December 24, 2009

Broadway memories in Christmastime

I located Thomas Rodrigo & Sons in Broadway. And enjoyed the maddening life of this part of George Towne this past week.

Rodrigo does not own property here so it has made its nth shift in the 137 years of its existence. Founded by a man who hailed from deep south and set up shop across the ocean in Colombo, it is now managed by Pius. Rodrigo is not the magic land of statues, crucifixes, crib sets and tabernacles as it used to be.

Pius says he would not be able to make wooden statues because getting workmen even to do the routine ones was now a big problem. And yet, this Christmas dozens of shoppers streamed in to buy crib sets and statues.

Pius has moved his home from Jones Street to Velachery ("you are guaranteed some peace when you get back home") but the chaos of Broadway makes it the place that is unique to our city.

We shopped for buntings and crepe paper on Anderson Street. It was not dirty and shopping was smooth and easy. Everywhere you saw the Chinese invasion - Santa stickers, decorations and star sets.

Refreshed at Rolex where people are always gorging into biryani or parottas and mutton paya or bun-butter-jam, we waited for the rain to subside.

I looked at the expanse of what is now the local bus terminus. Once the famed Fruit Market, Mom would have stared in nostalgia - of the times she shopped here for raisins, cashews and nuts and then crossed over to buy Kashmiri chillies.

George Towne is now for hawkers and the poor. Sell their wares at daytime and crouch under the sunshades and abandoned stores at night - that is what most people of this place do.

Four naughty boys, three in pilgrim black in preparation for Sabarimala, gambolled on the pavement, sharing a glass of Rolex's hot chai.

One broke into a song and aped a character in 'Renigunta' while another respectfully gave an ear to the plea of an aged woman who had called it a day.

The rain did not deter the shoppers.

We made sure the crib set we had bought was safe from the rainwater.

George Towne is a different world on a Sunday morning. Explore it then. You may meet our Renigunta group. But Anderson Street will be quiet.

December 19, 2009

Cribs and Kolu dolls . . .

Paths cross. And they meet at some point.

Thomas Rodgrio & Sons was on my mind.

The shop we turn to at Christmastime.

A friend suggested The Good Pastor Depot run by the Brothers of St. Paul in the Catholic Centre - St. Mary's Cathedral campus.

The Depot offers a variety of greeting cards, decorations and books but you must be an early bird here or else you get boxed in.
Armenian Street itself can box you in, especially on a Tuesday when the faithful queue up to pray at St. Antony's.

Weren't some conferences of The Music Academy held at the community hall of this cathedral? Those were times when George Towne was the hub of commerce, wealth and the arts. When veena Dhanammal was the queen of all she surveyed.

The very hall where grand wedding balls and Christmas parties were held in true European style. . .

Paths cross. And their meetings are significant in local histories.

Thomas Rodrigo has always been with us. For a generation that grew up on Moore Market and festival shopping.

I knew the shop had moved to Broadway, its other hub. But some one said it had moved again.

It was here that we bought the crib sets, the stars, the buntings at Christmastime.

Now, a group wanted their children to jointly create a crib.

With Copenhagen dominating the space, we chose to opt for waste, leftover materials and eco-friendly stuff.

Jesus anyway was not born in a swank hospital.

But we couldn't skip Rodrigo.

It was a mini Moore Market by itself and kids would love to explore it.

And as we chose to leave, we met a family whose daughter was here from the USA.

The lady was heading for Ponnambala Vadyar theru, alongside Kapali Temple.

To buy dolls for the kolu.

Paths cross. And they are significant.

December 12, 2009

Chennai needs cultural hubs

A number of people will say that Mylapore is at the centre of Madras. (Some, that it is the centre of their universe!).
I would say Alwarpet may be left of centre but is a better location.
I am not camouflaging a promo on behalf of Akshaya or MARG to further the cause of real estate.
Rather, the location has to do with access to events that happen around us.
Everybody would agree that Mylapore is the best place to access kutcheris.
Stir up at 2 p.m. after a siesta, enjoy a steaming cup of filter coffee, refresh, fetch the grand daughter from
P. S. Senior, walk down to the temple, enjoy Sanjay Subrahmanyam for free and pick up sambar onions and vazhai-poo on the way back home.
There are people who wouldn’t blink twice to trade much of their possessions for a small apartment overlooking the kulam.
And there are others who seek out every box of a hall to host a music fest here.
But the cultural side of this area is changing.
English theatre and life style entertainment is now staged in Alwarpet.
Book launches, tete-a-tetes and film screenings take place in this region.
Thamizh slapstick plays, Hindustani music concerts. . . you can check them out here.
Isn’t too much concentrated in just one zone of this city?
The December season has rolled. Unlike in the past, we have more music fests in the suburbs and they cater to a community that has resettled and connects with its roots.
But why aren’t the comedies and the plays and the fun stuff going to Anna Nagar or Adyar or Mint?
Some may say it has to do with infrastructure. Others, sponsors and patronage.
But things can change if leaders of the community
open up.

Kalakshetra under Leela Samson has opened its doors to Theru-koothu and Muhammed Basheer’s plays, ‘Spaces’ under Sadanand Menon is now a destination for rockers, headbangers and activists and a Saidapet group hosts art and street theatre.

Should the city council be involved in creating better spaces? Or should artistes trigger the change?

December 06, 2009

San Thome's Christmas Community

Why is a puppy a great gift for a child?
Ask Francis Lazarus of Kotturpuram and he will tell you a Christmas story. And why now? We are in December!
Francis’ story is his own. Theatre artiste, singer, marketing person and event manager, Francis’ family belongs to the Mount Road generation. They used to live off General Patters Road and Francis’ dad has loads of stories to share of Mount Road. Of Buharis and church choirs, Casino Theatre and Christmastime.
Francis himself must have been among the first set of models who crept on to the ramps in this city at a time when fashion and style were in their infancy and the Vivek Karunakarans and Rehanes must have been toddlers.
The puppy story came up in a conversation we had this past week about a little event that the San Thome community is attempting this month.
Residents, businesses, churches and institutions, in many small ways are putting their hands together to present the San Thome Christmas Fest ( Dec.15 - 31).
A fair amount of buzz takes place in this neighbourhood. In the churches and school campuses and in many homes. Carols, plays, Santa tours, cribs, parties . . .
But much of it is restricted to spaces between walls or behind them.
The Fest attempts to take is beyond those lines.
Share and celebrate in the Christmas spirit.
Events for children and elders supported by local musicians, great cooks and enthusiastic youth.
And gift giving is part of the season.
That’s where the puppy comes in. Francis tells me that when he was a kid, puppies were given as gifts. It allowed the kids to learn to care for it, feed it, take it for a stroll and do more.
In doing all this, you became responsible, caring, sensitive and the rest. You too may have puppy stories to share.
Tell them here!

November 30, 2009

Chennai Traffic Police: PR Tip!

Is this a good suggestion for the top cop of Chennai City Traffic Police Shakeel Akhter?
Akhter and his top brass have decided to make changes in the traffic system in the core of Mylapore from this weekend.
This is not an experiment, he says and plays it safe in the streak of officialese. What means is that we have studied the issue, we are introducing the changes and we will take stock of it in say, 30/60/90 days.
Fair enough.
We take it that ideas, suggestions and tips may have have come into Akhter's mail box from schools, shops, Mylaporeans, chatterers and specialists.
When the new system gets going at dawn there is going to be confusion, tempers will rise and motorists and cyclists will probably go in circles till they find their way.
That is expected. And things should fall in place the week after.
Now we have a suggestion for Akhter and his men.
It may also be a nice PR exercise.
Can we have some kiosk-like nooks or bright volunteers from the Traffic Force who will stand at key joints in the area that will endure the changes so that people can share feedback on the spot?
Yes, Akhter has a e-mail ID we can use. The City Police has a suggestion box on its web site which we can also use.
Yes, people can use post cards and inland letters to dash off what in on their mind.
How about live feedback counters?
I have keenly studied similar issues in Alwarpet and in Ashok Nagar.
In Alwarpet, people whined in private. Local police muttered. But it was only when a small group of citizens organised a formal meeting and arranged a formal face to face with the Top Cop did the issue get the attention is required. The system was dropped. And 'Thank You City Police' posters came up!

In Ashok Nagar, police ignored the citizens. They acted tough. But the citizens didn't give up and even planned to take their battle to the Chief Minister's gate. Egos clashed, sparks went off. Finally, the system was withdrawn.

Do we have ways in which key projects for citizens are debated and feedback welcomed and respected?

November 21, 2009

Good idea Mr. Commissioner

Did City Police Commissioner T. Rajendran do the proper thing by letting school students handle guns and fiddle with pistols?

Some eyebrows may have gone up.

But I think this idea of inviting senior school students to their neighbourhood police stations this past week was a nice one.

The teenagers seem to have enjoyed the visit, learnt a lot and seem to have come out better-informed.

After all, Rajendran and his top brass' idea was not only to get a few city students to know their police stations better and get closer to his officers and men but also tell them about the rights children enjoy and the role they can play in a community/neighbourhood.

Even as November draws to a close, a month during which we at our newspapers encourage senior students to go out, get curious, dig a bit, gather information, report and write on local people and events, I recall the stories that some children shared with us after their trips to local police and fire stations, EB and Chennai Corporation offices.

In fact, one of them who managed to convince a officer to take him on a night patrol trip in the neighbourhood gently reminded me of his reportage experience as the local TV news channels unfolded their coverage of Rajendran's project this past week.

I think Rajendran and his officers should now get college students to the stations. We need more enlightened youths to be with us in the neighbourhood. It will pay.

I also think it is time that Mayor Subramanian and Commissioner Rajesh Lakhoni followed the Top Cop's example.

If the young must know about their rights and the laws of the land, they should also know about what the City Fathers do for their neighbourhoods.

These projects should not be one time events. They should be kept rolling and repeated.

The fact that over 100 students now know what an FIR is, now have the phone numbers of local police stations and can even call the officers at any time, makes a huge difference.

It matters. Don't you think so?

November 07, 2009

Be a part of civic campaigns

Thank you N. Ram for setting an example.
Don't be surprised if you get to meet a bunch of people in unique gear sharing their positive sentiments at the November Music Fest later this month.
Ram followed up on what he, as Chief Editor preaches at 'The Hindu'.
He politely declined the sponsorship of a company which has been at the heart of the Bhopal gas tragedy.
Dow was one of the key sponsors of the annual music fest that the newspaper hosts in our city.
It has been targeted by activists all over the world for its response to the world's biggest disaster. So, when some of them based in our city learnt that the company was an integral part of the fest, they acted fast.
A slew of letters, faxes and e-mails flew into the offices of the 'The Hindu'. In less than 24 hours, Ram responded.
A positive campaign had made its impact.
It requires a bunch of alert, dedicated and determined people to run a campaign and ensure goodness comes out of it.
Are you one of them?
The monsoon is with us. Our roads are flooded. Our drains are overflowing. Our common spaces are pools of water.
Can we help our local officers do a better job of what they should be doing?
Take a walk around your colony and SMS them a list of the streets where water has been stagnating for days, where Corporation school children must negotiate slush and where trees have been uprooted.
If action is not forthcoming in a reasonable period of time, push that button again.
Else, email the civic body.
Copy that mail to the local or city newspaper.
You have a cell phone, you have a Net connected PC, you have a fax machine, you have a post card.
Use them to get involved in issues that affect us all.
These acts are simple and straight. And they can bear good fruit. Especially when you act on behalf of the community.

October 31, 2009

Madras Monsoon

Where were you when the monsoon broke out this past week?
Caught in a traffic jam?
Locked in your office behind Saint Gobain glass-sheets?
Or welcoming the gathering clouds on the beachfront?

I guess you must be the creative or the free-spirited sort if the monsoon is to excite you.
Or does it really matter?

I felt a new season had just begun the morning after. There are two huge trees down the road where I live and I often look up at them because their seasonal flowers (names don’t matter) which are spiky and reed-thin in off white colour are stunning in their fragrance.

And they seem so delicate. When the monsoon bearing clouds shake their ears before they empty themselves, dozens of these flowers drop on to the road. So there is a carpet of them after a steady shower.

This carpet greeted me when the monsoon broke out. . . was it on Wednesday last? And it felt a bit delicate when our feet trampled on them.

Monsoons do not create pleasant sights in our neighbourhoods. Floodwater, dangerous ditches, hanging cables and potholed roads.

But if you stop and look around you the sights are pleasant to our eyes - after a summer of 35 degrees plus that refused to slip away in October.

The trees and hedges are all green, truly green. The birds are on song in the mornings. Rain drops keep dripping in slow motion. And, creatures we have not seen for some time seem to come alive. Like the crazy frogs that come to inhabit the swathe of water that collects in our local playground.

So there are little things to enjoy even in our concrete neighbourhoods.

If the rains have renewed you, write and tell us about your experience. We can post them in the Letters column.

For now, we can give the mails on stinking garbage and dead streetlights a skip and post your experiences.

You can be poetic in your mails.
But limit the verses.
I am not planning to cut an album on the Madras Monsoon.

October 24, 2009

Young Journos

I am grateful to you for kindling my interest in journalism.
But for you, I would not have had the exposure to this medium that I received.
Thank you very much for that!
Pranathi Diwakar’s e-mail could not have come at a better time. Or maybe, some young people just cannot forget the memories of one special November.
For it is in November that our newspapers dedicate some time and effort to encourage young people who wish to write for the newspapers we run.
Pranathi was a tad apologetic. For this Bala Vidya Mandir student had not contributed to us for a long time. There was a reason for this silence. She is in Class 12 now and being the Head Girl of the school calls for additional responsibility.
‘Between being buried in my books, and coping with the duties of a Head Girl, I have also been trying to decide what to do next at college. I am keeping my options open, but hope to eventually take up journalism.
Pranathi Diwakar attended one of the training programmes a few summers ago and went on to be an active reporter-writer through the year. And she made sure she contributed to the November specials too.
Though she limited herself to working on assignments in her backyard she kept to deadlines and we suppose this experience has done her well.
The November specials are now a tradition at our newspapers. Started over a decade ago as our Children’s Day dedication, the formats have taken on different avatars. We began by featuring all the contributions that children made in one or two issues. Later, we chose to publish them as and when the reports were filed.
We encourage senior school students to go around their neighbourhood and campuses, to locate news story ideas, develop them and file reports. I distinctly remember one contributor convincing a Police Inspector to grant him permission to accompany the local night patrol team. Those were the days when the state had not received the fancy Hyundai Accents and the rounds had to be done in rickety jeeps.
In recent times, the enthusiasm among students for such wonderful opportunities like working for the local newspaper has waned. Parents do not encourage their wards to subscribe to the experience - they are content to ensure that the kids stick to schoolwork.
Also, no attempt is made to encourage young people to explore, investigate, question, experience in their backyard which is rich with colourful people and active communities, varied developments and lively issues.
We can only create the space. You have to bring your pens and pads along.
November will be with us soon.

October 15, 2009

Commercialisation of residential areas

Scandalous details and raw skeletons are tumbling out of a simple investigation that a colleague of mine has undertaken in the Adyar neighbourhood. And it has to do with retail businesses.
If you thought only the Ambanis bent the rules and cosied up with the mighty and the powerful, you are wrong.
The men and women who promote businesses in your colonies also do the same.
The current assignment is a simple one.
This person is looking at how the neighbourhood came to be created, the core details that are outlined in the Master Plan for our city and for this area, the zoning, the development guidelines and the special exemptions accorded in special cases.
In the course of a preliminary study, the facts that tumble out stink.
Here is one case.
When the owners of a bungalow in a quiet residential zone moved on and the land was for sale, it was bought by young entrepreneurs who had done well early in life and people who had dreams and ambitions.
But the rules did not allow for setting up a retail business in the colony.
To circumvent the rule and make the best use of certain exemptions, they submitted that their trade was a cottage industry. The sort which was low profile and quiet, the sort which involved the community.
In months, a swanky showroom came up and but no means was this a cottage industry of the sort you will come across on the fringes of our city.
As the buzz went around, cars and shoppers began to freely use what was once a quiet corner of this neighbourhood and the business carried on well till a spat broke out between the businessmen and some residents over parking.
The spat led to an investigation and it seems to demonstrate how the rules have been bent to run the business with no regard for the local community.
As ambitious businesses target neighbourhoods the rules fly out of the window.
The damages are serious. Residential areas are encroached upon, streets are taken over for ‘reserved parking’ and the peace and quiet is lost forever.
Citizens then must act to stop marauding businesses. Sadly, they can hope to get some relief only if they take these issues to court.

October 10, 2009

Even small newspapers are 'pushed'

Don’t you get threats from people?
I am asked this question off and on at an interface with media students or informal meetings with residents.
Don’t people like cops and politicians trouble you?
They have not troubled us. But they have used subtle ways to express their displeasure and demonstrate their uneasiness.
But the midnight knock is not too far away.
As it was in the case of news editor Lenin this past week.
Lenin works for the Thamizh daily, Dina Malar. The daily was the target of the ire and fury of film stars after it ran a report saying that many film stars slept with people for fancy payments.
It was a report that was said to have been based on the confession of a TV artiste who was arrested for running a prostitution business in south Chennai.
A day later, the newspaper apologised for publishing this report.
The vernacular media cohabits nicely with cinema. It feeds on it ravenously. As do the artistes.
And the ‘kiss and tell’ stories, however baseless, sell.
Perhaps, Dina Malar lapped up the sleaze. And we cannot condone this attitude.
But when the state dispatches its policemen to a newsroom and picks up a senior editorial staffer who is in the middle of the day’s most important schedule, without showing a warrant, then the state is going too far.
Which is why journalists came out to protest in the city on Thursday.
You cannot treat journalists like petty criminals. And if you want to act for wrongdoing, then you need to respect the law.
Film stars, or for that matter anybody else who feel aggrieved should initiate defamation proceedings.
Often, people in power use brazen methods to challenge the media.
Local state officials certainly do not like neighbourhood newspapers taking a close look at local projects. Local politicians flex their arms when they are caught “naked” at polling booths.
A senior officer of the Chennai Corporation began shutting us out after we began publishing details of proposals councillors made for their wards. The antagonistic attitude boiled over when we followed up the major projects that invariably exposed severe shortcomings.
A powerful politician, who is also a councillor made known his displeasure when his promises to his constituents were laid bare.
Our newspapers go beyond the ribbon-cutting events. That is our duty. With it come the midnight knocks.

October 03, 2009

Neighbourhood Heritage Walks

On Gandhi Jayanthi day, the formal launch of Heritage Walks around Puducherry was held.
The event took place at a simple, well preserved piece of heritage which is now a 24-hour café on the seashore.
Decades ago, it used to be the office of the Customs, whose officers would examine the goods brought ashore from ships. Those were the times when the French ruled this place.
The Walks have been conceptualized and floated by the local chapter of INTACH, a national body which works on subjects related to heritage, culture and conservation. The Pondy chapter is a small one but it has done some amazing work.
To lay the ground for a successful Heritage Walk programme, INTACH invited local residents to a workshop where they were provided basic training that would equip them to conduct these walking tours.
25 people signed up and Ashok Panda of INTACH says they expect at least ten people to stick on and ensure the Pondy Heritage Walk programme turns out to be successful. It will also earn them money.
This is an idea that has been talked about in our city. But I put it to INTACH’s new Chennai team that it would make great sense to encourage residents of some of the most colourful neighbourhoods in Chennai to be part of a Chennai Heritage Walk project.
This could work for many reasons. One, a local person would know the ins and outs of the area fairly well. Two, he or she could be pulled out for a walk at short notice. Three, the volunteers would be proud of their assignment.
People visiting Chennai, be they Indian or foreign are a tad tired of the Kapaleeswarar Temple - San Thome Cathedral - Madras Museum - Valluvar Kottam -Guindy Park brochure-driven tours of the city.
Many want to see and experience it up close and in the real. Add to it the heritage and history and the offers can delight our guests.
There are lots of interesting neighbourhoods that offer Walking Tours. George Towne and Royapuram, Mint and Broadway, Mount Road and Triplicane. Mylapore and Adyar, Egmore and Vepery.
If there are people out there who believe that this idea can work, do get across to Dr. Suresh of INTACH (Ph: 2491 8479). Your enthusiasm may spur him and his team on.
If you want to check out the Walks in Pondy, here is the info. Walks are held only on Fridays and Saturdays. They start at 4 p.m. and are for 90mins. Head to Le Cafe on the beachside and pay fifty rupees to join the tour.

September 26, 2009

Watch sport at stadiums

The Bertram tournaments hosted by Loyola College are on top of the calendar at this Jesuit institution in Nungambakkam.

Almost all the young stars in tennis, basketball, volleyball, shuttle and table tennis have etched their names on the rolling trophies here.

The matches in the final stages would draw a sizeable audience especially when word went around that someone big was to play.

In my time at Loyola, the volleyball games were tight affairs and were fought to the last point. Besides the host, teams from Tirupattur and Tiruchi provided us with some outstanding matches. And when classmate Dinesh told us that he has entered the top league in the tennis singles, we would head to the court where our cries would be drowned by the roll of the electric trains on the Beach-Tambaram lines.

The Asia Womens Basketball Championship which was held at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Periamet last fortnight gave us an opportunity to watch some excellent sport. Some of us decided to head to the stadium on the weekend.

Such trips can get interesting if you go off the beaten track.

So instead of rushing to the stadium one evening we turned into the Periamet neighbourhood.

Periamet is a small hub for the leather goods business. You can also shop for caps, uniforms, belts and other such accessories. A 4 x 10 shop has interesting things to offer.

Periamet is also the hub of the Muslim community. And since it was Ramzan time, there was a buzz in the air.

Food was on our mind and we did not have to go far to locate a counter at a hotel which had just received a fresh supply of haleem, kebabs and custard. There were dozens of hands fighting for the parcels and it didn’t cost us much to snack and pack some for people at home.

September 21, 2009

Use your camera. Document

Videographer-friend Mohandas Vadakara and I are doing a bits-and-pieces job on Mount Road, now called Anna Salai.
We head to this road now and then and shoot the things that catch our fancy.
Mount Road was once the showpiece of the city of Madras. It had a slow death. We may not be able to give it a new lease of life but we can document it.
Progress is slow on the Sundays when I work here. That is because the nooks and crannies of Mount Road are rich in history and whispers.
Narasinghapuram is a small colony that lies behind the offices of ‘The Hindu’, the now-defunct ‘The Mail’ and of Simpsons.
It was once a colony of Anglo-Indians and Goans. The radio market took shape in this area and devoured the living spaces. Over the years, the radio market has given way to the electronics bazaar.
Narasinghapuram is taking a lot of my time because the people who lived here in the 1950s and 60s have lots of stories to share with me. Hopefully, those stories will help us film this part of Mount Road a tad better.
Mount Road always sets off something in me when I am there or when I think about this road.
My fingers begin to itch when I walk through some streets and lanes of the city. And I feel that sensation in Mylapore at this time of the year.
This is the time when anybody who has any type of video camera should go out into the streets of Mylapore and start shooting the sights, sounds and smells.
In some ways, these small, amateur videos can contribute to the documentation of a city, its people and its life.
Recently, I realised that substantial video footage on kolams exists. And most of it has been shot during the annual ‘Mylapore Festival’ that my team and I design and direct. This was a festival that started as a kolam contest 13 years ago.
Part of this footage has now been included in a documentary made specially for UNESCO as its recognizes the kolam to be what we call ‘living heritage’.
This is the season for all those who have little video cameras to go out and shoot the interesting things you see around you in this city.
Spare a little more time on this effort and you can have a wonderful film on your hands. Post it on the Net and the world will enjoy it. And those images will live for posterity.

September 12, 2009

Is Chennai Corporation really citizen friendly?

Last fortnight, when one side of the main road where my office is located was flooded after a spell of rain, I went online and lodged a complaint on the web site of Chennai Corporation.(

A SMS popped up on my cell phone to acknowledge the plaint. Minutes later, another SMS told me my plaint had been forwarded to the local staff. A third SMS informed me that the engineer had seen this plaint. And a fourth said action would follow.

48 hours later the local area engineer called me. He was polite and repeated the plaint. He said he too was aware of the problem. And that it would be set right soon. How soon?

In January 2010, he said, still polite, because new drains had to be laid on this side of the main road and that such works could be started only after the year-end monsoon.

I politely told him that the Chennai Corporation’s contractor had relaid the pavement alongside our office complex with smart, red tiles but every time I had to get out of the office complex I had to step on the smart red tiles and step into dirty, stagnant water.

There is a bit of buzz now on how our city Corporation has moved into the age of computerisation, online payment and digital mapping.

All of us should be proud of the development.

But this development is certainly bypassing some thing that should be central to a city’s civic body.

The need to involve the community in planning, debating and collaborating in all its projects.

Instead, Chennai Corporation acts like a benevolent Godfather that is proud to launch and implement hundreds of projects, big, fancy and small, and help us all lead a pleasant and peaceful life.

Is there no way in which proposals and ideas mooted at the zonal level cannot be made transparent to the community and their ideas incorporated too? Or is this the preserve of only the local councillors, who are elected by the people?

Is there a better way in which interested citizens can take a look at major civic projects before they are voted for in the City Council and carried out at dead of night?

The same technology that enables us to lodge plaints online and receive polite calls from engineers can be used to open up projects, proposals and ideas to the people of the city.

And we must get this to happen because there are a bunch of people who care for the city as much as Chennai Corporation does.

September 05, 2009

Tribute to a community activist

There are a few people in this city who have consistently raised issues of public interest and kept them on top of the agenda.

One of them was retired bureaucrat A. K. Venkatasubramanian who passed away a few days ago.

AKV, as close friends called him, devoted almost all his time and energy to a few key causes that are important to us. One of them was to get the Election Commission to let voters exercise Rule 49 (O) which allows a voter to record that he/she does not wish to vote for any of the candidates who are in the fray in that particular constituency.

There were times when this crusader felt terribly frustrated and very disappointed that people in our city remained a passive lot especially when it came to their role in public issues.

I was a close observer of a process that AKV and his group attempted two elections ago when local city councillors were to be elected to the Chennai Corporation.

The Adyar East seat was a reserved one, reserved for women. Past records showed that a councillor in the Adyar-Mylapore region won such elections by garnering a mere 10 to 15% of the votes in that ward. This was possible because over 50% of the electorate did not bother to cast their ballot.

AKV and his team helped to choose an educated, community activist who was a resident of the area as a candidate and then convinced heads of local residents’ associations to campaign in their backyards for this woman.
If 12% of the educated in this ward could be convinced to vote and vote for this woman, against women put up by the political parties, all of whom had little or no political or community service record, then a new beginning in grass root politics in the metro could be made.

The group went home with fond hopes but they were utterly disappointed. People stayed at home and watched TV on polling day.

Much later, as AKV went about setting up Citizens Centres across the state - a forum and space where local communities discussed and pursued public issues - he tried to establish such centres at the ward level in this city.

Again he met with a disappointing response. Imagine not being able to get a few people of a neighbourhood who could found these centres and liaise with the local MLA, councillors and officials and be the voices of the local community.

An activist in a public space needs the community to support campaigns. Sadly, in Chennai few people want to be part of that space.

August 29, 2009

Network Community Projects

Early this year, on the sidelines of a media seminar I happened to chat with film director Sp. Muthuraman. I asked him if he could help us organise ‘walking tours’ inside AVM Studios in Vadapalani.

Muthuraman belongs to the AVM ‘family’ and AVM and Prasad are the only two big film studios that survive in this city.

Muthuraman did not warm up to this suggestion. He acknowledged that tours inside studios were good for the public but he said he was always wary of letting people get close to shooting floors or production centres because fans always got the better of the crew and the actors.

Muthuraman had a point. But I have not given up on this idea as we keep expanding the walking tours of our city.

Muthuraman lives in the Vadapalani neighbourhood and he also lends a hand to community projects quietly.

Next weekend, in Saligramam he will launch the sale of paper bags which have been made by school dropouts.

This is a project thought of and supported by a local group of Sai devotees of this area. This group has been working among boys who live in the slums along the Buckingham Canal in Mylapore. Finding that it was a tough task to get these boys back to the classroom, the group did the next best thing - taught them a simple skill and got them to do paper bags and thamboolam containers.

This accomplished, they hope the sales of the bags in bulk will earn these boys decent returns.

Hopefully, this Sai devotee group can network with the large stores in Vadapalani and K. K. Nagar and Virugambakkam, expand that to Mylapore and ramp up this community project.

There are any number of little community projects that are run in our neighbourhoods.

Could we have smart people who can help to network them across the city so that they grow into significant enterprises?

August 22, 2009

Madras Week

Remember Deepa?

Deepa Sekar of Kilpauk who took the first steps to organise a Kilpauk Heritage Walk on the occasion of Madras Day?

Well, Deepa and her group went on to host that Walk last Sunday though there was more than one occasion when they ran into frustrating walls and almost gave up.

Close to 30 people took part in it and in that group was the well known writer and novelist Timeri Murari whose family history is entwined with that of Kilpauk in some ways.

Deepa, who specialises in making paper jewellery mailed us back to say that the Walk had made a significant impression in her life. “I now know how special Kilpauk is and that it not only has a life but also a soul,” she said.

And added, “How I wish my school and many others taught history differently - by walking the talk!”.

I write back to Deepa (for weeks now this has been my task - to encourage dozens of people to think of and plan ways in which we celebrate the city during Madras Week).
I told her that she should continue to organise the Kilpauk Heritage Walk throughout the year - for schools and community groups.

Here is a nice example of how Madras Day is contributing to the city’s outlook.

Midweek, I received a copy of a small book titled ‘Madras-Chennai - Its History and Environment’. The book has been written by Nanditha Krishna of the
C P Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation in Alwarpet and published as a Prodigy imprint by New Horizon Media that is run by two young people - Badri and Satyanarayan.

It costs twenty five rupees, is easy read and a book you should gift to your children. It will introduce them to the city.

Also in the mail bag was another little book in Thamizh - ‘Madraasil Mirudu’ written by Vasantha Surya. It is all about growing up in the city in the 60s and has been published by Kalachuvadu. Another book you can gift your kids.

Here again is a nice example of how Madras Day is encouraging people to add to the literature on this city.

Lots has taken place this past week.

If you want to catch up with the final lot of events, check out the info at

August 22 is Madras Day.

August 15, 2009

On the eve of Madras Day. . .

It is well past 10 p.m.

Christopher Roy from Nandanam calls me up. He wants to talk about Madras Day. These are calls I cannot refuse (and I wouldn’t pass on this job to a call center!).

Roy grew up in the campus of the YWCA on Poonamallee High Road and he wants to highlight the Great Pond in this campus.

A water body which has seen its best and worst but has remained a well nurtured water body for many, many years. Roy learnt of the Madras Day late but wants to do some thing simple.

So we agree to invite the neighbourhood kids and students to the Y campus and jot their impressions about the Great Pond.

It is a small but significant event. Local events are what have made the concept of Madras Day a unique, evolving, community driven process.

Chandrachoodan runs the PhotoWalks. He invites people over to walk down alleys and bylanes and also to take pictures of the historic precincts and colonies that you and I have not seen or heard of.

Chandru has also been a passionate Madras Day supporter.

But this time around, he was a disappointed man.

He had plans to organise walking tours inside Madras Port and Central Station and the Southern Railway headquarters campus. So he mailed letters. Made a dozen calls. Made personal visits. Was shunted from one office to another. And finally gave up.

(But he has organised four interesting Photowalks this week).

Chandru’s efforts have been frustrated by officers who live and work in this city. Perhaps they have little time and value for their own institutions.

So how do we get such officers to open their gates to people?

As the 2009 edition of ‘Madras Day’ opens, I have a request to all those people who are in charge of heritage institutions, all those who have a lot to do with this city. . . Please make an effort to organise an event that will celebrate this city.

If you want to tell us about it, e-mail us at

August 08, 2009

Destination Madras!

If you are proud of this city and you have friends and relatives in Bangalore or Puduchery, in Coimbatore or in Kochi, this is the time to invite them over to Madras.

Drive down, take a train or hitch a ride.

Tell them to be in our city between August 15 and 23.

Because this is the best time to soak in the essential Madras that is also Chennai.

Soak in ‘Madras Week’.

If they like the outdoors, they can check out the ten heritage tours/walks the city has put together. Through marshlands and reserve forest, down alleys and on the edge of the Marina, the walks will open your eyes to a city we may not have known.

If your guests are the cerebral types, underline the two dozen talks/lectures that will be hosted at different venues in the city.

A young man from Coimbatore wants to make sure he gets a seat at Randor Guy’s ‘Scandals that Rocked the City’.

If your friends love performances, there are many options (I am sharing with you just a wee little here and am not partial too!).

Actor-writer Pritham Chakravarthy is presenting a solo performance to unspool all the stories she has heard and collected of another part of the city that many of us just do not know - North Chennai.

At two cool venues, musicians of this city will play their original songs and some of these songs have a lot to do with our city. (Wonder, if someone out there has been inspired to write a song on Bessie Beach or alleys of George Towne?).

There are dozens of events to choose from and plan your own Madras Special (the web site to log on to -

And if all of this does not appeal to you, create your own weekend ‘Lets Explore Chennai’ kind of schedule.

If you discover some gems, do let me know at

Finally, here is a teaser - What is the theme of the Special Postal Cover to be released on Madras Day (August 22) this year?

The answer could be at

August 01, 2009

Spaces for theatre, sport; Chennai need them.

Two Sundays. Two destinations. One issue.

Koothu-p-pattarai is a well known theatre company based in our city. It is run by N. Muthuswamy, a celebrated playwright and director.

Many of its actors have gone on to make a name for themselves in theatre, cinema and the arts.

Some years ago, the company moved to the Chinmaya Nagar area in the western part of our city and developed a simple but attractive theatre space.

I had not seen a play in this space and so chose to be at one two Sundays ago. It was a Thamizh play by another celebrated person, Ramanujam. The sudden monsoon rain and gusty wind that lashed the space heightened the atmosphere as the play moved into its final stage.

Catching up with the K-p-p people I learnt that the company would now have to rent an alternate space because the present owner of the property had given them notice to move out.

Here was theatre space that was simply the best for contemporary plays, with unlimited facility for lighting and space for the audience that made them an intimate part of a play . . . soon it would be a thing of the past.

“We have asked Kanimozhi to help us get space in a Corporation school that they may want to close down,” said one actor.

“We’ve asked local schools to give us permission to rehearse,” said another.

Chennai is a cultural capital and we don’t have space for our theatre community. Not even space to rehearse.

Last Sunday, I was at the D. G. Vaishnav College campus in Arumbakkam where former India table tennis star V. Chandrasekar runs a TT academy which has produced some star players.

This Sunday, Vidya Sagar who runs his own TT academy in south Chennai was hosting the finale of an annual TT league he promotes.

I joined Sagar as he drove back home.

“How often I wish Chennai Corporation helped us with space for our sport!”, Sagar said.

Our civic body has lots of space. It is developing many of them.

Perhaps Mayor Subramanian could think of ways of collaborating with the Muthuswamys and the Sagars to create specialised spaces in all our neighbourhoods - for sport, theatre and the arts.

July 25, 2009

Madras for our children

How do we get our children to know our city better?

Its history and its people. Its landmarks and its contribution to our country.

This is one of the questions that comes up as we plan for Madras Day 2009 (

My colleague on the Madras Day team, R. Revathi runs her own web site for children of this city. It is called Yocee ( URL - Revathi has begun to populate her web site with little online events for children and hopes to add more as ideas pop up in the days to come.

The Chennai chapter of INTACH, led by S. Suresh and Prema Kasturi have networked with a dozen city schools. These will be the hubs of a series of events centred on Coins.

If Ashok Leyland spares the colourful special bus that it has for children's activities, we may repeat what we did in the past years.

Take students based in Central and South Chennai to landmarks in North Chennai and vice versa.

The Madras Naturalists Society plans to organise a trip to Pallikaranai marshlands for two reasons - to spot the growing number of birds which have been flocking to this water body and also to show people how we are destroying this valuable and rare nature reserve by dumping tons of garbage we generate and then burning it.

Just the sort of trip that our children should sign up for this season.

There is lots more residents' associations and campuses can do for Madras Week. And they can easily look for themes for children in their backyard.

How does the city's sewage system work? K K Nagar's schools can ask Metrowater to open its gates at Nesapakkam.

What really goes on at the Port of Chennai? Schools should ask the Port Chairman to allow short tours of this campus, security issues notwithstanding.

What are the important landmarks in our neighbourhood? Have an exhibition in the campus. . .

July 18, 2009

'Madras Week' or 'Chennai Vizha' ?

Is it Chennai or is it Madras?
This is the obvious question that people ask us everytime we talk about our city.
It is both, I would suggest.
After all, a city is of many parts.
But how are you involving the Thamizh speaking citizens and the kids in our city Corporation schools?
We expected that question at a tete-a-tete with the media we had on Friday evening when we shared out thoughts on 'Madras Day 2009'.
Calling it 'Chennai Dinam' or 'Chennai Vizha' is not enough, we know that.
How can we be inclusive when we think of ways to celebrate the city?
My thoughts go back to a visit to Kalaimagal Vidyalaya school in north Madras. It was their Project Day. And in a darkened classroom the students presented a villupaatu-styled show on the Heritage of North Madras.
They had created huge photo exhibits of key landmarks of the region, split up each image in a way that it created a 2D effect when they held it up behind the performers and story tellers.
We brought this troupe to a few schools on the other side of the Cooum river.
How I wish we had built on that excellent production and prepared a bigger one for Chennai Vizha 2009.
Perhaps we need to make greater efforts to be inclusive.
Deepa Ramakrishnan offered help this Friday in that direction.
Deepa is a reporter for 'The Hindu' and covers north Madras and the Chennai Corporation.
She has promised to help us network with a few Corporation schools who can participate in exhibitions and contests and go on to create events on the neighbourhoods they come from.
She will also try and convince Rajesh Lakhoni, Chennai Corporation Commissioner to put on an exhibition on the Corporation, which is a landmark institution of out country.
If you can help to network and invest in ideas and action, step out for your city.

July 11, 2009

Adyar-Mahabalipuram Boat Service

We are planning a boat journey on the Buckingham Canal.
From a point off Panayur on the East Coast Road to Mahabalipuram.
Would you like to give the boat we hire a name? What would be an appropriate one?

Many senior citizens of our city have shared with me stories of their picnic trips to Mahabalipuram fifty years ago. Of a time when they got to the Lattice Bridge point of the Canal which was constructed in 1887 and runs from Pedaganjam in Andhra Pradesh to Marcanum (Marakkanam) off the ECR.
It was a long, slow but pleasant journey. The sail would go up if there was sufficient wind but in most cases two men would pull the boat on the landside.
Long before Mahabalipuram became a destination for tourists from our city, the boats were the only means of transport - carrying firewood, salt, rice and agri produce.
They moved north from the Mahabalipuram and Marcanum / Cuddalore region to the city and those from Nellore and Ennore travelled south and northwards to areas that are now in Andhra Pradesh.

Last week, I joined heritage buff D. Hemachandra Rao in rediscovering the Canal south of our city. Rao is documenting the Canal and armed with a simple but informative book written by the English engineers who worked on this project, we undertook the journey by road.
We wanted to look at the locks and bridges of the Canal, and thanks to a Jack-of-all-Trades resident of a Mahabalipuram village who appeared out of the blue and knew lots more about the Canal and its life, we got a lot of work done.

Ramu has promised to organise a boat trip on a section of the Canal he knows best. But it will have to be undertaken only after a good monsoon when the water level will go up and the boat can take at least 10 people.
The boat landing place in Mahabalipuram where Rao, then a six-year-old and his family got off is now a garbage dump yard ( you will notice it on the left of the new bridge that links the ECR bypass on the fringe of Mahabalipuram town).
If the PWD can dredge the Canal and the Tourism department can arrange traditional boats, an Adyar-Mahabalipuram by Boat Service will be an attractive proposition.

July 03, 2009

Madras Day 2009

Plans for Madras Day 2009 are about to roll. So how can you and your community or club or association become an integral part of it?
Start in your backyard. You don't have to raise a thousand rupees. You don't have to run from pillar to post. You don't have to print posters and banners. Do it in your area. All you need is some nice ideas, some enthusiasm and some smiles and warm words.
Think of  a local heritage walk. Now. Which is what a bubbling lady in Kilpauk is about to do. She started on it last year but gave up because she wasn't sure if Kilpauk was al that exciting. It is. And she has realised it. Well, it doesn't boast of Jack the Ripper kind of nooks and Hollywood Boulevard kind of avenue, but it has character and history and stories.
The Water Works is unique. The Votive Shrine church is unique. The cemetery for Christians should be checked out. Add to that list public statues and private bungalows and small colonies and you have a fairly interesting trail for an August weekend.
Our friend in Kilpauk is calling up the Dignity Foundation to meet up with senior residents of the area who can come on the walk or be at the milestones on the trail and share their memories.
I think this is a small and wonderful exercise to celebrate the city.
Shanthi Krishnan did just that in Adyar and she had 40 people trailing her - they surrendered to the heat at the fag end and headed for a sumptuous breakfast but the event worked. Shanthi hopes to repeat the Adyar Walk this Madras Week.
These initiatives should inspire many of us to take the lead and think of a Walk project for Madras Week (August 16 to 23).  Thiruvanmiyur, San Thome, Gopalapuram, Luz, Nandanam, Vadapalani . . .there is a Walk in every area.
Walks can be one way of celebrating the city. Exhibitions can be another. Photo-walks can be another. Talks on a city theme or subject. Contests too. Just keep an eye on A T-shirt contest is rolling.

June 27, 2009

Make public the information

The e-mailed note below is from Shoba Menon. It was not directed to this column.

But I know she wouldn’t mind if I used it here.

Shoba has been heading a long and low profile campaign to protect trees and grow more of them. She is part of this group called ‘Nizhal’.

And in order to take forward her projects and sensitise people she organises tree walks. (There is one tree walk next weekend in Luz and if your colony wants to organise one, call 94452-58328).

Shoba, who is based in Kotturpuram is also a community activist. What follows is something she wanted to share . . . in her own words. . .
Wonder if people are aware of the online public grievance forum of the Chennai Corporation. . .

I have personally made use of this facility and found the redressal system effective and quick.

You can register your civic complaint under the particular heads provided, or in ‘Others’. Location details and other particulars are recorded and if you provide a mobile number, the complaint number reaches you in a few seconds!

I believe that the complaint is forwarded to the local official concerned, and if it is not addressed in a stipulated number of days, is escalated to the next level and so on. Since no junior wants to be pulled up, the complaint gets resolved faster. And we can follow up too, with the Complaint Number provided, even with the Commissioner who can reach the status of the complaint online.

Once more and more concerned citizens make use of such facilities, the officials may just be forced to sit up:-)!
This was Shoba’s note. It would be wonderful if more and more people make public bits of information that the rest of us can use to pursue civic issues, address local problems and work for the community.

Our newspapers will provide space for such sharing of information. And experiences.

June 20, 2009

Databasing the services

I need your help here. It may help me run the facilities of my office a tad better.
It is all to do with AMCs and refills and recharging and all that.
To do with the computers and UPS and batteries and air-conditioners.
We get into some kind of agreements, we sign some form of contracts and we agree to a variety of support.
But who is to keep tab of all this?
I tried to paste stickers on all our equipment and accessories so that we could jot down the dates and time and all that is required to keep the agreements going.
It helped to an extent - the air-conditioning staff who was late on call had only to stare at the sticker - the proof of the delay was documented!
Somewhere down the year we bypassed this practice. We could have blamed the heat or the deluge of paper sheets - they may have torn off the stickers!
Perhaps there is a better way to document AMCs, contracts and the rest. Perhaps a free software! The way we can be reminded when a deposit matures and when not to buy tomatoes because the weekly shopping budget has slipped into the red.
There should also be ways in which we can keep a tab on all the civic services and installations in our neighbourhoods - which will help us to raise questions and buttress arguments with the state agencies.
Residents of Karpagam Gardens often call to inform us of the power black outs which have been more frequent these past six months.
The transformer was changed, promising less hiccups.
It was done in December last year.
Cables have been changed but people are not sure when.
Sharper information helps to confront state agencies and keep them on their toes.
It also shows how involved a neighbourhood is.
Get going then. . .
Dear Engineer, 8th Cross St was relaid on May 15 and 16 and the budget was said to be Rs.99,000. On June 12, the bitumen came off at five places on both streets. Can you make the contractor accountable to this sorry state? Thanks and regards . .

June 14, 2009

Expressways for the City, anger among the poor

Is the state creating social tensions in our neighbourhoods by displacing the poor?
I think it is.
And I think we will witness increasing violence if the state continues to treat these people like vermin.
Last week I had a chat with Sister Irudhaya Mary who has taken charge as the Headmistress of a Middle School in Mylapore.
We support this school in small ways since a large number of its students are from poor families.
Sister Mary was feeling discouraged. A number of students did not turn up on Re-opening Day for the new academic year.
These students are residents of colonies on the southern outskirts of the city. They and their families have been 'rehabilitated' in these colonies after they and hundreds of others were cleared from areas like the Buckingham Canal banks and the seashore following the tsunami.
The children continued to attend their 'old' school despite the long, tiresome bus journeys. But they couldn't take it any longer and have decided to give up. Some may attend the suburban state-run school, some may go on to work.
Sister Mary wondered if she could convince the state-run MTC to run a special bus for these children, some 100 of them to ensure they got a good education.
I am pessimistic.
The state continues to 'rehabilitate' people who live in the city and have encroached on state land. The 'rehab nagars', located off Old Mahabalipuram Road (Rajiv Gandhi Salai) are yet to be fitted with everything that is essential for displaced people.
Thus we have unhappy communities.
You may have experienced this with your maid, watchman, autodriver or electrician who once used to live close to home but are now banished to the outskirts.
The frustration has grown as suburban employment is scarce and living off work in the city weakens them physically and increases their daily expenses.
Add to this is the disappointment of their teenage wards and waywardness of elders.
Anger, discontent, depression. It is now spilling over.
As the state plans expressways, flyovers and Metro Rails and seeks to displace the poor, the tensions are bound to rise.

June 06, 2009

We are throwing garbage at you!

When you wake up tomorrow morning don't be shocked if you find a plastic bag of rotting tomatoes in the car park or soggy paper flung at your windows.
Don't suspect this to be the handiwork of your neighbour.
This could well be part of a novel idea that was launched on World Environment Day.
Nobody knows who thought of this idea.
It was picked up in a trice and executed overnight.
Had it been a clever idea of Neel Metal Fanalca, then we should recommend this company for the Indira Gandhi Award that is given annually to all those who help save the earth and our neighbourhoods.
If I were heading Neel Metal I would have certainly backed this idea.
Garbage collection is sending us over the edge and just because citizens claim they pay their taxes and hence demand that garbage should be cleared thrice a day - that is not the end of it all. They too have a responsibility.
Too many people are saying that Neel Metal is not doing its job, that its bins always overflow, that its staff are hardly seen at work and that the City Fathers should suspend the contract.
If I were in Neel Metal I would turn the tables on people. All in the name of World Environment Day.
This is just the occasion to make a virtue of a bad situation.
If Greenpeace activists can clamber up shark-whaling vessels and pro-animal activists storm leather garment fashion shows, I don't see why throwing back vegetable waste and old clothes into garden yards and car parks of people is not the right thing to do - as long as it sends a message.
If I were heading Neel Metal I would probably do a symbolic act. There are too many unhappy people out there. And we have just bought hundreds of tricycles to collect the waste and it cost us many, many lakhs.
Maybe we will throw back the torn T-shirt you dumped into the bin yesterday.

May 30, 2009

Motta maadis. . .

The Kannadiga community in South Chennai used to have an interesting event on their calendar.
Potluck dinner on the beach.
I am not sure if they continue with this wonderful idea.
Their destination was Elliots Beach in Besant Nagar.
It had to be a family affair. I knew friends who would tear themselves away from other preoccupations and dash down to the beach for dinner.
Heading to the beach or the riverside on a full moon evening and having a meal is an old tradition.
In the cities though, with the growth of highrise buildings, there are communities who seem to make the best of their terraces.
In many instances, terraces are junkyards of sorts. A place where all sorts of antennae and aerials rise into the skies. A place where soiled pillows, mangled kitchen stands, empty cartons and broken furniture are dumped.
In recent times though I have got to learn about more interesting things that are happening on our terraces.
Last month, as the moon got the better of the summer dusk, teenage musicians launched a Carnatic music kutcheri on a terrace at a building in Luz, Mylapore.
Out in Ashok Nagar, Dr. Ramanathan, who runs a cancer care centre, has his 'Remembering MS' series of concerts on the terrace of his hospital.
Yesterday, publisher Badri Seshadri mailed me an invite to a talk on swine flu that was to be held in a shed on the terrace of his central office in Alwarpet.
And elsewhere, there is a group that hosts the 'motta maadi' music listening series where rasikas sit around and listen to vintage Carnatic music recordings of the maestros.
As I write this I learn that a group in my colony is planning to visit a building in Kottivakkam on the ECR where a group has raised a kitchen garden and grows medicinal plants.
So much is happening on our 'motta maadis'!
If you know of more, share the details at my blog.

May 25, 2009

Three Tours You May Want to Take in Chennai

I had a few surprise calls this past month, the hottest.

People wanted to know if we could organise a few heritage walks.

I thought families headed to the hills in summer. The fact is that there are people who take weekend breaks and some do not mind exploring our city.

Walking around is the last thing you'd want to do in the searing Madras heat. It is 30degrees plus by 8 a.m.

But I couldn't dampen the spirits of visitors who did not mind the heat.

So I did the next best thing instead of stepping out.

I was their guide employing the Short Messaging Service. And it seemed to work.

Imagine sitting at home in Adyar and guiding groups.

Taking a bus to Fort St. George, how to negotiate the police security at the IN gate, why the State Assembly complex must be skipped, what not to miss at St. Mary's, how to gain entry to the fantastic Clive House, how to get on the great ramparts of the Fort and where to get a good brunch.

Summer Sundays are still the best time to explore different parts of a city.

Numismatist D. Hemachandra Rao has been looking under all the old bridges in the city. And taking pictures of them.

Being a civil engineer, Rao loves good architecture and he wants to document the old bridges in Vyasarpadi and Chintadripet, in Egmore and Saidapet.

Now if you and your family and friends have not made the best of a summer Sunday, here are a few short tours you could plan.

Explore the 'Adyar Poonga' at the far end of Raja Annamalaipuram, off San Thome High Road. If the sea breeze sets in after 2 p. m. this is an interesting natural reserve to check out. You have birds for company in the marshy spots.

Check out all the heritage complexes opposite the Marina Beach - Presidency College, PWD Headquarters, Carnatic Palace and Senate House at the University and wind up with a look at the old 'locks' on the Canal behind the varsity campus.

On another Sunday, leave your car behind. Hop into a train on the MRTS system and take in the city from the skies. Start from Thiruvanmiyur and end at Madras Beach. Take the train back but make sure you sit on the 'other' side.

Best stretch - Mylapore to Park, eastern view!

May 15, 2009

Chennai South MP - Community Linkages

Chennai South should have a new Member of Parliament on Saturday, May 16.
And if one goes by the exit polls, there could be a little surprise.
What did surprise me was the large turnout on polling day, May 13.
Even the blistering heat of May did not dampen the spirits of voters.
A polling average of 60 percent is indeed a good sign though 75% would have made South Chennaiites proud.
Yes, there were many hiccups - EVMs malfunctioning, names not found on the voters' list, officials refusing to let people subscribe to Rule 49 (0).
And yet, it was peaceful in the neighbourhoods.
So is our job over?
Not really. Voting is only a part of a process. It is not a picnic on a weekend.
And perhaps here is yet another opportunity for all of us to see how we can have a man who is a real representative.
A Member of Parliament has to debate national issues and oversee large projects. He is not responsible for the dead streetlamp in your colony or mine. But there is a lot that he or she can do if the community he/she represents is a bit proactive.
He has a huge amount of funds to allot to local projects. Who decides what he should spend it on and how?
He has the power to liaise with departments on projects and issues that concern his constituency. Who puts these issues on top of the agenda?
We the people.
Here then is yet another opportunity.
As a step forward, we hope to use the Net initiative at to get into this process.
We are not stopping at covering the elections and posting the name of the winner on May 16.
In a way, this initiative could well record our new MP.
His vision and goals, his acts and promises, his role in Parliament and outside.
To do this we need a few bright, selfless and motivated volunteers.
Last week, publisher K. Satyanarayan from Mylapore raised his hand and said he would be in. We need at least five more to make this little initiative blossom.
If we can move it forward, it could well work for the community and for the MP.
So if you wish to volunteer, mail me at -

May 09, 2009

Web site for Chennai South

Two weeks ago, a group of us launched a Web initiative.
A project linked to the General Elections this year.
Employing free-to-use Web tools and services, we created a web site whose address is -
The focus was Chennai South parliamentary constituency.
It features the bio-pics of the leading candidates in the fray in this region, the core of the promises they are making this season, reportage of all the developments in the constituency and photos of the events related to the election in Chennai South.
Since the initiative is supported voluntarily we have not been able to do much more but we are moving ahead.
Yesterday, we added a Wish List section to encourage people in this region to mention issues and projects that the new MP should address after he is elected.
We launched this initiative with the hope that it will contribute in some way to the sharing of information and a means of communication in the public space.
People have begun to query us and seek details this past week after visiting and exploring the web site.
And there is more to do in the future.
The web site does not get frozen in the Web word once a candidate is elected. The responsibility increases thereafter.

We hope to keep a tab on the new MP - post the details of the work he undertakes here, track his interaction in the constituency, report his work in Parliament and provide space for interaction with the people.
We also hope that the maintenance of an electronic record of our man in Parliament will contribute to the democratic process.
This though, is not an easy task and we need dedicated volunteers.
Perhaps three or four people who can devote time and skills to carry out this endeavour.
If you are willing, email us via the web site.
More importantly, keep your date at the polling booth on May 13.

And if you want to send us a few lines of the event and add a picture too, feel free to do so. We can post them on

Are we also running a contest on 'Who will be the MP of Chennai South?
No we aren't. We wouldn't do it even if someone offered to gift a Skoda as the prize!

May 02, 2009

Elections in Chennai

Mumbai mourns for the victims of 26/11. It starts talking against terrorism. Its people come together for candlelight processions. They begin to call for change.
Its celebrities lend time and talent for the campaigns for General Elections 2009. TV channels devote hours of airtime on what Mumbai is thinking on election eve.
Loads of programmes to discuss if 26/11 will impact on the elections.
Heated debates on the role of the middle class and the youth in the polls.
Finally, on April 30, the day Mumbai went to the polls, just over 40% cast their ballot.
So what do we make of all this? Think it over. . .
I am interested in Chennai. It goes to the polls on May 13.
And there are three metro-based constituencies - Chennai North, Chennai Central and Chennai South. All three are sprawling constituencies, with anywhere between nine to ten lakh voters in each.
Each has its own set of issues, demands, expectations and disappointments.
Each constituency has its own character, colour and composition. Though all three make Chennai what it is.
So are there Chennai-driven issues that are dominating the elections this time around?
And is it important to put these issues on top of the agenda of the candidates who have thrown their hat in the ring last fortnight?
The campaign so far has been low-profile, dull and drab. But you cannot blame the sun for this.
From the little that I have gleaned from the campaigns, the men and women in the fray are saying the same things we have heard at election time. Very little is arresting and imaginative.
Do parliamentarians also represent a city? If they do, why aren't we witnessing debates at public forums on issues that affect Chennai?
Promising drinking waterlines to a slum or nodding for another flyover to tackle the growing traffic is welcome but are there 'Chennai' issues which are topping the agenda?
Perhaps this has not happened because Chennai's community prefers to complain and endure or because it knows not what its role should be in the public sphere?
So what will be the voting percentage in Chennai? Better than Mumbai?
There is a lot behind that figure which will be known after dusk on May 13.

April 26, 2009

Meetings at community space

Wine shops did brisk business on the day of the bandh.
Some shop managers reported that sales had doubled that day.
Many who patronised these shops were political party worker. They had been busy campaigning on a hot day and chilled beer at the end of the day was welcome. Many shops said that they ran out of beer at dusk.
This is a gist of a report that appeared in a newspaper earlier this week. It is election time and April-May is certainly not the best season of the year to run an election campaign. Not when temperatures are in the397 and 39 region, not when the sea breeze refuses to set in and move inland and not when it is tall task to coax people to at least stop and stare.
But then, General Elections are sacred. And some chilled beer for hardworking cadres is certainly not a crime.
This morning an election caravan rolled into our neighbourhood. The accompanying band made sure that its was a trifle louder. If people stood out of their balconies or peeped out from their windows, the objective would have been served. Not many did. But the bandsmen go on with their job.
Rolling caravans and street corner meetings, at least in urban neighbourhoods don't seem to work in elections. Will meetings at community space work?
N. S. Venkataraman, consultant and social worker and a candidate in South Chennai says it does. He has been meeting people in their colonies. 15 to 20 attend and the interaction is lively he says. And if they can go back and influence one hundred then the effect is significant, says Venkataraman.
Over the past ten days, I have seen many candidates making time to attend such small, informal meetings. In Thiruvanmiyur and Mylapore, in K. K. Nagar and Ashok Nagar.
Perhaps then it is an occasion for community organisations to quickly plan and host such meetings for a tete-a-tete with the candidates of their constituencies. We should be able to convince the Chennai Corporation to allow us to hold such meetings in parks and playgrounds, in their community halls and chatrams. Free of cost if they are organised by community groups.
These spaces are diminishing and unless the community regains them they will be lost forever. Such meetings on election eve provide for meaningful debate and discussion and a healthy political relationship. So if or your organisation can play a role this General Election, plan a meeting now.

April 18, 2009

Civic Campaigns in Our Neighbourhoods

Here is a challenging project for students of sociology, social work, public administration or political science.
This summer, would you like to document and research some of the interesting community and neighourhood campaigns which have taken place in the city of Chennai?
If you are keen, the field is wide open.
For a couple of years now, we have been reporting a campaign that involved the neighbourhoods of Ashok Nagar and K. K. Nagar.
It began small. A handful of people who wondered how a prime piece of open land that should have been developed for the community had been taken over by hawkers, brokers and small-fry politicians.
What began as a simple effort led to a legal battle and finally ended with victory for the community - it managed to get the Chennai Corporation to take charge of this area and develop it into a nice park.
The campaign was a tough one. There were hints of violence too.
And one man called Ravichandran led the community from the front.
Soon thereafter, another issue troubled the same neighbourhood.
Major changes in the traffic flow system were made by the Chennai City Traffic Police in the Ashok Pillar area.
Heavy traffic, of state transport buses on long distance routes and goods-laden lorries criss-cross this region and the police wanted to address the issue.
But the changes completely ignored the condition of the residents in the colonies of this area. They could not cross the roads, they could not access key utilities and their locomotion was curtailed.
Ravichandran had another campaign on his hands. But he had to rouse the residents into action.
Civic campaigns are not easy.
Most people prefer to sit back and let the dedicated do all the dirty work.
In this case, more than a handful lent their support. They did not go too far. But they did not give up.
On Thursday, they tasted success. The Traffic Police revoked the changed system that was on 'trial'. The community won.

April 11, 2009

Please Vote for Me

We should have had the General Elections in July.
Then we could have had the opportunity to expose senior school students to the ins and outs of this democratic process.
Days in June would have been perfect.
Should school students get involved?
A few days ago we were treated to a selection of the best documentary films made worldwide. These were films chosen at the famed INPUT Festival which has its base in Germany and the screening in Chennai was arranged by the Goethe Institut.
One docu film was a clear winner.
The film is called 'Please Vote for Me'.
Made in 2007, it is based on the elections for a class monitor in a 3rd grade class of eight year old children in the Evergreen Primary School in Wuhan, China.
This was reported to be the first election of its type for a class monitor held in a school in China and it was thought to be an interesting use of classic democratic voting principles and interpersonal dynamics.
This wonderful film gives a glimpse into China's contemporary urban middle classes.
'Please Vote for Me' was named by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as one of 15 films on its documentary feature Oscar shortlist. The list was narrowed to five films but this one did not make it to the final five.
The film is part of the "Why Democracy?" series. It has been aired in no less than 35 different countries around the world.
Every act that you may associate with an election also takes place in the midst of these children, in the classroom and at home and outside. Oneupmanship, despair, frustration, tall promises, intense preparation, networking and even grant of freebies!
And there is a lot to learn from the actual event on that campus.
I think it is time we took the democratic process to all our schools.
And provided it a decent amount of time - to talk, discuss and debate. And extend it to a campus election and all that comes after an election.
Perhaps this is one of the many ways in which we can have a better informed and educated electorate.
And for those who manage schools in the neighbourhoods and would like to get a feel of the China experiment and perhaps even try it out, 'Please Vote for Me' is 'must see'.
I am sure the Goethe Institut will arrange a screening if it has a copy.

April 04, 2009

Even Tributes have a place in Community Web Sites

Arjun Vasudev was one of our city's best young guitarists. He even had a huge community of fans.
A teenager of many talents, his large groups of friends looked up to him.
Last weekend, Arjun died in a nasty accident on Arcot Road, close to the neighbourhood where he lived.
His death has numbed his friends so much that none of them wants to speak about the incident or about Arjun.
They don't want to believe that Arjun is no more here.
I never knew Arjun. I may have seen him on the stage at a rock music festival in the city or outside - today, dozens of young Indians are pushing their dreams of being professional musicians and you see them all over the circuit.
Arjun was a rising star, I learn.
And when we posted the news of his death on the neighbourhood web site - - we never expected a stream of reaction to follow, some severe, some poetic, some numbing.
Many of them posted by Padma Seshadri students and alumni - for Arjun was a PSBB alumni.
It was Arjun's profile and space on Facebook that opened up his world to us. A passionate football player, deeply involved in dramatics, a magician with the guitar and a youth others looked up to.
The continuing posts on that web space have motivated us to update our reportage on the death of a talented young man.
And keep the neighbourhood informed.
In many ways, the Internet and the Web is best suited to build strong neighbourhoods.
Though some attempts have been made in some corners of our city by Net-savvy residents, they have not bloomed.
I came across a nice attempt which had been made by the residents of Kannappa Nagar, a colony off the ECR in Thiruvanmiyur.
Many pictures, extensive notes and a long list of phone numbers.
But the effort had gone into the freezer months ago.
If you are part of a Net-worked neighbourhood community, please post a note on your project on my blog. There may be leads others would like to take.
And if you are a musician or a music lover, do attend a memorial concert planned in Arjun's memory.

March 28, 2009

Namma Chennai in Lok Sabha

Interesting people are stepping into General Elections 2009.
You may have read about Meera Sanyal. If you haven't, you will get to see her on TV and read about her in your newspaper.
Meera has not even filed her nomination but she is dominating some of the Q and A programmes on television.
Meera is the CEO of ABN Amro Bank and is based in Mumbai. She is also a Mumbai girl. And yes, she wants to contest from India's financial capital.
Meera has also been involved in community projects while being a banker and now she says she is taking a sabbatical and contesting under the banner of a less known party which is said to represent professionals.
I have been keenly listening to the longer interviews that Meera has given so far.
Her focus, she says is Mumbai.
One point on her agenda is the state of the security in this metro. Against the background of the 26/11 terrorist attacks, this is obviously a key issue.
Meera also talks about doing a lot for the infrastructure of the city. She says that millions of people use the trains and that a lot more has to be invested in this sector.
And she is talking about the relocation of the port since its business and location have been affecting the city.
Meera is certainly pushing the 'amchi Mumbai' agenda as a contestant in the General Elections-and doing this strongly.
So, do we have candidates in our city who are pushing the 'namma Chennai' agenda with pride and conviction?
And will we begin to get calls from people asking for top priority for this metro in the promises and plans that our candidates may be drawing up just now?
Now there could be people who might say that the agenda for our city has to be drawn and pursued by our councillors and our local MLAs.
That Members of Parliament have a different role to play.
I don't think so.
Considering the fact that sensitive issues, progressive laws and huge projects are debated in Parliament and drawn in the ministries, an MP from a metro has a lot to do.

So what does Chennai want?

March 21, 2009

Jaago Re

You must have seen the Jaago Re commercials on TV.
The campaign to get young people to vote in elections. A campaign that Tata Tea is promoting.
The campaign reached our city on Friday.
Two young men - Bala and Daniel - who work with 'Janaagraha', an NGO which focuses on public issues dropped by to talk about the drive.
The Bangalore-based band 'Thermal and A Quarter' was due to perform at IIT's OAT on Friday night as part of the Jaago Re campaign.
Thermal has done well for itself and it has recently produced a song specially for this 'shut up and go out and vote' project that will touch a few metros in the country.
Bala, Daniel and I got talking about this business of getting people to vote. Leave alone young people.
I am not sure we are covering some part of the mile by getting people to vote.
Not when people are not conscious of issues that have a bearing on our constituency, our region and our neighbourhood.
What is my relationship with an election and my elected representative?
What say do I have in the choice of candidates who are put up by political parties?
Are they people I have seen in public or in community life the past few years? Have I had occasions to see these people in action first hand or can I access their track records?
T. R. Baalu was the rep of my constituency in the last Lok Sabha. Because he was also a minister he was busier supervising flyovers and highways. And because he was busy, he chose to spend less time for his constituents. Of course, you could always send a letter to his city office.
So is it enough to get young people and old to go out and vote or is there more that people will need to do at election time?
I believe that the people behind public campaigns like the Jaago Re one should pay attention to local elections, to the most important level of democracy and in a metro, it is our local council.
Then perhaps, young people will see the value of that ballot.
Again, I am not so sure.
Many years ago, a campaign was tried out in Adyar to get the local community to select a 'good' candidate and stand by the person - they got a locally well known woman social worker to
contest the civic body polls.
To win, she required 10.5 percent of the votes.
Over 50% were educated people in the ward. The woman lost. Because most people who said they would vote didn't.
Lets have some hot tea.

March 14, 2009

Lok Sabha elections - be aware

Is a politician also a social entrepreneur?
This is a question I put to students and faculty of social work and a few heads of NGOs at a workshop that the Social Work Department of Stella Maris College conducted last weekend.
The theme was on the entrepreneurial outlook that people working with the community could have and the risks and responsibilities that came with it.
Sister Lourdumary, the Head had heard about some of the diverse projects that our newspapers had gone into and wanted me to share my experience with the senior students.
I didn't stick to politics that evening. Arts and media were other themes that I got into and at the end of the session, a few people seem to have been stirred.
The forthcoming elections to the Lok Sabha have certainly stirred me up.
I am trying to see what role our local newspapers and related media can play in the weeks to come.
Alliances, parleys, list of candidates . . . all this at the present sounds and looks interesting on your TV sets.
But there is lots more than we need to be aware of if we wish to be responsible citizens.
How many of us know that the constituencies have been 'delimited' - in other words that the areas which fall under them have changed?
If you aren't aware of this, then how will you know which constituency you are a voter of and who the candidates are?
Would you also like to know some of the common violations that candidates are likely to commit and how you, as an alert citizen can lodge a complaint?
But who should you complain to? And is there a contact phone number?
Would you also like to know who the candidates are and what their profiles are? Would you like to know what they stand for and what they wish to focus on if they are voted as Members of Parliament?
Your feedback will help me and our editorial team report and feature the information that is timely and useful for the elections.
Write to us at or to
Do remember this though - providing information is simple. Making use of it is key.
Do I hear someone say - I care a damn!

March 07, 2009

Posters on our walls

Wanted: Men/women tailors. Contact shop on this road.

The advert is simple and direct, printed on copy paper, A4 size.

It is well positioned too - in the centre of a Sintex water tank the Chennai Corporation set up bang in the middle of a street which runs into a colony of dhobis.

Today, the dhobis are a dozen in number but there must be a fair number of people who must be looking for employment and change in their jobs in this area.

Looking at such simple, localised promotions has become a habit.

It has stood me well for, these posters and handbills influenced the design and strategy of our own community newspapers and media.

Much of local, outdoor advertising has been dictated by the technology available at the neighbourhood printing presses.

Why, these presses even dictate the nature and form of personal communication like wedding invitations and obituaries.

The obituary posters are fascinating - it’s a different story as to why a fair number of those who said goodbye are in their 20s and 30s.

The posters are in black, invariably have illustrations of two eyes with tears running down and a wick lamp at the bottom.

Often, a few lines about the person run under the photograph.

It was one such Obit poster that led me on to the family of a man who owned a tenth of the neighbourhood where I reside - his was a fascinating life story.

Much like P. James, the magician who has dominated all the city walls with his tar scrawls, small, info-laden posters that promise cure for PILES never seem to leave the doors of TNEB junction boxes.

Off and on posters of local ‘docs’ who claim to cure sexual problems find their space.

Then came the flood of posters which advertised a variety of accommodation - for single girls and married women, for North Indian men and small families. That was the era of the IT madness.

Of late though, playschools and caterers, TV stores and call taxi services and even beautycare salons make do with single colour posters.

It is recession time, I am told.

February 28, 2009

Journalism for the young people

Does your newspaper change things in the neighbourhood?
I am asked this question at discussions on small and local media.
I tell people that we are agents of change.

I have been observing the impact in the Adyar neighbourhood where we run Adyar Times, published on Sundays.

The weekly always has a few stories every week on local civic issues, community projects and on the law and order situation.

Details of the projects proposed by local councillors get big play - sometimes though the councillors and officials are not happy at the publication since this becomes a public record.

Now, many Adyarites are picking up the information from these reports to comment/remark or debate the issues. Others are delving deep into local problems and are quick to e-mail their letters. Still others send us short notes.

Many local officials do take note of these voices that find a place in the weekly. We know that official response has been quick in some instances. Clippings of key reportage find their way to senior officers.

Change takes place. Sometimes immediately, some times gradually and sometimes, slowly.

All of us can make this happen faster if we have an alert readership. One which also communicates on key local, issues.

This is one reason why we run our annual Journalism Camp for senior students in summer. To equip interested young people with the tools and skills necessary to communicate and be more active in the public sphere.

Many young people who attend this Camp do so to prepare for admission to media courses. Some though have gone on to write letters or report on local events or even send pictures to our weeklies and to other media.

This year's Camp will be in mid-April and is open to young people of the city. We look forward to the bright sparks.

You can get a feel of the course and what goes on during the camp at the blog -

February 21, 2009

Conserving tiled houses, agraharams . . .

Where would you source a traditional harmonium?

The Panruti region is your destination. Making this instrument used to be a cottage industry but the business is on the wane.

There are companies which have existed since the 1930s.

Nuggets of information that our 'koothu' artistes from Pondicherry (or Puduchery as it is now called) shared with me on the sidelines of a recent function.

The troupe was there to take part in a street fest.

A fest got up as part of an official function hosted by the Territory.

Vysial Street had won a UNESCO award for heritage restoration. The project was among a dozen and plus more from around the world to be recognised, the only other entry being from Ahmedabad where lots of work has been done to restore the fantastic old city.

Vysial Street is in the Tamil quarter of core town which lies in the Boulevard area of Pondicherry.

Like all other streets here, it sported a unique architecture dominated by local aesthetics.

Over time, most of that heritage was eroded.

More so when the houses were turned into shops, godowns and offices and house owners chose to rebuild the way their budgets and their fancies allowed them to.

When the local chapter of INTACH, a body which works on restoration and heritage got the opportunity to work on a unique project, it chose Vysial Street because there were many houses here which retained the old and the distinct.

It wasn't easy to undertake a restoration project - not when you need to convince about 50 households for whom heritage is surely not a priority.

In the end, about 20 households agreed to get their facades restored. The painstaking work was rewarded and Vysial Street went on to bag many honours including the UNESCO certificate.

The area is now a showcase for tourists and the recognition is encouraging groups like INTACH as well as the territory's government to embark on many similar projects.

Exploring some of these houses that evening led me to images of the village of Kottur in our city. This area has the most striking tiled street houses I have seen so far and many exist even today as others have given way to ugly apartment blocks.

Restoring such unique neighbourhoods is difficult. But if you have the zeal that the INTACH team in Pondy had, it is possible.

An impressed Chief Minister at the Vysial Street function waived property tax for the restored houses and promised more incentives in the budget. Wow!