A Valentine To The City


When Blogbharti approached me sometime back to commission a piece for their Spotlight Series, I really wasn’t sure what to write about. Then Kuffir, the website’s editor, mentioned that he missed “the fiery poet” who seemed absent from this new blog. For reasons that will be obvious to those who followed me here from the old blog, I’ve certainly tempered things down. So I got to thinking, what provokes me these days, to the point of writing? I wrote this on Valentine’s Day. It was published this morning here. The photos above were taken by me on the fourth Chennai Photowalk.


Sometimes, I hate this city. I don’t deny that. There is so much to hate here. It is merciless. A crude, cruel, unforgiving bitch of a city. The meanness of its people. Sycophancy, moral (dis)order, parochialism pimped out to the tune of “heritage”. Sanctimony. There is the deliberate Anglophilia and its darker – in colour, too – twin, self-loathing. I abhor its hypocrisy, its incestuous orbits, the claustrophobia it induces. How it is its women who are the torchbearers of its patriarchies. The oddness of an illogical concept like caste running this whole machine. I cannot stand its Edenizing of the tremendously racist nation of Malaysia, its unexceptional immigrant dreams; nor can I stand the chest-thumping that trivializes the very real defects of our own. The weather. Hell on earth is Madras in May. Even the rains cannot soften this city.

Sometimes, I hate this city. I do.

And sometimes I take an auto through a road strewn with rose petals, a funeral wake having passed through minutes before. I breathe in that macabre glory. Sometimes I carry my little camera along with a group of mostly large men with large cameras, men who know this city, who can speak of its architecture and its history, who can point to a place one might have seen a thousand times and illuminate it, suddenly. I fall in love this way. Like Rushdie’s man who viewed his bride in pieces, through a perforated sheet, so too I fall for my city, mutilate it, make it mine.

“Istanbul’s fate is my fate,” wrote Orhan Pamuk in his definitive book on the city of his soul. “I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.”

And in its distance, the irrevocability of never having grown up here, and then the inevitability of having had to return nonetheless, it wields the same influence over me.

And so this is my secret. I have been speaking to this city, in my head. I call it, typically perhaps, her. I make this city mine just as she unmakes and reassembles me. The dialogue between us is one of cause and consequence. Will you hurt me this time? I ask. What if I never told anyone when I hate you? What if I never let myself speak about leaving? What if I act like I never will, I say sometimes, and that is the most poignant of questions – because sometimes, I think I never will.

So here I am. And here I am. And here I may always be. And even if I leave, to here I will return and return and return, each time in a different sentiment. I will return with rancour. I will return with regret. I will return without routes in mind. Uprooted. Belligerently. In cavalier attitudes, have holidays I will barely remember later. Bouyant and broken and beyond description. I will return, and return, and return.

She has never known the smell of jasmines, doesn’t give a damn about henna on the hands or the hair. She is nothing like who she thinks she is. She stands at the bottoms of hoardings and stares up at misrepresentations of her face, her cleavage, the look in her eyes. And not one passerby recognizes her. She’s slutty: she belongs to millions, and like all of them, I like to think she comes home to me. Still, nothing makes her melt more than S.P. Balasubramaniam’s voice in a flick from the ’80s, nothing breaks her heart quite so sweetly like being called Kannamma. In arguments, and only then, she mixes her V’s and her W’s. She may suggest otherwise in certain company, but cannot speak a word of Hindi. Not a word.

Petulant as a child on a summer holiday trying to sleep in the backseat of a 1994 Maruti 800, neither her hands nor her eyelids able to shield her from the sunlight. Powerful as an MGR speech – Thaimakale! En rathathin rathame! Kitschy and tasteless as a political poster, and just as tactful as a man pissing against it. Coy. Cunning. Deceptively simple.

Living here has turned me from being spiritual to a blasé agnostic. Trees that inspire awe and humility are rare – but one of the better things I did the week before last was to walk the entire stretch of the rather long road on which I live and found, to my surprise, some decent ones. The Marina looms fifteen minutes from home, but too many paces from the call of the soul; even disappearing into the coast in this city by the sea is perhaps too obvious an escape to be worth it. I could stand on the terrace of my family’s apartment, toss pieces of coloured paper into the air, and have each one land on a church, a mosque, but mostly some small roadside shrine. It doesn’t matter. I find myself worshipping nothing but the City. My awful and wonderful god. Dictator of my future, arbitrator of my past.

You don’t inspire me anymore, I tell her. You’re just another city, like the hundreds out there. You’re just another place on the map. You don’t even smell like you used to.

Silence. The persistence of horns. The particular sound of the engines of autorickshaws. Someone whispering nasties to a girl who pretends not to hear as she walks by, someone else uncurdling phlegm from her throat and spitting.

So – what then? I demand. You think you own me?

And that’s when she gathers her skirts – yes, in the plural, she is mad and dramatic and imperious that way – and flees to a more considerate lover. Cruel mistress of mine.

And I am left still sitting here, penning paeans, shooting pictures. Smitten. Sodden. Gone.

28 responses »

  1. You make your city sound most fearsome, yet at the same time, irresistible… Not unlike a certain poetess I know… ;)

  2. Yes, very powerful — this and your flash fiction piece on Facebook about the woman who feared the sea. Possibly my two favourite pieces of yours that I’ve read, but then I haven’t read/heard much.

  3. Meena — Thanks! Good to know another Chennaiite likes it!

    Kenny — Thanks :)

    Preeta — Thank you. Your comment has also reminded me that I could post up the flash fiction here. Serendipitously, I discovered that tomorrow is an occasion for which it would be appropriate.

  4. But isn’t that the heart of a city? Not what’s on the surface that tourists see and enjoy and eventually move away from?

  5. Sharanya, that was a really powerful piece I could so identify with. For years I have both loved and hated this city, but have never expressed it. or really dug into that angst to understand it. You have shone some light on it. Thanks!
    PS. I am inspired to start writing my blog again, though it isn’t such poaerful stuff!

  6. Awesome,elegant, even though way above a common chennite english standard. I read many times to completely understand its beauty.

    It reminds me the arrongant youth who travels the MTC between 9-10 am between guindy and nandhanam. The same person becoming so kind after 5 years of reality.

    It reminds me the highly vocal arguments without facts and ‘hindu editorial’ of wordly affairs.

  7. Govar — Thanks.

    David — Thank you… Most people seem to have a love-hate relationship with Madras, don’t they? That adds to her power, I think. The most important and blisteringly memorable things, places, even people, tend to be provocative that way.

    Chennai-youth — I didn’t get the last two parts of your comment, but thanks for the first!

  8. Way above my English standard to interpret this….

    This makes me to think ‘Am I too bad to understand this?’ or ‘You are too good in English?’… I am really interested to read this and understand like everyone else.

    I will have to read this few more times….

  9. Awesome!!! Something fresh abt the city, and now I love it like never before. I got hooked to ur blog after this. Keep it up.

  10. I bow to thee. Lovely piece. Having lived in this city for 17 odd years, I can relate to what you say. Nice piece.

  11. I’m surprised no one else has commented on this… The photographs are so beautiful… You should have made two posts, so people would see both your prose and your pictures…

  12. Brillaint!
    I could totally connect with it.The part that you call the city a ‘her’ is the best. You give it a life, an identity, thats what in the end makes you fell home. I havent been there for 2 years now… and trust me i still get the home feeling only when i land on ‘Chennai central’ on an early morning and hassling with auto guys.
    ‘I will return, and return, and return.’ – Very Nice!! :)

  13. Absolutely Brilliant! I like the way you refer the city as ‘her’ it gives an individualism and an identity to the city, something that i could totally connect to. I have been out of the city for 2 years now and i the fact simply remains that i get the ‘home’ feeling only when i land on the ‘Chennai central’ on an early morning, hassling with auto drivers. Whatever people say, the love and connection that you aquire at some point just remains!
    ‘I will return, and return, and return.’ – Very Nice! :)

  14. Sharanya, You nearly made me tear up.

    5000 miles away from the home that I will stubbornly continue to refer to as Madras, in a country that bears not a single thread of similarity to it, you have no idea how precious these occasional opportunities are – to reminisce and, however transiently, flounce about in waves of nostalgia.

    You took the words right out of my head and my evidently sentimental little soul. I felt 18 again and the urge to call my best-friend and just gush and gush about how I absolutely related to pretty much every one of those things you described was overwhelming.

    For that half an hour of wistfulness and smiles and thoughts lost to faraway places, in the middle of a hectic, tiresome day … Thank You.

    Among other things, it was intricately layered and beautifully expressed.

    P.s : Sorry if it’s a tad long.. I actually had a lot more to say, just realised it’s the comment section, So, I think I’ll refrain :)

  15. My wife grew up in Bombay and often hums “hai dil hai mushkil jeena yahan, zara hatke zara bachke yeh hai mumbai meri jaan” and I have always felt that these lines fit Madras as well. Loosely translated as only a Madrasi can – it is difficult to live here, be safe from all the hustle and bustle, this is Bombay/Madras – and ends with an endearing ‘meri jaan’. You’ve brought these sentiments out beautifully. Thank you for that.

  16. Thank you for making Chennai mean that much more for me by being a part of what it is.

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