Saturday, January 31, 2004

Chennai, the city of achievers
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghTHE first thing anyone would like to know about any place is the origin of its name. Why was Chennai known as Madras for three centuries (and before that Fort St George)? I did not find the precise answer in the recently published The Unhurried City: Writings on Chennai, edited by C.S. Lakshmi (Penguin). I looked up my copy of Hobson-Jobson. It gives several explanations. After Fort St George, established as a British Cantonment, the town that grew up around it came to be known as Madrasapatnam, after some Muslim madrasa school. Then Patnam was dropped and it became Madras. For good measure Hobson-Jobson also mentions that the name may be a derivation of mandhra-desha (land of the stupid); no doubt coined by someone soured by his experience of the city because in fact it has produced some of the best minds of our country. In his article A Town called George, S. Muthiah says Chennai is derived from Chennapatnam (black town). While the Whites lived in Fort St George, dark natives lived in localities that grew around it. The description is inappropriate and unfair inasmuch as though Tamils are generally darker-skinned than people of North India, there are Tamils as fair, if not fairer, than any to be found in the North e.g. Hema Malini, Vyjanthimala Bali, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, Nanditha Krishna and many others.

No other city of India (not even Mumbai) is as film-struck as Chennai. They worship their screen idols as they worship their deities. They used to worship M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan; they worship Jayalalithaa and even Karunanidhi who is no beauty. Whichever way you turn in Chennai, you see huge cut-outs of their living gods doing namaskaram to you. All along Marina Beach is a row of statues of men they once worshipped. It is also a city of temples, Kanjeevaram sarees, incense and fragrant jasmine with which their women adorn their heavily oiled hair. It is the city of The Hindu, the most readable and reliable journal of the country and the only paper to have its own Indian-made crossword puzzle: other papers take them from England or America. It has produced our best Bharatnatyam dancers: Rukmini Devi, Yamini Krishnamurthy, Malavikka Sarukkai and singers like Subbalakshmi. Also some of our best tennis players, the Krishnans and the Amritraj brothers. And according to Ramchandra Guha, it has produced a few of our best cricketers as well.

The Unhurried City, though it makes light reading and has some of good sketches, does not do justice to this city of great achievers. The articles, short-stories and poems do not present the best what has come out of metropolis.

Farewell to Nissim

I first met Nissim Ezekiel in London where for a month or two he worked as a clerk in India House. I got to know him better during my nine-year stint in Bombay and had him select poems for The Illustrated Weekly of India. The last time I met him at a literary seminar in Glasgow (Scotland). He was a thin, frail man who looked every inch the professor that he was. He kept very much to himself but showed a little warmth towards me as I wrote in favour of Jews (He was a Bene-Israel Maharashtrian Jew) and admired his poetry. Almost 10 years ago, he began to lose his memory: he was stricken with Alzheimers. He died at the age of 79. I read whatever Nissim wrote. Two of his poems are my favourites. The first is Night of the Scorpion. I quote parts of it:

I remember the night my mother

was stung by a scorpion. Ten hours

of steady rain had driven him

to crawl beneath a sack of rice.

Parting with his poison ó flash

of diabolic tail in the dark room ó he risked the rain again.

The peasants came like swarms of flies and buzzed the name of God a hundred times to paralyse the Evil one.

With candles and with lanterns

Throwing giant scorpion shadows

on the sun-baked walls

they searched for him: he was not found.

The poem ends with a sensitive allusion to the differing attitudes of parents to a near tragedy:

My father, sceptic, rationalist,

trying every curse and blessing,

powder, mixture, herb and hybrid.

He even poured a little paraffin

upon the bitten toe and put a match to it.

I watched the flame feeding on my mother.

I watched the holy man perform his rites

to tame the poison with an incantation.

After twenty hours

it lost its sting.

My mother only said

Thank God the scorpion picked on me

and spared my children.

My great favourite is GoodBye Party For Miss Pushpa T.S. Though he taught English and American literature in college, Nissim could speak and read Marathi, Gujarati and Hindi. I produce his poem in full as it is the best example I know of Gujarati English:


Our dear sister

is departing for foreign

in two three days,


we are meeting today

to wish her bon voyage.

You are all knowing, friends,

what sweatness is in Miss Pushpa

I donít mean only external sweetness but internal sweetness.

Miss Pushpa is smiling and smiling

even for no reason

but simply because she is feeling.

Miss Pushpa is coming

from very high family.

Her father was renowned advocate in Bulsar or Surat,

I am not remembering now which place.

Coming back to Miss Pushpa

She is most popular lady

with men also and ladies also,

Whenever I asked her to do anything,

she was saying, "just now only

I will do it. That is showing

good spirit. I am always appreciating the good spirit.

Pushpa Miss is never saying no

Whatever I or anybody is asking

She is always saying yes,

and today she is going

to improve her prospects

and we are wishing her bon voyage.

Now I ask other speakers to speak and afterward Miss Pushpa

will do the summing up.