Sunday, November 30, 2008

Trade & Exhibition

The rains in Chennai, the attacks in Mumbai - many doubted if the conference would happen. It did, of course. The Chennai Trade Centre (CTC) was itself not affected by the rising waters, but access to it was difficult. And yet, many people braved all those difficulties to attend the event.

The Convention Centre was very comfortable - once inside, it provides a cocoon to let you focus on the event that you came to attend. Inaugurated close to 8 years ago, in January 2001, the CTC has become very well known because of the variety of exhibitions that are held in its halls, ranging from corporate 'Family Day' functions to the India International Leather Fair that is held in Chennai every year during January/February. The Convention Centre is not that well known, even though it is reasonably well used - except Christmas week, it does not seem to have a free day next month.

Wonder how Chennai managed it exhibitions before 2001 - it seems unimaginable!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Eater's Digest - 4

This was one of the 'happening' places in Chennai, in those days when Coke and Pepsi could be seen only in Hollywood movies and pizza was what Cakes & Bakes gave us. Good to see they are still going strong!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Big stage

The Convention Centre at the Chennai Trade Centre is quite swank. It is pretty big - in fact, the lobbies are kind of cramped, in a relative fashion, so one goes out with a feeling that it is a small place. But the stage - it is huge; would love to be 'on-stage' there. Looking forward to tomorrow, when I shall be!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Nisha and her sister

I think it began last year, this convention of naming the cyclones. Now they're more familiar, but no less troublesome for that. Water everywhere, of course. It's been a really wet week. Nisha hit this morning. Her sister is lying in wait. Hopefully the conference will not be flooded out!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Marked down almost always

It was known as a value-for-money name in the UK, where it was born. But I have always thought of it as an expensive label, after I visited their store in Hong Kong almost a dozen years ago - the first time that I had been in a Marks & Spencer store. Maybe it was something to do with the firm using only British inputs for their products which made them so high priced in Asia. Whatever the reason may be, that memory stayed; when M&S opened their store in Chennai in 2005, I really did not think about shopping there. Thinking about it now, their store location was probably a good tactical choice - on paper. The shop that operated there earlier, Haneef Brothers - Famco - was one where you could go in to get some real good deals, a favourite during college days. Maybe M&S wanted that association to continue; but for me, they appeared even more expensive because of where they were.

Maybe they were actually very expensive initially. Probably they didn't get the kind of traffic that they wanted to, because, in a very short while, the store had gone into a promo mode. Everytime I went past, the store seemed to have a different kind of a sale on: regular bogofs, "buy 3 take 2 free", "40% off". The names changed, but Marks & Spencer seemed to be in some kind of desperation to get people into the store. In my case, it has taken three years of wearing down, going through the stages of thinking that I'd buy there at the next sale, no, the one after....

And then I finally did it last week. Now I'm thinking... three decent shirts for Rs.2000/- is not that bad, after all!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

War hero

India's ill-advised mission to keep the peace in Sri Lanka lasted for about 3 years, from 1987 to 1990. The major fallout of those years was an emboldened LTTE assasinating Rajiv Gandhi and then continuing to hold on to their cause for several long years. Fighting a proxy war for the Sri Lankan government was not what the IPKF had bargained for and they got it in the neck, being blamed for civilian casualities by both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. The Indian Army lost over 1,200 of its men in this war before better sense prevailed and the servicemen were brought back home.

Maj. Parameswaran was one of the 1,200 who never returned to India alive. Very early on in the life of the IPKF, Maj. Parameswaran was killed in an ambush, earning himself a posthumous Param Vir Chakra (PVC), the highest military honour in India, which has been awarded to only 21 servicemen since being instituted in 1950. In doing so, Maj. Parameswaran became the first alumnus of the OTA in Chennai to be awarded the PVC.

Today, 21 years to the day after he died, there is not much talk about this soldier. The offical machinery of the government has not had any celebration around the day; but he is remembered every day inside the OTA campus with this bust in his honour!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Which Queen was that?

Over the past six years or so, the number of people working in call centres in Chennai has surely gone beyond the six figure mark. Call centre jobs were slow to come to Chennai, mainly because of two reasons: one, with Tamil Nadu contributing to just under 20% of the country's engineering graduates every year, it was a hot destination for software recruiters - and even science and arts graduates were aspiring for software jobs rather than settle for less. The second reason was some kind of a myth that English in Chennai (or south India in general) is much more 'accented' than its cousin in the Gurgaon belt.

The dotcom bust of 2001 meant that engineers from the class of 2002 found their dream software jobs drying up and turned to a couple of companies which were establishing their technical support call centres in Chennai. Once that barrier was broken, it did not take long to bust the my-accent-better-than-your-accent myth. Part of that was thanks to several 'training institutes' such as this one. All kinds of accents could be heard coming from these buildings as the accent gap between the supply and demand was narrowed. Most of the demand was from North America, so that was the first offering from almost all such institutes. And then, to differentiate, newer accents were developed, and courses went beyond verbal calisthenics to grammar and suchlike.

At least the sign reminded me that I cannot take it for granted that any Queen would speak English!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Complex toys

Imagine what that block of wood, plastic or rubber would do. Then go ahead and move that block to get it done. That's what the first toys were like. The form the wooden block would take was limited only by the child's imagination. If an adult did not quite see it that way, it is only to be expected. "Grown-ups don't understand", as The Little Prince said. The grown-ups, though began to seek their revenge and impose their understanding, when they began to make the toys more 'realistic': now a battery powered radio controlled model of a P51 Mustang could only be a battery-powered-radio-controlled-model-of-a-P51-Mustang and nothing else.

Which is why this whole business of LEGO Education's toys seems to be a very good thing. In the first place, it gives a lot of control back to the child. In the second place, it keeps the adults off the child, for now the child says 'you don't understand', and the grown-up has to keep quiet, because it is true for most part! In the case of their Mindstorms line of products it is especially true, because they are LEGO blocks powered with software; with 4 different kinds of sensors, they can be built and programmed to carry out different tasks. There was a show last week, where a set of companies associated with robotics education was trying to show how such (and other similar types of) toys could be used to develop kids' interest in robotics.

That may be, but at the show, most of the interest was centred on these bots , one trying to move on the black line and the other trying to knock of the red ball. Robotics or no robotics, the kids had fun with the toys!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Flash flood

If you live in Chennai, you'll understand that flash-flood is not a phenomenon that is always associated with rushing water. In fact, Chennai could well be the tipping point for a definition for a new kind of flood, one that happens far sooner than the 6-hour buildup time that characterises a flash-flood. These floods in Chennai happen within 6 minutes from the start of a sustained burst of rain. With most of Chennai being flat, water rushes to every little scrap of land that is even slightly lower than its surroundings. Those include road shoulders, typically; when these shoulders are filled with water, it naturally narrows the drivable width of the road.

All this is fine. With the conference less than a week away, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the sun will be shining all through the later part of the next week!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Prescient salesman

Maybe not all that prescient, for the downpour came about 24 hours after I took this photograph last evening. He was very eye catching, with his white clothes allowing the colours of his umbrellas to preen themselves for the passers-by. Was there some thought behind his dressing for the evening? Or was it just that he picked whatever clothes came to hand? I'd like to think that his costume was part of his overall sales strategy, for he seemed to be a very organized person; the way he has pushed his two wheeler up on to the pavement and the manner in which his stock is displayed besides it suggests thoughtfulness.

Even Sherlock Holmes might not have been able to figure out how he could hope to sell any umbrellas when the clouds have been staying away from Chennai for nearly two weeks now. This season's rainfall, at about 40 cm has been about 16% less than the norm. Rainfall for the year, too, has been lower by about the same proportion. If anyone had ignored all these bits of data and bought an umbrella from him yesterday, they'd surely have been telling people about their foresight when the skies opened this evening!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Deep waters?

If you think this lake is somewhere on the outskirts of the city, think again. It is right in the middle of Chennai's green lung, in Guindy. Chances are not too many people would have seen it, because it is in the middle of the IIT Madras campus; a campus that is not very easy to get into and not just because of the security. Some of the IITians might claim that IIT is a city in itself, but that's only to be expected - all of them live in a world of their own, anyway.

There is an urban legend that this lake is a few hundred feet deep and is inhabited by crocodiles. I don't think anyone has ever attempted to test the validity of either of these legends!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Colourful entry

They probably didn't need such an archway in the days when the temple was built, during the 8th century CE. This one is obviously a more recent addition, not more than 25 years old, framing the entrance to the road leading to the Parthasarathy Temple from the east. There is a similar frame on the northern road, too; as to the south and west, I must confess I have no idea.

At any rate, this gate provides a sudden splash of colour along the Marina, relieving the monochromy of the buildings on this stretch. There is a fair amount of detailing on the frame, beginning with the yalis on either side, up to Garuda and Hanuman flanking the Lord Parthasarathy's family and going all the way up to the top of the frame, with the images of Lord Mahavishnu's shankh (conch) and the chakra (disc), with the Vaishnavaite naamam in between. There is more detailing there, for sure, but descrbing all that will be anticipating a description of the temple itself, so I'll save that for later.

Most of the main temple itself is painted in a single colour - but that's more than made up for in this colourful entryway!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Office shells

Nobody thought the IT boom would slow down, especially after the spectacular rise of the ITES / BPO industry. Real estate developers vied with each other to put up office towers, trying to flog such tiny standalone towers as the next thing in the city to Tidel Park. Of course the major thing they had in common with Tidel Park was the rates; the facilities were of course a far cry from what Tidel offers.

Now, when the commercial real estate market in the city is in deep trouble, such buildings can be seen in several places. Estimates of vacant IT- / ITES- ready office space in Chennai range from 2 million to 4 million square feet. Many of these builders are stuck because they had taken advantage of concessional rates allowed by the government on construction material for IT Parks, which means building shells such as this one, probably, cannot be converted for any other commercial use.

So they sit, with their gaping holes, hoping for the economy to rev back on to those wonderful growth rates that were being quoted as a 'sure thing' just a couple of months ago!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Happy birthday, TS!

The gates to the venerable Theosophical Society are quite easy to miss, unless you know exactly what you are looking for. Set on the banks of the Adayar, the Theosophical Society (TS, as it is known to those in the know) sprawls over 270 acres, hugging the river until it runs into the Bay of Bengal. While the gates are rather inconspicuous, the roving eyes of land sharks have not missed the grounds of the TS. There have been attempts in the past to push the Society to give up part of its land for 'development'; attempts that have been rebuffed time and again.

TS is old; not just that the spark of the movement was lit in the early 1870s in Vermont, USA: not just that it has been 133 years to the day today since it was founded in New York or that it has been over a century since this site, earlier the garden house of Huddlestone, was established as the World Headquarters of the Society. More worryingly, it is the feeling that the TS is increasingly irrelevant these days, when organized religion is making a vociferous comeback. The Society's goal of Universal Brotherhood and striving for that Truth which is higher than any religion does not appear to be galvanizing the youth or even attracting them to the Society. That's not a happy situation for the Society or these huge gardens that house their Headquarters.

Even as I write this, I am aware that I have little knowledge about the membership, or even what the TS does and how well it is doing it. So, my worry may be unfounded, after all - and on this birthday of the TS, I sure hope it is; so, here's wishing the Theosophical Society, Adyar several more centuries of working for Universal Brotherhood!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The fare that got away

It is a lull after festival shopping, waiting for the next burst at Christmas and New Year time. Sales are affected and the crowds are much thinner than normal. Even during the great shopping buildup to Deepavali, when this picture was taken, the crowds were not what they could have been.

Apart from the crowds, this picture shows most of what happens around the jewellery shops; let the imagination run unchecked a bit and you can hear the girl at the entrance saying that she's been here before, this place doesn't have exactly what she wants; the man in the white shirt, with his back to her is letting someone know that he has managed to get a good deal; the trinket sellers on the right are hoping that some change would come their way, to reward a small child for behaving herself during the time in the shop. And look at that small alcove, housing Vinayagar, the remover of obstacles, where the faithful shopper can pray for a strong negotiating arm (and make an offering too, which in all likelihood will be collected by the shop!). Not just any ordinary Vinayagar, but Selvarathna (wealth of gems) Vinayagar, very appropriate!

Finally the auto drivers, in their uniforms, looking at that group with the bulging shopping bags, ruing the lost chance to have taken them in their vehicle - happy shoppers might be too tired to negotiate one more item and the auto drivers could have made a packet, but someone else seems to have got there first!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A close look

At first, I didn't quite get it when my friend told me about the new hazard that has come up on the 14th hole at the TNGF-Cosmo Golf course. He told me it was a 'crow hazard' and my first thought was that he was having a dig at my new found ornithology mania. Almost immediately I knew he wasn't pulling my leg, that this was slightly more serious. I remembered Kapil Dev killing a seagull that wasn't quick enough to get out the way of a ferocious drive, in Adelaide, if I'm right. That had to be it, maybe there's a murder of crows out there, with murder being both a collective noun and a verb.

It wasn't as bad as that, I'm assured. It is merely that the crows on the 14th and 15th holes have been particularly hungry or something and have been flying down to pick up the ball before the player walks to the fairway from the teeing area. Apparently it is more common than I first thought - googling for crow golf ball will give you a lot of stories about this happening all over the world.

Maybe you need to keep a really close eye on the ball!

Friday, November 14, 2008

A local insect

The Tawny Coster (Acraea terpsicore) is one of the 310-odd butterfly species of Tamil Nadu. Given the limitations of my camera, I had a better time taking pictures of butterflies than I did photographing birds during the weekend trip.

This species is supposedly very abundant in Tamil Nadu; it should prefer Chennai, too, for its habitat of choice is the scrub jungle. Being rather tasteless (and maybe carrying some poisons, too), it does not have to fear too much about the predators. Maybe that's why I got to see not only this butterfly at close quarters, but its caterpillar, too!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Low cost high rise

It went against the grain when Saravana Stores revealed their seven storied building a couple of years ago. The store had a reputation for being the lowest-cost-sellers of any product, from clothes to kitchenware and samosas to diamond jewellery. With that kind of a background, their new building was not expected to be anything more than a block of concrete maximising the number of people who could be contained within. Their older store, on Ranganathan Street was inspired by such a design philosophy and is always packed. Always.

And then they went ahead and pulled the curtains off this structure. Not much to look at in the daytime, the curved diagonals on its frontage are still a departure from the pack-them-in school of store building. At night, with the recessed lighting along the diagonals, it is a reasonably pretty sight when one drives down Pondy Bazaar to Usman Road. With this kind of a jazzed up departure from tradition, one expected the store to move out of the 'leading low cost seller' slot.

The building may be new, but the business model remains pretty much the same. Keep costs low, in whatever way possible, undercut on pricing, advertise on the Tamizh channels. And the customers respond in the best way possible: the crowds keep flowing in!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Much before the city

If it weren't for the buildings, you could stand at any point in Chennai city and see clearly all the way through to the edges of the city. Except for a couple of places, where the St Thomas Mount and the Pallavaram hills rise like pimples, the terrain of Chennai is... well, a flawless cheek! It is said that the tallest peaks are in the young mountains and that the oldest mountains show up as low, rounded hills. By that hypothesis, the Pallavaram hills in the picture would be a billion or so years old (the Himalayas are estimated as being about 150 million to 200 million years old).

With that kind of evidence being put forward in support of their longevity, it should not be a surprise that the locality of Pallavaram pre-dates the emergence of Madras. The name itself is a corruption of 'Pallavapuram' - the land of the Pallavas. It is believed that the Pallava kings ruled from here during the 6th / 7th century CE, but there are very few extant relics or monuments from that period here. In 1863, Robert Bruce Foote, working for the Geological Survey of India, discovered a hand-axe from paleolithic times near these hills. Somehow, this discovery is not well remembered today; with Pallavaram having become a bustling suburb, any mention of carrying out archeological excavations there would be met with violent opposition.

So, these hills stand, having seen it all, from pre-historic badlands to the landings at Chennai international airport, just across the road. Ah, the stories they would tell, if only these hills could talk!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Not another large bird

17 Across: Large bird can't take off from down under (3). That would probably leave Bertie Wooster scratching his head, especially after he finds the first letter is 'E' and the last is 'U'. But not me. EMUs have been a part of life for a very long time. That's only to be expected, for the EMU in this case is the Electrical Multiple Unit, which is what have been running on Chennai's suburban train systems (as on many train systems the world over) since as far back as the 1920s. In those days, Tambaram was an important point on the rail and road network for it was the first large settlement after leaving the city of Madras, towards the southern districts.

With the EMUs came the need to maintain them. The workshop was inaugurated in 1931, almost at the same time that metre-gauge EMU services from Beach to Tambaram were regularized. In those days, the services were run with 3-car rakes; over the years they've grown to the 9- or 12-car rakes that are in use now. With a capacity of about 200 people to a car and each car running at least 10 trips a day, that's a lot of footfalls. Besides handling routine maintenance and safety checks, this workshop is also expected to keep the rakes completely clean and neat.

It may not be a bird, but for the approximately 1000 employees at the EMU workshop, it would certainly be a big task to keep the 25 rakes on the Beach - Tambaram sector moving smoothly!

Monday, November 10, 2008

That's in the name

Quick, how many women freedom fighters of India can you name? I could come up with five, after a bit of thought. When the question is extended to women freedom fighters from Madras, the count dropped sharply down to zero. No count can cover all those men and women who fought the British rule in their own small ways, every day, over and over again. Even so, it is particularly embarrassing to realize that the first woman political prisoner of the 20th century has been almost completely forgotten.

Rukmini Lakshmipathy had come to Madras circa 1915 to pursue her education at the Women's Christian College and had stayed on, captivated by the fervour of the Independence movement. She was active in the salt sathyagraha at Vedaranyam, which led to her first stint as a guest of His Majesty's government. She went on to become the Deputy Speaker of the state Legislative Assembly, the first woman to hold that position.

Apart from Marshall's Road having been renamed in her honour, the only other time when she is remembered is during the lecture in her memory at her alma mater. Still, that faded garland on her statue is a reassurance. There are people out there who remember this lady, on behalf of the whole city!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Getting back

Was away overnight on a bird-watching camp organized by the Madras Naturalists Society and conducted by my namesake, Dr V.Santharam. The camp was just outside Chennai city - actually I guess the place we went to would fall within the boundaries of Greater Chennai. I had a great time getting to know the ABCs of bird watching - and then going out on to the field and spotting 27 species of birds (that's just the ones I saw; the more experienced birders had over 50 species on their lists).

Coming back into the city, we headed in on the Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR); or, what was earlier called Old Mahabalipuram Road. It was renamed Rajiv Gandhi Salai sometime ago and the 20km stretch from Madhya Kailas to Siruseri was formally dedicated at the end of October 2008. The next phase of activity on this road, to complete the Siruseri - Mamallapuram stretch and some connecting roads between Rajiv Gandhi Salai and the East Coast Road is expected to take another year to complete. Though towns like Tiruporur, on the OMR, list themselves as being on the IT Highway, it will take a while before Rajiv Gandhi Salai begins to look like a highway at those points.

In a month or so, the toll plaza at Siruseri will be functional - today, just after we entered the IT Highway at this point in Siruseri, we casually breezed through the yet-to-be-functional toll booths. I believe that's how the villagers along this part - and several other parts too - of Rajiv Gandhi Salai will pass through, even after the toll collection is implemented!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

At a higher level

Well, it did look like a police flatbed truck. I may be mistaken, for the Chennai City Traffic Police uses them but very rarely and moving an illegally parked car is not something that the mighty flatbed would be rousted out for. Moving an illegally parked car is probably against the CCTP's standard operating procedure. On almost all occasions, vehicles parked illegally are immobilized with a wheel clamp, and the vehicle owner will have to wait there until the policemen get back to the place again in their tow truck.

The tow truck itself appears to be more for its showpiece value than any help in actually dragging away cars. There is enough space on the truck to place a few motorcycles after physically lifting them up from where they were parked. Even then the tow winch will remain idle, the lifting will be done by one of the policemen with help from parking lot attendents and maybe even passers by.

Which is why this seems to be a special case of illegal parking. Maybe I'm being too uncharitable. It could also be the police were helping out a driver, stranded because his car had a problem. What, do you think, happened?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Hold your horses

If ever there is an award for irrelevant statues, this one (and its brother, on the other side of the flyover) will win it, time and again, in a canter. Horse racing, in one form or the other, has been around in Chennai for many years. The Madras Race Club traces its origins back to 1777, though it's formal shape was given only in 1896.

Through the 1960s, there was growing criticism about horse racing, that it was driving working class people into a cycle of gambling, debt, poverty, alcoholism and ruin. The strident demands to do something about it led to the Tamil Nadu Government issuing an ordinance on August 14, 1974, banning horse races in the state. Being very pleased with themselves, they decided to commemorate this achievement and commissioned the twin statues of a-man-and-horse. Nagappa Sculptors - then run, in all likelihood, by Jayaram Nagappa - delivered on the commission and these statues have been flanking the Gemini Flyover for the past 30 years or so.

But the original ordinance was challenged in the courts, and the implementation of the ordinance was stayed by the Madras High Court - that allowed the Madras Race Club to conduct their bicentennial races in 1978. However, it was only sometime in the early 1990s that the Supreme Court of India struck down the Government's contention that horse racing was to be banned. In some sense, racing never went away from Madras, though it was on hold long enough for these statues to be installed!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

First factory

Though the sign says '861', it would be more appropriate to call it '1'. On the western bank as Mount Road (I know I should say Anna Salai, but change comes slowly - sometimes, not at all) meets Arunachala Street, stands this building, with no signage to indicate what it is all about. A newcomer to Chennai can be excused for assuming it is some government office, seeing the art-deco style building and the quiet, unhurried ambience all around it.

But '861, Anna Salai', is special, for various reasons. In the second half of the 19th century, when the owner of this property fell on hard times, it was bought by A.M.Simpson, a Scot who had come to Madras in 1840. By the 1870s, which was when he bought this site, Simpson had become a very well established coach builder, whose products rivalled those made in London. With his business growing, he needed more space for making coaches than was available in his location further south on Mount Road. As horse-drawn coaches gave way to other modes of transport, Simpson's moved into manufacturing rail coaches; the company is also credited with building the first steam-powered motor car in India, in 1903. Circa 1915, the buildings seen beyond the wall were built, as a frontage to the body building workshops and to house the motorcar showrooms. In 1933, Simpson's became the trading agency for the 4 cylinder 'Vixen' engines built by Perkins & Company, a firm set up in Peterborough, England, the previous year. Over the course of subsequent years, the engines proved to be best-sellers. In 1952/3, Simpson & Co. became the first licenced manufacturer of Perkins engines outside England, upon which the jumble of workshops at this site was converted to a modern-day factory.

Today, Simpson & Co. is the flagship of the Amalgamations Group, making the Perkins engines that go into tractors manufactured by TAFE, another company of the Group. Very low profile and unassuming, this first factory on Mount Road does not have any visible external sign of its history, heritage or stature. If one does not notice the stylized 'Simpson & Co.' written on the building, the assumption of it being a government office will take a lot of changing!

PS: In an earlier post about Simpson's sesquicentennial celebrations, I had linked to the Amalagamations Group website. That website ( has not been renewed and is now with a squatter: another testimony - sadly - to the low profile, even reclusive, nature of one of India's oldest business houses!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A flower by another name

Okay, I'm going to go out on a limb here, in classifying this passion flower as Passiflora incarnata; I'm reliably informed that it is indeed the passion flower, but the scientific name is entirely out of my own research - these flowers seem to come in a wide range of colours and I'm sure they do not represent just one species. Even though the limb of this flower that I'm going out on is a creeper, it will support my findings and actually turn out to be the P. incarnata.

Initially, I put its name down to a description of the way it is constructed, with delicately multicoloured tendrils above the petals, the stamens rising up in a crown over them and the overall effect of tenderness. The passion flower however, was named so because the Spaniards who first saw them in South America were reminded of the passion of Christ - the crown of thorns, the whips, the wounds - in different aspects of this flower.

For all its name, it will not fire you up; it is mainly used as a sedative and is also a key ingredient in some herbal tranquilizers. I am not sure how common it is in Chennai, for this is the only time I saw it, near the St Thomas Mount.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A rare sight

I know that I have written something about the greater incidence of 'caste-marks' in Chennai than in many other Indian cities. Even when I did so, I was thinking about single lines on the forehead, either vertically or horizontally, with sandalwood paste, ash or sindoor (vermillion). I must confess that the more elaborate vadakalai and thenkalai marks had completely skipped my mind. They were common many many years ago, but anti-brahmin agitations of the 1960s had led to them being wiped away from thousands of foreheads across the state. In those days, the naamams were a visible reminder of inequities, both real and imagined. The vehemence of the agitations have died down, but their causative factors will never be removed from the society, not as long as there is someone who feels deprived for whatever reason. The naamams didn't make a comeback to their heydays.

So it was a bit of a surprise to see this gentleman at a function on Sunday. More so because the function was not a religious occasion at all. Looking at him for a while, I realized that the naamam was not a one-off sign worn for the function; it seemed to be something that he did up every day, just as he would shave his face or comb his hair. It is his identity, his style, part of who he is. Nothing can take that away from him.

Even these fashions have their phases. Wearing the naamam because it is traditional. Not doing so because it made one a sitting duck. Wearing it with a sense of defiance, a re-assertion of cultural identity. Not doing so because it just takes too long to get the shape of the 'Y' right, hey, who has the time these days!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Many levels of traffic

Sunday afternoon and the traffic at the Kathipara grade separator is either approaching apprehensively or moving away from it in relief - maybe confusion, too. At each stage of its construction, traffic had to adjust to slight changes in routes. In the first few days after the entire intersection was opened to traffic last week, there was complete confusion. The signs, while they were present, were just not clear enough to cut through the intuitive driving of the Chennaiite. It is unreasonable to expect him to know that, one fine morning, he has to turn left, so that he could circle around and join the road that takes him to the right; he just looks at this newly laid road and says, "Okay, this is where I have always turned right, and I'll do just that, now. What a wonderful road this is!".

Before he knows it, he is going the wrong way - just like an elderly gentleman, who was coming back home. In the fading twilight, he was probably unable to figure out the new traffic routing and so went up a down-ramp. The poor man died next morning and the grade separator had claimed its first fatality within 24 hours of opening. It was too late to help him, but the police seem to have beefed up their presence at the intersection, to guide confused drivers.

The light traffic yesterday afternoon allowed careful drivers to figure out the intricacies of the first clover-leaf intersection in this part of the country. With two more coming up, at Koyambedu and at Padi, some say there will soon be potential for grade-separator-tourism!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Tree of state

Not too many Indians are clued in about their national or state symbols. Part of it could be lack of any rituals around any of the national symbols. It could also be genuine confusion caused by a multiplicity of symbols; for example, India's national animal is the tiger (Panthera tigris), but a child could be forgiven for thinking it is the lion (Panthera leo persica): for India's state emblem, from Ashoka's Sarnath Lion Capital, shows 3 lions but not a single tiger. On the original Lion Capital, you can actually see 5 lions; it is placed on top of an inverted lotus (Nelumbo nucipera gaertn), which is India's national flower. But the lotus is also the symbol of the BJP and therefore not usually paraded about when the BJP is out of power.

The reason for placing all these explanations before getting to the subject is quite simple. Until a few days ago, I did not know much about the state symbols of Tamil Nadu. The big fact I knew was that the gopuram on the state emblem was that of the temple at Srivilliputhur. Beyond that, I was clueless about the symbols of state. Oh, well, the website of the state government also does not have any information about them, but buried somewhere deep inside was a document that acknowledged the palmyra tree (Borassus flabellifer) as the state tree of Tamil Nadu. It may be easy to forget this fact, more so because there are far fewer palmyra trees in Chennai than before - in fact, the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) is probably far more abundant in the city.

If you have ever tasted the jelly from inside those black fruits on a hot day, or even the candied panankalkandu, however, you will never be able forget this tree, will you?!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Not exactly Booker material

Another theme day for the City Daily Photo bloggers group goes by, without my realizing it. And I'm kicking myself, for the theme is something that I could have easily found something for. But didn't register, didn't have photos ready. If I had known, chances are I would have done something on the lines of what several others - including Eric, in Paris; Greg, in Hobart; Anu in Mumbai; 'BitingMidge' on the Sunshine Coast - had done. The pavement book sellers in Chennai are not the force they used to be, but they are still there, just the same. Many of them have shifted to pirated books, rather than the second-hand ones they used to trade in, quite a while ago. But that is material for another post.

Today, I'm just putting up this picture of the 'welcome page' in front of the Fort Museum. Merely walking around Fort St. George will provide material for a lot of books, if one could write them. The officers of the British East India Company did put a lot words on to paper - letters, diaries, bills, whatever, but there have been very few that have been strung together as narratives of life in the early Raj. There are a couple that I have found; In Old Madras, by B.M.Crocker, which has a lot of fiction, even about dates and places, but makes for a good read if you are in the mood. The Raj at the Table, by David Burton, on the other hand has little specific connection with Madras, but you can imagine the expatriates sitting down to 'homologated' breakfast, lunch and dinner!

This is where you can see all the other participants of the CDP Theme day!