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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