Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A doomed city?

A few days ago, I was leafing through an old issue of Aside, The Magazine of Madras as it was called, an excellent publication that focused on the city’s heritage, environment, civic issues, business and art, years before Madras Musings appeared on the scene. Sadly, Aside, which had Abraham Eraly as its chief editor, stopped publication many years ago.

I noticed in the copy an advertisement by Side Effects, a cozy little nook in El Dorado on Nungambakkam High Road. As an insurance officer undergoing training then on Nungambakkam’s Fourth Lane (now better known for MOP Vaishnav College and the Ispahani Centre), I would visit Side Effects regularly. There was a smart young fellow who would chat up customers and generally keep the place alive. You found almost everything you wanted there – books, magazines, audiotapes, cards, stationery and gifts.

I must quote here excerpts from an article from S. Krishnan, that wonderful writer who kept readers of The Hindu hooked to his weekly column Between You & Me. Please remember that this article by Krishnan, titled, Dirge for a Doomed City, appeared in the Aside issue dated 30 April 1990, an issue that celebrated Madras’s 350th birthday.

Excerpts:

This is a dirge for a doomed city which grew graciously for three hundred years, only to transmogrify itself in the next fifty years into a huge urban slum with an almost obsessive desire to strangle itself out of existence… I do not see a single ray of hope that can be salvaged from the morass it has mindlessly sunk into. Of course other metropolitan cities have similar problems, but at least there is some semblance of administration in them – as for us, we have had no city fathers for probably twenty five years. Cities like Delhi and Bangalore make a conscious effort to restrict ugliness in the design of new buildings and to beautify themselves, but we rejoice in letting apartment buildings, which look like crazy quilts, come up. Calcutta is usually held up as a horrible example of urban decay, but vivacity, good spirits and artistic feeling pervade among its people. Whereas Madras is singularly distinguished by the lack of manners of its people and the garish vulgarity of its ‘artistic manifestations’…

…A whole generation of people born in the fifties probably believe that it was always so – the clogged streets, the filth, the insane traffic, which looks as if it is directed by Laurel and Hardy, and the total indifference of people towards one another. No, it was not always so. While never laying claim to being one of the truly beautiful cities in the world, Madras was a charming city of tree-filled avenues and tranquil atmosphere. It was quite extraordinarily clean, a fact that every new visitor always commented upon. The Cooum and the Buckingham Canal were nowhere near as noisome as they are today. If there were slums they did not occupy either side of the road as they do now…

… There was an old-world courtesy among the people. Young persons were deferential towards elders. Neither students nor labour went on strike at the drop of a hat and took out processions. There was hardly any vandalism and the city was not plastered with obscene posters. Some parts of the city were indeed crowded, but one did not feel choked and strangled as one does today…

… It is a truism that once discipline is allowed to become slack, a major contribution of our present rulers, it is very difficult indeed to tighten things up again. But the only option we have is to keep trying…

...This is Madras in its 350th year. One can only cry besides the waters of the Cooum.

Post script: Seventeen years on, the city has only changed… for better or worse, I don’t have to tell you, do I? The waters of the Cooum, wherever they exist, have only got filthier. And, pray, where are the tree-filled avenues?

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