It was on July 17, 1996 that our city officially changed its name from Madras to Chennai, the legislation coming into effect on August 1 that year. Nineteen years have passed since then and this may be a good time to see what has been achieved by this.
Madras Musings does not hold any brief for either of the names, though our publication still sports the old one on its masthead. At the time of the makeover, it was argued that Madras was a colonial hangover while Chennai was a Tamil word. It now appears that neither of these assumptions may have been correct though the city is no closer to any clear historic evidence in support of which name is the older.
Leaving all that aside, it is rather ironic that a name change that was made to reflect our Tamil pride and local area identity coincided with a time when our city decided to become international in its aspirations. Just look back and think – in 1996 there was one flyover in the city, no shopping malls, no multiplexes and hardly a couple of fast food outlets. Internet was in its infancy if at all and cell phones were huge brick like structures, which you thought about several times before using, given the exorbitant charges. International travel had not yet taken off – it was only the very rich that made it abroad.
Some aspects have not changed. We were in the throes of a great water scarcity then, as we are now. Despite laws against them, our political class needs posters, hoardings and banners as and when they set foot on our roads. But a lot has changed since then. What have we lost? In 1996 we were not as close to infrastructural collapse as we are now. Our garbage output, our poor air quality and our road accident figures did not then put us on top of the national charts. We had pavements – 1996 was when flyovers broke out like a rash all over the city, remember? Our traffic has become much worse despite the flyovers, by the way. And our buildings were then not glassed-in, energy-hungry structures as they are now.
Nowadays, social media usage is extensive. Even our police have begun accepting complaints on Facebook. Another positive fallout of social media is an increased awareness of social issues, energy, environment, heritage and culture issues.
Our work ethics and patterns have changed as well. Today, Chennai that was Madras has two layers – an indigenous population that is ensconced in desk jobs or is aspiring for it, and a large community of migrants that have taken over all the manual elements. Construction workers, waiters at restaurants, hairdressers, ushers at theatres, cooks, carpenters and chauffeurs all speak alien languages and have managed to settle in. Several have learnt Tamil rather well, and most of our local people have had to learn Hindi to an extent to communicate with these people. Tamil chauvinism went out of the window when conversation with the service class became more important.
What happened to the local people who were providing these services before? Have they all moved upwards? Not entirely. A large chunk has happily given up working, given the twenty years of freebie culture that successive political regimes have thought it fit to bring in. With everything from cows and goats to laptops being available on tap, why work for them? Unfortunately, our city also tops the record on alcohol consumption. It does not need a mastermind to explain the connection between the freebies and the drinking habit.
What does all this have to do with the name change? Nothing at all! The city has grown and changed entirely based on market dynamics and economic trends. Which is why nothing really was achieved by changing the name.