June 29, 2007

Tales Autorickshaw Drivers Tell...

Autorickshaw drivers can be in a loquacious mood when it rains.
Perhaps it is because they make a killing on a day when people desperately seek them out.
I enjoy the company of these drivers. Because they have stories to share.
Not gossip. Real stories.
And imagine how engaging these tales can be when you engage a three-wheeler on a monsoon night and the ride is a long one.
This week, Bhaskar took me home from a lane in north Madras to my quiet neighbourhood in the south. And when I gave him the wrong direction as we negotiated the Adyar bridge, he had a story to tell.
Bhaskar was born and grew up in the middle of 'no where land' in what is today Besant Nagar.

At a time when all that you could see from the edge of Sastri Nagar was a sandy expanse which drowned in the sea and all that you were forced to inhale many times a day was the stench of burning flesh emanating from the graveyard that was to become Besant Nagar's busy electric crematorium.

He lived with a community of dhobis.
For Vannanthurai was a dhobi ghat without walls or limits.

The clean water in the many 'kuttais' which dotted this area was just what the dhobis wanted to wash clean the used linen of the people who lived on the other side of the Adyar river.

For Bhaskar and his teenage friends, there were two exciting diversions in life.
Scout for fruit-bearing trees in the 'thopes' which had not yet been plotted out by the state and plan for a Tamil film at Jayanthi theatre in Thiruvanmiyur village.

Bhaskar was smart when it came to saving money in times when two paise meant a lot.
He would double up to an Adyar firewood shop which sold the wood at a lesser price than at the local shop, and tote up the paises to pay for a place in the sand of what used to be a 'tent' cinema - movies screened inside a tent.

People like Bhaskar have lots of stories on our neighbourhoods. Origins, geography, history, lifestyle, development, people, community life . . . .
Put together, these stories can contribute to the social history of our neighbourhoods.
Perhaps I should invest in an audio recording gizmo and click it on when the stories begin to roll.
I don't have to worry about the fare meter.
The auto drivers of our city are nice guys. You only have to engage them in a wonderful story and they will take whatever you give them.

June 22, 2007

Community Newsletters: The Probus Club example

A variety of newsletters are received at our offices.
And I never fail to give them some attention. For, quite often, between paras and beneath columns are delightful nuggets of information to consume.
'Probuzz . . .' is a monthly newsletter of the Probus Club of Chennai. This club is an association of retired government officers, businesspeople and professionals.
Their haunt is the Russian Cultural Centre, a campus in the shadow of Chola Sheraton hotel.
Dr. Balambal, a resident of K. K. Nagar, a professor of history, is Probus Club's president currently.
She is also an enthusiastic promoter of traditional Indian games and is often travelling to some corner of the country or the world to talk on 'pallan kuzhi' and 'daya-kattam'.
Earlier this year, we invited her to organise a traditional game corner for the annual Mylapore Festival and ever since, she has been a well wisher.
I guess she also makes sure that we receive a copy of 'Probuzz . . .'
The ten-page newsletter runs like a well-prepared government document with sections, sub- sections and carefully marked sub-headings.
Reading it may not be easy on the eye but there is an amazing amount of information in this monthly.
Besides the minutes of Probus meetings, birthdays and wedding anniversaries and events lined up for the month and reportage on those that went by, this compact newsletter discusses issues like health insurance, pension for seniors and the pluses and minuses of reverse mortgage schemes.
The editorial team also snipes news reports which touch on issues that affect senior citizens and posts them in the newsletter.
One 'Probuzz . . .' issue highlighted a government order of the state of Maharashtra which directed all state-run hospitals in city corporations and municipalities to provide free investigations and treatment to all persons who are 60+.
One of the nice acts of the Probus Club is to visit its sick members. Even these visits are recorded in the newsletter.
I am sure the editorial team does not publish this for the sake of publicity.
Rather, this tidbit could enthuse others to volunteer.
In this day of electronic communication, these little, printed newsletters connect warmly.
If you are part of a community, and still have not got a newsletter going, time to design one.
If you need a few tips, the 'Probuzz . . .' editor, S. Ranganatha Rao should be of help.
Call him on 2499 5290.

June 15, 2007

Writing social histories . . .

When do you get nostalgic?
When you turn fifty or when you read of the 'good old days'?
Ms. D'Costa of San Thome was certainly going down memory lane when she read my column last week.
She corrected me - the Chinese restaurant I referred to was not Nanking but Southern Chinese. And the Nanking I mentioned was the famed restaurant in Royapettah, close to New College.
Well, Ms. D'Costa had to get nostalgic because she was the manager at that popular eat-out for almost two decades, had served the big guns in politics and the popular stars of the film world and got an insight into the Chinese community of our city.
Nanking opened in the early 70s, almost the same time that Hotel Chola Sheraton opened for business on Cathedral Road.
But its owner had moved to this city probably in the 40s. A respected man, he was considered to be the elder and the godfather of the Chinese community.
The Chinese I had known were the dentists whose clinics dotted Evening Bazaar, on that section of the road between Memorial Hall and Handloom House.
Then there were the well-known shoe makers of the community. One nook which never escaped my eyes was the shop close to the Thousand Lights mosque.
Ms. D'Costa tells me that the younger Chinese who have stayed on in the city run a few dentist clinics on Ellis Road ( now that is one road which has colourful stories to share if you have the time to walk down this alley!).
Nanking does not exist anymore but the memories that Ms D'Costa treasures should find a place in a document on the Chinese community of Madras.
We need lots and lots of documents on the people, landmarks, businesses, public places and activities of this city.
They can be notes in diaries, pages in a blog or typewritten sheets neatly filed.
For, these are the documents which tell the stories of a city and its people.
A 'sasthiabthapoorthi' in your family should prompt you to start penning your family history. The expansion of your business is just the time to think of publishing a booklet on your enterprise. The annual day of your 'nagar' should motivate you to write about its early days and its first residents.
Ms. D'Costa's conversation has given me something to think over.
'New Peking' was the first Chinese restaurant which opened in Secunderabad.
Today, 'Nanking' is the most popular destination there I understand.
If you love food, perhaps you should begin a series on the histories of our restaurants.

June 08, 2007

Walking down Mount Road . . .

Which is your favourite road or street?
Mine is Mount Road. They call it Anna Salai today.
For me, it was, is and will be Mount Road.
I spent two decades and a half on and off Mount Road; so when I get time and the mad rush-hour traffic has died down, I take a short walk down a stretch of this road.
Sometimes from the Simpsons end to the subway near the statue of Annadurai which once was the address of two city landmarks - Elphinstone Theatre and Jaffers Ice Creams.
Sometimes, I do the stretch from Spencers to Thousand Lights.
Recently, I did this stretch in the reverse.
I started walking north from the Greames Road end. A slow walk allows you to take in the streetscape and the landmarks that may have impinged on you. You have the time to stop and stare. Or linger.
And that is what I did when I was in the Thousand Lights area.
I wasn't impressed by the all-glass newly constructed multi-storeyed building a private bank had occupied.
Wasn't this the place where our favourite Chinese restaurant Nanking once stood?
Was it Nanking or did it go by some other name?
It didn't matter. Nor did it when those decorated, engraved doors of this restaurant seemed to cast a spell on a bunch of teenagers, as if it was the door into the unknown and the foreign.
But once inside, it was just like home. And when the Anglo-Indian steward switched over to rock 'n roll on an outdated music system, he had set the mood for a large dinner.
We did not get a hint that Nanking had to face the bulldozers. One night, after watching a movie at Sathyam Cinemas, we walked down to our favourite foodie nook and found that the wreckers had been at work.
Personal landmarks disappear over time and yet a road or a street or a precinct often retains a little of its charm, its possession, its treasures.
They survive for another generation.
And it is for this generation that the 'Namma Mylapore' group is about to offer a unique project for the schools of this neighbourhood in the new academic year. A classroom session devoted to sharing the history and heritage of the area and its relation to our lives today. Followed by a ninety-minute walk that takes students to the temple, the tank, the inner lanes, the tiled houses and the landmarks of the area.
Perhaps, similar projects can be undertaken by local schools in their neighbourhoods.
Simple ones. 'Nizhal', an NGO, recently took a group around Gandhi Nagar in Adyar to 'discover' all the trees in the area. And the students had a good time.
By the way, if you know something more on the Nanking folks, do leave a post on my blog.

June 01, 2007

June is for Charity

Teenager Anuradha is worried.
Her school re-opens next week and she is not sure if her parents will send her back to her old school.
Last fortnight, her family and dozens of others were told to move out of the banks of the Adyar river where they had lived for over a decade. The state agencies had to clear the encroachments on the river, full at times, and stinking at times.
Some of them raised a cry, some pleaded. But the men from the government said they all had to go. Someone said they were being cleared up because a new road has been planned on the river bank.
Anuradha attended a school in San Thome. The family at the apartment where her mother worked as a maid had arranged for her admission and funded her studies and the girl had enjoyed going to school.
Now, her family would have to move to the suburbs where they would be given a tiny apartment.
But Anuradha wonders if she will have the energy to travel to the San Thome school she loves so much.
Amongst us are many Anuradhas who are perhaps in a dilemma.
School or employment? Move on to the Plus Two or discontinue studies?
Make do with a uniform that is tearing at the seam or borrow money from a kindly neighbour to stitch a new set?
June is a time for charity.
The teachers at a middle school which we support in small ways sent us a list before the school closed for the summer holidays.
A list of needs and wants for the new academic year.
There was a list for school uniforms. And a list for note-books. A list for teachers for extra- curricular activities. And a list of children who needed a simple breakfast they could not afford.
The Head Mistress, a nun, said - If you cannot do everything for us, please help us with the school uniforms.
Perhaps for 200 kids. Or maybe for 100 kids. Or if that wasn't possible, for 75.
June is a time for charity.
There are hundreds of children in our neighbourhoods who need our help. Our support. So that they may go to school like you and I have.
And there are our youths who have done well in their Board exams, have set their sights on higher studies but do not have the means to realise their goal.
June is a time for charity.
Just look around you and you will find Anuradha.
By the way, if you have come across unique efforts that a community group has made to educate neighbourhood kids, do share this story here!
I know of one - Thursday Ladies Club in Besant Nagar.