Sunday, August 29, 2010

Volvo, interior

It has been almost three years since these buses were introduced in Chennai, but I haven't had the opportunity to travel on them until a couple of weeks ago. The fare isn't much, when you think about taking an auto the same distance; but stack it up against the normal bus fare and the 300% differential seems enormous. Maybe that's a reason why these aren't as crowded as they could potentially be.

The crew has a differently coloured uniform; with epaulettes, chinese collars and the like. Maybe it is the uniform and the overall ambience, but both driver and conductor seemed to be more slick and businesslike than on the other buses. The conductor was especially taciturn; though the driver was eager to talk, I was reluctant to distract him from the road. Did learn though that the occupancy was a function of the time of day - as the sun climbed in the sky, so too the crowds into the bus. The rains over the few days past seems to have made the Chennai-ites immune to the charms of the Volvo a/c!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Loane fountain

Well, don't judge the park by the fountain. That the centerpiece of Sriramulu Poonga on Prakasam Road is dry is no reflection on the status of the park itself. Confused? Well, old timers of Madras would probably understand better if I'd used the earlier names - Loane Square Garden on Broadway.

That garden was commissioned by Samuel Joshua Loane, probably as a bulwark against the space becoming messy and unsanitary once again. 'Once again', because sometime around the mid-nineteenth century, Loane had just finished cleaning up Popham's Market on Broadway. Stephen Popham had reportedly envisaged the market - for meat, vegetables and condiments - being spic and span. After his death, it seems to have degenerated considerably, to the extent of a garden being named after its rescuer.

Fast forward to the end of the 20st century; Loane Square Garden is in pretty much the same state that Popham's Market was, a hundred and fifty years earlier. Being used as a parking lot for trucks carting produce to and from Kotwal Chavadi, the Garden was "a public lavatory masquerading as a park and a startling testimonial to the failure of Stephen Popham's most basic idea - sanitation - to take root". Now, it has once again been transformed into an oasis of greenery in what's otherwise a rather grey and dusty district. I'm not very sure about the connection between Potti Sriramulu and this park, which is now named after him, but as with many other places in the city, it continues to be better known by its old name!

Friday, August 27, 2010


Perambur has always been the nerve-centre of the railways in Chennai. True, the Chennai Central and the Chennai Egmore stations are always more in the public eye, but that's only because they were the faces of the railway. Perambur was - and is - where the railway heart throbs.

Large tracts of land in Perambur belongs to the Railways; public access is permitted only to pass through. When you do pass through, you realize that you're in the middle of a huge 'company colony', with differentiated residences for employees at different levels, clubs, playgrounds, and even a trade union office. Trees on both sides of the roads give the whole space a very sylvan feel.

And the roads - not very broad, but never appearing narrow, they're all neatly black-topped for the most part, fitting well with the 'colony' image. Adding to that of-time-gone-by feel are the street names. Almost all of them are English names, honouring railwaymen of long, long ago!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A saint's prayer

I went up St Thomas Mount for the first time as a child, quite a few moons ago. As I  stood in front of this statue of Christ on the cross - I remember it as being completely white in those days - I was seized with the notion that we were at Golgotha; distances had little meaning and an hour's drive was as likely to take a child up to Mount Calvary as to that of St Thomas.

These days, there are two additional figures forming part of this tableau; while Pope John Paul II's statue is not seen in this picture, Mother Teresa (Blessed Teresa, now, isn't it?), to the right of Jesus, a bit of a way away, is shown in prayer. And it is to her this post is dedicated to, on the 100th anniversary of her birth!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Not just the mall!

Even an occasional visitor to Chennai can easily identify this as the Spencer's junction. Once upon a long time ago, this was the site of a handsome, redbrick building with a sweeping driveway. Spencer & Co., the original department store of Madras gave way to the current buildings after it was destroyed by a fire. A replica of the original facade can be seen at Phase III of Spencer Plaza, the largest of the buildings in this cluster.

The most visible part of the cluster is the shopping mall. It is quite likely that a large majority of the visitors to the mall do not even register the fact that there is much more to these buildings - in fact, the office space here is more than the area covered by the mall, because, while there are only three floors of the mall, offices are spread out over seven; and then there is the third building in the cluster.

It was only over the past couple of years that I've come to recognize that building as 'Dewa Towers'. And the style of writing those words (you can see it when you click on the photo) seems rather similar to that of the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority - that's another Dewa!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

End of the line

For now, this is the southern end of Chennai's MRTS line. But it will hold on to that position for only a couple of more years, because work on extending the line to St Thomas Mount - where it will connect with the Beach-Tambaram suburban line - has already begun. And then, Velachery will become just another stop on the MRTS. That's kind of sad, because this station changed the face of Velachery and of the MRTS itself, in many ways.

Though the second phase of the MRTS was to cover the entire stretch from Tirumylai to Velachery, there was a significant pause at Tiruvanmiyur. The original plan called for the tracks, which run above the road level, to come down after Tiruvanmiyur and run along the ground to Velachery. However, with tests showing the soil around Taramani to be softer than required, the tracks remained raised up right through to Velachery. Those tests and the change of plans led to a delay in the last bit of the line being completed; and for some reason, people were reluctant to use even the functioning part, the Tirumylai - Tiruvanmiyur section.

In the first year after this station was inaugurated, the usage of the MRTS almost trebled; though it is slower now, usage is still growing. Surely it will explode once again when the connection to St Thomas Mount is made!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Pugh the Bug

There is going to be yet another round of road re-naming in the city quite soon. The obvious targets in this drive are the 'British' names, which are to be replaced by ones which are more representative of the Chennai-ness of the city, rather than its Madras-ity. Several rounds of such re-naming have taken place earlier, with varying degrees of success. TTK Road still answers to Moubray's Road, but Pasumpon Muthuramalingam Salai does not ring the Chamier's Road bell.

One attempt was made to include the old name in this sign. Sundaram refers to a prayer hall (?) further down the lane, which explains the plaque below the road sign. But "Bugys Road"? (In the Tamizh version above, it easily reads as "Bugs Road"). Well, that's a little bit of weathering and mis-spelling at work. In the early 1800s, the senior partner of the firm Pugh & Breithaupt bought some land on the stretch between Chamier's Road and the Adayar river. When his garden house was built there, he called the place Pugh's Gardens. Naturally (for that time), the road leading to Pugh's Gardens came to be called Pugh's Road. Over a couple of centuries, not only has the road been re-named, but Mr. Joseph Pugh has had the misfortune of his own name being mangled beyond recognition!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

371 and counting!

As Chennai turns 371 today, here's a view from the top of St. Thomas Mount. (Thomas, of course of the 'Doubting Thomas' fame). It is widely believed that St. Thomas spent his last days atop this hillock and was martyred here. Nearly 2000 years ago, he would possibly have been able to clearly see the seashore town of Mylapore where he stayed a while, but today's cloud made it difficult to sight the San Thome Basilica even from this elevation.

On a clear day, one can even see the Bay of Bengal; the Madras Roads, though they were the very devil to navigate, became the lifeline of British trade. Even after all these years, it is striking to find Macaulay's description of his first sighting of Madras - "The effect was very striking, --great, white, masses of buildings scattered amidst a rich profusion of deep dark varnished green. The sun was just about to rise. The town was quite still, and for some time we saw no signs of life" - has changed little!

Happy birthday, Chennai! And we look forward to the next 371!!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Walking leaf

There is a bunch of insects that is commonly referred to as 'stick insect' or 'leaf insect'. The bunch comprises both these - and the variety in them is considerable. They belong to an order of animals called "Phasmatodea" - meaning 'phantom' and is a reflection of their now-you-see-them-now-you-don't appearance. Not only do they closely resemble leaves or twigs, but they have adapted so much that even their movements are not regular - they swing and jerk along, for all in the world like a leaf blown by the breeze.

One of them took up residence in the bougainvilla on our balcony. It came perilously close to being brushed off as a dead leaf, but luckily, it dropped down and moved its head to and fro, so we let it climb back on to the plant. With small "foliaceous expansions" - leaflike ornamentation -on its joints, it was extremely difficult spotting it once it was back on the plant. Because it was rather lazy, it didn't move around too much and that made it easier to spot day after day. And yet, a few days later, it disappeared completely. I don't think I have seen anything like it earlier and all the checking of pictures on the internet has not thrown up anything similar. They say that the order Phylliidae is constantly being expanded, with newer species coming up all the time. Well, here's one Phasmid from Chennai to add to the list!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Birds of a feather

This is a fairly recent installation at the traffic signal near Foreshore Estate, one of a series on history and environment, which is expected to complete its roll-out over the next year. (To go with the folk arts / culture series that came up a year or so ago). It is said that the idea for this one came from the fact that, since the restoration of the Adayar Creek was taken up, the bird density in this area has gone up.

This installation shows a trio of sandpipers - only that they seem to be headed off in different directions at the signal!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Summer retreat

Until John Sullivan discovered it, Ooty (Ootacamund, or Uthagamandalam) was the homeland of the Todas and the Badagas, indigenous people of the Nilagiri Hills. Hearing much about the fabulous beauty of the hills, Sullivan, who was Collector of Coimbatore in the early 19th century, went ahead to find out for himself. What he found there seems to have transformed him completely, for his life from then on seems to have been dedicated to the preservation of the Todas, Badagas and other tribes of these hills.

In 1822, Sullivan built a house for himself in Ooty. It is said that it was the first 'proper' house there. And then, his fellow countrymen came in droves. Many came as planters; for several others, it was the perfect vacation spot, not too far from Madras, the Presidency headquarters, and yet with a climate that was almost 'back home'. There was no army to be defeated, no king to negotiate with, only the Todas and Badagas who seem to have received the newcomers quite warmly, allowing them to corner a lot of the land for their English vegetables and to build their houses. And so it seemed natural that as the summer's heat began to burn up Madras city, the administrators rushed up to the cool of the Nilgiris, officially designating Ooty the Summer Capital of the Madras Presidency, a practice that continued well after Independence, being phased out only in the late 1950s / early 1960s.

The house that Sullivan built still stands. Used as the residence of the Principal of the Government Arts College at Ooty, it is a major landmark; even though several people haven't heard of Sullivan, 'Stone House' is enough for them to give you directions to this residence!

Monday, August 9, 2010

The other end

If you've read an earlier post about Chennai airport, you would have seen the silhouette of what was the earliest passenger terminal of the airport. The aircraft rolled towards that building, turned around and sped off along the runway to take off.

At the other - the southwestern end - it rose over the boundary walls of the airport. Beyond those yellow lines of the wall is the space where the airport will expand into, over the next five years or so. And about time too!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Catch 'n' throw

What do you do when you live in a slum and don't have space to keep pets? One option of course is to believe that every animal around your house is your own and care for them - much more effort than a single pet, but then, there will be many more people caring, as well.

Seems to be this boy had adopted the pigeon as his own. His friends were not as comfortable running behind it, but this kid was at it, over and over again. He'd run behind the pigeon - which would just hop around wherever it was, waiting for him - grab it and run across to the other side of the road. Didn't matter where the pigeon was, on top of a hut, on the door of a small shrine, on the road; he just followed it to where it was and scooped it up with one hand, very neatly.

And then he ran across the road, and bends, ready to let go in a slingshot action. Several of the passers-by ducked, and began to rumble ominously, thinking the boy was throwing a stone at them, before the rumbles turned into sheepish smiles as they saw the pigeon flying up and across the road!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The hundred-year fire

It seems to be generally accepted that the first Parsis arrived in Madras sometime in 1795 and that they decided to stay on because the city afforded them many opportunities to turn their hand to business. In any case, Madras of the late 18th century was probably a melting pot of various nationalities and ethnic groups and so the Parsis would not have felt out of place in this great city. For a very long time, however, the Parsis did not have any formal place of worship; the major reason for this seems to be the inablity to find a priest who would settle in Madras. The Dar-e-Meher, or Fire Temple, houses the undying sacred flame that must be stoked five times a day by a priest. Without a priest, there seemed little point in building a temple.

The first permanent priest arrived in 1906. But the Dar-e-Meher itself took a while longer to come up. Parsi fire temples are of varied categories, graded by the sanctity of the fire within. The highest grade, the Atash Behram (Fire of Victory) is built by collecting fires from 16 different sources (caused by lightning, from a cremation, from furnaces operated for trade, from household hearths, and so on) and requires 32 priests to perform all the ceremonies involved in its consecration, which could take over a year to complete. At the other end is the Atash Dadgah, which could even be a lamp or a hearth over which the Yasna liturgy has been recited.

The Jal Phiroj Clubwala Dar-E-Meher is classified as an Atash Adaran (Fire of Fires), which is a combination of fires from four different sources representing four different working groups: priests, soldiers / statesmen, farmers and artisans. Named after the young son of Phiroj Clubwala, a prominent (and philanthropic) Parsi of Madras, the temple is built on land donated by him, upon which the grieving family had had this temple, designed and built by Hormusji Nowroji (another prominent Parsi of Madras) consecrated on August 7, 1910. Over the years, the monument has been the centre of their faith for the Parsis of Chennai and over the past week, they have come out strong in celebrating the centenary of the temple where the fire has been burning continuously for a hundred years, now!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Old and new trees

Looking out from the MRTS coach as it runs parallel to Rajiv Gandhi Salai (earlier called Old Mahabalipuram Road), it is nice to see the recently planted saplings all in a straight line, well trimmed and providing a green border to the road. The median, while needing a little more filling out in its shrubbery, adds to the green motif.

As far as I have been able to make out, the saplings and the shrubbery are all non-native plants, even if they have been around for a while. But what caught the eye was the lonely palm a little away from the margins of the road. It is obviously not part of the planned landscaping, but one that has been on this stretch for a long while. Maybe it was left standing out of respect for its status as the state tree of Tamil Nadu!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Gated parking

Seeing all those cars zip around George Town, one wonders where they go to rest for the night. For a long while, I was under the impression that the cars only brought the traders into the Town; when the day's work was done, they would go away from these congested enclaves, to their garden houses along the river Adayar to come back refreshed for the next day's work.

Obviously, that is not the case. Many of those conducting their business in George Town live fairly close by, if not in the Town itself. And the cars are normally parked inside the house itself - at least, with the shutters pulled down on the portico, there is nothing between the house and the road. Maybe these are additional cars, or more likely, these cars were housed in the building that used to occupy this space - and they keep coming back to their space out of sheer habit!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Driving through arches

McDonald's was very late in coming to Chennai. Their first outlet in India was set up as far back as 1996, when they opened their Connaught Place outlet in New Delhi. Their first outlet in Chennai was opened a dozen years later, when they took up space inside the food court at Ascendas, following with the standalone store at Anna Nagar a short while later.

The third outlet was in Velachery. Those who know Chennai from a decade ago would wonder at this - Velachery was at that time a sleepy suburb, where good folks wouldn't think of eating outside their houses, let alone get to a McDonald's at that. But Velachery has changed considerably and even for McDonald, it wasn't enough to just put another outlet there; it had to be a shade above the others in Chennai.

And so it is that Velachery boasts this family restaurant, supposedly the "only Drive-Thru' restaurant" in Chennai. Well, with the Woodlands Drive-In gone, we have to make-do with such substitutes!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Wandering grinder

At first glance he seemed to be carrying a bicycle - no, a unicycle - on his back. Bent forward by the weight of the frame, he trudged along. A few steps down, he looked up and calculating the optimum angle for his voice to carry through the street, he bellowed, "saana pudikarathu, kaththi saana...".

There weren't many who responded to the call. Even the older folks seem to have forgotten that their knives need sharpening. And this man walked on, untiring, the grindstone-and-wheel arrangement fitted on a wooden frame that he carries on his back, looking up only to repeat his cry, "...saana pudikarathu, kaththi saana!"

Monday, August 2, 2010

A bridge too far

From a conference room on Swami Sivananda Salai - that was Adam's Road, once upon a time - it is a beautiful view of the Chennai shoreline, even if its view to the south is blocked by various buildings. And as with any view of the sea, this one is also so very peaceful and unchanging that it is easy to stand gazing at it and forget time passing by.

Luckily there are a couple of distractions: the Napier Bridge, with its six bows strung across the Cooum, the sandbar blocking the river's mouth as it empties into the Bay of Bengal, the shacks in the foreground, put up to house the labourers working at the new Assembly complex - there is enough to yank the eye away from the ships on the Madras Roads.

Even then, the windows of the conference room had a band of opaque glass running through the bottom quarter. Else, nobody in the room would pay too much attention to what is going on inside - it is far more inviting to pay attention to the outdoors!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Bright colours

The Olcott Memorial High School merits a separate post for itself, but for today's "Theme Day" post, the colourful wall of its Craft Centre will suffice. The Craft Centre was opened in 1988, adding one more dimension to a school that started in 1894 with the aim of educating "Panchamas" - those of the fifth caste, who at that time were not welcome anywhere.

The intent of the Craft Centre is to provide skill-based education in some crafts such as carpentry, screen printing or pattern making. A few years ago, a student from George Washington University's Art Therapy program (if I'm right, it was Anne Jonas) had worked with the students of the Craft Centre to paint one of the building's walls in bright colours; here they are, still looking pretty vivid!

It is Theme Day over at the City Daily Photo portal; click here to see folks from around the world interpret today's theme. And oh, yes, it is good to be back!