to be an apology.

I agreed to some extent, but certainly didn’t feel the outrage that Rushdie vented. If one watches Gandhi carefully, one would feel that the British did not commit much wrong in India except for that gruesome aberration of Jallianwala Bagh, and even in that case, we are immediately shown General Dyer being hauled over the coals by a government panel, which even includes an Indian! It is not mentioned that the Viceroy’s Council ultimately decided to avoid prosecution of Dyer due to political reasons. He was found guilty of a mistaken notion of duty and sacked.

Every incident that Attenborough’s researchers could find in which the British showed Gandhi courtesy and respect is included in the film, like a judge standing up in the courtroom when Gandhi is brought in for trial. Every British man and woman who worked with Gandhi—notably Charles Andrews and Madeleine Slade (Mirabehn)—is given more time on screen than they deserve in the historical context.

There is no Bengal famine—a man-made Holocaust that rivals the worst deeds of humankind in its pure careless evil. Surprisingly, the Quit India movement is over in a minute or two, and of course the brutal British reaction is never shown. (The British crackdown was so ferocious that Gandhi, for the only time in his life, justified the use of violence against the forces of the Raj, but we can’t have that here, can we?)

In fact, the impression a non-Indian would carry away from the film is that it was Gandhi’s Dandi march in 1930 that led directly to independence. (Martin Sheen as an American reporter covering the March, shouts to his editor in New York over the phone: “India is free! India is free!”)

The Mahatma is portrayed exactly as that in every frame—as an out-and-out saint, with everyone around him—other than Muhammad Ali Jinnah, an arrogant malevolent figure—in 24/7 awestruck and reverential mode.

Ironically, Attenborough himself wrote that in his last meeting with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the only piece of advice she had (she graciously refused to read the film’s script, saying that she had full faith in Attenborough) was that the director should keep in mind that Gandhi was not a god, he was a human being.

These are some of the complaints I have about the film. Yet, few can come away from a viewing without being touched at some level. And without sensing Attenborough’s deep unqualified admiration for his subject matter.

In Attenborough’s other films too, you see a liberal and progressive mind working, imbued with an empathy for the human condition that is straight from the heart. You see that in Cry Freedom on South African revolutionary Steve Biko. You see it in his biggest-budget film A Bridge Too Far, about the Battle of Arnhem in World War II, an ill-planned, pointless and failed Allied operation that achieved nothing except a massive loss of lives.

You see that even in Chaplin, perhaps his worst film (it is astonishing to believe that anyone could manage to make a grindingly boring film on Charlie Chaplin, whose life was filled with more drama than the average Hollywood movie, but Attenborough achieved it).

When he passed away, he was planning a biopic on Thomas Paine, the British author of a slim volume called Common Sense, that galvanized the American people and provided the ideological basis for their War of Independence.

The years had not dimmed Attenborough’s admiration for men who fought for great and right causes. And whatever one’s reservations about his most famous film, one has to accept that the director’s heart was always in the right place, and his Gandhi did invaluable service to India in spreading the word across the planet about a vast nation and one of its greatest sons.

RIP, Sir Richard, friend of India.
Read more at: