I had arrived in Chennai, the city formerly known as Madras, at quite the wrong time. The problem was not the hour, 1am, but that there was not a drop to drink in the city.
Chennai not only holds on to Mahatma Gandhi’s idea that drink is “haram” — evil — but goes further even than the Mormons of Utah to make drinking difficult. In Chennai, the only public places you can drink are hotels with at least 20 rooms.
The Leela Palace, an imposing 11-floor building with 326 rooms which opened in January, boasts that it is the first hotel in Chennai to face the sea. But it cannot conceal its major problem: the only drink on offer was lime soda, as India’s slow grinding bureaucracy meant it did not yet have a liquor license.
I did manage to drink but it acquired some of the furtive air of my childhood in Mumbai. Then, back in the Sixties, all of India was “dry” but my father had a liquor permit as his doctor had certified that he needed a shot of whisky every evening for medicinal reasons.
It soon became evident that Chennai, India’s fourth largest city, has a claim to be a potentially undiscovered Indian jewel. It may not have a monument to match the Taj Mahal, the exotic wonders of Rajasthan or the bewitching boat rides of Kerala’s backwaters. But you do not have to search hard to discover little-known stories that make the city well worth a visit.
Before I could discover these nuggets there were treats to savour in what was described as the best pastry shop in all of south India.
Given that Indians have such a sweet tooth that diabetes is a major health problem, a western-style cake shop seems the last thing the county needs. But for Dharmen Makwana, Leela Palace’s chief chef, this is an essential part of Chennai blending history with the best of international cuisine. The location of the cake shop in the lounge further reinforced this.
The lounge is an interesting mix of the past and the present, a combination of the architecture made famous by Chettinad Palace built in 1912 and decorative items and furnishings from East Asian countries and Europe. And just to emphasise that the hotel is keen to go to any lengths to cater for its guests Makwana — who has come to Leela after some years in Cairo — says it imports beef, which most Hindus do not eat.
It is in this spirit that the hotel has located this very western cake shop.
The next afternoon I saw some Muslim women, covered from head to toe in burkas, eyeing the freshly baked breads, croissants and macaroons through the slits for their eyes. The chef’s belief that the cake shop could set a new trend seemed not to be misplaced.
Then, having witnessed at first hand how Indian past meets western present I headed for my first real history lesson: Fort St George, the first British bastion in India and the springboard for the subsequent conquest of the country.
The route summed up this land of contradictions. While it took me past an eight-mile long beach, there was no one swimming — despite the temperature touching 80°F.
The official explanation was that locals do not like salt water, although a glance at the water suggested there might be hygienic reasons.
When I got to the Fort I began to appreciate how Indians have preserved the British past in what is now a very Indian setting. The curator of the Fort’s museum proudly told me that to honour India’s Republic Day a new wing had been opened. This, on the first floor, gloried the deeds of the Indian freedom fighters. The statues of the Raj greats were consigned to the ground floor and, unlike the first floor exhibits, stacked in a higgledy-piggledy fashion.
However it also emphasised that Indians discard nothing, making it possible to discover some wonderful historical nuggets about the British: the wall where Robert Clive had unsuccessfully tried to kill himself, a plaque honouring a British governor who taught Indians to systematically file records of all transactions — thus introducing bureaucracy to the country.
And the font where the children of Job Charnock, founder of Calcutta (now Kolkata), were baptised. These were children from Charnock’s Hindu mistress who he had rescued from being burnt on the funeral pyre of her dead husband. It was a story about the British sense of justice combined with considerable personal gain for Charnock.
A 10-minute ride away, Chennai offered the story that makes it so special for Catholics, that of St Thomas. An apostle of Christ, he arrived in Chennai in 52 AD. Historians cannot agree on how he made the journey.
What is not much in dispute is that locals murdered him with a lance and as he lay dying he embraced the Cross. As we arrived a huge queue of Catholics waited patiently to walk past the tomb of St Thomas in the Santhome Cathedral Basilica, one of only three basilicas in the world built over the tomb of an apostle of the founder of the Christian faith.
The Hindus can match the Catholics in devotion, as a glance at the sprawling Dravidian Kapaleeshwarar Temple in the suburbs of Chennai confirmed.
I drove 50 miles to Kanchipuram to witness more — here there are several hundred temples honouring the various Hindu deities. With south India escaping the invasions that scarred the north, and destroyed many of its temples, these shrines provide a fascinating insight into southern architecture styles dating back 1,400 years.
Two decades earlier I might also have seen a mango tree, supposedly 3,500 years old, which produced four different kinds of fruit. But soon after the Queen came to Kanchipuram in 1997 the tree shrivelled up and died, as if to suggest that having seen the monarch it had no further reason to live.
As if in compensation, just before I left Kanchipuram I was shown weavers producing silk sarees as their ancestors had done. The shops selling these sarees accept all sorts of credit cards and every sales assistant has a mobile phone but for the weavers time stands still.
In many countries such an attempt to marry past and present would be a recipe for neurosis. In Chennai, it seems very natural.