Sunday, 7 August 2011

An urban rainforest

Death is a celebration in a rainforest. The nearby trees grow into the canopy space left by the dead one. Life grows from the dead trunk on the forest floor. Life disintegrates the dead trunk into the forest floor.

When I returned after two years to Chennai on a holiday this summer, the urban rainforest was thriving. New businesses had taken over old ones; malls had been constructed over iconic theaters; new flyovers had eased traffic at old junctions, but reassembled vehicles on different points on the same road.

I missed landmarks, since they were no longer there. I took wrong turns because I did not recognize the junctions.

It is not surprising that Chennai has grown, since in the last decade every city in India has been growing. Chennai is a late starter. Bangalore was the first to grow with the information technology boom, followed by Hyderabad. As a journalist and as an on-and-off resident of Chennai, I have seen the city change. But the change in the past two years was much more rapid than the earlier changes.

In the summer of 1992, when I had moved to Chennai, the bridge across the Cooum at Anna Nagar had just been constructed; at Jaffarkhanpet it was a causeway across the Adyar river; and the main road in Ashok Nagar passing to the airport was dimly lit and donkeys meditated Einstein-like for hours on the shoulder of this arterial passageway.

The next year was a drought year and I had worked on a story on water diviners. These are men and women who have the ability to detect the location of water underground and thereby predict at which point digging for a well will be most productive. I had seen them in action during my childhood in Kerala. In 1992, I interviewed the few remaining ones in Chennai. They said that their service was becoming less popular since apartment blocks were replacing independent houses. When you have 20 families occupying the land that earlier one family did, then it is not enough to know if there is water in the aquifer. You also need to know how much water the aquifer will yield. And this investigation needed a hydrogeologist. Chennai the overgrown town was turning into a city.

When I had moved into my apartment in Virugambakkam in 1997, it was the wild west of Chennai. Today, Nungambakkam has spread into Virugambakkam. Fair enough, since it is easier to have downtown at your door than to drive through the traffic.

We bought our monthly groceries from Joy Stores, and we had credit with him. Then Royal Shoppe, a supermarket, started. Joy Stores closed down. Now Food Bazar has come in our neighborhood. We have a line of credit with them – through Visa card. Food Bazar is part of Chandra Mall, which has in addition to the shopping complex a food court and a five-theater multiplex. All this stands on the ground where National Theater once was.

In the 1990s, the urban authority had a program called sustainable cities in Chennai. “Sustainable cities” is an oxymoron. No city can ever be sustainable, since these are centers of consumption. When a city draws its water needs from the far-off Krishna river, power from the national grid with power plants across the country, petroleum from Arabia, coal from Jharkhand, fruits and vegetables from the Nilgiris, and rice from Thanjavur and Nellore, it cannot call itself sustainable.

Cities are centers from where the economy moves. Cities are epicenters of power, the place from where policies are made and implemented in the hinterlands. Cities are insular – they consume without bothering to know where it comes from.

Chennai does not have the history of Madurai or Thanjavur. Located 75 km from Chennai, Kancheepuram has a far longer history than Chennai. It was the capital city of the Pallavas, one of the strongest kingdoms in peninsular India between the 6th and 9th Century AD. Hinduism’s Adi Sankara and Zen Buddhism’s Bodhidharma are said to have walked the dusty lanes of Kancheepuram in its glorious days.

Chennai’s history begins as the most important colonial base for the British in India in the 17th and 18th Centuries. In the scramble for power in the 50 years after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the British outsmarted everybody else. Robert Clive, the general who enlarged the British presence during that period started life as a writer at Fort St. George in Chennai.

After the First War of Independence in 1857, the British Crown took over the administration of India. They started to create through English education a class of Indians who could administer the country on behalf of the British. The great Indian middle class was born in Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata, the centers of British power. Chennai grew with the political and military power supported by an educational system. Those who had education and through it access to employment and capital, did not want others to enter their club. Chennai was educated, middle class and conservative, the trait had become the hallmark of the city.

Chennai benefitted from administrative infrastructure, early industrialization, railways and urbanization. Over the decades it became an important base for the manufacturing sector. The oil refinery added a set of downstream petrochemical industries. New car plants capitalized on the existing auto ancillary industries around the city.

When I started reporting from Chennai in 1992, I realized that the city’s strength was its manufacturing base. It prided itself for its IIT and the ingenuity of its engineer-managers who found solutions to intractable problems. For instance, starved for water in the drought of 1992-93, the refinery and the fertilizer plant bought secondary treated sewage from the Sewerage Board and treated it further to use for industrial processes.

With the information technology boom of the more recent years, the engineer-manager base of the city changed track from manufacturing to developing software. There is a critical difference though. Employment opportunities in the IT sector turned out to be far more egalitarian than in the manufacturing sector. The jobs in the manufacturing sector were less in number, and after these had been taken up by graduates from IITs, regional engineering colleges and government engineering colleges, there was not much left for anybody else. The hundreds and thousands of job openings in the IT sector could absorb graduates from even the engineering and other colleges that had barely managed to get accreditation.

More people earn better today; from a younger age. There is more money in the market and there are more hands to grab that money. Express Avenue has pipped Spencer Plaza as the place to hang out. The supplements of the Hindu and the Times of India are filled with advertisements screaming for my attention. Along with Diwali and Pongal, we also celebrate Akshaya Tritiya, Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and whomsoever-can-increase-business day. The restaurant at the junction has a new name, new management. It used to be Safari, Pandian and Amaravathi, in that order of reverse history. Shopper’s Stop, Megamart, Pantaloons have all moved closer – for my shopping convenience.

Like the trees racing to get to that hole in the canopy left by the dead tree in the rainforest, businesses are constantly vying to grab the consumer’s attention. Some businesses die. Others grow from the dead ones. This Phoenix rises from another bird’s ashes.


  1. Change makes even nostalgia irrelevant, doesn't it?

  2. True. In the last two years the change was rather rapid.