Chennai, India. Jo is taking the day off from blogging, so this is Don filling in. It’s her first in an unbroken record of committing a daily record of our travels for nearly five years.
It’s not that she’s run of out of pictures or topics to cover in this endlessly fascinating country, it’s just that last evening before setting out for our plane ride today to Madurai I went out to get some cash at an ATM and started wandering around the neighborhood of the hotel alone without her at hand to take her customary great photos.
I was actually in search of a particular remnant of the Raj days of the British that I vaguely knew was somewhere in the vicinity of the hotel, namely, the famed Madras Club. It was once the most exclusive gentlemen’s club of the city during the highest of the high points (or low points depending on your point of view) of British occupation of Chennai — then, of course, known as Madras.
With the help of the folks at the front desk and directions from Dr. Google, the exact location of the Madras Club was easily pinpointed — almost around the corner, less than a half-mile walk down the street leading directly from the side of the hotel.
But what was I going to find? Would it lay in a dilapidated state of irrelevance that today seems to mark many of the once-glorious expressions of British colonial confidence? That is what I expected. After all, who would support such an anachronistic institution in the midst of the jumble of teeming street life that fills every empty square of inch in this city?
The concierge personally escorted me off the hotel property and across the street of wild traffic — holding up his hand to stop the onslaught of cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. There are, you see, no traffic lights and no crosswalks to control these matters. You’re on your own. I have already assumed the attitude of Indian pedestrians: Just look forward and keep on walking and let those drivers worry about the consequences of running over a human. There’s no value in trying to find a reasonable break in traffic to get across. There is no such thing. Jo, however, remains terrified about crossing a street or walking along the street with the traffic in places were there are no sidewalks, which is almost everywhere.
The moment I got across the busy street and started walking down the side street, it took only a few feet to realize that I was in a different Chennai. Here there was complete quiet. The street was wide, tree-lined and meticulously maintained. Almost no traffic of any sort and few people — except a few women sweeping the street with small brooms and men working on grand houses hidden behind high walls.
Without the official photographer of GoKnowDonJo, I had to rely on my phone to capture images of this other Chennai.
Shortly, I found the entrance to the Madras Club. Although there was a guard at the gate, I just boldly walked onto the grounds while the guard gave me a respectful bow. Perhaps I looked like the ghost of Raj past. Then, as I turned a corner of the driveway to the main clubhouse, there it was. A massive white cupola-topped building that looked like it jumped out of a 1920’s Somerset Maugham novel about British Colonial society in the tropics.
I just walked around the property, popping into whatever room I wanted to look at and strolling through the expansive (and empty) grounds.
What a place! And what a history!
The building that now houses the Madras Club was originally built in the 1780’s by George Moubray, the first official accountant for the British East India Company. From the looks of this massive property, which was the first of the so-called “garden estates” of Madras, Moubray must have been a’countin’ some of that money right into his own pocket.
The Madras Club was founded in 1832 and is the second oldest surviving club of this sort in India after the Bengal Club in Kolkata (Calcutta). In 1962, the Madras Club merged with another club called the Adyar Club, which was founded in 1890 (but which had from its beginning allowed women as members!) and moved into this building. The grounds encompass some seven seemingly pristine acres. It wasn’t until 1962 that the club permitted Indian membership. Today, apparently, it is a bastion of all that is wealthy in Chennai.
And so it survives, representing what it had always represented — exclusivity and wealth — in a perfectly maintained property completely isolated from the realities of the rest of the city.
A few small signs of disdain for this club are right outside the entrance. Someone has planted a Communist flag on what must be public land, along with a billboard featuring images of Communist leaders of the past. A scrawled expression of disgust is marked directly below the “Madras Club” sign.
Don’s Food Corner
Before my visit to the Madras Club, we had an elegant Indian meal at a restaurant called Daksin, specializing in the cuisine of Southern India. This restaurant seemed to epitomize the most rarefied presentation of a vast number of dishes not only of the region as a whole but of separate areas within it.
The menu was so large and the dishes so unfamiliar to us that we were overwhelmed. Happily a helpful waiter took us in hand to direct us on how to navigate the menu and the food we would be sampling.
We started with some “nibbles” that he suggested. This consisted of two lentil and rice “fritters” and a deep-fried banana pancake. With those starters, the waiter gave us five different kinds of sauces: coconut, onion and tomato, garlic and tomato, ginger and tamarind. All this was presented on a banana leaf, a customary way of eating any meal in the southern part of India, except in this case the banana leaf was cut to perfectly fit inside a beautiful brass tray. The tamarind sauce was, we were told, was to be used only with the banana pancake.
We next moved to a serving of Masala-coated deep-fried shrimp. These were placed on the same banana leaf. But when we started dipping the shrimp into the sauces still evident on the banana leaf, the waiter hurried over in horror to tell us not to eat the shrimp with the sauces because the shrimp were spiced enough.
Then we went on to taste the Indian classic, Mulligatawny soup. I knew I want this in Chennai because this is the location of its invention. Meaning “pepper water” in its original native vernacular before the British adapted it to their own liking, it was originally a vegetarian soup. The British added meat and thickened it. At the restaurant, it appeared that they had taken the soup back to its origins. It was certainly vegetarian and it was certainly peppery with an almost broth-like consistency.
Finally, Jo ordered what was labelled “biryani” in the menu. However, the waiter explained that what they were serving was not a “biryani” but was actually a “pulao” (or pilaf). He apologized profusely about the confusion and asked if Jo still wanted it. Being at a loss as to what the precise difference was between a biryani and a pulao, we agree to have it. But the waiter again wanted to make sure that the pulao would be OK, explaining that a biryani is really from another region of India, not the south.
I had a sense that one was baked in a pot and one was cooked in a pot on top of the stove, but I’m not sure I could the finished product of one or the other just by tasting it. For both, it’s a mixture of rice, vegetable and sometimes meat. In this case, it included chicken along with vegetables. And, of course, the prerequisite spices.
I ordered a spicy fish curry. While the waiter allowed me to eat the curry — which had a deeply colored and spiced sauce — with some of the pulao rice mixture, he brought over some plain rice so that I could fully appreciate the flavors of the fish curry without getting confused with the spice mixture of the pulao.
Frankly, as wonderful as each of these dishes were, we were overwhelmed by all of this and the complexity and volume of everything that we couldn’t consume any more. We did not clean our plates. I think we could have stopped after the first few courses and have been filled and satisfied. When he presented us with the dessert menu, we almost toppled over.
The menu was so complicated that we didn’t know what to order. For those interested in Indian food, here is a link to the menu. What would YOU have ordered? A tough one.