A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to Taramani

A funny thing happened to me on the way to Taramani.

I lost my research focus, met up with a bunch of film producers, and then re-found my theoretical direction!

Over the past three months, I’ve been looking at the history and development of Taramani, a sum 2,000 acres of quasi-public land in South Chennai. A study of government decentralization, economic liberalization, urban identity, and the future of private-public partnerships, Taramani illustrates the way cities in India are shaping, marketing, and selling land according to speculative market assumptions. In less than 75 years, Taramani has evolved from a small village comprised of wetlands and agriculture to a blueprint for a polytechnic, educational center  accessible to all socio-economic levels.

Today, the image of Taramani is that of a gated IT community whose private roads and urban design reiterate the increasing divide between socio-economic levels in Chennai. This last stage may be attributed to two major events in the mid 1990’s—India’s economic liberalization and the IT boom. Taramani has become what academics call a technopole, or, “dynamic clusters of research and production organizations generating rapid employment growth within innovative sectors,”(Walcott, S., Heitzman, J.).

From the private road, known as the IT Corridor, Taramani appears as a sparse, deliberate order of manicured hedges and sterile office park architecture.

As the months progressed however, the more interviews I conducted, the more complex the story became. Architects, engineers, folklorists, historians, developers, and panchayats all had a completely different vision of Taramani, and thus of Chennai.

Three months later, I lost my ability to use theory to explain Taramani, and therefore, theoretically lost my identity as an academic. Globalization and economic liberalization did not adequately describe the complexity of the land use; neither free market nor Marxist paradigms offered viable solutions to the imbalance of development. I was at that shaky crises where no theory could neatly package what I was learning. You will find no flamboyant Zizekian exclamation points in my rough draft; no declarative statements.

Last Saturday I was so absolutely at a standstill in my research that I decided to take a break and go back to Taramani. This time I would avoid the IT Parks and visit Film City—a supposed elephant’s graveyard of old movie sets from the by-gone era of Tamil cinema.

And that’s when a funny thing happened to me on my way to Taramani. No, Buster Keaton did not rise from the grave and claim me as a long-lost child, but I would loved it if Stephen Sondheim created a musical score to accompany my adventure.

I entered Taramani on 4th Cross Road, somewhere between Tiruvanmiyur and Indra Nagar Train Station. I walked and I walked, but I couldn’t find it. Instead, I found the Leather Research Institute, Institute for Tamil Studies, and Office of Catering Management—all the old polytechnics that were created by the state and central government back in the late 60’s.

This area of Taramani was world’s apart from the IT Parks I associated with the land. This Taramani was tired, overheated; my theory of Taramani as a technolpole had no grounding in this visual context. Ragged pastel pink concrete buildings hid amidst the dehydrated, overgrown jungle. Dusty, clay roads gave no indication as to what decade or location I was in.  Packs of dogs followed me for a few meters then gave, moving onto the more interesting task of searching for flees.

Down the road, a man walked his goats. A handheld radio quietly transmitted harpie-esque Hindi vocals. Outside the crumbling façade Institute for Tamil Studies, men and women sat in plastic chairs, engaged in lively conversation.

As I walked, a rickshaw slowed down and stopped in front of me. In a French accent, the passenger asked if I knew where the Institute for Media Studies was. Funny, I had literally just passed it. I pointed diagonally and looked at the building again. There was a small congregation of people in western-style dress outside of the building. Enough to notice, but not enough to interrupt my mission to find Film City.

Minutes later a grey car slowed down in front of me. There was a hum of automation as the tinted window of the driver’s seat rolled down.

“I’m looking for the Film Institute located in Film City,” said the driver in a tone of importance. “I’m assuming you’re heading in that direction?”

“Oh!” I exclaimed. “I am, actually. Only, I can’t find it.” Curious. How did he know?

“Hmm, well, I think it’s on 3rd Cross Street. What happened to you? Why are you walking around at high noon? How long have you been looking for this bloody Institute? I hope your fucking driver didn’t just drop you off outside Taramani and take off.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. He obviously thought I was someone I was not.

“Uhmmm…”

“Well come on and get in.”

I didn’t think twice about that. In the backseat were three packs of Dunhill Reds, a black Tumi man purse, and two bottles of red wine placed neatly in a sleeve. A big, pasty-looking man with nice, polished shoes sat up front in the passenger side.

“This is Thierry, from Iceland, I’m Ram. So, you say it’s not on 3rd Cross Street? Well, let’s try anyway.” He turned to Thierry. “Can you believe this fucking place? Honestly. What a bloody mess, a bloody fucking mess. This whole area of new development is impossible to navigate. I told Cecile people would have a fucking time finding the preview. She might be there on time but there’s no bloody way anyone else will be.”

Despite the blast of air conditioning, I felt the heat of excitement. Who were these people?! What were they doing in Taramani? This was all so new to me! Indian men swearing in BBC English?! Polished shoes that showed no sign of dust? Wine and imported cigarettes? This was certainly a first.

We drove down 3rd Cross Street.

“Oh maybe this is it,” Ram said, slowing down the in front of MSSRF.

“No,” I said. “That the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation.”

“Well my god, aren’t you a little asset for us! Jesus Christ it’s a fucking good thing we found you, a fucking good thing.”

I cleared my throat. “Ahhem. Well, I’m actually here to look at and document the various institutional buildings here. Unfortunately, I’m not here for anything specific to Film City.”

There. I did it. I gave away my identity. No film preview extraordinaire, just a Master’s student trapped in her own theoretical looking glass.

But, Ram wasn’t paying attention. He was on the phone.

“What’s that Cecile?! Not that many people are there yet?! Well, those directions should have been more fucking explicit. No matter, we’ll…what’s that? Robert’s standing outside the building, make a right on 4th Cross Street?”

“There iz Robert Ram, just over zere” Thierry exhaled a puff of smoke and pointed to our right.

Robert, tall, blond, rugged face, white, unbuttoned oxford; skinny jeans and flip-flops waved and jogged over to the car. It was a slow, deliberate, as if we were on the set of a GQ photo shoot.

“Ram thank god you’re here. Say, do you have any dope? Cecile, is really being quite unmanageable with this whole fucking preview, I mean, I love the woman, don’t get me wrong, but honestly, I don’t care what you’ve directed. It’s Saturday afternoon in this dusty shiit hole for Christ’s sake.”

Dope?! More swearing in BBC accents? Film directors?! Was I was dreaming? Was Ram actually talking to the late David Hemmings? Maybe, if I looked close enough, I’d find mimes playing tennis in the overgrown adjacent lot and Michelangelo Antonioni yelling at a camera crew.

Curious and curiouser.

I began scrutinizing my surroundings. Had I really just walked by here 20 minutes prior? Was I paying too much  attention to mangy dogs and not enough to the people outside some of these buildings? As we got out of the car, I could see that behind this bombed out building was actually not one, but two or three new buildings. They were world’s apart from the after-dinner mint color scheme of the polytechnic buildings.

These buildings, home to Asian College of Journalism, resemble something else, something tasteful. Perhaps a nod to California modernism?

The French guy I had given directions to now appeared next to Robert. A second glance revealed a striking resemblance to Bud Cort…

My fantasy was interrupted by Ram.

“No, Robert, I don’t have any fucking dope. Besides, you look like shit. And, what is it with you wearing these thongs on your feet. God knows you can afford something better. Listen, is Cecile really going to start this thing at 2pm? You know what I could go for? A nice meal, a nice fucking meal, you know, I’m not going to last through this preview otherwise.

Robert didn’t respond. He was too busy lighting a cigarette. More beautiful and, perhaps famous people continued to congregate. I began taking steps backward, hoping no one would notice if I left. But Ram saw me.

“Hey! Where are you going? Aren’t you a quiet one! Hold on, let me introduce you. Robert, Arnold, Gitta, this is…ahhh, this is…”

“Morgan”

“Right. Morgan. This is Morgan, a real darling, tremendously helpful. She’s coming with us for the screenings. Listen, Robert…”

10 minutes later I found myself not in a restaurant but in a room of film and media visionaries from around the world, all there for the debut screening of a series of film shorts that would soon appear in Paris.

For the next four hours I tasted a world within Chennai previously unknown to me. The self-absorbed dialogue, the critical gazes…I could have been in Chelsea, Place Pompidou, Soho, Roppongi…but Taramani, Chennai, really?

So, the funny thing that happened to me on my way to Taramani was that I went to a film premier, and somehow, after two hours of watching poorly-scripted film shorts, I rediscovered my academic focus.

I forgot about theory and remembered what it is that’s so fascinating about cities, namely, those unpredictable chance encounters. How many nights in New York had I started my night in one situation and found myself in  another? How  times had I spent driving down desolate Detroit streets, parked my car and walked into a seemingly empty building, only to find 1,000 people?

Political, social, and cultural theories only capture a fraction of the complexity of urban experience.Why did I think theory could solve all my riddles regarding Taramani? What draws us to the urban environment is its unexplainable nature. It is elusive, fluid, and ever changing.

No paper, no theory would completely capture the many juxtapositions within Taramani’s landscape. My month-long inner conflict subsided. I left the preview before the wine was uncorked. This time, when I tried to slip away, no one noticed.

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Comments
One Response to “A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to Taramani”
  1. preethi.g says:

    i need to join in tis college

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