Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sports meet

For a huge majority of Chennai residents, the only connection with a stadium would have been the Rajarathnam Stadium, on Rukmini Lakshmipathy Road (Marshalls Road). Its location makes it a very convenient venue to host a variety of events, including many that have only a tenuous connection to any kind of sport. Selection drills for the Fire Services, award of best performance in Anti-Tobacco program, distribution of vehicles to local government bodies - Rajarathnam Stadium has hosted all such events without batting an eyelid.

Having said all that, nobody from Chennai with any pretentions of being an athlete can ignore this stadium. With most schools not having enough space to conduct a full-fledged sports meet, this stadium has for long been first choice for such activities. It is almost the default venue for any inter-school, inter-college or inter-university track-and-field competition being held in Chennai. Indeed, for a very long while, it was the only one available for such pursuits. On a rare day when there was no event being held in the stadium, it would be filled with several marginal sportspersons - all those who got into various government and quasi-government institutions on the 'sports quota', needing to put in those hours of practice needed to maintain their 'sports quota' presence.

The red-clay track at this stadium has seen some really serious rivalries over the years, between various schools and colleges in the city. These days, one doesn't get to hear about them - either their 'news value' of such events has lessened or the events themselves have; and I do hope it is only the former!

Monday, September 29, 2008

320 years and counting

In the late 17th century accounting and audits were most likely based on subjective assessments of how much money should have been collected (and how it should have been shared). It is not surprising therefore that there were several disagreements among the field officers of the British East India Company and those sitting at headquarters. In fact, the second governor of Madras, Elihu Yale, was constantly harrassed by his London bosses. Streynsham Master, Yale's predecessor, had introduced taxes but after Yale took over, there was a considerable amount of friction over money matters, to the extent that the head office turned to outside help to rein Yale in. (There was quite a bit of ground fo their suspicions; when he returned to England, Yale is reported to have paid £24,000 - in 1699 - as duty for the goods he brought with him).

In 1687, Sir Josiah Child, the Chairman of the Company, succeeded in persuading King James II to issue a Royal Charter creating the Corporation of Madras to administer this new city. Persuasion must have been necessary for, until then, such an institution had not been created anywhere outside Britain and the King would have been reluctant to associate with an experiment happening so far away. But Sir Josiah did succeed and the Charter was issued on December 30, 1687. Yet, it took 9 more months before it could be implemented - the bulk of that period must have been taken up with Elihu Yale negotiating to keep many of his powers. And so, on September 29, 1688, the Corporation of Madras was inaugurated with the Mayor, 12 Aldermen and 29 Burgesses - a considerably mutiracial group they were, comprising Company officers, French, Portugese & Hebrew, as well as 'Gentu' merchants.

The 'experiment' has obviously been successful: the Corporation of Madras became the blueprint for setting up similar institutions in India and elsewhere - another instance of how Madras has been a torchbearer for the world!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Boating on the river

Close to its source, it is associated with godliness; two temples to Lord Shiva, going back to the 10th century CE, were built to take advantage of the clear waters of this river. From there the river travels about 65 km in its search for the sea and has had the ill-luck of choosing a path that takes it through the city of Chennai. Entering the city close to Koyambedu, the Cooum which until then followed a reasonably straight course, twists and bends, almost trying to go out of the city; the city goes with it, though - Arumbakkam, Anna Nagar, Aminjikarai, Nungambakkam, Chetpet, Egmore, Chindadripet, Park Town - all of them coming up along the Cooum's course for various reasons.

Until about 25-30 years ago, Cooum was pleasant; the tourism department maintained boat houses at various points along the river and they were actually used. Even then, some warning noises were being made. A study in 1975 showed that the number of fish species in the river had dropped to less than half, from 49 in the early fifties, to 21. But nobody cared and the city of Madras continued to pour its filth, sewage and industrial effluents into the Cooum, believing she'd be able to bear all of it and more. Over the past decades, she has given up and is today a stagnant cesspool, an embarrassing reminder of the Chennai-ite's unconcern and a potential health-hazard to anyone who ventures too close to it.

There is hope, however. If you want your voice to be heard in support of reviving the Cooum, please speak up at 'Cooum Subbasin Restoration & Management'; this website is expected to provide updates on the progress of the latest World Bank funded 'IAMWARM' project, specific to the revival of the Cooum. I hope that we will once again see the boat house in this photo filled with people, very soon!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Place to stay

Mansion: 2 a (1): manor house (2): a large imposing residence b: a separate apartment or lodging in a large structure. I didn't know about the 'b' meaning, but thanks to Merriam-Webster, I do now. Had always thought of mansion as a huge house with large gardens, occupied by a single family.

Nadar: A caste / community in Tamil Nadu, believed to be able to trace their lineage to the ancient Pandya kings. The word itself means 'ruler of the land' and possibly refers to the title given to those who were vassal chieftains of the Pandya rulers.

Virudhunagar: A town in southern Tamil Nadu that is the headquarters of the district with the same name. Just south of Madurai, this region was one of the earliest strongholds of the Nadar community. Given the community's traditional strengths, it is also a trading hub for both agricultural goods as well as products like matches, cement or textiles.

So where does a Nadar from Virudhunagar stay when he has to come to the state capital to trade? This mansion near the Chennai Central railway station may have been built with that facility in mind, but the trader Nadars of today are likely too well off to be using such accommodation. Being close to the station, it is not a favoured haunt for those who have some kind of permanence in the city - mansions in T.Nagar or Triplicane are more ideal. Here, the space is taken up by some of the hundreds of people who come to Madras every day, in the hope of making their mark.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Cool back

They say that about 25,000 people visit it every day. With that kind of 'footfall', a shopping mall can surely hope for fairly large daily sales turnover figures. One thing to keep in mind about shopping malls in many parts of India is that it would be difficult to correlate visitors to sales, except during the festival season. There are many reasons to visit a shopping mall, but shopping would possibly come at the bottom of the list. Escaping the heat would likely lead all the rest.

All the more so in Chennai, where the heat continues to remain at fairly high levels even in September. So, even though the festive season is at hand, Spencer's Plaza is still seeing a lot of traffic that comes in just to stay cool and hang around, rather than to tick off any shopping list. The airconditioning at the mall must be overworked with all that crowd; this view from across Binny Road shows many individual airconditioning units working to supplement the mall's cooling tower!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sprucing up

With the festival season coming up, even the small 'temples' are getting a facelift. Here's one in Alwarpet, getting the primer done. In a week, it should be ready to join the festivities in multicoloured glory!

Am going to be away for a few days; hopefully, I'll have access to the Internet and will be able to continue the 'daily' bit of this blog....

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Near miss

I'm fairly sure that quite a few incidents like this one happen every day on the roads of Chennai. Traffic being what it is, it is a rare vehicle that does not have the marks of Chennai road-life. As for close shaves, there is no point even thinking about them, because they are too numerous to count. The 2-wheelers snake across the road, even making right-angled turns to get to that patch of tarmac on the lane across, so as to get ahead by those couple of millimetres. The autos believe if their front wheel can get into a space, the rest of vehicle can, too. The buses are by and large immune to prosecution and often throw their considerable weight behind flouting the rules. And then those vehicles ferrying BPO employees, with the threat of penalties for latecoming hanging over their heads, trying to save time all the time.

But you'd expect the off-peak hours traffic to be saner. And it is, usually. But the lighter traffic also lets the regular drivers relax - and that's what seemed to have happened to this bus driver, too. He was moving too slowly to be real and the van thought it a good idea to cut ahead - it was lucky that the bus driver woke up in time - the 'Hhwooornunk' of his brakes got everyone to turn around - including the two bikes in front, who then demonstrated their interpretation of Brownian motion before speeding away!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hole in the wall

It really looks like it, doesn't it? A tiny shop, marginally broader than its door, with the big signboard at the entrance almost completely faded, it is strangely out of place at the entrance to Thyagaraya Road, one of Chennai's shopping hotspots. If you stop to think about it for a minute, however, you will find that there is nothing incongruous about it at all, this is the way it has to be, with the shops catering to the day-to-day essentials of a household being placed right up front and the other, once-in-a-while items pushed further inside. Problem is, times have changed. This shop would have done roaring business (literally) in the days when powdered spices did not come in handy packets, when everything from pepper to chillies had to be bought whole and then brought in smaller quantities to these shops where they would be ground into fine powders, the ones that make Indian cuisine what it is.

And in those days, you wouldn't dare step away from the shop to watch life go by, because you needed to be sure that your chillies were being done just the way you wanted and that they did not mix with others. Today, even if the shop seems anachronistic, it is good to see it there, offering proof that there are still some really old-fashioned folks in the city!

Monday, September 22, 2008

No bottle cleaning needed

It is surprising how something remains un-noticed for a long, long time and then, all on a sudden, you start seeing it almost everywhere you look. This flower was also one such. I don't remember having ever noticed it until a few weeks ago, while on a walk to the Nanmangalam forest. It looked very nice and it seemed to be an ideal plant that could be grown along boundary walls of houses. Since then, I've spotted it in a couple of other places and for the life of me I can't figure out how I could have missed this flower.

Yet, the flower had some more mystery for me. It was pointed out to me as a bottle-brush flower and so I googled for bottle brush flowers. Of course there were a lot of results, but none of them matched the flower I had seen. They were close, but not an exact match and that was gnawing away at me. It was only over this weekend that, thanks to Dr. Bhanumathi of the MNS that I learnt that I was way off: the bottle-brush flower belongs to a completely different genus altogether and this one was closer to the touch-me-nots rather than bottle-brushes. In fact, it is sometimes called the sickle-bush and is considered a pest, because it is very hardy and its seeds can lie dormant for up to a year. In some parts of the world, unchecked growth of this plant has caused large tracts of agricultural land to become unfit for cultivation.

After getting to know all that, I guess it is good thing that I haven't seen it too often - I will now be happy for us to enjoy the beauty of this flower in small doses!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Open air movie

Chennai has only one drive-in theatre, Prarthana, on the East Coast Road. As I passed that way close to showtime last weekend, I was convinced that I have to either arrive at Prarthana an hour before the show starts or just leave my car somewhere else and walk to the theatre. The rush of vehicles trying to get into the theatre was unimaginable. And with vehicles trying to jump the queue tempers seemed to be on the boil all around. I don't recall it being this bad when I last watched a movie there, about 3 years ago.

The other option for watching a movie in the open, is to head out to one of the Clubs in the city. Almost all of them have a weekend movie show for members and it is usually a recent film that's screened. For a reluctant movie goer like me, it is a good option to go to the Madras Race Club and catch up on a recent Tamil, Hindi or English movie over a couple of drinks. The movies are shown old style, with at least a couple of changes of the film reels on the projector, when the screen goes blank, and folks use that time to refill their orders of drinks or snacks. When there are friends around, it is nice to continue sitting on the lawn after the movie over a slowish Saturday dinner. Yesterday, it was difficult to resist the temptation to go, for the movie was 'Jaane tu ya jaane na' - we arrived early enough to make sure we got good seats.

A movie here comes with a small drawback, though. The Club is right under one of the landing paths to the Chennai airport. As the aircraft comes from behind the screen, you might not get distracted with its light; but when it roars overhead, you can be sure that you'll miss a couple of words from the dialogue!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Either way, it's ok?

Someone had asked if the change in the city's name from Madras to Chennai has sunk in deeply enough. There can't be a short answer to that; there are many institutions in the city which, for various reasons, continue to carry 'Madras' as part of their name. One such institution is the University of Madras, which recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. Hopefully, it will continue to retain the same name for a very, very long time. I believe it must - and so must the other institutions, else we run the risk of forgetting the Madras that was for the Chennai that will be.

Beginning with the Senate House, the University today occupies several buildings along the Marina. Even though it is very clear what it's name is, there are many who are confused about it - thankfully, the word 'Chennai' does not enter into the confusion. Several people refer to it as Madras University, which probably gets the point across, but is an obvious misnomer - or am I being too exact about it?

It seems to me that the person in charge of putting this fence around one of the University's buildings also had a similar confusion. Luckily for him, he could play it safe and cover both options by just turning a few of the grills around!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Abashed greeting

It has been a few weeks since the Beijing Olympics got over, but for some people, the euphoria over India's performance at the Games goes on. Granted, it is the first time that India had won more than 2 medals in the Olympics, but the level of celebrations seems to be a bit overboard at most times. Of course I was keyed up enough to hand out sweets at work on hearing that Bindra had clinched India's first individual gold, I did feel wretched when Saina lost to Yulianti, I did cheer when Sushil Kumar rode his luck for the bronze, as when Vijender got through to the semi-final and I felt sorry for Akhil - the last especially because I had grandly predicted gold for him. And I certainly respect the hard work and single minded focus that our sporstpersons have, and continue to, put in.

But as a collective, the chest-thumping that has gone on about 3 medals is slightly disconcerting. Especially after having seen the berserk behaviour of Indian cricket fans who go to either extreme depending on the team's performance, I shudder to think of what would happen if India were to bring home, say, 30 medals from London 2012. Would the energy be dissipated across the 30 medal winners? Would the celebrations be ten times as riotous? And what would happen if 2016 sees us drop back to 5 medals? The mind boggles.

Maybe the people behind this congratulatory message were also assailed by similar thoughts, which could be one reason why they have chosen to 'singular'ly congratulate the medal winners!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The technology motif

On a recent holiday, I had a chance to go up to the 5th floor of the Sanmar Group's Corporate Office. It was a nice view of the Radhakrishnan Salai flyover from up there; dominating the scene was one of Chennai's new office buildings. It is difficult to believe that it has been almost four years since the stately old house at that spot was demolished. As I go down the flyover, there is split-second lag before reality replaces memory and then I look up at this 13-storied building rather than look down for the imposing house that used to be there.

Though it was named 'India House', it was better known as 'Vasan's House', after SS Vasan, a one-time owner. Vasan having been a film director, it seemed a natural progression for the house to be used, after his lifetime, as a set for movies and TV serials. It was over 70 years old and with every shooting schedule, it probably took longer to recover, until it was no longer a viable proposition to be hired out. Its gates were shut after the last unit left sometime at the end of 2004; sale - agreement - construction followed and in 2007, Acropolis opened its doors to host quite a few IT companies.

Its first owner, the entrepreneur C.Rajam used the money from the sale of 'India House' to set up the Madras Institute of Technology; with the latest sale, 'India House' has made way to a Technology Park!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Tamizh Pope

No, George Uglow never had the words "Habemus Papam" said in reference to him. He was Pope only in surname, though he was indeed a Christian missionary. He came to India before he turned twenty - and like many others, stayed on, fascinated by the country and its traditions. He had a flair for languages and very soon, he was fluent in Sanskrit, Telugu and Tamizh. In return, he taught Latin, Hebrew and English at various schools, mainly around Tuticorin, which was where he was based.

He translated several ancient Tamizh texts into English, including the Naladiyar and the Thirukkural, but ever a punctilious scholar, many of his works were published when he was well into his 60s, after he was sure that he was a master of the language. And he continued publishing his translations, lexicons and guide books of Tamizh until he turned 80; it is said that he finished his translation of Thiruvachagam on his 80th birthday and with it, considered his "life's literary work" closed. He kept his word and there were no more major writings from him in for the last eight years of his life, though he continued to be an active leader of the church almost until his death in 1908.

That's why you find this statue of Rev. G.U.Pope standing on the Marina, unveiled along with many others in January 1968, to mark the World Tamil Congress in Madras.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Porky colours

It is a wonder how anyone who grew up in Madras could ever get around to eating pork. When I was in school, the only pigs we saw were the ones that lived on the garbage dump at the 'Lake Area' near Valluvar Kottam. The stink of the garbage could be smelt one bus-stop away and if you were game enough to look at the mounds of muck, you would see an army of pigs gambolling through them, blissfully content with their surroundings. The only feature that distingushed them from the piles of black filth was their mobility. If they stood still, they would completely merge into the background, for their hairs and skins were blackened by constantly rooting around the garbage.

It was therefore a challenge to any butcher to sell pork. Buying it in the form of sausages or ham from Spencer's was the chosen mode. As pork gained popularity, other 'cold storage' outlets began to stock it, but even then, it was always the processed meat. The only shop that I have seen selling fresh pork is this one near the Saidapet bus stand on Mount Road. For RGS, the positioning was, and continues to be, important. This shop does not sell any old pig; it is 'white pork' that is sold (and it says so even more explicitly, 'white pig meat', in Tamizh).

This shop came to mind after a question at the Madras Day Quiz - What are the ingredients of Chinnamalai Pork Curry? This shop is close enough to Chinnamalai to have been the bespoke supplier of the main ingredient of that dish!

For the record, Chinnamalai Pork Curry (as described at the quiz) is made with pork, mango, brinjal and drumstick!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Vacant lot

I don't remember the movie that I had gone to watch. But on the seats were fliers for Silver Sands, a resort on what is today the East Coast Road. My father told me that the resort was owned by the same family that owned the theatre and I remember thinking that there couldn't have been a more appropriately named family as the owners of one of the most splendid movie-halls of Madras. Were they always called that or did they get their name from the crowds that came to watch the movies? How could anyone not go to a theatre owned by a family named Veecumsee? The Safire Complex opened in 1964/5; it must have been a gala opening, with the big name "Cleopatra" (Richard Burton / Elizabeth Taylor) being shown on the first widescreen in the country. And the novelty of having two other theatres - Emerald & Blue Diamond - in the same building!

Safire was the true sparkler, showing grand movies, mainly English, but Hindi and Tamil as well, if the scale of the movie required it. Emerald was the 'janta' theatre, where the regular movies were shown. At a time when Safire's balcony seats were priced at Rs.2.90, Blue Diamond charged Rs.7 for its tickets. And the movies were sometimes unheard of, released in the festival circuit and largely ignored by both the regular movie goers and those discerning, appreciative film audience. For Blue Diamond catered to a completely different segment: the Rs.7 ticket allowed you entry anytime from 9.00 am (yes, AM!) and you could stay in the theatre watching the same film over and over again, until the last show ended around midnight. Without realizing what I was watching, I've been enthralled by Sergei Eisenstein's "Que Viva Mexico", but have also sat (repeatedly) through some horrendous duds. It was fun to go to Blue-D, but it was not something that you'd let parents know about!

The complex was pulled down nearly 15 years ago. Since then, this empty 1-acre lot reflects the emptiness any true Madrasi feels when s/he looks at it - the Safire Complex was such an object of pride and joy that it seems like nothing can ever take its place!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The 'chosen one' no more

Before the biryani was popularized by a multitude of Chettinad and wannabe-Chettinad restaurants, there were only a few select places that passed the test for true lovers of the dish. There is an apocryphal tale about how a visitor to Madras from the southern districts would be judged when he got back home after his visit: "So, did you eat biryani in Chennai?" was the question that would determine the 'gourmand-ness' of the visitor. If he hadn't eaten it at all, he would be forgiven, but eating it at a place other than the Buhari Hotel indicated flawed judgement.

And then came this hotel, which offered stiff competition to Buhari; 'Bilal' in Arabic means the 'chosen one' and for a while, it probably caused confusion in the southern districts as they tried to figure out how to reconcile this with the biryani at Buhari. It must have been a cushy task, to compare the biryanis of the competitors - I can imagine repeated samplings before the verdict was delivered: "There is no comparision - the biryani served by Buhari and Bilal are far superior to anything found elsewhere!".

Today, Bilal Hotel is no more. New Bilal, a feeble attempt at re-branding, takes shelter under a broader name of New Bilal Hotel and Bakery. Looking neither like a Hotel nor a Bakery, it runs its business from a small portion of the large building that was Bilal Hotel - the other parts have run to seed. A great fall indeed, for the 'chosen one'!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

An army of dolls

It is not an organization that has moved with the times; many people do not want to be seen as having anything to do with it. The last time I went there was in 1999, if I remember right. Because the building housing it is slightly set back from the road - the curve in the road providing an impromptu parking bay - one does not often look at the office of KGB in Chennai. I was hoping I remembered the location right, as I was sure people would not want to give me directions to the KGB. We headed along Mount Road and then, where I remembered it to be, there it was: musty and narrow, the people inside uninterested in their work. Typical KGB.

If there is one thing to commend it for, it is the completely pacifist nature of its operations. Yes, pacifist, for this is not a scion of the Soviet secret service. This KGB is the Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan, the sales and marketing outlet of the
Khadi and Village Industries Commission. It is one of those archaic operations that were set up to give life to Mahatma Gandhi's ideas of bringing prosperity to the villages. It is a good place to shop, but for most of the year, the merchandise on display looks so run down that you'd think several times before buying something. During the festival season, there are some things that can become very specific to KGB; the golu dolls, for instance. If you shop for your dolls at the KGB, it seems almost certain that your golu will have a wide variety. Gods stand next to cows; village folk look on as Vyasa dictates the Mahabharata to Ganapathy; cub scouts salute women drawing water from the village well. And a reasonably wide range of national heroes, for those who would like to wear their patriotism on a golu.

Right now, Durga is the centrepiece; the golu is a traditional arrangement of dolls, specific to Tamil Nadu, during the Navarathri festival. There are still a couple of weeks to go before the festival begins on September 30; but the crowd was thick enough for me to have to wait a while to get a clear picture!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Fading glory

He was the only one to visit the 'Jewel in the Crown' during his reign as monarch. Titled 'King of the United Kingdom, Emperor of India', George V visited India twice, once when he was still the Prince of Wales and later, as the ruler of the British dominions. Though he was not a great one for travelling, India appears to have held a fascination for him, judging from his repeated visits. The second visit was timed to coincide with the 3rd Delhi Durbar, a ritual commemorating the ascension of a new ruler to the throne. Neither his grandmother Queen Victoria, nor his father, King Edward, had been present at the Delhi Durbar held in their honour; George V not only graced the occasion, but also was given a new crown; one so heavy that the King's head hurt.

This statue was probably unveiled at around the same time as the 3rd Delhi Durbar, sometime in 1912/13. I can only guess at that, because there seems to be no record of the statue having been installed. On the pedestal itself, the inscriptions have faded out, so there is nothing to be gained from getting very close to the statue, either. In some ways, we are lucky that it is still around: it is obviously not getting much attention despite being very close to the seat of government, so the inference is that it is being allowed to go to seed.

It has caught up with the times; I had mentioned (here and here) how some of the newer statues in Chennai don't seem to have any information about them; these days, the King Emperor has also joined that list!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Spot the difference

There are quite a few places in Chennai where houses have been built quite close to water bodies. Chennai has earned a reputation of being drought-prone and that has probably encouraged folks to get real close to the rivers that run through the city. That's always a problem when the rivers flood, but there seem to be enough and more people who don't mind that risk, or the trouble caused by flooding, if they can have a house for the other days of the year.

This picture is of a house on the banks of the River Adayar, as it curves behind the TNGF-Cosmo golf links. It is a rather unusual sight for Chennai; such greenery, right to the water's edge, is normally something one finds in Kerala. The profusion of coconut trees adds to the illusion that this is set in Kerala. There is one significant difference, though. In Kerala, the water-bodies, be they backwaters or rivers, are very rarely still; there is some movement, caused either by the running water itself or by the boatmen who use the waterways.

The Adayar is completely still, almost to the point of appearing stagnant!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Oh yes, it has been raining off and on, still. Mostly nights, but there are some afternoon spells, too. Was going over my set of recent 'rain pictures' when I found this one. I had thought it was not a great picture, but today, something else struck me.

We drive on the left of the road; at least most of the time, we drive on the left-ish side of the road. On a rainy day, especially when the road shoulders start flooding, street wisdom is to take the middle path - chances of some fresh cut ditches on the side of the road are always high and the rain water would obviously hide them. Most drivers therefore prefer to not take the chance of their vehicles getting stuck in a rut and the middle-of-the-road approach becomes commonplace. And we did it too, even though this road we were on was not flooded. As we approached a T-junction, I saw this car coming from our left, while we were to turn right. The picture taken through the windshield is fuzzy for obvious reasons - there was a drizzle going on. Both cars crossed and went our ways without any fuss.

It was only after we crossed that I realized we had had each other on the left as we passed! Both vehicles had taken the path of least distance, rather than go around to each other's right!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The original 'Bessie'

There's always an endless quest to find shorter ways to express common phrases, but when I first heard someone refer to Besant Nagar as 'Bessie', it seemed to be completely out of place even as a youthful abbreviation. Maybe it was too close to 'Nessie' and Besant Nagar cannot be - should not be - accused of triggering off images of monsters or mysteries. While I never got around to using 'Bessie', the phrase was quite popular at one time (do they call Besant Nagar that these days?). Also, knowing that the Besant referred to was Annie Besant, it somehow seemed rather disrepectful to her.

She certainly had done a lot to be entitled to respect. Okay, she continued to use her married name even after separating from her clergyman husband, but that's a minor point; divorce just didn't happen in late 19th century England. She believed in her causes, be they women's rights, workers' rights, state sponsored faith and several others that she adopted as her own. One such cause was that of the Indian National Congress which, in its early years, had no thoughts about seeking independence from the British. Annie Besant who was always a supporter of Irish self-rule, started a similar movement in India, the Home Rule League. In some ways, it was her activities that first prodded the British into making statements about self-government for India.

This month marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of her death. The majority of her time in India was spent in Adyar, where the headquarters of the Theosophical Society is located and that was where she died. This statue, though, is on the Marina - even if it isn't being cleaned regularly, the garden around it gives it an aura that other statues nearby lack!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Seeking peace

The Officers' Training Academy (OTA) in Chennai is one of the premier institutions training both gentlemen and lady cadets to be inducted as Officers in the Indian Army. When it was set up in 1962, the Officers' Training School was charged with training cadets recruited under the 'Emergency Commission', necessitated by the Chinese aggression. Since then, it has trained over 20,000 officers of the Indian Army, and also a few from other countries. Because of its origin as a School for the Emergency Commission recruits, there was an air of temporary-ness around it until 1985, when it was conferred the status of a permanent establishment. In 1988, with the change of its name from OTS to OTA, it was accorded level-pegging status with the Indian Military Academy (at Dehradun) and the National Defence Academy (at Khadakvasla). Today, it trains cadets selected under the Short Service Commission and under the Women Special Entry Scheme (Officers).

Located inside a 650 acre estate, the OTA seems far away from the city, even though it is very much within the limits of the Chennai urban agglomeration. In any case, anything that is off Mount Road has always been considered as being part of the city, so the OTA has been very much a part of Chennai since it was set up. On Sundays, the cadets would head to the shopping arcades and movie halls, in small groups. It used to be very easy to identify them as OTA cadets; grey trousers, black shoes shined to reflect the sky, the crew cuts and the red-and-bluish-grey-and-black striped ties. It seemed unfair that the cadets had to be in their uniforms even on a Sunday movie trip; but none of them seemed to mind it at all. I'm not sure if the rules have been relaxed now, but I have not seen the Sunday uniforms for a while now. Maybe they're less stiff these days.

One of the best features of the OTA campus is the statue in the lounge area of the Cadets' Mess; even with this poor photo, it is possible to identify The Buddha from his posture. At first look, it seemed incongruous, but as one of the officers at the Academy told me, no one desires peace as much as army personnel do - only that they have to be prepared to kill or die for it, if need be!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Menagerie City - 5

The spotted deer inside the IIT Madras campus are reasonably comfortable with humans. Not that they can be considered 'tame', but they are not really wild, either. A large part of the IIT Madras campus is scrub jungle, an extension of the Guindy National Park. The deer certainly do not understand the boundaries between the GNP and the IIT and were used to moving across all the space they could. Recently, there was some talk of IIT authorities building a wall to ensure their campus area is clearly demarcated; I'm not sure if they went ahead with it. I hope that even if they have done so, there are enough pathways for the deer to move around freely.

Within the campus, the deer walk around unhindered; they do find their way into the living areas, too. At times it might be a problem for the residents. They may look gentle enough, but the more familiar they become with humans, the less nervous they get. Sometimes, they may go so far as to frightening children. With an average weight of about 80 kg, you really don't want to pick an argument with that kind of antler-tipped mass. This one, however, was not too keen on mixing it up with us in any way and moved away quickly.

There are so many of them around the IIT Madras campus, that when the Institute renamed its annual cultural festival, they chose the name 'Saarang' - another name for this spotted deer!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Free hiring

With about two and a half million personnel, the Indian Army is among the largest in the world. Even with that large number, the army faces a shortage of manpower at all levels. Recruitment of enlisted men is more or less an ongoing process, with regular open rallies at the recruiting headquarters. For many of the entry level soldier positions, the minimum qualification is a high school certificate - and there would be hundreds of thousands of such candidates, for whom a job in the army is a ticket to a steady income, not to mention some pride and honour back in the villages.

Where there is demand, there are middlemen. Young men desperate to join the army land up at the big cities every day. For many of them, this visit to the city is their first experience of a world beyond their village. As with any scam, this one too would start small; say Rs.10/- to fill up the form in a way that betters the chance of being selected; and would then go on to a few thousand rupees to guarantee a job as a soldier.

The army tries to warn them - with the Chennai Recruiting Zone covering the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, this warning sign has its message in 4 languages; English, Tamil, Hindi and Telugu. One hopes that potential soldiers are not so daring as to chance the possibility of being taken for a ride!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Shop space

Ever since the Usman Road flyover was announced, there has been a tug-of-war between the residents of the streets nearby and the hawkers who had had their stalls on the pavements along Usman Road. Being easily mobile, the hawkers had tried to take up space along some of the roads leading into Usman Road. That riled residents, who had for long traded the inconvenience of entering through a packed Usman Road for the ease of shopping (not to mention the rising value of property, on paper) in the comfort that, even though the approach was chaotic, their street was calm. With the side streets already being used as public parking areas, chaos had reached their doorstep and the prospect of their walls being used as display shelves by the hawkers was the last straw.

In the days after the flyover was inaugurated, the Madras High Court has been kept busy: each time the Corporation proposed a new location - in one of the side streets - the residents have rushed to the Court, seeking a stay on the move; predictably, no one seems happy with any of the suggestions. Tempers are running high; no one has any solution. Sample this; one day last month, the police helped the Corporation officials enforce the movement of hawkers onto Pinjala Subramanian Street and then warned them not to open for business, fearing the wrath of the residents. The ward councillor too beat a quick retreat when he found that, as the sole representative of authority, he was being targetted by anyone who was agitated.

These bundles remain, seemingly marking a grudging truce - storing okay, selling not - between the residents and the hawkers. And the powers that be continue to ponder over a situation that does not seem to have a satisfactory resolution!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Colours of friendliness

Autorickshaws are India's unique contribution to the world of vehicles. I can't think of a similar vehicle in any other part of the world. Though the tricyles of Philippines (pictures from Butuan and Manila) come somewhat close, they are modified two-wheelers rather than 3-wheeled vehicles designed specifically for public transportation. The similarity comes more from the attitude and traffic sense of the drivers, apart from the function that the vehicles perform. The autos - or ricks - across India are painted black with a yellow stripe around the middle of their body. It is only in Tamil Nadu and in Andhra Pradesh that these vehicles are painted highway yellow with a green - or black or red - stripe. I'm sure the colour of the stripe has some significance to those in the know, but it does not seem to have any connection to the attitude of the driver or the accuracy of the fare meter. Auto drivers across the country have their own definition of customer service and friendliness, besides independent interpretation of how the official rates have to be compounded when picking up a fare.

Chennai's autos have earned an especially bad reputation. Visitors to Chennai arriving at the Chennai Central or the airport will be completely thrown off whack by auto drivers who appear to be militantly uni-lingual, speaking Tamizh and refusing to understand any other language. And the rates, of course are doubled or even trebled - if you are a first-time visitor, you could not have imagined a worse way to be introduced to the city. It is not as if the autos in other parts of the city are saintly; only that you have a better chance to haggle over the rates. There cannot be anyone in Chennai who can claim that the overwhelming majority of their experiences with auto drivers has been good; at best, there is a grudging acknowledgement that one can get lucky sometimes. Many efforts have been made to counter the notoriety - regular reports in the papers about honest auto drivers, movies showing them as regular guys, encouraging women auto drivers - but they've not succeeded in any significant way. Chennai's autos are a law unto themselves.

One of the most visible efforts is the introduction of 'Tourist Friendly Autos' - identified by their lighter colour and the tourism related pictures and logos on their body. Begun about 4 months ago with a batch of 39 specially screened (and trained) drivers, this initiative of the Tamilnadu Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC) has grown to include about one hundred autos in Chennai and quite a few in other cities also. The TTDC has a list of the first 39 on their website, but they seem to be quite wary of adding to that list!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Let the festivities begin!

For most of India, late-August / early-September marks the beginning of the festive season. Last Friday was the start of the 11-day festival of 'Our Lady of Health' at Veilankanni, which is celebrated all over Tamil Nadu. Yesterday was the start of the holy month of Ramadan and also the first day of celebrations leading up to Onam, a festival in Kerala. Today is a holiday to mark Vinayaka Chathurthi, the festival honouring Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. And then, at the beginning of October, there is Navarathri, followed by Diwali. Each of them is celebrated over a few days so there is a lot of good food, cheer and celebrations to look forward to.

Vinayaka is probably the most prevalent of the deities in the city. There is a belief that if your house is at a T-junction, a small statue of Vinayaka (or even a tile with His image) must be placed in a way that it looks down to the foot of the 'T', so as to deflect any ill-luck that might come up that road. Add to that the numerous clay idols that have made expressly to celebrate the Chathurthi and there is a glut of Ganeshas all over Chennai. There are pujas at each one and if you pause there, you will be given a leaf-plate with some prasad; kozhukattai or modakam, typically, as it is Ganesha's favourite food. And then you can have a bit of suspense as you taste it, because it comes in both sweet and savoury forms.

On Venkatnarayana Road, there is a space just outside the JYM Kalyana Mandapam (Marriage Hall) where a group of devotees build a large Vinayaka every year. When they started the practice, it was a clay-and-papier-mache idol: like any other, only bigger. But for the past few years, the materials have been varied - can you find out how many vegetables it takes to make a Vinayaka?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Power holiday

It is always good to be in Chennai, but once in a while, one is slightly embarassed about the 'privileges' the city enjoys. Embarassed not because those privileges are undeserved, but because the context of those privileges needs to be explained to non-Chennaiites who bristle at the 'unfair' treatment they receive. Right now, it is the issue of power-cuts; normally a power-neutral state, Tamil Nadu has been hit by a combination of factors leading to power availability falling by almost 20%. Power thefts and transmission losses are constants; the official line is that erratic rainfall and lower availability of uranium for the nuclear plant at Kalpakkam are the main causes for the current shortfall.

This shortfall has led to a power cut being imposed all across the state. Factories have been asked to declare an additional off-day each week, as a 'power holiday'. Rolling blackouts have been imposed in all areas. The first such power cut regime came into effect in mid-July; within a week, it was withdrawn for most consumers. Since yesterday, the cuts are back with a vengeance - Chennai will have blackouts for 1.5 hours each day; the suburbs of Chennai will be powerless for 3 hours a day. The rest of the state, though has to suffer through 5 hours without electricity. That creates strong resentment against the city dwellers and there are several demands for more 'equitable power cuts'. But with Chennai generating roughly 4.5% of India's GDP (and about 40% of Tamil Nadu's), longer power cuts in the city will have a huge knock-on effect - and a longer recovery time post the crisis.

The picture is of a substation in the city, just after a new transformer was installed a few weeks ago. Maybe this one too needs a good spell of rain for it to start working!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Sister act

A few days ago, about 14,000 km away from Chennai, a mile above sea level, history was made. A lady urged her supporters to transfer their allegiance to her one-time challenger, a man hoping to be the first African-American to rule USA; she came on pretty strongly, asking her party to make sure that the man is allowed to make history, something that she will now have to wait for her chance (if there can be one more) to do. One hopes that Hillary Clinton's call for party unity will help Barack Obama have a fair go at John McCain without worrying about saboteurs from within the ranks.

A similar display of unity was what was probably in mind when a city from the USSR became Chennai's first sister city. That was in 1966, when the Mayors of Stalingrad and Madras signed the Protocol of Friendship, establishing their sisterly ties. Since then, both cities have changed their names; Stalingrad is now Volgograd and Madras has moved on to be called Chennai. The second sister took a while in coming - it was in 1984 that Madras established a second sister city partnership. Today, Chennai has four sister cities, the two most recent being Frankfurt, Germany, in 2005 and San Antonio, Texas, USA, in February 2008. It was surprising to read that San Antonio had actually "outgunned Houston in securing a sister city agreement" with Chennai; I can't recall anything significant that has come out of the earlier sister city agreements. In fact, most of the cities appear fairly reticent about their siblings. The Corporation of Chennai website does not have any mention about its sisters; a search of the Alamo city's homepage throws up a couple of press releases about its Indian sister; Volgograd's website remains stuck in the past, continuing to show Karate Thiagarajan as the Mayor of Chennai. Frankfurt is like Chennai - no mention of sister cities on Frankfurt city's website.

Denver, Colorado, USA, where history was made on Thursday, is no exception; the city's website shows a 'City of Madras' Park. But thanks to a friend, I understand that action on the ground need not always get tom-tommed - the photograph that he sent me shows that the sign has been changed as 'City of Chennai Park'. So maybe there is a lot that is being done through the Sister City relationships that we don't get to see - and I hope we'll be able to find out what the benefits have been!

Today is 'Theme Day' for the City Daily Photo folks; there are 147 other 'sister cities' taking part in September's Theme Day. Click here to view thumbnails of all participants. Click'>http://www.citydailyphoto.com/portal/themes_archive.php?tid=7">Click here to view thumbnails for all participants