September 17, 2013

Books on Madras that is Chennai

Two books have been by my bedside this season.
Both have to do with our city. To some this city continues to be Madras. To many it is Madras and Chennai. And to others it is Chennai.

Books, fiction and non-fiction which have all or something to do with our city interest me.
Timed with the annual Madras Week celebrations which were held in August, were the launch of two books.
One, on the Anglo-Indians. And the other which called itself a ‘Biography of Madras’.

The first claims to take a comprehensive look at the Anglo-Indians, from the time the community took root and grew in the sub-continent. This book has been written by historian S. Muthiah with the assistance of Harry Maclure ( who edits ‘The Anglos in the Wind’ magazine) and Richard O’Connor.
Madras was home to a pretty large A-I community and those of us who attended Christian-managed schools and colleges in the 50s and 60s must have some wonderful memories of our friends. 

Muthiah’s book has many stories to tell and I have been reading it in parts. My grouse with the production is the miserly space provided for the visuals. Most are valuable pictures of an era gone by but they are mere blobs in this book.

The second book, ‘Degree Coffee by the Yard’ has been written by Nirmala Lakshman of ‘The Hindu’. It carries lots of information which will not be new for those who have read stuff on the city. But Nirmala’s book works for two reasons - her sharing from conversations with a host of people of the city and from her journeys to a few corners of Madras. It also works because Nirmala jots down her own experiences of this city from her early days in what can be called ‘The Hindu’ neighbourhood in Alwarpet.

I am extremely pleased that Madras/Chennai-centric books are rolling out. And I would be happy too if people began to write on a colourful neighbourhood or on the fascinating history of a local institution. Books which can be of 75 or 110 pages, books with images and verses, books that are not souvenirs and brochure-ish.
We need these books because the city’s lore must be told and retold. There are lots of people with lots of stories to share - of our city, our of neighbourhoods and of our people who have all made the city what it is.

I enjoyed reading a small book called ‘ Pelathope Days’ written by G. Ram Mohan. This is a simple story of a nook in Mylapore which was home to legends of the legal community.
So if you have a story on the city to tell, start rolling it today. 
There are people who would like to read it.

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Social Histories of our schools

Teachers Day provided me an opportunity to visit the school in Egmore where I studied.
Though we have not had a strong and active alumni community, a informal group has created linkages with St. Anthony’s and has been involved in a few campus activities.

Asha Marina who studied here in the 80s leads this group. I had time on Thursday morning, so I joined her and a few others to take part in the Teachers Day celebrations.
As the students danced to a medley of loud and popular Tamil film songs, roaring to the play of ‘ Kasu Money...’ from the ‘Soodhu Kavum’ film and then got the younger teachers involved in some fun games, I chose to walk around the small campus that was once our second home for 11 years.

St. Anthony’s is part of the group of schools in India, first started in Madras by the missionary nuns of the Union of Presentation Sisters from Ireland. A small group who were sent from George Towne to Pudupet to look after Anglo-Indian kids, helped to set up this school which celebrated its centenary in 2012-2013.
Little of the vintage parts of the school remain but then campuses have a way of taking you down a nostalgic path.
As I walked around I spotted a board outside the Head Mistress Office - it listed the HMs but it was incomplete, starting with the HM of the 50s.

That small bit of truncated history was a trigger.
So when we had adjourned to the Teaching Staff Room to meet up with the teachers who work here today, I asked my alumni colleague Jacklin if we could collaborate on a project to document information on the teachers who had served the St Anthony’s community.

Jacklin showed some interest and went on to feed on my interest in social histories. She could trace five generations of her family who came to be in the heart of Mylapore. Yadava Christians who ran a successful diamonds business that catered to the quiet rich of the city once upon a time.
Our schools are repositories of a huge and fascinating amount of social history. For obvious reasons.
Highlighting it in its simplest form could well inspire the present generation of young minds. Visuals and exhibits can attract students and can have an impact on them.

Recently, during a visit to San Thome School I noticed a simple painted note on the landing of a floor which listed a short history of this school, also started to cater to orphans and Anglo-Indians.
A Teachers Day initiative for our local schools could be a document on all the teachers who made the school what it is today.

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Town Hall - like spaces for Chennai

Three weeks ago, we had a call at our Arcot Road Times newspaper office. A lady wanted to come over and meet me.
She was keen to ensure that she could meet me personally for, she wanted to hand over a small packet of vegetables.
She had packed a small quantity of beans and Lady’s Fingers for me.
This little pack was Uma Devi Jayaraman’s way of saying thank you for a feature we had published on her wonderful garden in Virugambakkam.

Uma Devi and her husband Jayaraman live in what is a green, leafy colony called Lambert Nagar, off the busy Arcot Road. Well laid out and sporting lots of trees and a kuttai at its far end, this Nagar is certainly a prized residential locality in this part of Chennai.

Each plot is large and there are green spaces all around the independent houses that still survive the growing onslaught of real estate developers keen to build apartments.
The Jayaramans.though seem to have made good use of their open space at home. Uma Devi has, over the years put her green thumb to good use. With the children settled in life she has paid lots of attention to her garden. She attends workshops on urban gardening and spends time at the Agri-Horticultural Society’s campus on Cathedral Road to shop for seeds and look at the saplings in the nursery here.

Today, the Jayaramans’ garden is a treat for the eyes. And it sports a variety of vegetable-bearing plants.
So when we got to hear of this green effort we decided to run a story on the lady and her passion.
That week, when the feature appeared in the local newspaper we got another call. This was from a couple who not only had a nice garden but also followed simple and varied methods at recycling garden and kitchen waste.
These are some of the stories we like to report in our newspapers all the time. They are a way of recognising the positive efforts that ordinary people make in our backyard. And they also trigger positive reactions among some readers.

When we come across such stories, I wonder if our neighbourhoods could have a Town Hall-type of spaces which can be used for a variety of events. Spaces at parks or community halls or nooks in our schools.
One meeting can be on kitchen gardening; green thumbs can share their experiences, conduct demos and make new contacts.
Another month’s event could be on recycling and reuse methods that families may be adopting for good measure.

A third could be on traditional snacks. And another meet can even be readings of extracts from just-released books that 5 people have read recently and wish to talk about so that others may also want to lay their hands on them. And another for a garage sale-like event to dispose books,
white goods and stuff. Create one space for a variety of acts that interests a particular neighbourhood. For simple, informal events that thread the community.

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Madras for our kids

A slow early evening walk on the promenade of Marina Beach can be an interesting exercise in ‘man watching’. If you have the time to slow down and see.
On Sunday evening last, at about 4.30 p.m. I was opposite the Presidency College, keen to observe one of many Madras Week events.

Revathi R. who is the person behind the Yocee website for children had promoted this event which would end with children participants creating a scrapbook.
Even at that early evening hour, there were thousands of people on the Marina’s sands and hundreds kept pouring in, from the subway, the roads and from elsewhere.
A small bunch of children and their guardians had assembled at the base of the statue of Kannagi for the Madras Week event.

The intent was to get the kids to walk southwards to every statue, which was erected on the Marina by a previous DMK government in connection with the World Tamil Conference in 1968.
Resource-person Krishma Shankar would tell the group short stories on the person whose statue the kids were looking at and the kids came up with their own stories.

As the kids hopped from Kannagi to G. U. Pope to Avvaiyar and finally to the Mahatma Gandhi statue created by the famed sculptor D. P. Roy Chowdhury they also took in the façades of the landmark buildings on the western side and of all the activities on the beachside at that time of the day.

Once the Walk was over, they gathered at the Children’s Club hall on V. M. Street in Mylapore and worked on creating a scrapbook from pre-photographed images of the statues and of the Marina, using light board, paper and thread. When they finally wound up it was 8 p.m. and none had murmured or yawned.
I assume that all these children must have learnt something about the people who made history and of the life on the Marina beach. Just imagine the thoughts that a scrapbook of this nature can evoke if the kids preserve it and pick it up again a decade or two later.

That evening, I felt the immense effect that a simple Walk and a Scrapbook Making Event can have on young minds. I thought of things we could do to get kids to know their city better.
This edition of Madras Week has seen a small increase in the events meant for children. But there is a need to ideate lots more creative events that can catch their imagination.

One wishes that the Heads of our city schools include the annual Madras Week season in their school calendar and pay some attention to educating our children on our city.
Some imagination, thought and initiative can produce great results.

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Exploring Fort St. George: Madras Week 2013

My next two Sunday mornings will take me to an old and favourite destination - Fort St. George.
I have a date to keep with the 2013 edition of the Madras Week celebration.

For some years now, I have made sure that the people of this city who wish to explore its past and its heritage have the pleasure of walking around this Fort.
Forts are small towns in themselves, with streets and roads, living and working quarters, barracks and stores, ramparts and moats. And with some space for imagination and free spirit, these places can make a very interesting destination.

And Fort St George has all this and more, its walls, nooks and buildings bouncing off stories that need to be retold.

A simple, free-wheeling walk around this campus by itself can be an enjoyable exercise.
Gazing at the cold cannons, taking in the Madrasterraced buildings, sitting inside St. Mary’s Church as the pianist plays for a Sunday service, walking to the ends of the many gates on all sides, walking up to the ramparts to take in the environs and sighing at the decaying, massive Kings Barracks that smells of stale rum. . . . .there is a lot to do inside this fort.

Thanks to the state government’s Public Department, I am permitted to take guests in and make the best in the two hours that we can spend here before the more enthusiastic walkers head to the Fort Museum, another place to discover at leisure.

Madras Week, which celebrates the founding of this city has provided a window for some people to explore the city closely and many others to participate in that journey.
Walks are just part of the many events that will be held from August 18 to 25 and beyond.

All of them are free and all have been a labour of love and voluntarism.
Make sure you attend some of these events. This is our city. And it has a history of its own.

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Ramzan, Christmas, Deepavali: no more sharing?

Twice a year, my friend S. Anwar invites me over for lunch at his home in Royapettah. Both calls come on the eve of festivals. And rarely do I skip these dates.
So on Thursday night, Anwar called to invite me over on the occasion of Ramzan.
There are two reasons why I try not to miss this invitation.

One, we get to feast on some wonderful biryani that is prepared by traditional cooks specially for the occasion. And served on the ‘elai’, are at least two traditional side-dishes which are unique to this part of the country.
Also, the lunch is an occasion to make new friends and say hello to those whom we seem to meet only at Anwar’s dining table! Advocates, journalists,
activists, photographers, artistes . . . .we meet all kinds of people and let the lazy lunch end in long conversations.

A professional photographer and a historian who has given much time to documenting the life and times of his community in Tamil Nadu, Anwar makes sure that friends gather around the table at festival time.
On Friday, another friend wished me for Ramzan.

Vimala Padmaraj is a longtime resident of Leith Castle area in San Thome, She is an active member of the Saint Thomas Cathedral community and also likes to connect with families in her neighbourhood.
Vimala said that she and her daughter had begun preparing to make biryani on the occasion of Ramzan and would have lunch along with a few close friends. 

That took our conversation to a different plane - had the practice of sharing the joys of a festival with our neighbours become a thing of the past?

Vimala told me of times when she would pack pieces of cake, kul-kuls and rose cookies and send them to her neighbours on Christmas morning. And that she would pick up little toys in George Town to be given as Christmas gifts to the kids who lived down the street.
And of times when, the nieghbours would send her a box of sweets at Deepavali time or a plate of hot and spicy mutton biryani for Bakrid.
We seem to have forgotten some simple and warm gestures we made to families in our neighbourhood.

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A Trip to north Madras

How many of us would have walked down by the side of an old bridge in our area and taken a close look at the architecture that is best seen from the other side?

My friend Hemachandra Rao, a civil engineer and heritage enthusiast has spent the past two years taking a close look at bridges of our city built over a hundred years ago and still in service.
He has stopped at Chintadripet, Central Station and Basin Bridge among many other places, walked into slush and doubled across garbage piles to document what appears to be his current fascination.

Of late, Rao has been spending time at the Tamil Nadu State Archives in Egmore, digging into what were called PC or Public Consultation files trying to get to the very foundation of all the old bridges that the British built for Madras.
So when we made a trip to some parts of north Madras recently, Rao asked us to slow down at a few places to show me what he had discovered on his earlier journeys, including an old quay off the Canal near Basin Bridge and some massive, decaying godowns in the same vicinity.
With a man like Rao beside you, you begin to learn more about your city.

One destination on that trip was Erukkenchery, a 15-minute drive from Basin Bridge on a day when the roads seemed to be empty.
We headed to St. Joseph’s School located in a large plot of land bounded by small and tightly-knit colonies with roads that were more lanes.
We were here to explore ways in which a few communities could get involved in the Madras Week celebrations (

Now, Rao and his friends who collect all kinds of things - postage stamps, first-day covers, city magazines in Tamil and English, maps and drawings and gas lights and army badges - are always willing to roll out an exhibition if they find a bright space and warm hosts.
The past few years, the Rao team has taken its show to a few schools in this part of the city.
That evening, we asked school principal Father Anthony how his team of senior teachers could supplement a possible exhibition.
Could we start putting together stuff that told us a bit about Erukkenchery?

Two teachers piped up. One had lived in the area for about 25 years and the other was a third generation daughter of this soil.
In minutes we were lending our ears to the snippets of local history, geography and social life.
O yes, we had a project that could make a nice start.
We now hope the teachers and student teams will develop some form of record of this area, once a village that had its place in old city records.
It was a trip well taken.

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Gold coins for the garbage segregators

Did you hear about this buzz of a little prize that our City Fathers are going to offer us soon?
Now I am not sure if this is just buzz, some wishful thought or some crazy idea that some smart Alagiri has floated.

I hear that there’s the possibility of winning a gold coin if we do things with our garbage!
Maybe if we begin to segregate it - kitchen waste goes into a green bucket and plastic and glass and tin into a red bucket - if you recall the civic lessons that the City Fathers have shared with us.
So how we decide who gets to win a coin, silver or gold or bronze with the Mayor’s signature on it?
Will it be given to the man or woman in each city Ward who stuffs in the most kilos of hard waste?
Or will it be given to the person who is smart at recycling it? 

Gold coins can do things to people in the days when our minister is telling us that we must stop our gold-buying sprees.
But when we are ‘like that only’, the City Fathers may as well give away some gold coins for the best garbage segregator in a zone.

I suspect this idea is being floated because all the lessons, posters and pleas to citizens seem to have bounced off kitchen tops and landed in the Ramky bins.
Or possibly because the Mayor still hasn’t found the ideal way to convince people to throw waste into bins and not practice the garbage-flinging sport we seem to be good at.
Anyway, an element of rewarding civic-conscious people is welcome.

But it would be nice if the gold coin idea is extended to other civic areas.
How about a coin for a citizen who acts like the Watchdog of his Ward and logs in all the local headaches at the Corporation’s helpline?
Lots of people go on unhurried walks and some do so well after the sun is up. Now, they may get a tad excited if their role is recognized.
And how about a coin for the man or woman who uses his or her green thumb to give the street corner a green and yellow look?

Our street corners are now dominated by the green and dirty garbage bins which provide a licence for all of us to dump trash, broken pipes and torn pillows, around it.
With the recent rains, the plants have begun to bloom and a dash of purple and pink dots our green streetsides.
Surely, a coin will encourage people to green their street corners.
I am sure you too have ideas to share about rewarding people with coins. Or are you the sort who scoffs at such plans?

Gold coins or not, is there some way in which we take responsibility for our waste?

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Editorial specials on the city's civic issues by newspapers

Can newspapers solve your civic problems and mine?
Surely not.
Many people assume that the media can create some magic for them, be it at addressing their civic issues, putting the lights on their bright sparks or carrying out local campaigns.
In recent times, two leading newspapers of our city have been featuring a series on local issues.

The Hindu has chosen to focus its ‘ My City My Right’ series on ‘Right to Walk’, spreading this coverage across print, online and social media.
The campaign has also had its marketing plug with ad boards on city buses highlighting the project and in-house adverts being placed prominently in its pages.
The newspaper has taken a close look at different aspects of our pavement spaces, got people to share pictures and their experiences, quizzed the officers of the civic body and had special columns by its senior editors and specialists.
Evidently, many readers and community activists have made good use of this series. They have shared pictures of the nasty state of footpaths and spoken to the daily’s reporters on the pressures that seniors living in T. Nagar’s Motilal Street are enduring and of the pavements on TTK Road in Alwarpet being reduced to just 4 inches!

The Times of India has chosen a bigger spread. It has looked at all kinds of civic issues and projects across the city, put out the results of surveys from all the city wards and zones and told readers if life is better in Velachery and why pollution is more in Washermanpet.
Again features, pictures, graphics and short takes have increased the focus on this series by ToI.
By now, the coverage in both these dailies of our neighbourhoods must be having some effect - on readers, communities, elected reps and officers of the state.

The short - term gains seem to be on record. Promises though will take time to be realized.
Against this, it will be good for citizens to look inwards to examine the role they have and can play in civic life.
In my experience as a journalist and editor, the knowledge, understanding and appreciation of our neighbourhoods and of our city and its politics is rather poor or just average among most people.

How many of us possess info on the civic zone and ward where we reside?
How many are aware of the different departments that manage our civic affairs and of the jobs they undertake?
How many of us engage with local officials, engineers and elected reps?
How many of us have made an effort to go beyond dashing off snappy e-mails and complaining over the phone and tried to set off a local campaign on issues that affect us all?

Publishing the picture of a garbage-laden street corner, or a letter on an illegal meat stall and making a few phone calls to the local officers cannot end in a magical act.
Local issues take time to be addressed. And they may show some positive results if we sustain campaigns on them. Newspapers can at best lend us a hand.

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September 08, 2013

Remembering our Teachers

Teachers Day provided me an opportunity to visit the school in Egmore where I studied.
Though we have not had a strong and active alumni community, a informal group has created linkages with St. Anthony's and has been involved in a few campus activities.

Asha Marina who studied here in the 80s leads this group. I had time on Thursday morning, so I joined her and a few others to take part in the Teachers Day celebrations.
As the students danced to a medley of loud and popular Tamil film songs, roaring to the play of ' Kasu Money...' from the 'Soodhu Kavum' film and then got the younger teachers involved in some fun games, I chose to walk around the small campus that was once our second home for 11 years.

St. Anthony's is part of the group of schools in India, first started in Madras by the missionary nuns of the Union of Presentation Sisters from Ireland. A small group who were sent from George Towne to Pudupet to look after Anglo-Indian kids, helped to set up this school which celebrated its centenary in 2012-2013.

Little of the vintage parts of the school remain but then campuses have a way of taking you down a nostalgic path. As I walked around I spotted a board outside the Head Mistress Office - it listed the HMs but it was incomplete, starting with the HM of the 50s.
That small bit of truncated history was a trigger.

So when we had adjourned to the Teaching Staff Room to meet up with the teachers who work here today, I asked my alumni colleague Jacklin if we could collaborate on a project to document information on the teachers who had served the St Anthony's community.

Jacklin showed some interest and went on to feed on my interest in social histories. She could trace five generations of her family who came to be in the heart of Mylapore. Yadava Christians who ran a successful diamonds business that catered to the quiet rich of the city once upon a time.
Our schools are repositories of a huge and fascinating amount of social history. For obvious reasons.
Highlighting it in its simplest form could well inspire the present generation of young minds. Visuals and exhibits can attract students and can have an impact on them.

Recently, during a visit to San Thome School I noticed a simple painted note on the landing of a floor which listed a short history of this school, also started to cater to orphans and Anglo-Indians.
A Teachers Day initiative for our local schools could be a document on all the teachers who made the school what it is today.

July 13, 2013

Documenting Anna Nagar's Social History

How many of you have walked up to the topmost point of the commonly called Anna Nagar Tower and felt like the maharajah of all you can survey?

Many would sigh because they have been denied a permit to go to the top. 
The blanket ban came into force after people who were on the edge in life ran up the tower and took their lives.

Surely, we did not want Visvesvaraya Tower to be nicknamed Suicide Tower.

How many of you have enjoyed a summer’s boat ride in the pond in this very area? And had a picnic snack under the clump of trees after a jolly session in the shallow waters?

People who were the early settlers in this neighbourhood in the western part of the city will certainly treasure loads of memories of the early days of what went on to become one of the planned neighbourhoods of Madras.

The World Trade Fair held in no mans land brought attention to these parts and once the jamboree was over it was time for planners to sit down and visualise another neighbourhood.

The face of that Anna Nagar has changed completely from the times when wild animal calls greeted you at dusk and the best way to get to your plot on the western side was by hitching a ride on the bricks lorry that was going that way to deliver to a house that was being built in the vicinity.

Anna Nagar is still a new neighbourhood but the men and women who were its early settlers are slowly fading away from amidst us. And with them, memories, pictures, cards and records.

This then is the time for an initiative to document the social history of this place. Or for that matter any other neighbourhood.

This is a suggestion I had made to a bunch of activists in Anna Nagar a couple of years ago. At a meeting in one of the early houses which were built in the famed Shanthi Colony, we worked out the details, passed the juice bottles around and promised to meet again.

But little came out of it.

Recently, when a young architect who lives in Shenoy Nagar started to discuss what she and her colleagues could do for Madras Week 2013, I drew back the Anna Nagar social history idea.

So Thirupura Sundari has just got this project off the ground by creating a page on FaceBook and to get people interested.

In the weeks to follow, she promises to gather a few like-minded people and search out long-residing families in the area and try and copy pictures and documents which will help tell the story of Anna Nagar. Perhaps on a blog.

Even the first set of posters produced by the early stores off the Round Tana and the early weddings solemnised at Saint Luke’s Church will be valuable documents for this project.

Yes, many people may not part with what they consider personal but they will do the youngsters a favour if they share copies of the pictorial records.

Thirupura Sundari and group’s first aim is to collect two dozen pictures/documents and hold an exhibition. They hope this will enthuse others to share their documents.

Want to start a similar project in your area?

July 06, 2013

Ode to a PT master

In the span of a week, I had to travel to the north-western part of the city for two diverse developments - a funeral and a wedding.

We had to go beyond Perambur on both occasions.
Thiru Vi Ka Nagar is new to me though the badlands of Pulianthope which we had to cross that afternoon are not.

We were in this nagar to pay our respect to a man who left a great impression on the lives of a whole generation of students at a school in Egmore.

Paneerselvam was a P T Master who was sportsman, coach, mentor, guide, comic and friend - all rolled in one.
Hailing from the deep south and with a degree at the YMCA College in this city, he joined our school when we were in our teens.

To him sports was serious business and since we also had Miss Neaves, another legendary sports administrator in our community, PT Master had his hands full. He had to not only coach a bunch of serious young athletes but mould the entire school.

So he set about creating drill teams like never before. In doing this he not only excited legions of kids who wanted to be in the drill teams though they had to endure his yells and sweat it out on the playground but he also created avenues for the school team to perform at city-level sports meets.

PT Master’s brand of drills became so known that our school team was invited to perform at bigger sports meets.

And if the drill team’s record was not enough, Pannerselvam ensured he stood out in a crowd with his trademark look - white cap, straight hair, colourful T-shirt, spotless white trousers and white sports shoes.

The man who earned much respect and love, inspired loads of jokes and survived a few serious health problems was taken out on his final journey, dressed in his trademark clothes, cap and shoes.

He wanted to go that way.

If Pannerselvam remains a loving memory in many hearts, Rajaratnam Stadium in Egmore is a fading memory for legions of athletes. This sports space that belongs to the Madras City Police was second home to generations of sportspeople and for the youth who lived in Egmore.

The compact, centrally located stadium was convenient for city schools to hold their Sports Meets and for talented athletes to train and toil for a place on the podium.

With the closure of this stadium some years ago, an important social space was wiped out. Thankfully, a new stadium is to be opened now but it does not have the simple, open feel that the old one offered all athletes.
Some places are part of people’s lives. If we cannot preserve them completely, we can save parts of them for the future.

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June 29, 2013

Recycling handbills stuffed into our Daily Newspapers

I get three newspapers at my doorstep each morning. And on the weekends, a few more. The latter however are the freesheeters of our neighbourhood, a concept that we instituted some two decades ago.

My life and my work revolves around news and information. And anything to do with news.

It is a good habit that grew on me from the time my Dad subscribed to The Mail, that popular eveninger of our city that is no more.

Reading the three dailies takes time and is worth it. But all of us who buy these dailies also have to contend with the handbills and notices that are packed between the printed pages.

What were mere rags, printed on dirty paper in single-colour are now glossy multi-fold brochures and producing them in their thousands must cost a pile.

On weekends, my dailies grow in weight by at least a quarter of a kilo, merely because the handbills are not only many but many of the same are stuffed in between.

From the local veggies store to the new salon, from promoters of apartments in Madambakkam to fixers of mosquito nettings, the variety that spills from my dailies are a torrent.

I do look at these fliers closely. Anything is of some value if you are the sort who looks closely.

In the neighbourhood where I live, the local restaurants are very aggressive with their narrow advertising.

Many of them now provide us with their entire menu card. Recently, ‘Ente Keralam’ restaurant shoved in its home delivery menu.

On a lazy recent Sunday, the single-colour menu card of a new restaurant caught my eye. More so since it claimed to promise the best seafood cooked the Kanyakumari way. My order was placed and it arrived well on time. But I am not giving it even 4/10 and hence, will not want to get back to this restaurant.

What I do go back to every morning is a gunny bag. For, after I have done with the daily newspapers, I carry the handbills and dump them in one place, to be sold off a waste to the raddiwallah when he drops by.

Can you imagine the amount of handbills waste we contend with in our homes every morning?

We may have to live with such advertising as long as it pays the people who pay for it. But there seems to be a need for a sustained effort to store and dispose the bills in a more organised manner.

We have heard of the online-driven Kuppathoti group which makes it easy for people to get rid of unwanted stuff.

Is there something we need to do to recycle handbills?

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June 22, 2013

Portuguese San Thome and Madras Day 2013

Paolo Aranha and Vera Domingues are two research scholars based in two European cities who are encouraging a small group of us interested in the Portuguese histories of Madras.

Paolo, now in Munich has done some work and published a paper or two on a subject that has links to San Thome. Vera was here recently to walk around and talk to people in order to enrich her own research.

Vera who is based in Portugal has mailed three maps of San Thome de Meilapor which look fascinating but will send me on a crazy chase if I was to start using them.

But use I will once Vera shares a few more maps and I try to draw a trail of the dozen or more churches that existed in the Portuguese fort and outside it.

That and more will take some time in the making.

The maps and other material and Paolo’s Facebook chats are also providing me the base for a small event that I wish to time with this year’s Madras Day celebration.

A decade ago, some of us floated the idea of the Madras Day to celebrate the founding of this city. We chose a day - August 22.

And we decided that any event focused on the city would be created, planned and driven by people of this city.

10 years ago, we hosted a Walk in the Fort and ran a series of events at Rajaji Hall, once the Banqueting Hall of the British era.

When it all ended that launch year, well after 9.30 p.m. my colleague Sashi Nair and I who drove these events were exhilarated and exhausted.

Today, over 100 events are held during Madras Week, and these are hosted by many people and groups.
This year the focus is on to encourage more communities in areas which have not held such an event to ideate and drive one.

After all, a Madras Week celebration is complete only when different communities in different areas celebrate it in a way they think is best.

And it can be simple and straight.

Let me share last year’s wonderful effort of a bunch of women of Sowcarpet.
The idea was simple - a Food Trail in their area. There are lots of snacks stalls in that region. All of them offer north Indian specials. And the group know most of them.

The idea was picked up and the group drew up a route. Six shops, six stops. Five guides, 3 volunteers.
And the Mint Food Trail attracted over 40 people.

So the call is going out to you and to your friends. Focus on an idea that makes this city. Draw out an event. Tell your friends and their friends about it. Make it happen.

The buzz is being shared at a web site. You can find it at

Listen to the audio post here >>>

June 15, 2013

Padur Lake, Marina Beach: Is the Community in?

If you travel down Rajiv Gandhi Salai, still known as OMR or Old Mahabalipuram Road you will come across a few scenic places.

Places which have survived the development of IT parks and gated community projects.

One such place is in Padur, once a sleepy village. Padur's biggest natural asset is a lake.

A decade ago, people had bought two or three ground plots on land fronting this lake for as little as 20 thousand rupees.

Those who were prospecting for land here would have to get off the OMR, drive through the small village and land up at the open grounds, once fields. A college had just begun to come up. That was it.

Today, the village is all but gone and on the waterfront are large houses you can see from as far as the East Coast Road side.

Padur Lake has been facing a slow death. Encroachers have come in. People answer nature's calls. It is a dumpyard for locally generated garbage and a washing space for hired lorries.

Of late, I have been reading a bit about the lake at a blog that my friend G V Krishnan publishes. It is titled 'OMR Resident',

Krishnan, who last worked for the Times of India is spending his retired years furiously blogging on local news and issues of his neighbourhood - the far end of OMR.

Of late, Krishnan and his neighbours have been walking on the lakeside and have appreciated its value for a growing neighbourhood. They have also realised that this water body is getting polluted because it now serves as an open air toilet for a huge number of migrant workers. These people work on the massive buildings on the OMR and they do not have proper civic facilities.

Addressing such issues much before romaticising about a wonderful lake is now on the minds of Krishnan and the OMR Greens, as the group is called.

One small step that they intend to take is to sensitise the community in apartments to the existence of the lake and the need to conserve it. For, the lake belongs to all.

Who does the Marina Beach belong to?

Touted the second longest beach in the world, it seems to be everybody's beach and nobody's too!

It needed a man to go to the High Court here to get the Chennai Corporation, the city's civic body to address the issue of rampant hawkerisation of this beach.

Thousands of hawkers eke their living on this beach. They sell ice cream and fried fish, chips and corn, bajjis and sundal. Hawkers are an essential part of an open space like the Marina.

But it is shocking to see that neither the state nor the civic body addresses the issue of orderly hawking.

Retiling the pavements and planting hghmast lamps is easy. Maintaining the sands and the waterfront is tough. Would getting the beachgoers involved help?

The walkers and volleyball players, the fisherfolk and hawkers and the legions of beach cricket players. Can each be given a stake in the Marina's life?

This is the time to get the community involved. If the hawker zones come up, can we keep the waste and the plastic just there? Can we fine those who dump bottles in the sand and throw plastic sachets in the water?

 (G V Krishnan's blog is at -

Listen to the audio post here

June 08, 2013

Building local histories

My scrapbook of notes and pictures got a little bigger last week after a trip to Egmore.
A couple of friends, all schoolmates were catching up at our hangout - Charms Dress Makers, It sits in a narrow nook in a rundown building off the Adithanar statue roundabout near Hotel Ashoka.
The Charms family studied at St. Anthony’s Anglo Indian High School here. So the space outside this famous dress maker who has dressed up four generations of people, mostly Anglo-Indians has been a convenient place for many old boys and girls to meet up.
But that won’t happen anymore. For, the old building which had a nice façade at this roundabout is to be demolished to make way for a new project.
On the evening of our recent meeting, I walked around, looked up and closely at it, and at the shops and the people they held and took some pictures.
The school’s neighbourhood which is called Pudupet was also a part of our growing up days.
If Charms was a hangout, there was also Kamala Stores where we bought stationery and small gifts, there was a pharmacy we turned too if we nursed a cold or faked a fever.
And then there was Pantheon Café. We were regulars at the café and all we could afford then were idlis soaked in great sambhar provided by this hotelier from Palakkad.
For the cricket crazy in our lot, the game was played fiercely on a ground behind this building, at the rear of Munawar’s palatial bungalow which had a history of its own.
Living here was a well-known Muslim family of the Madras of old.
Personal histories and records of colonies are as important as histories of cities and nations, of movements and great people.
Sadly, we do not have a facility that can trigger and sustain such record keeping.
It can be easily done locally.
All we need is a bunch of volunteers interested in their place and the community, simple accessories like cameras and recording devices besides pen and pads and seniors who can sift through materials and keep them in some order.
A school, a library, a children’s centre, a temple office . . . can easily be spaces for local histories.
Recently, young Kartik who started Sri Chakra Library in West Mambalam shared his story about his enterprise, his passion and the hiccups that he was facing.
I suggested the local histories idea to him. Mambalam and its western extension is one of the older neighbourhoods of this city.
Imagine the pictures we can collect - pictures of wedding processions, temple fests, social meets and the like. Pictures we can cull from photo albums and dusty cupboards.
Imagine the stories we can record - audio recordings of seniors who built a house in the 1960s and have lived here since.
Writer Ashokamitran can share lots of West Mambalam stories I guess. So could any West Mambalam senior.
If you make a start in your own area, I would like to hear from you.

Listen to the audio of this post here.

June 01, 2013

Create School History Museums on Campus

A fortnight ago, I bid goodbye to the lady who was my first English teacher.

Her end came quietly and after she had completed her assignment here.

Attending the funeral Mass at St. Luke's in Anna Nagar even as the busy neighbourhood opened its doors to work and business around the Tower Park was my way of saying thank you to a guru who had a bit to do with what I am today.

Ms. Devotta hailed from the southern coastal town of Tuticorin and was among the early residents of Anna Nagar, settling down before the neighbourhood was populated with houses and bungalows.

In the classroom, she gave life to Shakespeare's plays and helped us sharpen our essay-writing skills.

Her tips and encouraging remarks helped me gain confidence in my writing. Much later, at a school alumni meet she was glad to know more about my publishing ventures.

How do our schools and colleges remember the contributions that teachers make?

I guess we realise the value of their work much later in our lives. School managers would certainly value it much earlier. How then do managements and alumni respect the memory of their teachers?

While reporting alumni meetings for our neighbourhood newspapers, we do find that many alumni groups make it a point to invite their 'old' teachers, honour them at the event and even share a purse if the person is in need of it.

I often wonder if our celebrated schools with long histories behind them cannot develop a campus history space.

A room or a corner in the lobby which showcases school uniforms and badges, report cards and trophies. A Hall of Fame of outstanding students and a Roll of Honour of all teachers and school principals.

This is the space which can make the current generation well informed and proud. And help a school showcase its history.

Last week, when an 'old boy' of St. Bede's came by to give an obituary note of his mom and we got to know that he also served in the school's Old Bedeans Association (OBA) I used the occasion to encourage him to launch the social history space.

Many schools  like  P. S. and St Bede's, St Raphael's and Vidya Mandir have great histories and these may well be showcased on campus.

     Listen to the audio version of this blog post here ...

May 25, 2013

Roads less travelled in Madras

Would you like to discover a one hundred year old neighbourhood in the heart of our city?

Then you would do well to join a PhotoWalk being organised this Sunday.

Ramaswamy Nallaperumal will play host and he should be a good guide since he has been exploring the nooks and bylanes of our city and posting his pictures on a blog and on FB.

This little colony has been living on the edge for many years now, one might say. Located behind what was once a famed landmark, Bilal Hotel and with the Cooum river running on its border, this little neighbourhood still preserves vestiges of families who migrated here some generations ago.

Ramaswamy's intention is to not only let people who will join him to also appreciate the lesser known facets of our city, more so neighbourhoods in the heart of Madras but to also look at how the work on the Metro rail system is changing the face of Mount Road.

So if you want to jojn this group, head to the start point at Hotel Sennthur which is at the head of Club House Road, Anna Salai. And if you get lost call 9444062684 . The Walk starts at 6.30 a.m.

In some ways, the Sunday tour will be a kind of Road Less Travelled experience. That too in the heart of the city.

For people who like to rediscover cities and its people, Mount Road can still hold a few surprises.

I have a few RLTs on my map.

One will takes us down Ritchie Street and into Narasinghapuram. This was once the hub of a small Goan and Anglo-Indian community. Today, it is the computers and electronics market.

The other RLT is Ellis Road that runs off from the statue of Annadurai, who was once the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. The best lassi was sold in two shops which stood behind the Devi Cinemas complex. You had a great biryani at Coronation Durbar which stood on the Round Tana and then headed for the Brijbasi lassi.

As we plan for Madras Week this August, we are looking for people who know their colourful and historic neighbourhoods pretty well and can take groups on RLT walking tours that last an hour or even less.

People from Kilpauk and Anna Nagar, Perambur and Vepery are invited to lead such Walks. If you need a bit of guidance, people like S. Muthiah and V Sriram and Ramaswamy can do it for you. These are people who have been walking for years now.

Keen? Drop me a line at

You can listen to this post here

May 18, 2013

Musicians need your help!

From the taxi driver to the security personnel I have been asked for “extra” payment because I am carrying my keyboard, standard size. Airlines now charge musicians 1000 rupees for carrying instruments on board. This HAS to stop.

This is a Facebook post by well-known pianist Anil Srinivasan and it tells you of his recent experience. It also reflects similar experiences that our musicians and artistes have been having of late when they travel by air.
Shantala Subrahmanyam said international carriers do not seem to charge or bother. Dancer Anita Ratnam commented that it was time to start an online campaign.
And Sumana Chandrashekar said that Indigo charged her an additional 6000 rupees to carry the ghatam.
Musicians across the country have been unhappy with a new rule which requires them to pay Rs 1,000 for every musical instrument they carry on board a domestic flight.
The rule came into effect recently after Directorate General for Civil Aviation approved it - I hear that some airlines had already enforced it last year. The payment is mandatory, and over and above any extra payment that may have to be made for the weight of the instruments.
Tabla player Anuradha Pal launched an online petition and has collected over 1300 signatures this far.
Here then is an issue for the music community and the rasikas to form part of a bigger campaign and push it forward.
And do so strongly.
Talking of campaigns and ginger groups, I am impressed with the work that the Disability Advocacy Group in our city has undertaken with the company behind the Metro Rail project.
Realising that advocacy and close interaction on large projects at the planning board stage is the best strategy to get simple things done, this Group carries on a sustained dialogue and field work of the Metro projects. It seems to have got some things done and faced frustration elsewhere. But the effort is laudable and must inspire others.
While online petitions are simple and straight, a lot more needs to be done physically if a issue has to get to the top of an agenda.
The managers of the Metro in Bangalore as well as in Chennai seem keen to get the community involved.
But is this city community working alongside CMRL which is behind the Metro? On issues like traffic flow, parking, access and facilities.
Would CMRL host Open Houses for the neighbourhoods of Vadapalani and Ashok Nagar and Saidapet and will local residents share views and contribute ideas and designs that will make life easy for us all when the Metro is in place?

You can also listen to the audio file of this post here

May 11, 2013

Summer Hols in native places are the best!

Group holidaying can be fun. Some of you may have just launched into it this May.

Here is how a bunch of us fell into one.

We have a bunch of cricket-crazy friends. They used to be little heroes at the school level in the 70s. But age hasn't discouraged them from donning the flannels once in a  while.

Having played a few friendlies recently, they decided to build a short holiday around this passion.

They quickly called up friends in Bangalore, fixed up a couple of matches there and a tour fell in place. Friends and families of the players were also invited. Contacts were tapped, guest houses fixed and a two-day holiday trip outside Bangalore fell in place.

The golfing community is pretty regular and smart at. With courses in the hills, this is just the season to get away from the heat in the plains. But then, that is an exclusive community.

Weddings can also be a nice excuse to plan a holiday around them.

If you are lucky, your host will throw in a trip after the wedding. But you must make sure the ends are tied up. Grooms lose track of friends at honeymoon time.

A bunch of us dreamt of great times in Yercaud after a lawyer-friend booked us into a train for his wedding in Salem. Once the meal was over, we climbed into a rugged jeep and soon, saw the misty hills in the horizon.

It was dying dusk when we got to the top. The boys were braving the chill but looking forward to some drinks and dinner. Imagine our horror when we found that the plantation guest house was firmly looked and the security man offered unoccupied staff quarters to spend the night.

It was a weekend, the hotels were booked and it was midnight when we checked into a dinghy place.

Summer does not offer many holiday options really. Even the gentle, closest hill station like Yercaud has been plotted like Oragadam and water has to be bought! So my friends who have their pads there aren't too welcoming!

I still think going to our 'native places' is simply the best holiday. Our memories and the earthiness, if we do value them can make these trips great.

Imagine the pleasure of sitting in your backyard, chomping on jackfruits and sipping tender coconut water and playing cricket in abandoned fields. Make sure cousins from all over also join you.

May 04, 2013

Vote Maadi Bangalore!

Guess this. What do you think is B. PAC?

A upmarket gym or yet another special steering committee of a state government?

B. PAC is Bangalore Political Action Committee and is the new buzzword across the garden city.

The buzz is timed on the eve of elections to the Karnataka state Assembly this weekend.

Having spent two weekends in Bangalore, I got a feel of the election mood in this city.

Perhaps, for the first time many efforts are being made to get Bangaloreans to get involved in the elections and to take a closer look at candidates in the constituencies in the city and its fringes.

B. PAC has some high-profile Bangaloreans heading it including T V Mohandas Pai who chairs the Board of Manipal Global Education Services,, technocrat Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and former IAS officer Jairaj.

The buzz it created got its members on to TV channels and its developments reported in the dailies.

For good measure too.

With a huge population explosion and migrations, high contribution to the state's income and rapid civic development, this group sees the need for greater involvement in the socio-political process in the city.

It says its first focus is to make Bangaloreans get their names on the voter's list, and go out on polling day and vote.

Less than 50% of the city's voters cast their ballot in the last poll.

But the bigger problem is the mess that the voters lists are in. Thousands of names have been added, removed and struck off, so even the enterprising young voter ends up frustrated.

These pose bigger headaches to young people who have thrown their hats in the ring like Ashwin Mahesh, who holds a doctorate in geophysics and who is contesting on a Lok Satta party ticket and is the party's state head.

Ash has been deeply involved in working with the police/transport departments and contributing to major policy and civic projects of the city. And he wants to play a bigger role. This will be his second electoral foray and in the Bommanahalli constituency where is a candidate now, a mix of the rich and the migrant communities he says he has a good chance of getting elected.

The campaign has been local, focussed and enthusiastic but will the educated go out and vote for him and migrant trust his voice?

If there is one issue that can go against Ash it will be the messy voters' list. But I would like to see if his team's focused visits to over 10,000 homes worked.

B. PAC also 'endorsed' what it said were good candidates and offered funding. This drew a strong rip from a Left party. Others see the whole movement as elitist.

More key is this tendency, be it Bangalore or Chennai for small groups to get socially hyperactive only at crisis time or at election time.

Being political means that we be involved all the time.

But 'Vote Maadi' is still a good step forward.

April 29, 2013

Bangalore's Ramanavami, IPL and Elections

Lots of music, growing political campaigns and IPL fever.
This is indeed an extreme cocktail but Bangalore is being offered it this April.
And for me, as journalist and observer of all that spins around us, this is heady and interesting.
The RCB ( Royal Challengers Bangalore) seems to have built a huge fan base, with the city rooting for it all the time. The stands at the Chinnaswamy stadium are packed to the gills and it is best to avoid being on the roads before and after a match.
On Saturday last, as RCB prepared to face a top-of-the-table RR ( Rajasthan Royals) at a late evening match swathes of fans, all armed with the red flags headed to the Chinnaswamy Stadium.
This is one community that loves the IPL action and its team and is behind it even on weekdays!
Another set of flags are slowly going up in neighbourhoods. Karnataka is preparing for early May elections to its state Assembly. The campaigns are
taking off slowly. Though the banners and posters are far between, the presence of more parties means there will be more flags.
What interests me is the presence and campaign of some young professionals who are in the fray. Some are under the banner of the Lok Satta party.
I had looked at similar efforts in the elections in Tamil Nadu and at candidates in our city neighborhoods.
Bangalore may throw up interesting ideas.
In the midst of the cricket and the elections is the classical music community.
This is the time of the Sri Ramanavami Music Festival season and Bangalore’s rasikas and mandalis are getting bigger and better.
The best and the talented perform across the city and since the city has expanded from one ‘halli’ to another, each has its own home-grown arts body.
So ‘chitravina’ Ravi Kiran and Gayatri Venkatraghavan perform in the city centre one evening and move to the west/east the next! Much like the
December season.
We at KutcheriBuzz are blogging Bangalore’s Sri Ramanavami Music Fest. Posting stories, reviews and the buzz. ( )

April 20, 2013

Cycling down Mount Road

Got a bicycle and keen to explore this city?

You may want to sign up for a Tour of Mount Road that Cycling Yogi has organized on Sunday (April 21 morning) on the occasion of World Heritage Day ( April 18).

The yogi is a young man called Ramanujar Moulana. And we appreciate this effort because it comes from within and it celebrates our heritage.

The yogi has made a few recce trips already, has got 20 registrations and has space for another 20. And this is indeed impressive.

The idea is to start at the '0' point just outside the western side of Fort St George, cycle down what was the Queen of Madras' roads and end where the legs can pedal you to!

There will be many stops - to stare at all the historic landmarks and heritage buildings on this road. Two photographers are tagging along too.

The group will share local stories and histories. Ramanujar has sweated it out to get permission from the Kings Institute in Guindy to explore this landmark campus and there will be other nooks which can surprise.

I wondered if the young men could pedal their way up St Thomas Mount - ending the trip with breakfast on the mount and a grand view of this city would be a nice bonus.

Though they will be very disheartened to see modern trappings and more excavations for new structures on the mount, all created by the local Catholic Church which seems to have little respect for heritage.

I am hoping the Cycling Yogi group organizes more such tours of the city and keeps the idea going. The last time it hosted a tour for the Madras Week celebrations, the huge assembly at the Gandhi statue point on the Marina rattled a sharp policeman on his beat. Ramanujar had to press his line to me at 5 a.m. to assure the cop that the group was a harmless bunch!

One other bunch who I hope will explore the south end of Mount Road is Sowmya Swaminathan & Co., active on the Chennai Bloggers Club. Residents of Chrompet, I designed a rough guide for them to explore this hol - the quaint Veteran Lines colony located off Pallavaram and St Thomas Mount.

It is 39 degrees alright but holidays are the best time to explore this city. Do it in small groups. If you want tips, mail me (

April 13, 2013

Sunday Mass, Degree Coffee and Harley Davidsons

Attending Holy Mass on Sundays at different churches is an experience. Many Catholics do so nowadays.

The concept of parish community broke down some time ago - of people in an area attending services at the designated church in the parish zone.

The change happened for various reasons. Some for convenience, others out of an attachment to a place or the nature of services. And some others to undertake a pilgrimage or keep a vow.

Last Sunday, I made a pit stop at a church dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes in Muttukkadu, metres before the boating yard on the ECR.

A small congregation was at the Mass in Thamizh and through the hour-long service the power went off and on and off and on. Priests use the Sunday service platform to also talk to the community and this Sunday, before the final blessing the young priest here told his flock how families could go about calling him over when they required him and how he could be of help to them.

It was past 9.30 and I was hungry. Yards away we located a new joint - Kumbakonam Degree Coffee.

The Degree Coffee outlets have popped up on all our highways, seemingly in a hurry to beat the Café Coffee Days at its own game. This one opposite the Kanathur Police Station even had its logo registered.

There was a Dosa Hut next door. As we feasted on onion uthappam, the spectacle on the ECR changed before us.

Waves of bikers and cyclists swept down the road. All of them in heavy gear, enjoying their Sunday drive. They drove in groups, some very determined and mostly cautious, respecting the rules of the road.

ECR is not the best highway for these outdoor enthusiasts. With mounting accidents, the local police have installed dividers every 50 metres and no biker would like those hurdles as he revs up on a scenic highway.

The community of bikers and cyclists is growing in this city. Even the Harley Davidson tribe is big. Thanks to social media the communities form fast and grow well.

Some do the Madras-Pondy lap once a month. Some prefer a run to Mahabs and back.

All of them though make good use of the ECR. And some have found the Degree Coffee joints welcome pit-stops.