Dear Lonely Planet

Update before you read this: Lonely Planet seems to be in the process of editing their piece on Madras since this post. Some of inaccurate references are now gone, but the opening paragraph is still nasty and compared to Delhi, still a turn off. But all the same, thank you LP, for your quick response. I am hoping that the editorial team actually does some real research this time before finalizing the article.

Another Update: After a couple of days of random edits, looks like the article is back to its original craptasticity. No change in tone, still sounds like it was written by a poorly informed, close minded writer with a serious grudge against the city.

Dear Lonely Planet

I came across your entry for Chennai (Madras), and like a responsible citizen coming across a crumpled, empty packet of Lays chips on the street, I feel it is my responsibility to move it to the dustbin. But that would be rude of me, and Madras tradition demands that I invite you for a cup of filter coffee and a have a healthy discussion instead on the subject of urban cleanliness. As the person who originally pointed me to your article said, the problem with your piece is that it is about as far away from objective reality as Ramesh Powar is from Mutthiah Muralidharan’s world record. You romanticize the problems of other Indian cities while at the same time unzipping your fly and letting loose at Madras.

But wait a second. So I have a problem with one magazine’s portrayal of my city and I choose to rant about it online, eh? Too commonplace, and frankly, that’s not Madras’ style really. See, even in Tamil movies, when a hero is not given a chair to sit on, he does not immediately beat the shit out of everyone in the scene, but instead, fashions a seat for himself by the creative use of an angavastram.  I mean, I could take each one of your claims, and comment on them rather critically. Like for example

Chennai has neither the cosmopolitan, prosperous air of Mumbai (Bombay)

So, the 24/7 crowds at Saravana Stores in T Nagar do not represent prosperity because it’s the prosperity of the lower middle class, while swanky malls that sell cups of sweet corn for Rs 40 and theater tickets that cost more than a bypass surgery represent prosperity elsewhere? To paraphrase Rajini, rich-getting-richer and poor-getting-poorer is not prosperity, but slightly-poor-getting-slightly-rich all around is. And then we have

the optimistic buzz of Bengaluru (Bangalore)

Um, with no disrespect to Bangalore, a city I have lived in and loved, the only buzz I hear is the rumble of a million cars stalled in back-to-back traffic, and the pessimistic buzz of travelers waiting to get inside the city from its new airport that is practically light years away

difficult to get around

O really? You mean, more difficult than Bangalore? The public transportation system in Madras is far more comprehensive than Bangalore or Hyderabad. And to top off your first paragraph, we have this gem

Even the movie stars are, as one Chennaiker put it, ‘not that hot’.

Once I read that, I felt like a Mylaporean complaining about the quality of Idli in Darjeeling, like Michael Schumacher complaining about the lack of acceleration in an Ambassador. For starters, who the haemoglobin leaking four letter profanity  is a “Chennaikar”? An obscure opening batsman for the Mumbai Ranji team I did not know about? The only thing remotely resembling a “Chennaikar” is a Hyundai Santro. It’s Delhiite, Banglorean, Hyderabadi, Chennaiite (if you have to),  Calcuttan (or simply Dada) and finally Mumbaikar. I mean, who wrote this piece? A random amit who did not like the chapathi at Saravana Bhavan? Or somebody whose company forcibly transferred him to Madras? And I’m not even going to get the part about thermodynamically challenged movie stars.

Deep breath. Ok. Sorry. I had to get that out of the way. I suppose it’s because I lived in Delhi and Bombay before I settled down in Madras, so getting confrontational about trivialities is a bad habit I’m trying hard to shake off. So now, let’s get down to the Madras way to dealing with this. Let’s assume we are at Mylai Karpagambal mess (which you do not mention in your article) eating Keerai Vadai (which you do not recommend in your article) sipping on filter coffee (which you mention… dont, bloody amit) and I make the following observations

  • Hey, people who love the cities they live in love them very much. They will romanticize their every weakness (like you do for Mumbai and Delhi). So Delhi, while being filled with glittering gems and captivating ancient monuments, to quote your article, warrants no mention of its scary crime rate, while Mumbai has an “inebriating mix” of grinding poverty and swanky restaurants. How can grinding poverty be an ingredient in your inebriating cocktail?
  • People who hate the cities they pass through, like amits who work in the IT industry, will always ignore everything that is good about a city (like the beaches, sea food, ancient temples and cultural heritage in Madras just for starters)

So I propose to you that you cannot be fair and balanced if you only romanticize or severely criticize. So since you present an amit view of Madras, how about a Bihari view of Mumbai? Your article says

Measure out: one part Hollywood; six parts traffic; a bunch of rich power-moguls; stir in half a dozen colonial relics (use big ones); pour in six heaped cups of poverty; add a smattering of swish bars and restaurants (don’t skimp on quality here for best results); equal parts of mayhem and order; as many ancient bazaars as you have lying around; a handful of Hinduism; a dash of Islam; fold in your mixture with equal parts India; throw it all in a blender on high (adding generous helpings of pollution to taste) and presto: Mumbai.

How about we Biharize or Jharkandize that paragraph like this?

Measure out: one part plagiarized Hollywood, six parts car driving assholes who would like nothing more than to run us over, a bunch of feudal power-moguls, stir in half a dozen hate mongering Maratha morons like Raj Thackeray, pour in six heaped cups of grinding poverty that comes to Mumbai in the vain hope of a better life, add a smattering of swish bars and restaurants that employ us as cleaners and exploits us all the time, a handful of saffronized Hinduism out to slaughter the poor muslims among us, a dash of radical Islam out to terrorize the innocent, fold in your uncomfortable mixture with equal parts a callous India that couldnt care less for the labourers from my state, throw it all in a blender, spit in chewed pan, and add generous helpings of smug feelings of superiority, and presto: Mumbai

By itself, it would be rather unfair right? How about this view of Delhi, as seen through the eyes of a Madrasi?

Delhi, that festering pit of immorality, that hellhole of rape, corruption and violence, is a city that glorifies showines and materialistic consumption. But that apart, a good idli will set you back by Rs 70, which is ridiculous really. It’s also a bit like the US, in the sense that Delhiites rarely know that there is this rather large place called “The Rest of India” that surrounds the city in all directions. For example, they call Bangloreans Madrasis, which sort of pisses them off. Also, every guy in the city is named amit for some reason

You get my drift? Your piece on Madras looks like it was written by someone who hates the city. So how about you get a real person from Madras to write your piece (just like the ones that wrote for the other cities) and do my city the justice it deserves.

Thank you

PS: If you introduce me to the person who wrote this, I will gladly treat him to keerai vadai at Mylapore and then over coffee, we can discuss some of the nicer aspects of Madras he so unfairly ignores.

PS 2: If you believe Madras does deserve a better travelogue, the feedback link is here

PS 3: Don’t forget to follow @the_amit

PS4: For a more reasoned rebuttal of the Lonely Planet piece, read this

PS5: And for a real guide to the city, no one does it better than maami

PS6: It also turns out that Sharanya wrote about this almost 10 months ago, and Ravages pointed out pretty much most of what I did (and more). So there.

PS7:  More research here on Dilip’s blog