September 29, 2006

City getting ready for Local body elections

If you aren't interested in getting involved in local elections then you don't have the right to crib about overflowing sewers and complain about dead streetlights.

In a fortnight, we will have yet another opportunity to vote for a person to represent our local issues in our city council.

And if we take some interest in the campaign that has begun, we should be able to know who the candidates are and what they stand for.

If you are expecting some outstanding people of the neighbourhood to be in the fray, banish the thought. It will be a long time before educated, spirited and politically-aware citizens convince themselves that they too have a role to play in grassroots politics and community development.

That does not mean you are left with a pack of nobodies or jokers.

The men and women who are in the fray may not be people you can easily relate to but they could have a positive role to pay in our community if we are also prepared to get involved.

Unfortunately, few of us wish to spare time on public issues.

On a wet Monday this week, curiosity drove me to a meeting that had been called by a body which calls itself 'Citizens' Alliance for Good Governance'. This seems to be an umbrella of bodies made up of retired government officials, social activists, consumer activists and the like.

In the chair was a former bureaucrat, A. K. Venkatasubramanian, who has devoted the past years of his retired life to public causes and one of them is to get people to get involved in the grassroot political process.

To encourage community leaders, to get people to cast votes in an election and drive people in community action.

Venkat was obviously disappointed all over again. This was a meeting called to rouse community leaders to get involved in the elections to the city council.

But on that rainy evening, there were less than a dozen men - men who head residents' associations in different parts of the city.

It is this insular attitude that encourages the goondas of the land to run our lives.

I still cannot forget one evening, five years ago inside the Anna University campus, where counting of votes in the 2001 Corporation elections was on. Goondas swarmed the halls in the evening, police officers melted in the dark the election observer slipped away and the stooges of a political party went about toying with the ballots to ensure their people won.

The issue was taken to court and the petitioners were local citizens.
The irony is that the case which relates to that particular election has still not been decided.
In the last city council, most people who were elected won only less than 10% of the votes.
Do we still want to sit tight and wish for good things to happen to us in our neighbourhoods?

September 22, 2006

Sports coach A. J. DeSouza is no more.

My friends are forcing me to write their obituaries.
One more has joined the Lord. And if saint Peter is still keeping him waiting at the door of heaven, the saint will not have to expend time with a bore.
For A. J. DeSouza could tickle anyone with his endless stream of jokes.
And AJ, as all of us who loved him, called him left us with a big joke. Saying goodbye when we least expected him to give up the ghost.
I am terribly upset because a fortnight ago he called me up to say he was happy that the 'Madras Day' idea was growing in strength. I had promised to join him at his Anna Nagar house for a drink. That wasn't to be.
AJ was one of our biggest supporters. He loved the way we were producing the neigbourhood newspapers and he said so from the bottom of his heart.
This city needs to salute AJ because he was one of the few sports coaches who dedicated his entire life to sport.
He was a top-class athlete in college and much later, with the famed Ken Bosen, a national and celebrated athletics coach to guide him, took to athletics coaching in this city, though he held a full time job.
On the Marina, at Rajarathinam Stadium in Egmore, at the YMCA campus in Nandanam . . . AJ was present wherever athletes trained and competed. And behind him would be scores of youngsters who were driven by a passion to excel.
He loved to nurture sportspeople. The Don Bosco Athletics Club (DBAC) was his baby. He spent days and nights planning, networking, hosting and executing an annual athletics championship in the city exclusively for children. Everything set to Olympian guidelines - be it the chest numbers, the registration procedures, the technical details.
I remember sitting through one of his championships held at the newly-built stadium behind Ripon Buildings. Kiddies were all over the place - on the field and on the tracks and in the galleries. And in a nook sat AJ, looking the ringmaster that he was, as he ran the show the way it should be.
He was straight, blunt and played by the rules. And he was passionate. So, he had few friends in the evening of his life.
In retirement, he authored a slew of books on athletics, some of which the international athletics body recognised. But he was pained that his countrymen had sidelined him.
Whenever we met, he talked of promoting sport and outdoor activity in the neighbourhood playgrounds. And wondered how local newspapers could lend a hand here.
What could be a nice way to remember people like AJ?

September 15, 2006

Storytellers on Chennai's roads

Autorickshaw drivers are great story-tellers.
Wave them down in the late hours of the day and engage them for a fifteen-minute ride and you have a story they will share almost instantaneously.
One such story has gone on to inspire a Thamizh feature film.
'Auto' will be released very soon and it is made by a young husband-wife team of film makers who met when they were at a course in visual communications at Loyola College.
I am not a first-day first-show film addict but after having read articles on the film and the film makers, I think I am going to be in the dark hall as soon as 'Auto' is released. And in there, I may want to see if the film has twists and turns which my autorickshaw friends have shared with me all these years.
Another date that I hope to keep is at the no-holds-barred, no-rules-allowed autorickshaw races which are conducted in the wee hours of a weekend on highways on the fringe of the city.
One driver from Adyar who claims to lend a hand to his racing friend has promised to alert me to what is said to be a daredevil act. "If you crash and you die, thats it. You die!" he exclaimed as he took me through the background on this adventure sport.
Racers spend as much as 20,000 rupees outfitting their autorickshaws with all sorts of gadgets that turn the machines into terrestrial rockets after the machine has been stripped of the stuff that gives them some sanity on Chennai's roads.
You may get a sense of these races in 'Auto', the film.
But there are harsh stories that the drivers have been sharing more recently.
And these have given me a sense of the displacement of entire communities.
Since I head south to get home, I come across drivers who are also heading home and in the same direction. But for them 'home' is a new address. Places like Okkiam and Semmenchery, dark colonies converted from wastelands, way inside from the fashionably named OMR - Old Mahabalipuram Road.
These are colonies where rows and rows of tiny apartment blocks have been raised by the state to accommodate two categories of communities. All those who lived in huts along the banks of the canals that run through this city and were uprooted up in one civic drive or the other. And the hundreds whose huts were swept away by the sea when the tsunami hit the shores of Foreshore Estate in December 2004.
The state may have given these people a new place they can call home but at what cost?
Almost all of them must travel miles to the city if they are to keep their bodies and souls together. Women who worked as maids and hawkers and odd-job hands; men who drove autos, worked on construction sites or provided domestic services.
To them, Okkiam and Semmenchery is still a dark land.
And the autorickshaw drivers who have been displaced have only dark stories to share.

September 09, 2006


Some of the most colourful people I come across are found in the sabhas.
Rather, in the halls and auditoriums which are the venues for classical music and dance programmes.
They could be fodder for a hungry cartoonist or a worthy companion for an inquisitive rasika.
One man who always caught my attention at sabha events was K. S. Mahadevan.
A wisp of a person, KSM, as his admirers and friends used to call him, was well in his 80s when I began to sight him at kutcheris.
Mahadevan was an arts critic, reviewing music and dance performances and writing an occasional feature.
As a critic, he had a thumb rule of sorts - criticism had to be positive and had to be made in a manner that would be useful to the artiste, be it a singer, an instrumentalist or a dancer.
You must have heard of the fiery Subbudu, another critic most people disliked and yet read and re-read.
Mahadevan was clearly miles away from the fire-and-brimstone style of reviewing performances.
He had a fund of stories to share. And I was glad that he published a book full of them. Called 'Musings on Music and Musicians', many of his stories on music and musicians found a place in this little book published in December 2003.
It was this publication that prompted me to chat with him and he gifted us a signed copy.
One rare picture in this valuable book has the great MS at a meal at a social function at the famed Shanmukhananda Hall in Bombay ( with which Mahadevan was actively involved in the 50s and 60s) waiting for people to serve food in a shiny, stainless steel plate.
Mahadevan passed away some days ago, having had a long, colourful innings in life.
And I hope all the artistes and sabha folks will get together quickly to host a meeting to pay a tribute to him.
Paying tributes even to ordinary people who have done extraordinary work should become a neighbourhood event. As a community we should pay tributes to local heroes.
I lost a young friend recently. Loy was a Jesuit brother, studying to become a priest and he hailed from my hometown. He made contact with me when he was at the 'Satya Nilayam' campus in Thiruvanmiyur, because among his many passions, was writing. He did a few pieces for our newspapers but got busy working extensively with young people. All through, he would message me via Rediff Bol. He had sent me an invitation to sign up for a new Rediff Messenger tool.
I postponed my response. Loy died two days later. Swallowed by the sea while having a swim on the weekend in Thiruvanmiyur.
I couldn't stay on for that wonderful Mass that his lay brothers and the Jesuits said for Loy at their campus.
But Loy, who always had a smile on his face, will be able to read this tribute in heaven.
As will the wispy Mahadevan.

September 02, 2006

Madras Day finale

Pardon me. I have burdened you with a series on 'Madras Day' and this will be my last for 2006.
I must take you back to last Sunday morning. A morning like no other.
Sunday Mass at 6.15 am.
Breakfast at 7.10 am.
Kick-off of the Mylapore mada veedhis walk for children at 7.30 am.
Picking up Dr. Suresh, archaeologist, at Adyar, 7.50 am.
Kicking off the Fort St. George heritage walk at 8.10 am.
How do we manage to do all this and why do we really do such crazy things?
One of the most satisfying profits of the Madras Day 2006 celebrations has been the positive feedback from young people.
At the end of the second walk around the fort, two members of the Parents-Teachers Association of a school in Nungambakkam want Dr. Suresh and I to do something more for students at this school.
Perhaps a series of talks on the city. Perhaps a few talks on subjects like history and tourism and archaeology and conservation and architecture. Perhaps a few walks inside the fort and in George Towne.
Evidently, there are a whole lot of initiatives we need to take for our young people to get to know this city better.
The group of thirty-plus children who went on a heritage walk around Sri Kapaleeswarar Temple were a highly enthusiastic bunch.
You might dismiss this walk as a Sunday amusement.
Not if you too were on this walk. Because a simple tour like this one exposes the children to a host of topics - heritage and history, architecture and culture, conservation and environment.
Imagine the interest that we could kindle in thousands of school students if all the 25 schools in the Mylapore neighbourhood took out their middle and senior-level students on such a simple tour of this heritage zone.
There was this student of PSBB's Nungambakkam school who pestered me at the schools' heritage project site at Asan Memorial school. His team had done a project on what is popularly called the 'Solar House' on South Mada Street in Mylapore.
His team went one step further - with a borrowed digital camera, these students produced a two-minute film on this house!
The film was an amateurish effort but it prompted us to encourage these youngsters to plan a longer documentary film next year.
A message to share with our teachers and school managers - encourage our children to explore our neighbourhoods and our city.