the day chennai turned communal...

last year during the chennai week i read articles by several people who have lived and worked in Chennai at different times and i promised that perhaps if time permits this year i will write and share some reflections on chennai...this is a long ramble about chennai, i decided that i will not edit this and continue to ramble as far as i can and then post! read it if you are 70s chennai kid and want to re-live some memories...

However, after writing much of the ramble usual memories partly crowded with nostalgia and partly crowded with recounting ones own story, i decided to write on top the most dramatic visual of chennai that has made a deep mark in me -

The Day Chennai turned communal  - was one of those Sundays when we all hung around after the rover scout classes, played basket ball, then planned for one thing or the other that we do at the big street in triplicane where we all went to school. somehow why we hung out so late in the school i can't remember, but, it was almost later afternoon when we started walking towards the ice-house bus terminus with few who came in bicycles pushing them and others walking alongside.

it was the Sunday after the Ganesh chaturthi and there were several processions criss-crossing Triplicane that were taking the large Ganesh idols for immersion into the marina. i remembered the days when this festival was still vinayaga chaturthi for us in chennai. we bought the pillayar bommai made of mud on the morning of the festival, freshly hand made near the big street or gangana mandapam and carried it home in a wooden plank already garlanded with the erukkam poo and the multi-colour hand made umbrella that had to accompany the pillayar idol. three days after the puja was over, we normally took the pillayar in a small family procession to the beach and immersed him in the sea. it was much fun.

however all this had changed in the previous few years and suddenly we had these big bullock carts that collected all the vinayagar idols from various homes, aggregating the idols and the people as well who hung on to the bullock carts, the carts had saffron ribbons tied to the bullock's horns. there were also other vehicles with cone shaped speakers that blared devotional music connected to the battery driven amplifiers and record players.

suddenly when we were near triplicane post office we saw several men shouting angrily and waving big clubs and sticks asking all shops to shut down! we didn't understand what was going as we hung to the margins of the streets and watched angry looking big men with menacing faces and wooden logs walking shouting strange threats to whom we didn't understand.

when we stopped for a juice in the one shop that was open at the gangana mandapam, there were others in the shop, young men with saffron ribbons around their heads and faces smeared with colour powder, men i don't remember ever seeing in triplicane where i had lived all my life...they seemed happy and boisterous and spoke about having 'given it well' to someone we didn't know.

it didn't dawn to me till i returned home and got to know through my dad the next morning that we had crossed through perhaps the first big communal 'event' in Chennai! that when the ganesh procession passed through the familiar mosque at the entrance of triplicane high road there was a skirmish between the hindus in the procession and the muslims going into the mosque for the afternoon prayers, that some footwear was thrown on both sides and police had to interfere to contain things. that there was a second altercation, perhaps less than hundred feet from where we had crossed the procession when the procession reached the small durgah and mosque at the end of bell's road where it joins pycrofts road. the same place where as a kid i have witnessed the muharram procession smelling fresh blood when muslim men lashed themselves with chains with knives on them in close proximity, patiently waiting for them to go through and the horses to come, so that we can go and get blessings from the fakirs who accompanied them.

much much later, when i look back at that day, i realized it was the day chennai turned communal. i don't remember the year, it must have been one of the years, 85-87, but, from that year onwards every year, flag march is held ahead of the ganesh idol immersion procession in triplicane by the police. from that year onwards the vishwa hindu parishad and other hindutva outfits have been gaining strength in the city, also as a counter-response, the political articulation of muslim outfits too have become more visible.

triplicane was a place quite innocent, i lived off the pycrofts road, cusp of the muslim and hindu triplicane, where the vishnavites of parthasarathy temple were as visible as the various green turbaned fakirs from the several durgahs dotting that part of the city and the muslims of royapettah and triplicane high road. the cusp had both the cultures, we received sweet candy during ramzan as much as they received sweets made at home during deepavali. we lived in the same streets and they were not 'they' then in the way it turned out after this particular clash.

it is almost 30 years now. i can see those scenes every time i walk in the same street in my mind again. those men with the clubs and menacing looks left a scary wound in our minds and ideas of the city. when i think of the subsequent more than two and half decades, i realize many in this city have given space for these menacing looks and their weapons within our society and within themselves, both hindus and muslims have. it was the day the innocence and co-existence of triplicane ended and the globalized phenomena of communalism and violence took over. when the peace of the local was subjugated by the terror of the global.


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