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 fa├žades 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 ( www.themadrasday.in).

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.