My Madras Day has nothing to do with Francis Day when he set foot on Madras soil three and odd centuries ago but it commenced three and odd decades ago when I joined my husband in Madras.
Fresh from college, (having passed out from Jamshedpur), I was new to the language and people of Madras and felt like a fish out of water until I picked up Tamil. In fact, it was an incident that took place a few days after my arrival in Madras that motivated me not only to learn spoken Tamil but conduct classes in spoken English for the benefit of those who were not fluent in the tongue.
Having been newly married, we were invited to a dinner by my husband’s close friend. He welcomed us with great warmth, then introduced his wife to me and turning to my husband said, “Let mami and my wife be to themselves, I am sure the two of them will have a lot to talk.” I had to silently follow the lady into the dining room and sit on the mat she had spread out for us to sit on.
To my consternation she started the conversation in Tamil and noticing my blank look asked, “No Tamil?” I nodded my head in embarrassment. “I understand English, but no speak, no practice,” she said apologetically. She was certainly better off than me in that she could at least follow what I said, I thought.
Life in Madras in those days was simple, uncomplicated and going out either by public transport or by one’s own was a pleasure, as there was less vehicular traffic and commuters paid heed to traffic rules. Although there were quite a number of cinema halls in the city, very few of them screened latest Hindi movies.
When it came to food, people here generally preferred a three-course south Indian meal, where sambhar and rasam were a must. Chapattis and pooris were popular with the south Indians but they constituted “tiffin” and not a meal. I found it amusing to find chapattis were invariably accompanied by sagu (mixed vegetable) or “Bombay chutney” and pooris with “masala”, i.e. potato and onion curry. Other side dishes were unheard-of.
Hotels/restaurants mostly offered south Indian fare. Connoisseurs of north Indian vegetarian food were delighted when a new air-conditioned vegetarian restaurant, ‘Swapna’, which included a number of north Indian dishes on its menu, opened on Mount Road somewhere in the early seventies. ‘Swapna’ was indeed a dream come true for people like me who craved for genuine north Indian food in this south Indian city.
Today, after three-and-odd decades later, ‘Swapna’ might have disappeared but Chennaivasis who are increasingly wanting to experiment with multi-cuisines have several restaurants to choose from and if their purse strings can stretch, they can opt for better ambience provided by any of the popular five star hotels that have come up in these past decades in Chennai.
Come the marriage season and we got to see women attired in their best kanjeevaram silks with shimmering diamond studs and nose screws lending to their traditional look. Men were dressed in their silk /cotton veshtis with broad zari borders in red, green and gold, costing quite a fortune. Well to do women flaunted their wealth by adorning heavy jewellery, their diamond studded studs competing with diamond adiges and diamond bangles which went well with their rich silks. Among the younger lot, the girls wore half saris with silk lehengas and tucked in long sleeved blouses.
But today’s Madras is different in many respects – tradition is giving place to modernity in dress and lifestyles apart from the menacing cell phone and movie culture invading the city folks. However, Madras has not changed in one respect – men continue to socialise with men and women continue to socialise with women and they rarely do so as a couple. The only occasion one gets invited to a dinner or lunch is during the time of a wedding performed in a hotel or a marriage mantap . What continues even today is that the guest list for a traditional wedding ceremony , which is the muhurtam, rarely comprises people outside the community for whatever reason!