A friend visiting Chennai expressed surprise that many restaurants here continued to serve snacks in stainless steel plates and coffee in stainless steel “tumblers’, and naturally attributed this practice to a South Indian fetish for anything glossy. Such preferences have deep cultural roots and defy explanation, we agreed. Coming to think of it, I have my coffee only in stainless steel ‘tumblers’ when I am at home.
My friend’s observation reminded me of an article written by Prof T.G.Vaidyanathan many years back. I managed to trace it in a book that contained a collection of his essays. Here is an extract from a piece titled “ The Stainless Steel Culture” written by the author after he attended a prize-distribution ceremony in Chennai, in which the prizes given away were – stainless steel buckets of different sizes.
The presence of stainless steel (or, should I rather say, ‘eversilver’ to give the shining metal its telltale Tamilian nomenclature) is ubiquitous to the Tamil heartland. Its unquestioned and commanding presence at weddings in the shape of the girl’s dowry is too well known to bear repetition here. Humble brass, delicate bronze and sacred, immemorial copper have long since fallen by the wayside and have now been relegated to some forgotten limbo of the mind. That ruthless and rampaging usurper, stainless steel, is now king. Long live, stainless steel. Swept unceremoniously under the carpet are those poor brass and bronze tumblers and coffee filters and dhamaras (small round containers with tiny protective walls) in and through which one first imbibed that magic South Indian brew: “decoction coffee”. No more bronze lamps or bronze bells for worship, In fact, no more vigrahams (idols) either in that sacred combination of metals (panchalokam). An unholy and satanic effect has imperiously ordained that henceforth every single thing on earth shall be in stainless steel and stainless steel only. What we are silently heading for is the ruthless dictatorship of one proud metal in place of the old, lazy democracy of several peacefully coexisting metals. One can only fervently pray that the gods themselves will be spared the final ignominy of being cast in stainless steel and be allowed to remain in humble stone at least in temples. But, who knows?
And he wrote this is 1991.