Friday, October 31, 2008

Tiny, red and toxic

I used to think that the tiny red and black seeds of the Abrus precatorius could be found only in Guruvayoor, the temple town in Kerala. I used to think these seeds existed on earth only for toddlers to play with them in front of Lord Krishna, where he could watch them and revel in their delight. Of course, the kunnikuru is more widespread than that, even though it is not native to India. It was only much later that I learnt that A. precatorius is considered a weed; in days past, they were supposedly used by goldsmiths to add lustre to the ornaments, though I don't know in what way. There is also a belief that each of these seeds weigh absolutely the same (about a tenth of a gram) - that was useful for jewellers to weigh their ornaments against these seeds. These shiny seeds were also themselves used as jewellery beads, too.

Nature, however, has a different take on the significance of colours; bright, shiny red indicates danger, more often than not. In the case of these seeds, it holds true. Harmless when whole, the broken seed releases a poison. So, even if you wander into this thicket to pluck these tiny seeds, make sure you do not chew on them, for the poison released can be fatal to humans.

No such worries about the young children playing with these seeds at the temple - they know better than to pop red seeds into their mouth, because that is the way nature made them!

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Well, 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' it ain't, for sure. It is nice to see the shed at this park painted with pictures of wildlife. For a change, the painting is pretty good: in fact much, much better than what one has been led to expect from artists working on a government commission. Over the past few years, Chennai's parks have become less known as hangouts for riff-raff and are being more used by average citizens on a regular basis. And I think it is really a good idea to have such pictures of wildlife near the parks, because the message is going out to an audience that is reasonably receptive. And with parks becoming more popular, that audience will only grow.

That's a good thing for wildlife in general, of humans becoming more sensitive to their needs. With so much of threat to their natural habitats, it is a conservation challenge; at least the animals shown here are not so endangered that conservationists have to resort to borderline methods to shore up the genetic pools. None of these animals is native to Chennai; but if you travel out the Vandalur zoo, you can see at least the lion, deer and kangaroo. I'm not sure about the rhino, but I'm certain that the giant panda hasn't been anywhere close to the city.

But then, that's what I used to think about ostriches, until I saw close to a hundred of them near Chennai!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Big men think small

It is month since the 320th anniversary of the Corporation of Chennai, so it is as good a time as any to talk a bit about the man whose name is synonymous with the Corporation's offices today. George Frederick Samuel Robinson, the First Marquess of Ripon, was a Viceroy of India towards the end of the 19th century. But much before that, he had served a term as the Secretary for India under the first Earl Rusell. Between the two appointments, he also served as the Chairman of the Joint Commission to draft the Treaty of Washington, between Great Britain and the United States of America, sometime in the 1870s.

It is likely that the Marquess' thinking was shaped by how the former colonies had progressed after freeing themselves from Great Britain. He must have anticipated the clamour for self-rule that would rise from India and to head it off, he was prepared to allow native Indians to exercise more powers. Not all of his efforts were in vain; he managed to contribute significantly to local governement, by having appointed officials replaced - or matched - with elected ones. He repealed legislation that required Indian editors give undertakings to not publish any articles criticising the governement. His actions did make the Marquess quite popular among the Indians, but I am unable to find any specific reason why Madras has been so much in awe of him.

Be that as it may, when the Corporation of Madras moved to its current premises in 1913, it was Lord Ripon they chose to honour, for all his efforts in bridging the gap between the government and the governed - you can't miss this statue, it is one of the very few (if there is any other at all) black installations in front of a shining white building!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A pavilion for modesty?

The pavilion at the M.A.Chidambaram Stadium at Chepauk is named after C.P.Johnstone. I am sure he has done great deeds on the cricket field, to have the pavilion named after him, but that can keep for a later post. One of the odd things I remember reading about Mr. Johnstone is that if a team-mate was approaching the half-century or the century mark, he would sit in the pavilion wearing nothing but a towel around his waist. And he would not change until his team-mate either went past the milestone, or got out before doing so.

But what would he do if there was someone closing the day, or even the session, on 49 or 97? Maybe that's why he wanted the whole pavilion to himself!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Happy Diwali!

In most of South India, the Deepavali holiday is today, while it is tomorrow in all other parts of the country. That's okay, it is basically an extended holiday, what with Deepavali, Diwali, Bhai Dhuj, New Year, all of it happening in different parts of the country through the whole week.

Chennai's Deepavali has been growing quieter year after year and this year continued that trend. But the reduction in decibel levels of the fireworks has been combined with an increase in their smoke output; there's so much of smoke around the city that it feels more like early morning on bhogi day. With the rains stayed away the whole of yesterday and also today, the fireworks had a lot of dry ground to support their displays - and we had a good time of it, for about 2 hours, non-stop, today.

Happy Deepavali, everyone! No one will deny that the world needs a lot of light, laughter and happiness amidst all the gloom that's around us - so let this Deepavali bring a New Year of prosperity and joy all around!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Shatter proof glass

I don't dare say anything about how this can happen only in Chennai. It could happen anywhere, anytime to anyone. I've knocked over a glass on quite a few occasions, but last evening was quite unique, so I just had to put up this picture.

We were at the Madras Cricket Club, talking about an upcoming conference. I reached out for something (can't remember what - anyway, with what happened next, everything else was forgotten for a few minutes) but my hand brushed a half-empty Coke bottle, which then gently leaned over on to a half-empty glass of rum and Coke. The glass then, quite gently, sheared itself rather neatly at the point where it was empty and the top portion landed on the table, looking for all the world like a wrist-band or something.

The only reason I can think of for this polite behaviour of the glass is the presence of an executive from Saint Gobain's Chennai plant, who was at the table with us - when the experts are around, glass behaves itself, I guess!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Good place to be

If you're in Chennai.
If you have to be out driving.
If it is raining like a drop to fill buckets.
If the roads are flooded, or flooding fast.
Wouldn't you be glad,
That you're in one of these?

If there is a pothole.
If the cyclist skids into you.
If the auto behind you doesn't stop in time.
If the scampering goat leaps onto your bonnet.
Would you be glad,
That you're not in one of these?

If you can think of all the above
And treat those two imposters just the same
You certainly deserve to be in one of these!

If you think something sounds familiar, you're thinking about this!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Of wet chains and broken links

The Government of Sri Lanka is right now in the middle of one of its most sustained offensives against the LTTE in the past two decades. It appears that the Sri Lankan army has the upper hand currently and are pressing home their advantage. The fierce fighting in the island has forced many to cross the Palk Straits, bringing with them their tales of atrocities by the soldiers. Some of the more hardline Tamizh political parties have been quick to pounce on this as a cause - and the Tamil Nadu government decided to nullify that political advantage by throwing its weight behind the cause, too.

To 'highlight' the sufferings faced by people in Sri Lanka's war-ravaged north-eastern regions, a human chain was to be formed in Chennai, stretching through the city into the suburbs. It was scheduled for October 22, but the rains on Tuesday led the organizers to reschedule it for today. One can't blame them if they were in a self-congratulatory mood at 2 pm, about an hour before the chain was to form. But it certainly says something that in a matter of 15 minutes or so, the skies darkened up and let loose one of the most sustained spells of heavy rain that had large sections of the human chain break away; much of the rest had to move to the middle of the road, because the rainwater flowing along the road shoulders did not allow them to stay to a side.

Recipe for disaster? Of course! Traffic was completely paralyzed in many places; one driver estimated a traffic jam stretching for about 12 km through the city. I know that we managed to do about 3 km on Mount Road / Sardar Patel in an hour before we aborted our trip and turned back - just at the right time, thankfully. The return took us 7 minutes. The traffic behind this section of the human chain remained stationary for well over an hour!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Startled fawn

Chennai was once a region of scrub forest, of which a large tract remains, spreading across Guindy, covering the IIT Madras, the Raj Bhavan and the Guindy National Park. Of course, over the course of the centuries, the original vegetation has been supplemented by several non-native plants and trees. Many of them have adapted well to their new habitat and have flourished, even through the harsh dry spells of the 1990s and the early 2000s.

Might sound a touch unbelievable today, with rain having come down so much that some of the lakes near the city have overflown; Chennai was in near drought conditions hardly a few years ago. Maybe that could be an explanation for this patch of cacti on the beach - greenery needed, but shouldn't use too much of water, preferably shouldn't use any water at all. Or maybe they had to adapt to the salty water, being so close to the sea.

Or is it just protection for the deer garden ornaments that have been placed there, wondering how they managed to land up on the beach!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Reaching for the moon

Fairly historic day, today. India's first moon mission lifted off early in the day, from the launch site at Sriharikota, about 100 km north of Chennai. We had had some plans of driving down to watch the launch - but with the weather being what it is, it did not seem like a good idea, especially considering that we would have to watch the launch from somewhere outside the gates of the Satish Dhawan Space Centre. In the early days of the Centre (it was set up in 1971), Madras was the place to go for the scientists working at 'SHAR'; these days, Sullurpet seems to provide enough entertainment for them. In any case, with several missions lined up, entertainment will probably be the last thing on their mind.

Chennai continues to be a major feeder hub for the Sriharikota Range. It will take about 3 hours to get to SHAR by road - of which a third would be spent in getting out of the Chennai traffic. The trains are faster, but they take you only as far as Sullurpet and you've got to get back on to the road after. Sriharikota is actually an island, so there is also the option of taking a boat from Pazhaverkadu (Pulicat) and getting across the Pulicat lake.

Having decided long ago that today's post / picture would be about SHAR, I had not made any alternate plans despite the rains. These clouds may not be of this morning, but they are definitely the clouds over Chennai a few days ago!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Shelter from the sun

About six or seven years ago, Solker Industries would have been right in thinking that they were on to a good thing, when they supplied the Chennai Traffic Police with about a hundred solar-powered booths. The idea was to have the traffic policeman on duty stay inside this booth, in which he could shelter from the sun - and have the sunlight power his wireless set in the bargain. Sitting inside this booth, he could even call out advice to the vehicles or berate those blatantly ignoring the rules.

However, the booths were unprotected in the nights. The batteries disappeared with unfailing regularity and after a while, many of the booths lost their windows and doors, too. The market for silicon is probably vastly underdeveloped, otherwise the solar panels would have also gone missing for sure. Very soon, there was no real reason for the policeman to sit inside and he went back to his waiting-by-the-roadside routine.

These booths are useful, still, as temporary storage - what gets stored in them depends on where the booth is located!

Monday, October 20, 2008

No dampening

The monsoon has been showing a classic pattern over Chennai; strong spell of rain, then the sunshine, going back and forth through the day. Finally giving up, the sun goes away quite early in the evening leaving the world to darkness and to the frogs that have come out from nowhere. But this picture was taken in the middle of the day, sandwiched between two spells of rain, so it is bright enough. That's like the Deepavali seasons of many moons ago; using every bit of sunshine to warm the fireworks that have been bought way in advance through some system of pooled purchase.

It is just a week away from Deepavali now and many things have changed. People are much more sensitive to the noise pollution - which may be another way of saying that people have become less sensitive to others when setting off fireworks. More restrictions on use have come up, the fireworks themselves have become more powerful and dazzling (and of course, more expensive). But over the years, Deepavali morning has become more muted; I can't help feeling that very soon, individual fireworks would be banned and folks will have to be content with watching a firework show rather than setting them off. That will be a sad day, indeed.

But until then, these firework shops will spring up every Deepavali to make sure that everyone has a blast!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Next to Godliness

The gambit of using religious imagery to stop people from dirtying some spots has been around for a long while. Chennai has always been a reasonably God-fearing city so it is no surprise to see a sign like this, asking people to not dirty the wall and to refrain from putting up slogans or posters on it. The imagery of the three major religions broadbases the appeal (and maybe to remind folks that all roads lead to God, or something like that?).

Chennai, as I said, has always been a God-fearing city. People here are considered more devout than the norm. One big reason for this could be the greater prevalence of visible 'caste-marks' such as the tuft of hair at the crown or the use of naamam on the forehead among the Hindus. Even senior executives in various offices, or senior public service officers used to be very comfortable sporting some such marks; in my experience, such display is only on some festival day in other large cities of India.

Whatever that may be, the appeal here seems to have worked. This part of Jagannathan Street, just off Nungambakkam High Road used to be far more messy. I don't know when this mural came up, but it has definitely made the place much cleaner!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Dance competition

The poster is pretty clear, isn't it - or is it? In these days when almost every business around is going slow on hiring, why wouldn't one respond to a 'wanted' ad? No matter that it almost sounds underworld-ish in wanting 'kuthhu' (to stab) dancers rather than 'koothhu' (performance) ones. The line clarifying that it is only a competition highlights the edginess. And anyone from 14 to 60? What kind of competition is that? Oh, it is for Vasanth TV! But wait a minute, isn't there some ban on children below 16 participating in such shows?

Then, someone tells me that I'm over the hill. Koothhu is old fashioned, kuthhu is what this dance is all about. (Can't you see the models getting ready to execute that perfect round arm swing, which would end in the pointy end of the knife punching through whatever material is in its path?). And, you old fuddy-duddy, there is no ban, just some people like you overreacting to a one-off incident!

Whatever it be, it just shows that 'reality shows' like these competitions are among the easiest to produce - so hey, if I want the TRPs, I'll let everyone participate on TV!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Gathering crowds

It's about 4 o'clock on a Friday afternoon. Kids are just getting back from school. Mothers are rushing them through their tea and tiffin, changing them into street clothes, having them all ready by the time father comes home, slightly earlier than usual. Father will have a quick wash and then all of them will troop out, by car or two-wheeler or an auto or the bus, trying to beat a few hundred other families with similar motivations.

In a couple of hours, streets like this one (Prakasam Street, bordering Panagal Park) would have become parking lots for all the families trying to get to the shopping hotspots nearby. The Pondy Bazaar-Panagal Park-South Usman Road belt had already started filling up at 4.30. Over the next two days, the throng of people will be unimaginable, even though the wisdom is that pre-Diwali sales will be down by upto 40% over last year. It is easy to believe that figure when you think of all the doom and gloom around, but the crowds around the shops make you wonder how in the world did last year's shoppers get a toe-hold in there.

Much of this year's festival shopping may be over, but during the last weekend before Deepavali, there is bound to be a rush that waited for the rush to get over!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Clouds over the city

You may not be able to figure it out from the photo, but it is actually pouring down; well, maybe if you click on the picture, you may see some white streaks. You would dismiss it as being just another of those mild showers that make Chennai interesting. But today was special. Unlike those earlier this year, it was the real thing today. The Met department has officially announced that the North East monsoon has hit Chennai yesterday, within the range when it is supposed to: in fact, it is slightly on the earlier side. That's certainly good news, because Chennai depends on this season to provide it water to last through until the winds come down from the Himalayas over the Bay of Bengal the next year.

Somehow the monsoons are not as much fun as they used to be. With so much construction all over the city, water does not find its own level very easily; and when it does, it is in the middle of that road you want to walk across. Building traffic dividers across some of the bigger roads has stopped the free flow of water into the storm water drains or the canals that would empty them into the Bay of Bengal, eventually. The water stays, obeying the rules, to the side of the road that it has fallen on, doing no good to anyone, waiting for the next spell of sunshine to change it into mud, before evaporating away completely.

A couple of months ago, there was a report that nearly 4 million recharge structures were to be built to harvest the monsoon run-off waters. Surely Chennai city will need a significant proportion of those!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Anyone remember this old lady?

Tamizh is a language that claims a history going back to over two millenia. In the course of those years, it has obviously morphed several times, to keep pace with changing tastes and times. The last such major change implemented on the script was sometime in the late 1970s - I seem to remember it as being necessitated by a redesign of the keys on a Tamizh typewriter. To an extent, it is understandable that the script I studied in primary school is not the same that kids these days study.

There is something else which is not that easily understandable. In fact, accepting it as understandable is equivalent of smashing a much loved and very necessary monument. One of the earliest Tamizh lessons in kindergarten was a kind of sing-song way of memorising the alphabet. Called aathichuvadi, its first part not only taught kids the Tamizh vowels, but also had each of the 12 vowels fashioned into a one-line homily about how to lead a virtuous life. This aathichuvadi was written by a lady named Avvaiyar; the statue indicates she lived in the 1st century CE, while some folks claim there were more than one lady poet named Avvaiyar and the most recent one lived in the 13the century CE. Even taking the most recent date, the aathichuvadi has been a part of Tamizh teaching over the last 700 years.

But sometime over the last 30-odd years, the aathichuvadi seems to have slipped out of the Tamizh text book and thus out of the minds of young people - that's the power of change, to be able to obliterate 700 years of constancy within a generation-and-a-half!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A different kind of red flag

Sometime ago, I'd written about how the TN Government website as well as the website of the Union Ministry for External Affairs have been lagging behind in listing representative offices of other countries in Chennai. The latter has updated its site to list the Honorary Consul for Zambia; External Affairs being a Central subject, it is not surprising that the state website hasn't included that information yet.

Around the same time, I found that Switzerland's Honorary Consul, Mr. Muthu Ramanathan, was based on TTK Road. Now, I travel a fair bit on TTK Road and had not seen anything to indicate the presence of an Honorary Consul there. Some days ago, however, I realized I had been looking at the wrong elevation. The sign was not at eye level as you go on the road, but just above! The white cross on a red field is very distinctive, of course.

Learnt something else about it - the flag of Switzerland is one of only two flags in the world that are completely square! Any guesses as to which the other one is? Go on, guess, before you take a look at this site!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Investment Option

The names are meant to inspire trust. Surely, when you see names that have words like 'Benefit', 'Nidhi' (meaning treasure) or 'Permanent' in them, you feel a warmth, imagining these venerable organizations working hard to make sure your money grows. The premise behind all these organizations is simple enough; the trust that folks you see every day, who live in the same locality, will not indulge in trapeze acts with the money you've given them. You believe they will invest it prudently and will share their profits with you. Someone once said there were about 200 such organizations in Chennai; some of the more high profile among them, like the Royapettah Benefit Fund and the Alwarpet Benefit Fund strayed from the straight and narrow and went belly-up about 10 years ago.

Since then, the surviving Nidhis have been very low profile. It is partly due to some fairly severe restrictions imposed on them by the government, which hampered their ability to leverage funds and also forced them to provision for overdue loans much the same way that banks had to, while restricting their operations to only specific areas within the city. With such difficult conditions imposed on them, it is a wonder that the entire business model did not collapse.

The Mylapore Hindu Permanent Fund has been in the nidhi business for over 130 years now. With so much of chaos facing its larger cousins, these organizations must be feeling glad that they've been under so much of regulation for the last few years that there is almost no chance of them failing!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Menagerie City - 6

Once upon a time, Chennai was typical of the stereotyped notion of an Indian city. Visitors from faraway lands felt cheated if they were not shown a sequence of cows on the roads, holding up traffic because they were holy and no one dared tell them to move on. After a while the cows were replaced by buffaloes - probably because they were low-maintenance and cheaper, I guess. And then, slowly, the buffaloes too have disappeared. Now, the city buffaloes make their presence only in stories about folks raising them on terraces of their 4-storied apartment.

The buffaloes may have gone, but an even earlier resident of the city is going strong. The chital / sarang herds of the forest in Guindy have been going strong. Driving late at night on the Velachery Road, it is common to see a herd nosing in the trash dump near the aptly named 'Alsa Deer Park' apartments. About 18 months ago, the problem of motorists crashing into deer around the Guindy / Velachery area became so acute that a herd of about 15 deer was relocated to the grounds of the Poultry Research Station in Nandanam.

Here's part of that herd - now about 20 strong - resting in the shade; on a lucky day, I can see the whole herd from my balcony!

PS: If you'd like to see the earlier 'Menagerie City' posts, here they are: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5

Saturday, October 11, 2008

For how long?

A couple of years ago, when this statue was to be unveiled, a pubic interest ligtigation was filed against its installation. The petitioner wanted the court to order the governement to move the statue somewhere else, because it would obstruct the view of Gandhiji's statue on the Marina. The Madras High Court took a slightly easy way out by advising the government to not install the statue and warning that it would have to be moved away should the court order so in future. With that, the immediate storm passed and the statue was unveiled on July 21, 2006, the fifth anniversary of 'Sivaji' Ganesan's passing away. The court has probably not passed its final orders, because it continues to remain where it was installed.

'Sivaji' does not deserve the ill feeling that was generated around this statue in his honour. After acting in over 350 movies and being hailed as 'Nadigar Thilagam' (a translation fails me... crown jewel of actors?), he certainly was one of the most influential actors of his time, even if you think many of his performances were overdone. Yes, they were for sure, but those came after almost two decades of doing a variety of roles; his early movies show him to be an almost effortless actor, reeling off long stretches of dialogues - soliloquies, actually - in just a single shot. But he was caught in the 'dialogue trap' and there came several inane roles where he was forced to over-emote; towards the end of his career, he regained his touch and his last few roles left us asking for more.

So here he stands, looking north on Kamaraj Salai, almost as if he is waiting to hear from the court about what his next move should be!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Making faces - and other things, too

It was a common sight on the way to school. Along one side of Kodambakkam High Road would be the production units, potters using long sticks to spin their wheels and then coaxing the clay into shapes of every kind. The clay stock itself would be shoulder high, seeming to be solid walls - but as we return from school, we could see that stock depleted and the day's work baking either in the sun or in little kilns that were given space besides the huts of the "Potters' Colony". All those pots and decorative pieces would move to the footpath on the other side of the road, where the sales team would line them up and tempt the passer-by into picking up one or a dozen.

Pavements are great places for bargains in Chennai; had written about the seasonal fruitshop earlier; terracotta has seasons, too. A couple of days ago, there were hardly any pots on the pavement. They had given way to all these faces - including a large-ish Durga in typically Bengali style, sandwiched between the demons all set to ward off evil eyes. If you look closely, you can spot the blue Krishna dolls, probably left over from a golu batch. In a week or so, all these would have cleared out to make way for various kinds of decorative lamps, ready to meet the Diwali demand. And then, after the festival season is done, it will be back to decorative pieces and flower pots.

With the kilns having been banned in this area, the potters are all gone. At least, the production has moved somewhere out of the city; the old-timers still live here. Like in many traditional crafts, fewer youth take to pottery for their livelihood. The number of these shops on the footpath has reduced - very soon, such pieces may only be found in some airconditioned showroom. Before that day comes, go out, grab as many of these as you can!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Line up for the blessings

Though it originally began as a day to worship weapons, Ayudha Puja has long ago moved on to be a day to worship the tools and implements of one's trade. Yesterday was the day of the Ayudha Puja and across the city, all kinds of 'tools', from CNC machines to computers, were cleaned and decked up for the puja. Almost every vehicle had a garland of flowers in front of it. Offices had had their signboards washed and sprayed with sandal-paste & kunkumam.

On Harrington Road last evening, these autorickshaws were lined up to participate in a puja being conducted by their welfare association. They looked all nice and neat, washed, polished and with smears of sandalwood paste. Though they all look the same anyway, the effect was even better with small banana stems on either side of the vehicle, all of equal size - and then the standardized garlands making them almost indistingushable.

It was a nice sight alright, but that didn't stop one from wishing these folks would swear to turn over a new leaf in their treatment of passengers!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

They followed us there

Last week, we had taken off to Kerala for a vacation. The early part of the week was at Thiruvananthapuram, almost as far away from Chennai as we could get in Kerala. On September 28, we heard that the 'Army Mela' in the city was closing that day with a grand show of the army 'capturing' Shanghumughom beach. We were a bit late in getting there; by the time we arrived, the drill was done and the beach had been 'liberated' by the army - we only got to read the reports in The Hindu the next day.

Some vehicles, field guns and tanks, however, remained on the beach, for the public to look at, clamber over and generally have fun with. I will bet that any romantic notions of travelling inside an army tank will evaporate very quickly if you sit inside one - even looking inside made me claustrophobic. Many jostled to get inside, sit down and look through the periscope, even for a fleeting second, before having to make way for others. It was fun, still, to get to see such equipment up close.

So what does this have to do with Chennai? Well, the mock capture was staged by soldiers of the Madras Regiment!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Not NPR yet, but will get there

I must admit that I'm not a great FM radio person; for one thing, my commutes are too short to bother with finding the right station and settling down to listen to it. For another, most of the channels seem to do pretty much the same thing - Tamizh movie songs - so it is hard to figure out which channel I'm listening to at any time. But a lot of that changed with a phone call on Sunday evening - was most surprised that I was being invited as a guest on a live talk/phone-in show. So surprised in fact, that I didn't even properly register the name of the channel that had invited me!

When I got around to finding out, I learnt that 'Chennai Live 104.8 FM' was trying to break new ground. Launched in July 2008, the channel belongs to the Muthoot Group and has been billed as 'India's first Talk Radio FM station'. I'm not sure about that, but inviting me as a guest is definitely proof of their desire to target the "evolved, intelligent Chennaite" . Therefore one didn't have to think too hard before accepting - I do like the sound of my voice and chances of being kicked out of the studio within the 30 minutes I had been given seemed slim. So there I was at 9.30 on Monday morning, sitting across the table and talking to a couple of very high-enthu people who looked like they'd be bouncing around if not for all the equipment that kept them tethered to the table.

Except for the headphones and having to break the conversation for some ads / filler songs, it was no different from, say, a conference call. Krishna and Bhavana kept the flow going, questioning without being combative and making sure that things didn't get too serious - the talk was about 'New Age Managers' and given the gloom all around, we could have easily become mournful - but the two RJs didn't let that happen. Great work, guys; you can be sure that I'll be tuning into 104.8 more often, now!

Monday, October 6, 2008

One more of those

There was a time when traffic on GN Chetty Road was a nightmare, but ever since they began building this flyover on it, traffic seems to have thinned out a lot. Maybe that could also be because Thirumalai Pillai Road was made a one-way street, emptying out from GN Chetty Road, about the same time. So was it all that was needed to be done to relieve the traffic congestion?

This photograph was taken a couple of months ago and it looks like it will take at least two more months before this flyover is opened to traffic. Will this flyover also go the way of the one on Usman Road? One hopes not; GN Chetty Road used to have a fair amount of tree cover at this spot. Almost all of it has been stripped away to make space for the flyover and the carriageways on its sides. At that time, there was some consolation in believing that the flyover would help make life better. It would be worse than criminal if it turns out that the solution to the traffic problem lay elsewhere.

And if that does happen, I wonder what the old man in this story (? Fact??) would feel. Or has he been devastated enough, already?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

There was one, once

Continuing a bit on the theme of street names, I have to strike closer home. Cenotaph Road, near my apartment, is a short road connecting Mount Road to Kotturpuram. It is very likely that not too many people know what 'cenotaph' means - it is one of those exact words that is used very rarely. I don't think I've heard of it anywhere but with reference to the road in Chennai and in P.B.Shelley's poem 'The Cloud'. Unlike Shelley's Cloud, Lord Cornwallis must be silently fuming at what has become of his Cenotaph in Madras.

When it was first set up, the Cenotaph marked a significant limit of Mount Road, if not its far end altogether. The Cenotaph was a cupola housing a 14-foot high statue of Lord Cornwallis and it was set in the centre of an oval garden. This marked the outer limit of an evening's ride or drive out from Fort St George. For the residents of the Fort, it was a good way to pretend they were in London and the Cenotaph Park was Hyde Park, where they could spend the evening and get back to the Fort before it became really dark. In the 1800s, Cenotaph Road was merely one of the spurs from this park, going down to the Adayar river. Over a couple of centuries, Cenotaph Road became well known, but the Cenotaph itself has been scattered around. The statue of Cornwallis is now in the Fort Museum and it's last cupola, in the photograph, is at the entrance to Fort St George.

Of the cupola that was the centrepiece of the Cenotaph Park, there is no trace. Separated from its shelter, Cornwallis' statue is hidden away inside the Museum. And Cenotaph Road carries on, with just a faint memory of an empty tomb that once stood there!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

To please the powers

Naming streets is probably the best way to keep memories of public figures - or events - fresh in the minds of a city's residents. All too often, however, the street name is all that remains in the public eye and the history behind the naming is forgotten (see Eric's comment here!). On top of that, the government at some time in the '70s decided that in the name of secularism, all caste references on street names should be done away with. And so we had some queer situations - Dr.Nair Road officially became Doctor Road, clubbing the co-founder of the Justice Party (from which both the DMK and the AIADMK are descended) with several others; Rangachari Road, Ranga Pillai Road and Ranga Chetty Road all became Ranga Road. Of course, many of those name changes were unable to take hold and several quietly went back to the names they were originally known by.

The politics - and sycophancy - of naming streets is not new to Chennai, though. It has been around ever since the city was born. If you don't believe me, check out the name of streets inside Fort St George; while names like York Street or Charles & James Street honoured the history of the throne of England, special care was taken to ensure a nod to the then reigning house. The House of Hanover already had the fashionable Hanover Square (and Hanover Street) in London named after it; the expatriates in the new city of Madrasapatnam went a step further - they combined both to name this street, ensuring subservience and fashion rolled into one, perhaps!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Seeing is believing

It is rather ironical that if you come here on account of the raison d'ĂȘtre of this institution, you may not be inclined to gaze upon its wonderful heritage buildings. However, you can take consolation in the fact that, given its record, this institution will enable you to do so when you leave its grounds after completing your course of treatment. That's kind of reflected in the motto of the Regional Institute of Ophthalmology and Government Ophthalmic Hospital: "To make the unseen - seen".

While Chennai is justifiably proud of its modern eyecare facilities, the RIOGOH can take especial pride in being the fount of them all. When it was established in 1819, the Madras Eye Infirmary was the second specialized ophthalmic hospital in the world, the first being Moorfields in London, which was opened in 1805. The Madras Eye Infirmary grew, and after being housed out of a couple of temporary facilities moved into these buildings on Marshalls Road in 1884. The first time I went in there was in 1981, when a friend had an accident that badly damaged his eye and the next time was a couple of weeks ago, to take some photographs for the blog.

On my first visit, I was too young - and in too much of a panic mode - to appreciate the heritage of this insititution. I will be back here very soon, for the Elliot's Museum of Ophthalmology seems to be something worth visiting!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Do you know?

Do you know what is special about today? I am sure there cannot be anyone reading this who does not know that today is Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's 139th birth anniversary. Thanks to a slightly wacky film a couple of years ago, the Mahatma made a rather unforeseen return to the public - especially the younger public - eye. For those born a couple of generations after the Mahatma's passing away, Gandhi Jayanthi meant a national holiday, one on which the liquor stores remained closed and even the five star hotels wouldn't serve you alcohol unless you were a non-Indian with an all-India liquor permit or something of the sort.

Today is also the day on which a national ban on smoking in public places comes into effect. As is usual with so many pieces of legislation, implementation can be tricky - and some state governments have already let the Union Health Ministry know that they will not be able to implement this ban. While it is a good thing overall, the ban notification has some slightly wonky ideas (like empowering a boss to fine a subordinate violating the ban!); one hopes that the zeal to implement it in Chennai lasts for a really long, long while.

Alright, so you knew what was special about the day. Now, do you know what is special about this picture? Okay, I'm away from Chennai and 'making do' with the few photos that I have.... yet, this road has a very close connect with Mahatma Gandhi.... can you guess what that is?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Tailoring to your lines

Sometime ago, a writer in 'The Guardian' wrote that "Syed Bawkher.... must be the best tailor in Asia". That is debatable, surely; I can think of far worse all-expenses-paid assignments than hopping around Asia looking for the perfect suit. In fact, there was a time when it was the general opinion that the best tailors in the world were in Hong Kong. This was due to a large expatriate population there, who claimed they could get better suits in the colony than what came out of Saville Row. True or not, it generated enough word-of-mouth for Hong Kong to be seriously considered a tailoring hot-spot of the world. Soon enough, there was a profusion of 'Hong Kong' tailors in Chennai, including many who had no option but to add the words to their names to survive.

Survival became tougher as off-the-shelf trousers and shirts came to be more freely available; many tailors turned to jobbing for the readymade brands. Some sought out niches - movie costumes, school uniforms, only churidars - and managed to remain afloat. But largely, the whole business of trousers, shirts and suits moved to the readymade segment and custom - rather, 'bespoke' - tailoring began to carry with it a tag of exclusivity and extravagance. But the worry that a bad tailor would spoil the wonderful material has always been a hurdle to experimenting.

While that worry can be put to rest, Syed Bawkher will certainly be expensive; I remember a friend telling me that he paid the price of a decent branded suit just for the tailoring at Syed Bawkher's - the whole affair cost him nearly five times the price of an off-the-shelf suit. He became a convert (in spirit), for now he yearns to have an excuse to get another suit from Syed Bawkhers. In that, he joins me - getting one from them has been a desire for a long time and will probably remain just a desire longer still.

You probably know the deal - the first of each month is 'Theme Day' for the City Daily Photo bloggers. To see how the 164 blogs interpret the theme for October, please visit the CDP Portal.
PS: De-registered from the Theme Day for October, because I wasn't sure if I'd have an appropriate picture archived... guess I should have stayed on!