book review: degree coffee by the yard – good & bad

my foray into reading non-fiction began with city of djinns by william dalrymple. i loved the book, the narrative, what he chose to include and what he chose leave out, his entire journey of discovery of this city. with the lens of an outsider he managed to get under the skin, and show me a delhi that i actually fell in love with. (am a non-delhi person, given my lack of freedom as a woman). it felt like this surprise gift, and he unwrapped layer by layer, till i was i discovered that i rather love the core of it.  his mastery left me amazed as i explained in my post “a book that takes you on a lovely journey unraveling delhi”. 

i am a tamilian who has grown up outside my native state. my parents come from chennai, but chennai is not the city of my childhood. when i came across degree coffee by the yard written by nirmala lakshman, i had to read it. i was curious and wanted to know what a life-long resident of that city would tell me about her city. i finished the booked last week.

“And a tremulous sun gathers strength for its usual vigorous passage across these southern skies…”

madras, through the eyes of nirmala lakshman, has a multiple personality disorder. – the madras of the past, the madras of her childhood and the chennai of the present and probably the chennai of her children. she progresses to unravel both the identities and lay them in front of you. the origin of both the names were in fact from two villages – madrasapatnam and chennaipatnam… they both are based in the early formation of this capital of tamilnadu. added to this, while the city was madras in english, it was always chennai in tamil. the duality seemed to exist from the beginning? or is there any duality at all?

“there is much in the Chennai of today that is still in Madras”

it’s something we talk about even in mumbai. but i don’t see that conversation in bangalore vs. bengaluru or calcutta vs kolkata. is it because of the difference in names – the journey from the old name to the new name, is it the city’s perspectives about itself? or is it something else? in this book, before i could conclude nirmala lakshman goes on to say that maybe they are the same. maybe the identities are not all that different, and a name is just a name. true that!

there were nuggets that made the reading a process of discovery – that madras presidency included a lot of the south…no wonder south indians are called madrasis. that chennai was a contested city, much like how gujarat and maharashtra fought over mumbai… andhra and tamilnadu fought over chennai. it explains the huge telugu population in chennai suddenly! that elihu yale the governor of chennai donated to a university in america and they adopted his name ‘yale’! there is a temple in triplicane where the vishnu idol has a moustache, only vishnu idol ever to have one… that’s really cool and makes even a confused atheist want to visit this temple.

“The spirit of old Madras leaps out of unexpected corners. … It rises from hot freshly ground ‘degreecoffee’ in roadside tea stalls”

there is a chapter devoted to coffee, and that i totally, completely and fully approve of given that i am rather addicted to south indian filter kaapi myself. it seems there was a line that was oft repeated, ‘cofeekku vazhi unda?’ which means is there a pathway to coffee…? if you’ve wondered why all tambrahm houses have steel tumblers with rims, it was to drink this hot coffee without touching the tumbler with your lips (a typical dictat in all houses, one that i still try and follow when i drink water!)

the book makes me want to read other books on madras like – madras rediscovered by s. muthiah and a.r. venkatachalapathy’s chapter on coffee-drinking from his books on coffee culture in the tamilnadu.

where the book disappoints is in the depth of content and the narrative style. the book was not as informative or thorough as i hoped it would be, even for a pseudo chennai-vasi like me. i hunger for a deeper delving, a finer sieve, more research about the city and it’s story. i seek tidbits of information that makes me say ‘ohhh, that’s why.’ something that this book falls short on. it seems more like a casual conversation over a cup of coffee than a serious work about a city. neither is the narrative engrossing. it draws you in and then drops you, almost like the author is bored herself! the narrative rambles on – doesn’t hold your attention or demand dedication. certain chapters – like the one about food – are so basic in depth and content that is astonishes how those even got through the editor – or was there none?

worth it if you don’t know much about chennai, it’s definitely a good start.

this series by aleph has books on mumbai and kolkata as well. i have picked up the one on mumbai – city adrift. it has been written by naresh fernandes of tajmahal foxtrot fame.. i am curious to know if the style in the book about chennai runs through the series or its author dictated. time will tell, and so will i 🙂

8 thoughts on “book review: degree coffee by the yard – good & bad

  1. I agree with your view – decent but not brilliant. Having spent a lot of time in Chennai and being quite a fan of the city, it did feel rather superficial. Mostly my issue was that it didn’t communicate the love of a writer for a place, it didn’t give you the feeling that I want to go NOW and explore the city which happens with most people after reading City Of Djinns. Good review!


  2. Thanks for your comment sudha…

    Totally agree with you… Like what you’ve said there – sums up how I feel about it!

    I love Chennai and it still didn’t make me curious, emotional or excited about Chennai…


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