Chip On The Shoulder Much, Lonely Planet: South India?

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“Chennai has neither the cosmopolitan, prosperous air of Mumbai (Bombay), the optimistic buzz of Bengaluru (Bangalore) or the historical drama of Delhi. It’s muggy, polluted, hot as hell and difficult to get around. Traditional tourist attractions are few. Even the movie stars are, as one Chennaiker put it, “not that hot”.

The opening paragraph of the section on Chennai — or Chennai (Madras), I should say. I mean, Chennaiker? Hello? I’m no Chennai apologist, but do your damn research at the very least before you dive into the dissing, Amy Karafin.

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18 responses

  1. Sharanya, who are you to question Lonely Planet, heh? Just because you lived in/and are living in, or visit Chennai often, you cannot preach to the Lonely Planet writers.
    You see, they are *visitors*, unlike you – a resident. They know India, Chennai better. Here’s how. They spend 3-4 months a year in Rajasthan living exotic lives in palaces that deny Indians entry. They go to Taj Mahal at least once every year and take photos for printing on glossy paper.
    They come to Madras for a week, of which they spend 3 days in Mahabalipuram living in expensive hotels where they get served world-class steaks and burgers to their rooms.
    Then they go to the beaches and see the odd cow and naked child and they have a moment of epiphany in which all is revealed. They *know* Chennai. They know Madras. They know India.

    Of course, because we are all boring Chennaikers, we don’t refer to ourselves as Chennaikers. We don’t even refer to ourselves as Chennaiites like some of our more gifted (urban space wise) cousins in the neighbouring states call us. But the problem is us, not Lonely Planet.

    And I take offence to your implied disbelief in the statement that Chennai is not polluted. I have no facts to state that Chennai is polluted, and I am sure Amy doesn’t either, but unlike you, we both *believe* it is polluted. We say so, and it is.

    Of course Bangalore has optimistic buzz – what else will you call the sound of 1000 cars stuck in a traffic jam waiting to go home? See, Madras doesn’t have that buzz. Nor is it cosmopolitan – we only have tamils, telegus, kannadigas, marwaris, sindhis, marathis, malayalis, biharis, germans, italians, english and others living in this city and making money and having fun. But is that cosmopolitan enough? Yes, auto drivers in North Madras speak Hindi but is that cosmopolitan enough? Yes, our pubs and bars play jazz, rock and other kinds of music, they even play Om Shanthi Om songs more often than tamil film songs, but is that cosmopolitan enough? You see, it is not Mumbai, therefore is not cosmopolitan enough. And history? What history can Chennai claim? Besides being the first major city the British built in India, besides it 1000 year old temples and 500 year old churches and 200 year old mosques and ancient port towns and stone-age settlements, what history can Chennai claim? The city has absolutely no history, which is why even the Portuguese thought it not wise to give Santhome away as dowry to the British king, opting instead to give them Bombay. The city has no history whatsoever, which is why almost all of Independent India’s institutions had to be founded in Madras. The city has no history or why else would the British pioneer the architectural style of Indo-Saracenic, fusing muslim/persian styles with the classical styles of south India, in Madras?

    So, please, YOU do your homework first before you go on an uncalled-for attack against the patron saints of modern travellers – the Lonely Planet writers.

  2. Sharanya,

    One perfectly understands and shares your indignation. I’ve heard stories about how on an occasion or two, detailed accounts have been conjured up (in that illustrious publication , Lonely Planet) by a writer who has never ever set foot in the place.

    In my opinion, they have undoubtedly, a very american perspective. And at times like this, it is so apparent. Clearly, they have no cognition of what constitutes our culture and our city, flawed though they both are.

    Besides, summing up a city like that has to simply be disregarded, it is just sloppy travel writing. Any writer worth his salt knows that you cannot make such sweeping statements about a place because nothing is ever that simple and if you make it sound that way, you’ve clearly not understood it.

    Lastly, @ ravages : that was an enjoyable and delightfully fact-filled rant.. I vastly enjoyed it.

  3. there is very less in Chennai from a traveler / tourist point of view as compared to other city’s
    so if somebody is coming from half way around the world they deserve to know the facts even though they sound harsh for locals and that’s fine as it’s their home. but you have to understand.
    tourists have a right to know the true facts, you have to keep mind people travel during vacation time which is limited, so the book helps them to make the best use of it.

    Amy i think you would have got bad and angry comments even if you had written only good things about Chennai.

    but they would be form some tourist stuck in hot, muggy, polluted street having a hard time Auto drivers.

  4. Dear Unknown123

    How right you are! How absolutely scintillating-ly, piercingly intelligent you must be to cut through all of our pointless blogging and drive straight to the point. To wit: There’s very little information about Chennai in Amy’s piece.
    For that, and that alone, I bow to thee.

    Of course, Amy – poor girl – cannot aspire to fill all that gap in the knowledge about Madras/Chennai. Of course, to give her credit, she has valiantly tried to give out information – wrong as it may be – about the city, perhaps applying the ‘any information including factually wrong information is better than none’ school of thought.

    So, Unknown123, it falls on your shoulders (I am not sure if they are broad and capable, having never met you) to support and continue the great work Amy’s doing. Please, please do supply information about Chennai. Let prissy prosaic pedants worry about factual accuracy and other minor things. Let the world know about Chennai, even if the Chennai you and Amy know is not the Chennai that exists.

  5. I think what “Ravages” is trying to say, however overtly defensive and sore he seems, is that if Amy Karafin was actually speaking facts, then facts we shall accept. But her lack of research, or at least objective journalistic viewpoint, is so evident in this case that there is no reason to accept what she says as fact. Karafin should remember she is not blogging. She’s writing travel journalism.

  6. I think Unknon123 makes a good point. Being a traveller myself with a full-time job and thus very limited vacation time, I turn to both personal recommendations and travel guides to give me a taste of what I can expect from a locale. No one should take other opinions as pure fact, but instead use them as input while planning their own journey.

    In this vein, and with this mindset, I think many of us find the LP guides useful. Can we get to truly know any place in a few days? Of course not– but by using the books and advice of the authors smartly, we can try to find the jewels which will shine brightest for our own interests. Clearly we will miss out on many places which perhaps can be wonderful if we had more time to scratch beneath the surface, but until our jobs and vacation allotment changes, the current method will have to suffice.

    It’s the same method you might use if you came to visit the U.S. for two weeks — 3,537,441 square miles and only two weeks to visit? Impossible, without some kind of (admittedly imperfect) vetting system. Travel guides and writers just try to give a broad overview, from which we can make our own decisions.

    Also, I think the vitriol on this post, and from some of the other commenters, is unnecessary and incredibly mean.

  7. Okay, am getting sick of this thread. Jumping in to say a couple of things. First of all, I pretty much hate Chennai on most days. However, I wouldn’t LIE and say that it has no history or places of interest — both of which it does, as Ravages’ first comment points out. That’s the problem with Karafin’s write-up. She doesn’t like Chennai? Cool, neither do I. But if I was assigned to help out tourists who may have already wound up there, and are looking at what they may consider to be an authoritative source, I would make the effort to make their visit pleasant (I had as a matter of fact been assigned exactly this in the recent past, by a newspaper in Singapore). A tourist in Chennai for three days could have a terrific experience of the city. Much more so than someone like me who lives here does.

    Secondly, I am rather intrigued by the number of recent visitors to this blog who’ve wound up here looking for terms like “karafin chennaiker” and such. Is there a mailing list somewhere to protect the honour of Ms. Karafin or something?

  8. I know Amy, and I’m a fellow Lonely Planet writer. I’m commenting here not just to stick up for Amy, but for LP writers in general.

    I wish our job involved lounging around luxury hotels and being pampered, and only occasionally rousing ourselves to write damning summaries of lesser-known cities.

    In fact, we travel, on a strict budget, and pay our whole way. No freebies, no getting kissed up to. We work 16-18 hour days on the road–it is not a paid vacation. (You can see more specs on my job on my blog, under “Travails of a Guidebook Author”.)

    I haven’t been to Chennai, and I haven’t even seen the India guide. But I can bet that the paragraph that follows the one Sharanya quotes begins “But…” and goes on to describe some of the very nice things about Chennai.

    How do I know? Because I wrote something similar about Cairo in 2007:

    “The crowds on a Cairo sidewalk make Manhattan look like a ghost town. You will be hounded by papyrus sellers at every turn. Your life will flash before your eyes each time you venture across a street. And your snot will run black from the smog.”

    Any Cairene would be indignant to read that, of course.

    But I follow it with:

    “But it’s a small price to pay, to visit the city Cairenes call Umm ad-Dunya – ‘the mother of the world’. This city has an energy, palpable even at three in the morning, like no other…” and go on to mention many of the city’s attractions.

    Part of the trick of writing an intro to a place that’s not immediately stunning (which means anywhere but, say, Paris?) is that you have to address some of the negative impressions a traveler will likely have–so you, the author, seem like you know what you’re talking about and you’re not hopelessly naive. Then you can go on to convince people what’s likable about a place.

    Basically, it’s a rhetorical device–not a blanket insult.

    Sharanya, it would be great if you’d post the next paragraph in Amy’s introduction. I’d honestly like to know what it says.

  9. Zora — Firstly, I don’t have the book with me. It belonged to an American I met somewhere else in the country. So I can’t quote the remainder of the write-up, but the opening paragraph was all that left an impression, which means that even as a rhetorical device that would be a big fail. As a writer and journalist myself, I’m not so stupid as to not look beyond the opener of an article – there is nothing I remember from the rest of Amy’s that justified its insulting factual inaccuracy. Are you honestly comparing ““The crowds on a Cairo sidewalk make Manhattan look like a ghost town. You will be hounded by papyrus sellers at every turn. Your life will flash before your eyes each time you venture across a street. And your snot will run black from the smog.” to Amy’s opening paragraph? Your opener to Cairo makes me want to go there. It’s descriptive and well-written, and doesn’t resort to cheap shots like insulting the way we look. It doesn’t damn the city’s entire history or make truly laughable parallels.

    Is Cairene the proper term for the people of Cairo? I suspect it is. See, Chennaiker isn’t. How someone could spend a genuinely engaged and curious spell in the city, meet its people and not know that is beyond me.

    So there IS a Defend Amy Brigade! Or should I say, a Defend “bad writing that makes even a committed Chennai-phobe stick up for it” Brigade. Goodness. Maybe I should stop feeding the trolls.

  10. Lucky Amy. Someone makes a remark and the whole tribe has to drop by to mount a defence?
    Insecure much?

  11. You’re clearly convinced of the insult to Chennai–I won’t talk you out of that, I guess. I do hope I have at least partially convinced you that we LP writers aren’t total lazy bums. I can assure you Amy is not.

    But will you or someone else here please freakin’ tell me what the proper term for a Chennai resident is? I’d hate to say the wrong thing whenever I do get around to visiting your city, as it seems to be something that drives the locals insane!

  12. @OnlyTheLonely: There’s a Defend Guidebook Authors brigade, and it doesn’t stem from insecurity. It stems from us getting tired of being slagged off by people who think our job is easy and we don’t take it seriously.

    Sharanya, a little Googling turns up a bit more of the intro, which honestly is just not all that damning:

    “But then, the residents are a little friendlier than average here, the streets a little wider, and, in spite of its booming IT, business-outsourcing and auto industries, the pace much slower than that of most Indian cities half its size. Chennai is so modest you wouldn’t even know it’s an economic powerhouse, much less a queen of showbiz: India’s fourth-largest city is also its most humble.”

    While that wouldn’t make me put Chennai on the top of my list for my yet-to-be-made India trip, it also wouldn’t make me skip it. It sounds like a nice place, and maybe a welcome break.

    (Please, please–I’m not kidding about the Chennai-ist/ene/ite/iya/ero. Explain!)

  13. Zora — Chennaiite is preferred. We sometimes call ourselves Madrasi but that’s a reclamation of a formerly politically incorrect term, so try to avoid it! :) And do say hi if you come to India! Thanks for finding the rest of the article. It may not be damning but it is not by any means memorable enough to make the first one seem tongue in cheek – and it doesn’t actually say anything useful about what the city has to offer to a tourist (business outsourcing and economic powerhouse sound like things in Wikipedia article). By the way, please don’t assume that every time someone has a bone to pick with a travel writer it’s because of a perception that they don’t take their work seriously. I remember when I saw this article I flipped to Amy’s bio and was surprised that it said she spends a lot of time in India. There was such a chauvinism to her words – and it was precisely that that I took issue with.

  14. Hey Lonely Planet! Amy is not the only one with friends. Obviously since you think Sharanya’s blog is some kind of formidable force that could bring you down (so you send your minions to comment away in defence), why don’t you hire HER to rewrite your Chennai section? She keeps saying she’s not a fan of the city but she knows it well enough to write something more intelligent. Plus she’s penned the best piece of English prose ever written on the city in the entire history of English prose on the city: https://sharanyamanivannan.wordpress.com/2008/02/25/a-valentine-to-the-city/

    And Sharanya, just turn off comments on this post, girl. I hope you’re getting a laugh at least.

  15. YIKES! I am turning off comments right now. I just checked the stats and had a ridiculous number of views for “sharanya manivannan + chennai is muggy” today. That’s on top of the various other related search terms and the amount of time certain commentators spent on this page. Let it go, people. Lonely Planet vs Random Blogger? Why so pedantic? I’ve been on the receiving end of criticism too, you know. I know it hurts. But I also know better than to respond to the vast majority of it, which will only beget even more criticism, which ultimately is just a kind of rubbing salt in to one’s own wounds. That’s it.
    (P.S. Chennai IS muggy. And hot!)