This one I wrote upon Karthik Ganesh's request for his Vivartha city-based tabloid that wants to "Be the Change!" You can access the original publication at www.vivartha.com
I have always maintained that the late Rajiv Gandhi was the greatest thing that happened to this country this side of the MISA-Emergency of the 70s. What was that side of MISA? Of course, our Independence. But for the late Rajiv Gandhi, India would probably have maintained the status quo in this global village of liberal economy and new consumerism. Whether it is good or bad, don’t ask me yet! And what has that got to do with this pretense of an Op-Ed in a tabloid that does not have a very wide reach as yet? Well, read on!
Somebody asked me what I was going to do for Madras Day. As a so-called responsible citizen who has been born and brought up in the city and lived virtually all my life here, and now that I am also a socially responsive theatre-activist who talks activism, I set about the deed. The first step was thinking. What was I thinking? What is it that we could give back to this city, irrespective of people who hate calling it Chennai or people who like to remember it as Madras? Therein lay my egg of Columbus.
A line from a play I once did (in 1995, I think) called Romulus the Great came to my mind hard and clear. It goes thus: “[sic] Rome has become old; it has become an old hag; it has become a den of thieves and murderers…” And Rome is not very far from Madras either. It is time we gave a face-lift and physical makeover to this 269-year-old hag. So what is the solution? First change Madras to Chennai (that happened in 1995, right?). Then… wait for the world to realize that Dilli, Mumbai and Kolkata are bursting at their seams in their own ways and let’s move South! And then? Declare Madras as legacy and heritage, clarion Chennai as IT Park, package our heritage and call it Brand Madras. And have the first settlement day at Fort St. George that day in 1637 as Madras Day!!
Rajiv Gandhi’s liberalization of the economy, Narasimha Rao’s freewheeling of commerce and Manmohan Singh’s globalization of the nation… A congressional aggression. It has led to cities going turbo on becoming metro so much so that heterosexuals have become metrosexuals, men have become unisexed and women have become psychologically androgynised. Gyms are thriving, boutiques are flourishing, coffee pubs and other sort of bars are nourishing (of course, themselves). Only the Adyar River is languishing. There’s no point even talking of River Cooum or Buckingham Canal.
A trivia: Do you know Madraspatnam of yore used to have three rivers called River Cooum, Buckingham Canal and Adyar Estuary that we also had our triveni-sangam? Alas… Pondicherry can package its water, Kovai can package its Siruvani, but we?
There is this little joke among the Brits and the Americans who lived on either side of the Atlantic. They fondly call it the Pond and themselves as people on both sides of the pond. The First world – I am reminded of Arundati Roy, who points to how ‘the rich are always called the First’ – has risen so vertically that the vast ocean that separated these land masses has started resembling a little pond from those heights.
Chennai is no stranger to this phenomenon. We are losing ground; soil and earth hook line and sinker. And the rainwater has nowhere to go because the Pride of Madras, Adyar River has been serenaded into slush… thanks to the land-lubbing greed of the Realty. And the sea has grown sick of coming back inland even on Full Moon these days, what is left of the River has gone bone-dry on days when it is not slushy. Since the birds don’t come anymore to their habitat on the estuary, buffaloes find natural haven! Do ye hear? We have shut the Cooum totally and now are slowly killing Adyar water-space as well!
Shocking but true! Adyar has become a virtual pond. I had the shock of my life the other day when I saw a herd of buffaloes wading through the Adyar slush towards the stagnant heap of plastics, bottles, covers and god knows what or who else is rotting inside for the last few months. Of course, I am used to the sight of rich people coming in their SUVs and parking it for a few seconds to quickly dump their plastic bags full of garbage into the river, but buffaloes soldiering into the slush of what used to be Adyar River!!! That is the pit of Brand Madras-isation!
I cringe at the possibility of having to cross the Adyar Bridge each day at least thrice and empathize with all those who wear duppatta-balaclava to keep their nostrils from the stench that emanates as you pass by towards the Greenways Road signal. And whose fault is it? Chennai today stands at the edge of a total implosion that we really don’t need any tsunami or earthquake on the Richter of 7 or other natural calamities. We are killing ourselves by hoarding ourselves more and more into our vertical slums. There was a time I used to travel on the ECR and be able to see the sea crystal clear, occasionally impeded by those tall conifers that peppered the sands un-humanised (pardon my painful coinage!). And today? Lines from Yeats’ poem flash across my memory: “The center cannot hold, things fall apart…”. Let’s stop this space-mania and contribute our bit towards creation of little green spaces in the city.
It is a very laudable effort that the previous state government started utilizing wasted spaces in the middle of the trafficked city to create little parks. It is very appreciable that the present government did not think otherwise and continues with those efforts. Let us create soil and earth where we can instead of concretizing and mortaring what is left of the city. Instead of squabbling over to drink Pepsi or not because of pesticides (which anyway comes from the groundwater they use to make these beverages), let us look at the cost we are paying to embrace globalization. We are not only embracing the entrepreneurship of the First World in a hurry to get short-term material benefits, but are also killing our body-clock by working to American and British and Australian time shifts. Let’s get back to our own country and city and in the process restore normalcy of life for both the flora and fauna as well as for us.
Revolutions lead to a change of life, with pain. Evolution is gentle, slow but not painful. Let us learn to take things slow. Let us live by the needs of our local than the requirements of the global. Let us do things one by one, for everything starts at 1 (for it is better to add the zero at the end than at the beginning) and 1 is an individual.