This is a book I had had my eye on because I enjoy reading about people in places. And a book about my favourite place? Couldn't ask for more.
Well, it's not purple prose but it is about some people and it is heartfelt. As happening cities go, Chennai ranks low and this is a fact most honest Chennaites, home-grown and grown-in, accept without a fuss. So, for a high-flying journalist (which the author is) to actually opt for a posting in this city is punyam points enough. Writing about how much he has loved living in Chennai will win him friends too — and that's possibly more useful in this life!
Tamarind City is a personal memoir of how Ghosh came to Chennai, how he saw it and how it conquered him. So, if you're looking for a definitive book on the city or a cultural history or even a historical record, don't look in these pages. It's not anywhere near like Suketu Mehta's Maximum City, a searing and moving experience of Mumbai based on intensive research and intense feeling. Tamarind City is more a reasonably flowing collation of writings about the city comprising a little history, many observations and personal encounters, and mostly interviews with individuals who may or may not represent something more than themselves. Read it like this, and then you will be able to enjoy the book.
On second thoughts, read it any way you like, it's an easy passage into Chennai. At the end of it you may or may not like the city more. You would have certainly learned a little more about it, such as the early history in very brief, or about the oldest railway station. Some of your preconceived notions, too, about the city and ‘Madrasis' would be reinforced, while many Chennaites themselves are likely to find some of the observations misplaced, if not out of proportion. For instance, the many and loaded references to Brahmins and Brahminism in the book seem out of sync with the times or even the context. Ghosh himself makes the point by talking about Periyar and the Self-Respect Movement, rather like the du movement in Sweden by which the authority of the parental figures was sought to be wiped out. So the description of a Brahmin swayamvaram where people gather to find brides and grooms seems completely unnecessary. In any case, mass marriages are themselves de rigueur these days for various reasons, mainly economic.
Some of the observations are well made, such as the high incidence of self-immolation in Tamil Nadu and the connections Ghosh makes with Dravidian culture, tied in with politics and the dynamics of party loyalties. Or the influence of films — which I feel has not been sufficiently examined. Getting a daughter to talk about Gemini Ganesan, even if that daughter happens to be the pioneering gynaecologist Dr Kamala Selvaraj, is simply not enough, not even a late-night audience with Saroja Devi.
But that's my opinion, and the people Ghosh uses to speak about Chennai that was Madras are his choice. Except that somewhere along, Tamarind City becomes more a series of interview monologues that sometimes leave the reader feeling dissatisfied. While diehard Chennaiites have the option to mind the gaps, for others less familiar or for whom this book is a first introduction may just fall into them. So, while there's much in the book to recommend it, it also has a fair share of stereotypes that are annoying.
Among the many voices we hear in the book are those of S. Muthiah, the best-known chronicler of Madras, cultural historian V. Sriram, dalit poet Meena Kandasamy, a Frenchwoman called Sylvie who wants to make Chennai her home, Patricia Thomas — owner of an eatery chain called Sandeepha, sexologist Dr Narayana Reddy and Chandamama's seniormost and beloved artist Sankar. Each one adds one little piece of perspective that sometimes is typically Chennai and sometimes not.
One of the moments I really enjoyed was when Ghosh sets out to find out: “So who was Murugesan of Murugesan Street?” — the street that has been the author's address from the time he arrived in the city ten or more years ago. He finds the answer on his very street. Which begs the thought that each one of us can try to document the histories of our own spaces — the people in our proximity, the places we inhabit/ inhabited, the journeys we undertake. Ghosh provides an inspiration for this.
A loyal Mumbaikar who had had to move to Chennai once said to me, “In the beginning, I thought I would hate Chennai, but now I hate the thought of having to leave.” But he couldn't say exactly why. This intangible thing that cannot be described is what Bishwanath Ghosh finally manages to convey in Tamarind City. And that's a good reason to read this book.