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Chennai that was Madras is India’s southern metropolis and is considered by many to be synonymous with South India. It has the reputation of being conservative, rigid, and unexciting. Chennai too plays along, preferring to hide its history and heritage and downplaying its manifold achievements. To set the record straight, Madras has a strong claim to being the first proper city of modern India and boasts many debuts in that regard—the first regiment of the Indian Army was founded here, the city saw the formation of the first urban corporation in the country, it is home to India’s oldest bookshop, railway station, and lots more. It is also the city where social reformers fought for representation and equality for the most depressed classes much before such movements gained ground elsewhere in India. In short, Chennai is a city of flair, colour, creativity, and numerous distinctions.

V. Sriram takes us through various aspects of the city’s history from the time when it was just a set of scattered villages, through the years of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British, to the (disputed) date of founding of the modern city, the debates surrounding its two names, the institutions, systems, and structures that were built by its rulers (from the Cholas to the Vijayanagar kings to the nawabs of Arcot and the British), the Dravidian politics that came out of the Self-Respect Movement, arguments and riots over the imposition of Hindi, and a lot else besides. In addition to its history, he delves into the city’s delectable food, culture, music, dance, and cinema. Rounding off this portrait, he looks at the city as a powerhouse of education, medicare, heavy engineering, automobiles, leather goods, and software.

He shows us what makes Chennai a thriving city, one that effortlessly combines the old and the new, and pulses with life, energy, and opportunities—all attributes of a grand city.

Chennai: A Biography by V. Sriram

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