September 26, 2008

Food Hubs and Local Histories . .

I re-visited Mount Road recently. To check out Bombay Halwa House, once our favourite destination.
As the name suggests, this place is known for its halwa. But there are a few other things on its menu which has drawn people for over 50 years.
Bread and peas masala is one.
I was there on a Sunday and the young man who was in charge did not seem to be in a particularly good mood.
I had hoped to engage him in a conversation and catch up with the House's recent development. I failed.
Wonder if it was the rain which had affected his business or was he simply bored with this trade?
Restaurants and eating joints have a lot to do with our lives. What they do, how they entertain people and their colourful histories tell us who we are.
I wanted to check out another place. Yes, an eating place in the busy Thousand Lights area of Mount Road.
The Irani Restaurant, a hole in the wall, was the last refuge of all those who had closed work after 11 p.m. and wanted to satiate their hunger with simple, hot, good food. Parathas and mutton kurma or ‘paya’.
This Irani which had maybe six tables would be busy at that time. And this was the pre-BPO and IT boom era.
The Irani, which morphed into something unremarkable, is no more on the map of our city.
This Navaratri I intend to explore the Mint Street and Sowcarpet area to find out if the old has given way to the new and why.
The street food business is still alive and well in those parts. And a few new restaurants have opened up, offering authentic Gujarati and Marwari food.
The festival season should be the best time to explore.
One area where street food can become a huge draw if some things were done right is the Triplicane-Zam Bazaar hub.
You may not get the best biriyani and kebabs here now because the fast food joints compromise a lot.
But if we were to clean up the inner streets after dusk, cut off the traffic, put out the tables and benches and begin cooking in the nooks, we would have a great food destination.

September 20, 2008

Walking Classes Unite

Here is an opportunity to tell the city Corporation why it should respect its citizens.

Citizens who walk to exercise, to shop, to run errands and to go and meet friends and relatives.Keep a date this Sunday with a group which calls itself 'Walking Classes Unite'.

Karen Coelho and her supporters are the prime movers behind this simple campaign. A campaign to get back our sidewalks, our pavements.

Karen who researches and teaches at the MIDS in Adyar has done extensive work on the basic amenities provided to people in north Madras. She has now focused on the walking classes. Karen and Venkat and the rest ran a campaign on the OMR, now Rajiv Gandhi Salai, in the Thiruvanmiyur section, some time ago. They invited some young people who attend rehab and training sessions at 'Vidya Sagar' because they are children with special needs.

The group started at one end of the OMR pavement and made a note of the obstructions, cracks, ups and downs, width and other such features of this pavement. It was in some ways an audit. You can imagine the results - this was certainly not a pavement even normal people can use.

On Sunday, September 21, the Walking Classes group is launching a bigger campaign. They want all of us who care to assemble at the Triumph of Labour statue on the Marina at 4.30 p.m. and walk on the pavement till a point in the sands of Srinivasapuram off Foreshore Estate. Hopefully, this campaign will lead to more sustained efforts to impress on the City Fathers the need to build proper pavements. And the efforts will bear fruit if the campaign is localised and intensified. There are a few core issues though.

One - a blatant plan by the city's civic body to reduce pavements to mere appendages of main roads ( there are places alongside the flyover in Alwarpet where the apology is reduced to about five inches!).

Two - does one tackle encroachment and misuse of sidewalks by converting them into roadside green spaces?

Three - why have councillors in most zones of our city approved proposals to redo sidewalks in inner colonies where people do not need them at all?

Karen and Co. have a long campaign ahead. Give them a hand please instead of cribbing.

September 12, 2008

Whose job is it anyway?

Is it my job to react when I see a vandalised avenue tree?
I have and I am wondering how far I can go on this.
My response follows what we have been doing at our community newspapers for some years now.
Covering civic issues and community-elected leaders a bit closely.
We have reported on the last two civic body elections.
We have wriggled our way into the counting centre to report firsthand on the atmosphere and the process and told the story of violence and ballot tampering at this level.
The reportage may not have made a huge impact.
But it has not stopped us from keeping the focus.
When our resources allow for it, we sit on the fringe of the meetings of our ward councillors and put out details of the projects they propose for you and me.
Some people may wonder if we are wasting costly newsprint on such coverage.
I don't think so.
Besides providing vital information, such reportage provides the more responsible amongst us to take a closer look at the proposals, engage with the councillors or officers and ensure that the best is provided for the community.
There have been occasions when letters in the media and pointed questions raised by the people have got our local leaders to make changes for the better. But these, I must admit, are few and far between.
So when I found that an avenue in my neighbourhood was to be widened as so may others were being proposed, I took a closer look at what the officers had in mind for our community.
And found that the men and women who did the hard work had dug up parts of the roots of almost all the old avenue trees that gave the road some character, lots of shade and greenery.
I called up the Corporation's zonal officer. This man sticks to his job and is at it. But you can never get access to him. His cellphone has a melodious spiritual song and the voice box overflows.
So, I send a letter to him, suggesting ways in which we should protect these trees.
But I don't hear from him.
So I courier a letter to the Commissioner, an SOS.
For a week now, the entire work on this road has come to a standstill.
Not because of my letter surely.
And I wonder if the Big Boss would have asked his officers to show some concern for the trees.
Meanwhile, I get an environmental activist to examine the trees and suggest the simplest way to allow aeration even as the road is relaid / expanded. I share it with the Corporation zonal office.
I don't hear from there.
Am I feeling dejected? Defeated?
I only wish ten others also played their roles in the community.

September 05, 2008

Raja Seetharaman: R. I. P

The Gods did love him. And they have called him to be with them.
Raja Seetharaman died on Wednesday night.
And we have lost a young man who worked tirelessly for this city.
He died in an accident on the premises of the Mambalam railway station. And when the news trickled to us from the GH mortuary on Thursday morning, all of us who worked closely with him went numb.
I did too.
On Sunday we had met at the formal release of the first part of a three-volume gazetteer on 400 years of Madras that is Chennai produced by the Association of British Scholars in India, a finale to the Madras Day celebrations. And we had chatted for long over coffee - on how we could, in 2009, take to north Madras an exhibition that he and colleague D. H. Rao had put together at the Rajaji Hall in the Government Estates this year.
Raja was his buoyant self that evening. He was dead three days later.
He had invited me to his splendid house in Chintadripet (chinna tari pettai) on many occasions and here I was at his place to attend his funeral. In a heritage house which had also been a stop for people who had taken part in the Walking Tour of Chintadripet that V. Sriram had conducted for Madras Day 2008. Hardly a fortnight ago.
On Thursday, Iyyah Mudali Street was for mourners.
Raja was a passionate collector of coins, postage materials and wedding invitations.
But he rarely showed off his collection.
Instead, he was a tireless worker and organiser. The sort of man who went many extra miles to ensure that a show on the city's history/heritage was a good one.
He was on stage at Rajaji Hall a fortnight ago, launching that exhibition for Madras Day and rewarding us with a special postal cover he and Rao had helped to bring out.
We will miss Raja.
But all of us who work in small ways for this city hope to do some thing in his memory.
I wish our city-based newspapers would recognise men and women like Raja.
They rarely do.
When I suggested to a reporter of 'The Hindu' that a tribute be published, I was told that since Raja was not a celebrity his editors would not buy the story.
Our media does not believe in celebrating our own people. People who go out of their way to contribute to this city.
It is busy chasing celebrities at nightclubs and hotels.
And this attitude is a real shame.
Tributes to men and women of substance, of our city are a must. I hope our newspapers and our community recognise this.