By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Outsiders And The Local Man : Interest Vs. Instincts

Quite surprisingly, Hollywood superstar and California ex-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was in my home city Madras (now called Chennai) the other day, in connection with a South Indian cinema event featuring a Tamil movie with a weight-lifting hero.  Before attending that function  in a stadium in the evening, the former Mr. Universe met the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu State, Ms. Jayalalithaa  --  who was a glamorous leading lady in South Indian cinema once upon a time  --  in her office inside the Fort St. George.  

Right now, the local media here are wildly celebrating the 375th anniversary of Madras, which grew around this 17th century British fortress on the East coast of South India.  As a very senior local man in this nostalgic setting, let me recall an essay I had written long ago,  in which I had mentioned the Fort St. George :

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Tamil  --  A living South Indian language, with ancient roots and classical status, as well as a massive cinema industry.

Tamil Nadu  --  A South Indian State, where Tamil is the prime language. 

Ajanta  --  Ancient rock caves containing impressive Buddhist paintings and sculptures, in Maharashtra State in South-West India. . 

Andhra Pradesh  --  Another South Indian State.

Eternal City  --  Rome.

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Sunday Magazine


A recent guest of mine, from the North, was unduly critical when I confessed that I had never been up the High Court building, to visit the lighthouse and enjoy the beautiful view of Madras one is supposed to obtain from there, although I've been living in the city for years.  Being a hospitable man, I refrained from listing out all the well-known structures of his  own city, and asking him how many of them he could claim to know at first hand ;  but had I pressed the point, there's little doubt that I should have silenced him.    

The local man is always on the point of 'doing' his parent city.  Living so close to its landmarks, he takes them more or less for granted, and it seldom occurs to him to go out and explore them.  Unlike the tourist and the casual visitor, he's in no great hurry ;  he can always afford to wait till tomorrow, till next week, till next month.  Naturally, he's somewhat complacent about the city's sights, if not really indifferent to their charms or fame.  "One of these days. . . "  is the recurring burden of his song.  Has the average New Yorker stepped up to the crown of the Liberty Statue yet?  I seriously doubt it.  Has the ordinary Florentine thoroughly explored the Palazzo Vecchio?  Or the Parisian the Pantheon?  Or the Calcuttian the Victoria Memorial?  Has the denizen of the Eternal City ever stepped down to the weird catacombs?  More likely than not, all you will get from these worthies will be an evasive grin, or a disarming shrug of the shoulders.

Intriguing ignorance 

Needless to say, the local man's education about his environment leaves much to be desired ;  he is decidedly, if understandably, an incompetent guide in his own locality. But his guests, somehow, never seem to be capable of realizing it;  and they do not lightly forgive him when they are told the truth.  They consider it  his rightful obligation to know everything, and lead them everywhere.  They are scandalized when it comes to light that he isn't aware of the exact location of all those ramparts and relics they have discovered in their guide-book ;  that, in fact, the poor fellow hasn't even heard of many of them. The birds of passage, it must be said with regret, seldom pause to ask themselves how much (or how little) they do know about their own municipal nests.

I have never been abroad, but it requires no great experience or imagination to observe that what is true of the city and the local man is equally true of the nation and the native.  I must confess that many a foreign friend of mine has been intrigued by the extent of my ignorance.  I seem to know so little about our country's history and literature ;  so little, too, about our ancient monuments and noble architecture.  If someone asked me where the Blue Grotto is, I could answer like a gunshot : "in Capri, Italy" ;  but I have to think twice before I can assert that Ajanta is not in Andhra Pradesh.  I do know who built the Louvre, where, when and what for ;  yet I couldn't tell you  a thing about the origin of the Fort St. George.

Alien interest, native instincts

It's quite useless, I suppose, to feel concerned about it ;  for this malady is universal, and perhaps quite inevitable.  Yet I also wonder if the superiority of the stranger's knowledge isn't merely superficial, after all.  He might have amassed a great wealth of information about the alien city or state, but can he still presume to possess a true understanding of it?  Distance adds excitement to every place, and involves the stranger in an endless, academic enquiry ;  but doesn't proximity  --  though it kills curiosity and impairs one's conscious interest  --  produce that subconscious indigenous spirit which the visitor can never penetrate, but which is part and parcel of the resident's life?  True, the outsider's impressions may be more exhaustive, and often more accurate ;  but aren't the local man's instincts far deeper, and invariably more sensitive?

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