Madras Week, as the name unambiguously makes it clear, is the celebration of Chennai. (Madras was the original name of present-day Chennai, while Chennai was the original name before it became Madras. Now, this should convincingly clear the air).
During the month of August every year, as part of the Madras Week, pundits, historians and sundry other experts gather, among others, in many star hotels and swanky buildings and celebrate the city by bemoaning the fact that the city is losing its historic buildings and heritage locations to star hotels and swanky buildings.
But the real highlight of the whole celebration is the various brilliantly-conceived heritage walks, which rightly celebrates walking. Because in Chennai’s present day traffic, walking is the only historically sensible option, if you get our drift.
In Chennai, nothing is more steeped in history than its traffic on the roads, in that you can find even today, traffic jams dating back to the MGR administration. Some careful historians even note that MGR himself was buried somewhere on the sands of the Marina, despite the fact that only those with the intelligence of a dustbin would have agreed to convert a scenic beach into a grisly graveyard, because of the fact that the traffic on the route to the Besant Nagar crematorium was so bad that the only thing that would have remained of his corpse when they would have eventually made it was the wristwatch that he had worn.
Historically, Chennai has been one of the highest contributors to the Indian diaspora, living all across the globe. Methinks, those who had opted out of Chennai were actually fleeing from the dreaded traffic on its persistently potholed streets. If possible, there would have been people clinging to the rocket that was sent as part of the Chandrayan Mission to escape Chennai’s traffic. To give a historical perspective, Chennai’s vehicle-users in general operate on the same sensible safety ideas that made the Kamikaze pilots the heroes of World War II. And it is not uncommon to find a few drivers and riders fighting as if they are involved in, er, the World War.
The thing to note here is that with the H-1B visas set to become premium commodity, there is bound to be a huge influx back to Chennai. This means the Chennai’s traffic, if it is technically possible (like is it possible to score below zero in an exam), will get even worse.
How does one survive that? Well, here’s a handy primer to see one through it all. The idea is: If one can survive this (the primer, that is), one can survive anything. The primer is to celebrate all those who couldn’t make it to the various Madras Week events, because, well you know it, they were caught in last year’s traffic.
Armstrong and leg strong: Can you recall what the legendary Armstrong is said to have said? No, you can’t? Don’t worry. I know it verbatim. But I’ll Google it and find it for you. ‘It is a small step but a giant leap…’ Yes, Armstrong was literally describing his experiences on Chennai’s roads, where one small step on the pothole propels one on a giant (uncontrollable) leap across humanity, into the orbit and on to the moon, which has a smoother surface in comparison.
Armstrong apparently stepped on a pothole on the Graems Road (which is where the historical Apollo Hospitals is), hence his was called the Apollo mission. Armed with Armstrong’s cautionary advice, and legs strong, you can hop, step and jump even as far as up to the US. By this route you may not need a visa!
Buy Cycle: Send those Chevrolets and Honda Citys to the trash yard. Junk those Pulsars and Passions. On the mean streets of Chennai, the vehicle to own is the bicycle, so named as on it you can by-pass all rules of the road that the rest of the humanity are supposed to follow. If you own a cycle, you own the city’s streets. No one can stop you.
If there is no-left-turn sign, you bet a cyclist will take the left turn. The ‘no-entry’ signage too is not for cyclists. The only rule applicable to cyclists is: I don’t care. A cyclist may come on the wrong side and ram into your brand-new shining car. But by owning a bigger vehicle, you automatically forfeit the right to complain.
On Chennai roads, the law is simple: The bigger vehicle is always wrong. A cyclist crashing into a stationary roadroller parked inside the Corporation premises can seek adequate compensation from whoever is available nearby. Apparently furious pedalling damages the brain and simple thinking. Exhibit A: Tour De France and its riders.
MTC and your Madras Bhashai: If for some reason, you are financially unable to buy a cycle, don’t worry, there is the MTC. No, you can’t buy it. But you can use its services. An MTC bus is pretty much like a cycle, except the fact that it has a few extra wheels.
Just as in the case of cycles, MTC buses, by a constitutional decree, are not allowed to follow any traffic regulation. MTC is the convenient abbreviation of ‘I Own the Road’. Doesn’t make any sense, right? Well, I told you MTC never makes any sense. The MTC carefully chooses its crew based on their ability to strictly disobey rules.
Still, if you are pretty much bent on driving your own vehicle, then you are strongly advised to fortify you language skills, especially the usage of colourful Madras bhashai consisting solely of historical four-letters (heritage cuss words, to go with the flavour of the week). The only thing that just about works on the Chennai roads is foul language. Those that maketh the loudest noise get to maketh all the headway.
In other words, fit a siren on your vehicle or be ready to driven around in a vehicle that has one! In even more other words, you yourself will become part of history in Chennai that was Madras that was Chennai!
(PS: This article has been reworked out of what I had written some years back in these very same columns. To put it precisely, this is the true heritage walk, through my Madras Week, that is).