The minute I read about the book “Tamarind City” by Bishwanath Ghosh I knew I must get it. As a regular reader of “The Hindu”, Ghosh was familiar to me through his Sunday Diary and articles on Chennai.
As his last name indicates, Ghosh is a Bengali and new to South India & Chennai when he came to settle down here in 2000. He boarded the train from New Delhi after seeing Rajeev Menon‘s Kandukondain Kandukondain movie starring Mammooty & Aishwarya Rai. As a Chennai’ite by birth calling it “Tamarind” City is not the name, I will first associate with my city. But Ghosh chooses to do so because of his childhood memory capturing of Tamarind Trees.
The book begins with the history of Madras, and how East India Company got the lease to it, making it the first colonial township in India much before Calcutta or Delhi. Then Ghosh talks about the officers of East India Company who served early in their career in Chennai and then went on to become “men” who changed the face of this world. The book continues to reveal the creation of George Town, Black Town and how the place where Madras High Court stands today happened to be a small hillock. The Hillock was levelled by a successful Advocate (irony?) to make St.George Fort safe from attacks from the French and then Hyder Ali. The rocks from the hillock were used to create present-day Broadway which was created as a buffer zone to the back walls of St.George fort. It talks about the very first local citizen of Chennai and their family.
It then talks of North Madras & Royapuram Railway station (the first in India) which I have myself visited only a few times, those too to visit my good friends in Thiruvattiyor & Minjur or attending some marriage in that Area. One of my earliest memory of this part of Madras was when I went there for an NCC Annual Camp during my 8th Standard school at Thiruvattiyor High school, some 25 years back. As a South Madras boy, I remember it was a bigger shock for me to sleep a few days in the camp at that part of Madras than the 15 days trip I did a few months later at the outskirts of Pune in an NCC trek of Chatrapathi Shivaji trail. Ghosh writes of his shocking experience of riding in a motorbike as a pillion with a friend driving it at full speed on a circular-shaped promenade in Kasi Puram and suddenly seeing the road diving deep into the Bay of Bengal sea. I didn’t know about its existence, a Google search revealed it to be the Fishing Harbour – I need to visit this place someday.
In the next chapters, Ghosh visits Mylapore, Triplicane, Parthasarathy Perumal temple and Kapalesswara temple in Chennai. He writes about the Bharathiyar House there is preserved as a museum and a house where Mathematic genius Mr Ramanujam lived. He talks about Tamil Brahmins who live in this area, the sects within them (Iyer and Iyengar) and the sub-sects within Iyengars; I wish he could have covered a few other communities in the city to make the coverage holistic and true representation of the city.
The book then changes gears and talks about famous living and past personalities including Sexologist Dr Narayana Reddy, a trans-sexual, rags to riches woman who is heading one of Chennai’s successful food chains, Yesteryear film stars Sarojini Devi, Gemini Ganesan and then finally makes passing references to Past Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Dr Karunanidhi and the present CM Dr Jayalalitha.
There were things I learnt about my city that I didn’t know before. I have made a list of those items that I need to research/visit/learn about after reading this book. Ghosh has convinced me (not that I needed to) to next read the Chronicler of Chennai (as he likes to be called, but he is Chennai’s most beloved historian) S.Muthiah’s book titled “Madras Rediscovered”, which is considered the Bible on Chennai.
Lastly, Ghosh lives in Murugesan street which is four streets away from my office at Habibullah Road.