"I am the ultimate Madrasi.
"I certainly don't fit into the north-of-the-Vindhyas idea of that term. Meaning, I don't wear a pista-green polyester safari suit, speak like Mehmood in Padosan, sport vibhuti, nor am I named Swami Iyer."
This is how Krishna Shastri Devulapalli opens the introduction to the recent anthology Madras on my Mind: A City in Stories, edited by him and Chitra Viraraghavan. In addition to Krishna's brilliant, in-your-face humour and Chitra's delicately phrased editorial utterances, the book contains the unexpected pleasures in the writings of some unexpected authors, steering clear of the usual suspects. The editors have contributed their own Madras stories in quite inimitable style, but they have generously showcased some fine writing by others in the form of both fiction and non-fiction.
To me, the undoubted star of this collection is the venerable Bujjai of Panchatantra fame, a self-effacing artist of extraordinary quality who lit up my childhood with his exquisite illustrations in the magazines of my time. His chapter Flowers on the Madras Trains begins with the words "If you lived in the 1930s, and had passed through Pithapuram on a train with your head stuck out of the window, chances are you would have seen a boy on the station's lone platform. I'm talking of one particular extra-slight boy of five or six, seated on the shoulders of a girl only a tad bigger than him. If you could have tuned out the hiss and rumble of the train, you would have heard the melancholic song on his lips:
Flowers on the Madras train,
O, My Lord, My Lord,
Flowers on the Madras train.
"The boy was me, and the put-upon girl, my slightly older cousin, Seetha."
After his first visit to Madras, the young Bujjai had a bagful of stories to regale his relatives back in Andhra with. "When I returned to Pithapuram, I told the country bumpkin kids in my neighbourhood of my Great Madras Trip, beginning with the conquest of Moore Market, followed by my victory run in the tram, my ascent of the lighthouse, and my life-saving discovery of comic books,"
The chapter ends with this passage:
"Today, as I sit on a concrete bench overlooking the Kottivakkam beach, it is hard to imagine that more than seventy-five years have passed from that day when I first set foot in Madras. My favourite pastime is watching my son and grandson walking up and down the one kilometre stretch of road every evening, albeit in opposite directions, and listening to the sounds of the sea. Each time a wave crashes it seems to be saying 'what if', 'what if' to me. I'm at that age, I suppose, with all the time in the world to ponder the 'what ifs' of my life. What if my father had sent me to school? What if my wife hadn't died so young? What if my grandson wasn't autistic?
"Of all the 'what ifs' the waves bring my way every day, the one I never contemplate is 'what if I hadn't come to Madras?'
In between, Bujjai tells us the story of a talented boy who stayed home in Triplicane to fill drawing books with his illustrations while other, less fortunate kids went to school, and mouthwatering tales of sundal on the Marina beach withis uncles in the evening.
Every story in the book is redolent of a Madras gone, now only belonging only to the realm of memories, yet celebratory of today's Chennai as well. The wistfulness of the book is as unmistakable as Madras bhashai and sultry afternoons and the seabreeze that follows.
Among the several other gems in the anthology, two sparkle with a special brightness that appeals to me: House of Powders by Sanobar Sultana, and My Mother's Madras by Vamsee Juluri. To know more about them, you will have to watch this space. Better still, why don't you buy the book? Madras on My Mind, edited by Chitra Viraraghavan and Krishna Shastri Devulapalli, HarperCollins Publishers India. Price Rs. 350. Available at bookstores, but at the best prices online at Amazon, Flipkart and other sites.