April 28, 2012

Ramasseri idlis and Marina sundal

The idli has taken many avatars.

I got to know one such this past week.

The Ramasseri Idli.

To enjoy a couple or a plateful of these iddlis you will have to travel all the way to Palakkad in Kerala, then branch off some 8 kilometres away to get to this place and if luck is on your side, chance to feast on the idlis at one stall that is said to carry on a legacy that colours India's food heritage.

The idlis are fluffy, round but flat and look more like little bloated dosas or tossed up idi-appams.

They are best had with idli podi soaked in oil though foodies who must have chicken curry for breakfast opt for the curry.

I am told that this food is a legacy which the Muthaliyar community once of Kanchipuram carried to Palakkad and it now remains in the hands of a few families who have chosen to run food stalls in this little place.

I got to know much of this while sitting and evaluating projects of the Mass Communications students at Pondicherry University, most of which were either PSAs, documentaries or short films.

As a student's docu on the Ramasseri idlis rolled on I wondered if I may have had the occasion to chance on something similar during a visit to Kalpathy, a well preserved Tamil Brahmin settlement in the same district, during its famed temple car festival.

Nooks, heritage spots and local traditions make for fascinating indulgences when we chance to explore a place.

With a bit of adventure and licence, you will discover these experiences even in your backyard.

If you turn off one or two less frequented beachside spots on the East Coast Road (ECR) outside our city you will chance on  shacks where local women of the fisher community offer you a simple but tantalizing plate of fresh fried fish or spicy fish curry.

The tangy curry is unique to this east coast region and is best enjoyed with steamed rice.

Friends who frequent Bessie Beach (Elliots Beach, Besant Nagar) often end their weekend evenings with a visit to the fish hawker for plates of fried fish and crab masala.

The salty sundal and green mango slices dipped in chilli powder is part of Marina beach lore. So is softball cricket.

They tried to remove the cattamarans; they banned the cricket . . .but the two have survived.

Living heritage, either on the decline or being wiped out is also about idlis and sundal.

April 21, 2012

Challenges in running Thamizh medium school in Chennai

What takes priority at a middle school which serves poor families in a metro?

Classroom environment.

Note and textbooks.

Food and nutrition.

Extra-curricular activities.

Clean washrooms and toilets.

On a sweaty April afternoon, we sit with teachers and nuns to list the priorities as the academic year comes to an end and this is the time to plan ahead.

We support a middle school in Mandavelipakkam managed by the Bon Secours congregation of nuns.  This is a congregation which was installed in Mylapore in 1894, having taken root in Pondicherry much earlier with the effort of a Jesuit missionary priest.

The steady stream of donations from Mylaporeans over the past many years has enabled us at the Trust to slowly expand the nature of our support.

Last year, the Headmistress, a nun made two requests. One, to help repair the washrooms and two, bear the expenses of transporting about 100 children from the suburbs of the city.

The second issue got me going further. And I realised the changing dynamics of primary school education in a city like ours.

Bon Secours runs four major schools in the Mylapore region - specially because its base, the Provincialate is in Alwarpet.

The Middle School we support is a Thamizh medium school which has catered to the poor in this area and to the children of fisherfolks on the coast. Some years ago, the strength began to fall. Parents were opting for local English medium schools.

The strength had to be sustained and on many evenings, nuns and teachers would set off to the kuppams to coax errant parents to let their kids attend school.

The school received a big blow when the state 'evicted' many coast-based families in the name of tsunami rehabilitation and dumped them in places like Semmenchery and Kannagi Nagar, now considered to be the hellholes of the displaced of our city.

While many kids dropped out of school, some determined ones clung on to MTC buses and came all the way to Mandavelipakkam to attend school.

Many would collapse after the first session of class.

Many gave up the trials of travelling long distances.

The nuns and the teachers could not sit back, for their salaries and jobs depended on the school strength. Today, they share the huge bill of transporting the Semmenchery kids in two vans.

And they realize that there will not be much scope for a Thamizh medium school.

The nuns cannot decide in a jiffy. Their High School for girls, just across the road offers English medium and is packed.

Investing in a school bus now that will do the San Thome-Semmencherry trip is not the best option. Instead, we propose to repair the washrooms.

April 15, 2012

Writing this summer

Can summer be a theme? Or is heritage more exciting?

It is that time of the year when we invite young people who wish to get a feel of print journalism to a Camp at our newspapers.

It is a Camp we have been holding for many years and it has taken on different avatars over time.

Tossing a few ideas even as we call for applications, I mused on a theme-driven Camp that might interest senior school students who have discovered a calling for the written word.

Summer is a given theme.

Could we get closer to our parents or grandparents and discover the foodstuffs they choose to make at this time of year?

Pickles and snacks, juices and dry food.

And we could we then relate to all the eco food products that get to the shelves at this time of the year. And then raid our refrigerators to find out what food we stock there.

I recall a news report that  P. V. Durga from Theayagaraya Nagar who was at our Camp last year did. She located a woman in Nadanam who made excellent, spicy Andhra pickles at home and sold them by word of mouth.

Her USP - the pickles did not have preservatives.

Heritage is a theme I can easily explore.

And it will have to start at home. We would like to ask our Campers to take a look at their mother's treasured saris and relate them to the displays at  the local store. We could take a look at the calligraphy of the local Urdu publication and relate it to how others have used the vernacular for web publishing.

In between, we will go on a Heritage Walk, have a picnic and get back to write on Madras terrace or 'tinnais'  that survive in our backyard.

Last year, we went on a walk down C. P. Ramaswamy Road, to the Alwarpet Circle. The exercise was to 'observe'. The flowers blooming on avenue trees. The promo handbills on EB boxes, the stuff in showcases and Tibetan medicine inside the Grove.

Samples of the reports are still at www.mtjclass.blogspot.com

If you are passionate about writing, sign up now.

April 07, 2012

Blogging local and niche

We should have done this before. But we have done it now.
Blogging on the key events in our neighbourhoods, in our patch!

My column has been blogged for many years now ( since 2006 - www.vincentsjottings.blogspot.com). There have been some positives in doing this - off and on, people researching on themes that I touch on make contact.

On Anglo-Indians and Mount Road, Community Newspapers and Civic Polls.

But at our newspapers we have not exploited the simple, elegant features that a Blog offers journalists and independent writers and photographers.

In early February, we at KutcheriBuzz ( the web site for Carnatic music and classical dance) launched a blog to cover the annual Natyanjali Dance Fest from Chidambaram.

With contributions from Revathi R. and Mohan Das Vadakkara, we flipped between reportage, audios, videos and pictures through 6 days that week. The modest effort paid with a nice tally of page views.

The effort and the feedback encouraged us.

Since last week, we have been managing two blogs.

For KutcheriBuzz, a weeklong coverage of Bangalore's Sri Ramanavami Music Fests ( www.ramanavamimusic.blogspot.in).

And a fortnight long coverage of Mylapore's biggest festival - the Panguni or more commonly known the arabathumoovar celebration ( www.mylaporepangunifest.blogspot.in).

And what a roller-coaster this has been.

Here is a comment from one visitor -

I am Ambika from St.Mary's Road. I am currently living in Muscat. I used to be one in the crowd for adhikara nandi, ther and arubattu-moovar processions...Felt I would be missing them . . .But the blog has done a good job of posting the photos..Really appreciate it.

Sitting inside a temple or an auditorium, in Chidambaram, Seshadripuram or Mylapore and relaying live words, pictures and audios provides for a different kind of reportage. Immediate, breezy and personalised.

Neither TV nor newspapers can provide that effect. Radio can.

We would like lots more readers to join us when we blog next. One-way traffic does not make great communication. Give us your ideas anyway - let them be local!

April 01, 2012

Women councillors of Chennai and their men

You call your local Ward councillor on the phone. A male voice answers. The man refuses to hand over the phone to his wife, the councillor.

"You can talk to me, its alright," he insists.

You take the call.

So why do parties choose to select the wives of local area politicians when it comes to giving tickets and respecting the reservation policy for women in our local bodies like our Corporation Council?

Is the situation so bad that these parties do not have women who have taken part in rallies and agitations or addressed local issues, women who could better qualify for this job?

I was looking for answers at a discussion held at the American Center last fortnight. The United States celebrates Women's History Month each March and among the events was this discussion on 'Women and Politics'.

The panel included former state minister in the DMK, Dr. Poongothai Aladi Aruna, Bader Sayeed, senior advocate and former AIADMK MLA, Lalitha Kumaramangalam, senior member of the BJP and Dr. Wendy Singer, Fulbright Nehru senior researcher.

It was a refreshing experience because all the women were, outspoken, warm and had some character.

This was a 'limited' public event and hence the candid nature of their conversation - they could not have said many things in a public space, much less in their own political space.

The discussion touched on how being in political families helped an aspirant, how party cadres treated and respected women in their midst, what it took to be in and survive electoral politics and how women leaders and colleagues treated each other.

For someone who has followed grassroot politics and electoral systems closely since the time we started our neighbourhood newspapers, much of what was said was not new.

But when I did ask the question that is at the top of this column, there were a few unconvincing replies from the panel.

"Perhaps parties think wives of their local leaders are winnable."

"These women will also be party members, so there is no harm selecting them."

"It's a start, at least a woman has found a space, she will do better as she learns down the line."

Some women ward councillors have got down to business with experience. Some have turned corrupt. Others have remained mum or played puppets.

If the ward community can work alongside, if the women are given skills training, then our neighbourhoods would stand to gain.