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Chennai, October 17, 2018:

There’s an anecdote by the late Khushwant Singh wherein he talks about having a South Indian friend during his school days. Once, during a visit to his friend’s place, the friend’s mother served him something which looked like ‘Karah Prashad’, a sanctified offering made of wheat flour, ghee and sugar served at Gurudwaras. He took a spoonful into his mouth, and spat it out immediately…it tasted horrible and was salty. That was his first encounter with Upma. After this incident, he gradually started developing a taste for Upma, and it went on to become one of his favourite dishes.

This is exactly how my relationship with Chennai began. I hated it in the beginning. The hatred was more because of the language problem. I had good speaking command over three languages…Hindi, our national language, by virtue of being born and brought up in Jamshedpur (then in Bihar, now in Jharkhand); Malayalam, my mother tongue; and English, which is our lingua franca. I could also manage with Marathi and Bengali, because I had studied in Pune and worked in Bombay and Calcutta. But Tamil was completely new.

From the moment I landed in Chennai in the evening on October 17, 2007, I was subjected to only Tamil…or so I felt. A cab was arranged to pick me up from the airport. After picking up my baggage from the belt, I called the driver. His mobile greeted me with the ‘Unnal Mudiyum Thambi…’ song…the music was delightful, but the song being in Tamil put me off. I would have been a little more comfortable had it been in Hindi. The driver took my call…and it was a fight for both of us to understand each other. I even tried Malayalam…and it was then that I realised that contrary to popular ‘North Indian’ belief, Tamil and Malayalam are two poles apart languages, with very few commonalities. It took me and the driver close to half an hour to locate each other. And my hatred for the city started.

Office in Chennai was a little more cosmopolitan, and I felt a little better. It was a mix of Tamilians, Marwaris, Telegites, Gujaratis, Biharis, UPites, Malayalees…and yes, a distinct (at least from a Chennai perspective) turbaned Sardarji too. Outside was hellish…I couldn’t communicate to a grocer, to the incorrigible auto rickshaw drivers or to anyone to even ask for directions. I got fleeced on many occasions on account of being an ‘outsider’…and this fear of getting fleeced dissuaded me from communicating with people, unless it was very urgent. And for the first one year or so, I had this yearning to go back…to Calcutta, to Bombay, to Pune, to Jamshedpur…anywhere, but out of this ‘hell’. Today I’m happy I stayed back.

Food in Chennai was never a problem. Being a Keralite, South Indian food was not new to me. And I had a taste for it. Chennai didn’t let me down. The food here is just fabulous. I guess Chennai made its way to my heart through my stomach.

Films became my other resort for happiness in Chennai. I always knew and believed that Tamil films are rich in terms of content and ideas…and however much I did not understand the language, I never needed subtitles to understand Tamil films. Here I have a very interesting anecdote to share. During my growing up years in Jamshedpur, it was only Hindi and some good English movies that I had seen. The first time I saw a Tamil film was when I was in the 8th or 9th Standard…those were the DD days, when they used to show one regional film at 1:30 P.M. on Sundays, just after the ‘News Bulletin for the Hearing Impaired’ at 1:15 P.M. One of these movies was Mouna Ragam. That was the time when I had started understanding ‘adult stuff & psyche’. And I was very impressed with the ‘good husband’ in the film, who maturely puts up and deals with every negative action, attitude and approach hurled towards him by his wife.

But the name of the film, its actors or the Director never got registered in my mind. So for a long time, Mouna Ragam remained the 'good husband' film for me. Later when I started watching movies more seriously and developed a better and matured taste for good films, I badly wanted to see this ‘good husband’ film again. I googled a lot with ‘Tamil film + good husband’, ‘Tamil film + wife ex-lover shot by police + good husband’, ‘Tamil film + good husband + Sardarji + Delhi’…whatever I could remember of the film. But these never yielded the desired result. Then one day around 7 - 8 years back, during a casual conversation in office about Mani Ratnam, a colleague asked me if I had watched Mouna Ragam, which according to him was the Director’s best film till date. I said I hadn’t, and asked what it was about. The broad storyline given by him ended my search for the ‘good husband’ movie, and within the next 2-3 days, the film was part of my DVD collection. I would have watched it at least 20 - 25 times since then. Today, Mouna Ragam is part of my personal Top 10 list. In my opinion, it’s sheer poetry on screen. This is one film that brought me a little more closer to Tamil…and Chennai.

Another aspect that I like and find praiseworthy about Chennai is the fact that it has no pretence. Here one doesn't need to 'put on' a particular attire or attitude to suit an occasion or place...this is one city where one can be one's own self.

I have seen good, bad and ugly times in Chennai…and the city played the perfect backdrop. Many complain about the hot weather in Chennai. Yes it’s hot and humid out here, but at the same time I find the climate here to be healthier when compared to other cities. Many a time, while returning to Chennai from a comparatively cooler place, as soon as I alight from an AC bus, train or flight, I can actually feel Chennai welcoming me with a lot of warmth.

Today I have come to believe that behind all the brashness and greed the city portrays, Chennai has a heart. My belief got strengthened during the 2015 floods. Never before had any flooded zone seen more volunteers than assigned rescue personnel. One of the forwards that came to me around those times aptly read, “Chennai is not what has gone under…Chennai is what has risen above.”

And yes, ‘Unnal Mudiyum Thambi…’ translates to ‘You Can Brother…’. I guess the tune on the driver’s mobile on my first day set the tone for my survival in Chennai…and survive I did.

Today as I complete 10 years in the city, all I want to humbly say is…THANK YOU CHENNAI!!!

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