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.