One of the ‘majestic’ or ‘nauseating’ sights depending on your perspective, occurs in Chennai about four times a day at the street I live in . Over the last one year I have had the mortification of being rudely chased off this street several times for one simple reason. The Chief Minister of Tamilnadu and his entourage are about to drive down this road and ordinary people have no business walking while the great man passes by. And what a retinue it is. A minimum of 16 cars and a maximum of 24 cars constitute this slow moving retinue the likes of which I have not seen anywhere else, even in Washington DC where arguably far more powerful people drive down the streets . I am appalled at this daily display of sheer feudalism . But Chennai is in many ways a feudal city its other merits notwithstanding.
Tamil author Charu Nivedita writes about the following episode . A lady executive was standing at T.Nagar railway platform when she spotted her husband’s friend in the crowd. She smiled at him and made polite conversation—a sight that happens all over the world every day without anyone even noticing it. But not so in Chennai. The police surrounded the couple and demanded that they part—this is immoral, they were told. Aghast at this invasion of their privacy the lady and her friend protested that the police ought not to concern themselves with such matters and ought to let people get on with their lives. The Police stood their ground and insisted that the lady leave the scene. Fortunately some other people intervened and requested the police to let bygones be bygones.
The critical distinction between a metropolis and a ‘cosmopolis’ is the attitude of people and authorities. It’s not about malls and plush offices. Moral policing is one area where Chennai stands out like a swollen thumb among the major cities of India. Indeed it has been my experience—which I have written about several times—that I find it impossible to befriend even highly educated professionals of the opposite sex even if they are corporate trainers like me . ‘How do I know you are a good man?’ I am fobbed off. .My requests to them to meet me at coffee shops in crowded malls elicits the retort—if you are that eager to meet me you must be a crook! Heads they win tails I lose .
What is even more shocking is that even my childhood friends of the opposite sex avoid me after they get married obviously for fear of their spouses casting a suspicious eye .These friends are to shortly celebrate their shastiabdapoorthi mind you!They are grandparents to boot.
Charu says that moral policing of the sort Chennai witnesses can only ensue that this society will be seen as living in feudal times .
The other sad story is about imbibing liquor. Chennai may be the only city where anyone who imbibes liquor is considered a bad guy. The irony is that a large section of the population drinks but does so in shady lodges and unseemly bars .I once travelled by auto rickshaw in the back alleys of Mylapore a ‘ conservative’ part of the city. At one point I saw dozens of gleaming cars and motorcycles parked in a shady by lane outside a large thatched shelter. I asked the driver what this assembly of vehicles was .He replied that Chennaites are hypocrites. .They drink with gay abandon but without letting their families know ! ‘This is a bar popular with the middle and rich classes sir’ he told me.
The liquor shops in Chennai are among the seediest in the country—dark dungeons, situated in a dimly lit corner of a street, with unholy revelry taking place in a side room that can be the scene of a ‘C’ grade flick about the seedy night life of the poorest sections of society. Any self respecting imbiber of alcohol will shy away from these totally shady outlets. This style of shopping for or imbibing a hasty drink is indicative of the attitude of many Tamilians—pretend to be a tee totaller but drink anyway while furtively looking out for any relative or friend who may sneak to your family !!
I addressed students of an engineering college in Chennai. I asked the students why boys and girls sat in separate blocks. I received an answer –again later told to me furtively by a student—that the rules impose a fine on any boy talking to a girl. Later the principal proudly told me that girls graduating out of her college were considered prize catches in— hold your breath—the matrimonial market. ‘They are so adakkam’ she said almost with trumpets seemingly blowing in the back ground. She was referring to the ‘comeliness’ and ‘character’ of her female wards. I was too shocked to respond.
And now comes a dramatic news item. The Chennai police have acquired special imported vehicles that can race over the sands of the Marina beach in the city. You must be thinking that this is an example of how imaginative the Chennai police are .They can swiftly apprehend any thieves at the beach .Forget it. The purpose is to apprehend any boy who dares to take his girl friend out to the beach for a pleasant evening!! And in case you take your spouse out and are ‘ caught’ by the police , be ready to flash your marriage certificate duly attested by a officer not below the rank of a deputy collector! The certificate and attestation ought to be in Semmozhi Tamil! Few other than the man at the centre of the 24 car entourage are aware what Semmozhi or classical Tamil means.
That’s feudalism for you. Dark glasses and all.