The Magic of Madras, The Charm of Chennai

02/25/2014 05:51 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2014

I met a young woman in Chennai not long ago. It turned out that she was a surgeon. I should have guessed it: she possessed a surgeon's hands, and a surgeon's sharp eyes. When I looked her up later on Google, I was impressed by her accomplishments. In our brief conversation she never let on how much she had done as a surgeon in the operating room, and outside it.

Meeting Dr. Nirvikalpa Natarajan unexpectedly pretty much sums up my view of Chennai. Chennai is a city of surprises. It is not a city that boasts. It has a charm of its own, and a kind of special warmth that a stranger senses at once. But it's also a wary city, one that welcomes but doesn't embrace; it's a city where much is going on - but you'd never know it unless you asked. It's a bit like finding out that Dr. Natarajan is the youngest surgeon in India to have had papers published in five prestigious medical journals.

Dr. Natarajan is a maxillofacial surgeon, which means she is a practitioner of a highly specialized field involving the mouth, face and jaws. She also holds the most number of professional qualifications in the country, and now will also be consulting in the United States. And no facility in India comes anywhere near Apollo Hospital as far as maxillofacial surgery is concerned.

I ran into Dr. Natarajan at Apollo, where I was following the founder, Dr. Prathap C. Reddy, for a biography that I'm writing. (Penguin published the book, Healer: Dr. Prathap Chandra Reddy and the Transformation of India, in December 2013, when Apollo marked its 30th anniversary.) Indeed, Apollo also figures in my perception of Chennai: Chennai is a city of major medical and educational institutions. But you'd never know it from the publicity material that the Tamil Nadu Government circulates. Chennai needs to generate more conversation about its treasures.

I first came to Chennai with my parents a long time ago. I was very young, not even a teenager, and they'd taken me for a tour of the South. As the Bombay-born son of a professor-mother and a banker-father, I was used to the clangor and chaos of a major metropolis. In those days, Chennai was formally known as Madras; its urban gallimaufry was so much less than what it is today.

That medley of human and vehicular traffic, that unwieldy mix of the modern with the historic, that mountain of culture that rises with every year - all that makes Chennai what it is. It isn't a city that one instantly loves or hates; it's a city that grows on you, a place that throws curveballs at you until you raise your arms in acceptance that you will never figure out the city's soul. But have a soul it surely does - in its myriad temples and other houses of worship, in its many schools and colleges, in its dance and music festivals, in its very languor.

You are unlikely also to figure out Chennai's character. My friend Bishwanath Ghosh, deputy editor at India's national newspaper, The Hindu, wrote a wonderful book titled Tamarind City: Where Modern India Began. He was born and brought up in Kanpur, and came to Chennai only when The Hindu hired him a dozen years back. He suggests at the end of his book, some 100,000 words after he started it, that he still cannot figure out Chennai.

Can Dr. Nirvikalpa Natarajan figure out Chennai? Well, I never got around to asking her. She did say, however, that she's been here for three years, but that otherwise she was a Mumbaikar, born and bred.

Ah, another surprise for me in a city of surprises. But maybe it takes an outsider to feel at home in Chennai, and to begin the long journey of deciphering this ancient, modern city. Dr. Natarajan may have already deciphered Chennai through her work: I didn't get around to asking her. But me? I'm still at it. I don't think that I'll finish any time soon, no matter how often I visit. Unless, of course, I decide to move to Chennai. And maybe not even then.