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A tale of two cities

In her second book, Degree Coffee By The Yard, Nirmala Lakshman, journalist and director of The Hindu group of publications, weaves nostalgia while simultaneously turning biographer of Chennai. And Madras.

It is made clear at the outset that Degree Coffee By The Yard is the story of the Madras that was — the city where the author’s childhood was spent well — and the Chennai she lives in today. Madras, the author writes, means a Munro statue, long drives in her father’s Plymouthdown Marina and the man selling thenga-manga-pattani sundal, which were not considered edible by the elders. As they never are. Chennai, on the other hand, is the global face of the city dotted with malls, international food chains and other changes bestowed by liberalisation.


Degree Coffee By The Yard is about the Chennai of today and the Madras of yesterday which refuses to lie low. Pic/AFP

In the first few chapters, Lakshman invokes the sights and smells of the city through the life she lived there in the ’60s and ’70s. Iconic streets, such as the Armenian Street, Mint Street and Coral Merchant Street, she writes, still carry stories of merchants who once visited the city’s shores. Lest one begins to subscribe to the idea that the Madras she inhabited was all about tradition, Lakshman speaks about how the modern has blended into the city, too.

Chennai has some fascinating, eclectic characters; through conversations with these people, who happen to be those who have seen Madras’s transition to Chennai, Lakshman traces the city’s colonial and postcolonial history. S Muthiah, one of the most respected chroniclers of the city, points out the quirks of its people and those in the city’s heritage structures, too.

The section, ‘Story of Madras’ is one long history lesson, but racily, poignantly told. Hereon, Lakshman goes to the achingly familiar areas of the city, such as the Fort Complex and George Town with an engineer who speaks of the people who built them and those who inhabited them later. From the Mughals who built the city’s iconic Big Mosque, to the British who oversaw the city grow exopnentially, Lakshman shows how the city is many worlds in one. One cannot help but notice how Madras was not very different from Bombay, which was certainly more secular than Mumbai is today. Lakshman illustrates this by pointing out how religion never came before art and expression. Many Carnatic musicians, including MS Subbulakshmi, sang praises of Lord Muruga at St Anthony’s Church.¬†

Apart from relooking at Chennai and finding traces of Madras through keen eyes of the city’s storytellers, Lakshman also speaks to the people who know the city for its commerce and pace of social life.

Degree Coffee By The Card is a warm account of a city the author so loves, and has seen change over time. She welcomes the reader to experience Chennai, but also shows them Madras’s heart when it peeks from the bylanes.

Degree Coffee By The Yard
Nirmala Lakshman
Rs 295
Published by Aleph Book Company 

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