Book: Tamarind City
Author: Bishwanath Ghosh
Number of pages: 315
Price: Rs. 295
I was introduced to Bishwanath Ghosh’s blog with this post and I fell in love with his writing. Honest, conversational and engaging. But as it happens, I got distracted over the interwebs and soon forgot about his blog. A year or so ago, the mother mentioned his book, Chai Chai. I added it to my list and forgot soon after, again. I was ecstatic when I received an email from Blogadda for a review of Tamarind City. I signed up at once and followed up diligently until they had drawn up a shortlist. It was one of my promptest email responses. And I am so thrilled it was.
Tamarind City was an absolute delight to read. It is a detailed account of Chennai’s growth and development as a city, highlighting numerous forgotten snippets from history, replete with personal anecdotes and memories. Ghosh “wears a reporter’s cap and explores the city he has made his home…” What you and me read is a splendid tale of Chennai’s past and present. It almost serves as a guidebook of sorts for the city, what to do, what to see, et al. I’ve always seen Chennai from a distance. I’ve visited it a few times, in transit, always en route to a nearby holiday destination, and ended up spending a night or two in the city, doing the touristy things. T. Nagar, Marina Beach, Express Avenue, Eliot Beach, etc. But Tamarind City makes me want to revisit Chennai, this time armed with a copy, retracing Ghosh’s steps, to savor the city’s sights and sounds.
The book begins with highlighting the choice of its name and reconstructs the author’s journey from Delhi to Chennai, with a very vivid description of Chennai’s bustling T. Nagar. It then goes onto trace the foundations of the British colonial empire in India, beginning with Fort St. George. “There seems to be something charmed about the soil of Fort St. George. Many clerks and soldiers and administrators who came to serve in Madras as non-entities were catapulted into unbelievably high positions—high enough not only to decide the destiny of India but also of Britain.” (Page 21) Ghosh touches upon the lives of Robert Clive, Arthur Wellesley, Warren Hastings and Elihu Yale, drawing from popular historical accounts, making history come alive.
In the following chapters, Ghosh outlines the growth of a city, tracing the lineage of a few prominent families. He highlights the distinction between Iyers and Iynegars, the dichotomy of religion and tradition, and the conflict between Brahmins and non-Brahmins. He discusses the underlying presence of sex in Chennai and provides an in-depth account of the hold of cinema in the city, tracing the life of Gemini Ganesan and his family. He relates fondly his meeting with the editor of Chandamama and touches upon Chennai’s link with Carnatic music and the concerts in December.
Ghosh traces the growth of Sriperumbudur, calling it the new Chennai. And he ends the book with a dash of modernity, highlighting the new taking over the old. The last chapter is a beautiful summary of the street he’s lived on, since his arrival in the city. He outlines his own life in Chennai, with prominent reference to popular landmarks and names.
Tamarind City is a rich read. It is well-researched, enlightening and very informative. I now look upon Chennai with renewed respect. And my world has grown beyond Bombay. The language is superb. Refined, eloquent and elegant. At some point, I want reread the book just for its prose. And maybe another reading just to collate all the facts I’ve learnt and revisited. It is a sort of ode I’d like to write for Bombay someday.
Tamarind City is a delicious read. Savor it chapter by chapter rather than reading it at one go. Revisit Chennai.
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