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Lakshman's Madras


Anusha Hariharan

DEGREE COFFEE BY THE YARD: A SHORT BIOGRAPHY OF MADRAS
By Nirmala Lakshman
Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 156, Rs. 295.00

VOLUME XXXVIII NUMBER 3 March 2014

There is a reason why this book is called Degree Coffee by the Yard. With an interesting word play on ‘yard’, it automatically evokes one of the many sensibilities that create and sustain Chennai: the action of cooling a ‘tumbler’ of coffee by pouring it from a height into another tumbler, seamlessly measuring out a yard of distance with the hot, flowing liquid between the two containers.   The entire book does exactly that to a reader. It portrays certain parts of the city with a literary ease that is rare. It is not unusual for people to write the city, in the way Nirmala Lakshman has attempted to do it. But, there is a difference. What Lakshman does is not just landscape different vignettes of the city, but give them a life, a dynamism, suffused with memories, her own, as well as others’. Ranging from experiences with her family on the Marina Beach, or the renditions of Tiruppaavai that could be heard at the end of each year, the soft rustle of the silk saris of the ‘Maamis’ who frequent Carnatic music concerts through December, Lakshman captures a soulful Chennai, albeit a very brahmanical one.   The narrative is also peppered with different historical facts about the city that most of us tend to forget, as we inhabit the city. It draws your attention to Chennai’s colonial past, interesting anecdotes about the old town of Madras in a way that is usually only accessible in scholarly works of history. For instance, having grown up in Chennai myself, I had never realized that a bustling middle class shopping area near Mylapore that we refer to as ‘Luz’ is actually derived from the Portuguese ‘Nossa Senhora da Luz’, or ‘Our Lady of Light’, a church that was built in her honour in Santhome, near Mylapore. Lakshman has woven this narrative in a way that a deft storyteller would.   However, what I missed in Lakshman’s narrative is how different people write different cities. Though not the first to do so, Alain de Botton in his novel Kiss and Tell illustrates how there are ‘as many Londons as there are Londoners’. Lakshman mentions this in theory, in her elucidation of Michel de Certeau’s ‘Walking in the City’; de Certeau, a French philosopher, talks about the spatiality of the city being informed by the walker, and not the planner. The experience of the ...


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