What is Chennai? Precisely 381 years ago, the English founded a city on these shores. That was Madras. There was a ‘White town’ and a ‘Black town’. The colonial masters built forts and bridges and railway lines to ply their trade. They built buildings by the beach that could be seen from the ships in the water, the metaphorical and literal foundations of a colonial campaign that would last 3 centuries. They weren’t here first though! The temples in the city tell the tales of Gods who walked this land. The coins of travellers from as far as Rome and songs of travelling poets from Persia talk of a town that was far, far older than anything the English can lay claim to. But is all that Chennai if it got the name ‘Chennai’ only at the turn of the millenium? At the crossroads of globalisation and a national identity crisis, the re-christening of the city was meant to symbolise the shedding of colonial ashes, the flight of a modern city in a resurgent nation. So what is Chennai? In truth, Chennai is the result of many experiments over many centuries. From the East India Company’s gamble on a sleepy hamlet to a Hyundai’s bet on the city to start their first manufacturing hub in India, some of these experiments have paid huge dividends. Equally fascinating, it is most often an anomaly on the country’s political landscape, begging to differ on popular sentiment and building a fierce local identity. These centuries old and continual experiments manifest as an unapologetically unique entity even in India’s vibrant collage of overwhelming cities. Chennai is a little bit of everything it was, constantly trying to make space for everything it wants to be.
The stories from the city are gloriously diverse. From one old man’s quaint pursuit of a great breakfast around the temple tank area to the question of legacy and identity of Sri Lankan migrants drawn to the city through a linguistic bond, the narratives woven into the book range from the personal contemplations of local people to the things that affect them the most on a national and global scale. While some stories revolve around endemic issues and ideas, they are all relatable at a human level: the everyday tales of ordinary people, tied together by the shared history of the city they live in.
‘People Called Chennai’ is embarking on a crowdfunding campaign. The book can be termed as a biographical journey of the city. It is an attempt to discover and showcase the various tangible and intangible facets attached to the place by identifying, exploring and collecting the personal stories of people. These stories will further be presented as interwoven historical, social and architectural narratives of the city. We attempt to showcase the unanticipated side of the city, the tales that go beyond popular cliches and tiring stereotypes. The book is estimated to be released in April.