Friday, November 20, 2009

Floating in it

The vada is supposed to be one of the oldest dishes from this part of the world, but it must have been a truly inspired moment when a foodie decided to soak, rather than just dip, her vada in the sambar.

There are few places better than Rathna Cafe in Triplicane where the sambar vada can be enjoyed in all its glory. They even leave behind a long-handled sambar pan (design patent pending, I'm sure) so that one isn't embarassed by having to ask for repeat servings of the sambar.

Enough said. The tongue drools!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Think you're fast?

From the air, it looks like a half-open switchblade knife, with a smaller appendage following the main blade. Located inside the Taramani campus of the University of Madras, the National Centre for Ultra-Fast Processes appears more like a bureaucratic office than the high-tech research facility it is.

The only one of its kind in the country, the NCUFP was set up to help researchers understand what happens in structures - physical, chemical or biological - during certain processes which take place in infinestimally small slices of time. The mind boggles so much at the mere description of such time-slices: nano-, pico- and femto-seconds, the last named being equal to 1 X 10^-15 of a second, that it is unable to imagine anything which can happen within that time. Apparently a lot of things do happen, enough to keep 4 full-time faculty members (and 2 Emeritus Professors in addition) busy guiding the 15 or so students doing their doctoral research in - well, some highly specialized areas. Typically, their research is around chemical processes, which usually take a few hundred femtoseconds to be completed.

The femtosecond, however is not the smallest unit of time that has been observed until now; that distinction goes to the attosecond, which is 1 X 10^-18 of a second (or a thousandth of a femtosecond). But even the attosecond is not the theoretical smallest unit of time. For the theoretical scientist, that would be Planck Time, which is the time taken for light in a vacuum to travel one unit of Planck Length (the smallest distance about which anything can be known, theoretically); the equivalent of 5.39 X 10^-44 seconds.

You certainly need more than just sharp eyes to spot the action at that speed - and here's Chennai using those eyes for all of us, all over the world!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Well, not exactly. The Major Band is on the move, getting ready for their next gig from the top of their vehicle, which also serves as their stage.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Soldiers Friend

St Mary's Church, inside Fort St George, is packed with memorials to British officers long gone. In almost all cases, the inscriptions on their memorials are lengthy enough to provide several clues to the officer's career and accomplishments. One of the few exceptions to this rule is this statue on whose pedestal it just says, "Conway - Adjutant General - Obiit 13th May 1837 / Erected by the Army and by the Public". That's most probably because there was quite simply too much to say about Thomas Henry Somerset Conway, who had served in India, "having never quitted the country", for the entire duration of his 44 years' service with the army.

It is also likely that he spent a vast majority of those years in Madras. A story tells of him, then a young Ensign beginning his career, looking out through a window of the Exchange House in Fort St George when he was tricked into believing that the House was on fire. Upon which Conway jumped out of the window and broke his leg, no doubt providing a lot of merriment to his brother Ensigns. From those early days in Madras, he went on to become the Adjutant General of Madras, a position he held for 28 years, under eight Commanders-in-Chief. During his service he covered almost every military campaign in south India, apart from seeing action in the Mahrattah War and serving on the Military Finance Committee at Calcutta. Unlucky with promotions, he remained a rung lower than his contemporaries, a circumstance that some attributed to his unrelenting discipline and rigid integrity (it is said that he died without leaving behind a shilling - for a British officer in early 19th century Madras, that's saying something!). Those qualities also gave him an unmatched understanding of "every thing relating to the dress, drill, appearance and discipline of an army".

Technically, he was the Brigadier at Hyderabad when he died. However, he hadn't yet formally assumed that post, for he died of cholera at Guntoor, en route to taking charge at Hyderabad; which is why this statue (by Turnouth) credits him as Adjutant General. Though he was absolutely strict as a disciplinarian, unwilling to distingush the human from the organization, he was held in high regard by the men who were under his command - and that's why, in small letters, right on top of the pedestal, it says "The Soldiers' Friend"!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Still red, after all these years

The National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) has installed 11,025 Condom Vending Machines (CVM) across all metros and major cities in order to "provide anytime access to quality condoms in a non-embarrassing situation". By that objective, the CVMs have to be placed discreetly and therefore lack the in-your-face subtlety of the family planning advertisements of the 1970s.

Those advertisements could be seen everywhere - especially along the walls of houses and barns in the 'mofussil' areas. Showing a husband, wife and two children and the slogan "We two, ours two" (or local variants thereof), the ads would also have a large inverted red triangle. That triangle went on to become the generic logo of family planning programmes not just in India but also in several other countries. The man who is credited with coming up with that logo, Dharmendra Kumar (Deep) Tyagi, died childless at 41, before he could see the amazing recall his design provided the programmes. But his memory lives on in the name of one of the largest organizations providing subsidized condoms to many parts of the world - DKT International, founded in 1989 by Phil Harvey, who had worked with Deep Tyagi in the 1960s.

DKT International today is a key supplier to NACO; apart from the condoms, DKT International also provides support on distribution of contraceptive products, and for various community sensitising programmes across the country. Somehow, they seem to have got one thing wrong: red may have been the right colour for the inverted triangle, but when you want people to use something, shouldn't you be choosing a colour that invites them to go ahead?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Amalgam of businesses

I must have been in the 7th standard or so when I first noticed this building and that was because I had just learnt that 'amalgam' was a compound of mercury. Ever since, I've looked out for this sign whenever I am on this stretch of Mount Road; I don't think the sign has changed from my first sighting of it many, many years ago!

Maybe it hasn't changed ever since the company was formed sometime in the late 1930s. Sir Alexander MacDougall and W.W.Ladden, the then Chairman and Managing Director respectively of Simpson & Co., decided that Simpson's be controlled by a holding company and hence set up Amalgamations. Also with them as the only other shareholder/Directors of Amalgamations were P.Reid and S.Anantharamakrishnan; the latter, referred to as "J", was possibly the only 'native' Director of Simpson & Co. until then. Over the years, many other companies were formed or were brought into the Amalgamations fold. Today, there are almost 40 companies in the Group, spanning all kinds of businesses from tea to tractors, but mainly around automobile and auto-component businesses.

In the 70-odd years that it has been around, the Amalgamations Group has never sought to build a brand for itself. Like most of the companies in the Group - actually, like many a Chennai-headquartered company - it has been a silent achiever over the decades!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Solid gate

You'd expect a gate to the Southern Railway's headquarters building to have some indication about the building. There is nothing in all the iron-work on this gate which directly refers to the Southern Railways.

But look closely and on the top right corner of the gate, you can make out the intertwined letters "MSMR". That's what the building was originally meant for, the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railways. Though the MSMR is no more (it was merged with the South Indian Railways and Mysore State Railways to form the Southern Railways in 1951), the letters still live on here. Now, isn't this a gate that has stood the test of time!

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Summit, a Peak

You'd probably not notice this building if you're going up Bharathi Salai (Pycrofts Road) on your vehicle, but there's no way you can miss seeing it if you are on foot. It is not the oldest building around, but there's a certain art-deco kind of feel to it, so you want to stop and stare at it a bit. It is definitely worth a stare; apart from the reliefs of Lakshmi (on the left) and Saraswati (on the right), there is a headless figure of Lord Subramanian between them. Topping them all is a bust of Mahatma Gandhi, placed on a globe showing the Indian subcontinent.

Each floor seems to have a name of its own; starting with "Siva Mani" on the ground floor, we move up through "Sri Rama Nilayam" and "Swami's Summit", before reaching the penthouse (if it can be called that), which is named "Gandhi Peak". The house was built sometime in the early 1920s by SP Ayyaswami Mudaliar, a civil engineer who was also an active member of the Indian National Congress. Maybe he had ideas of turning the whole building over to the Congress, because there is a plaque saying "Donor Engineer S.P.Aiyaswami" somewhere on the facade. He didn't do any such thing, however, for his descendents continue to stay in this building, adding to the multitude of signs indicating the many purposes the building has been used for - "Sundaralaya 1926" says one, "Sivaraja Bhavanam 1926", says another; a third says "Professor S.P.Singaravelu Institute". A much newer sign says "S.P.Dhananjaya 149 Bharathi Salai".

But the newest of them all is a plaque on the gate-post, one that does not appear in this picture, which celebrates the 5 days that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose stayed in this building, over two visits, in September 1939 and January 1940. Maybe it was between those visits that Netaji firmed up his strategy of aligning with the Axis powers!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

From darkness to light

The National Geographic magazine calls it "...probably the only successful example of the sustainable use of a wild species in India.". The Irula Snake Catchers Industrial Cooperative Society (ISCICS), which is thus described, has been around since 1978, but I first got to know about them in the early 1990s, when a friend working with an NGO contracted the ISCICS to catch rats that had become a menace in the Madras Central station.

The Irula tribe gets its name from the Tamizh word 'irul', meaning darkness. It is not important whether the word signified their complexion (they are supposedly descended from Negrito stock) or the timing of their chief occupation, for they would be active during nights, hunting rats and snakes. The latter catered to the demand of the global skin trade, ending up as shoes or bags with high fashion labels. The tribespeople were famed for their ability to track and catch any snake, especially the poisonous king cobras and the Russell's vipers, which were numerous in the regions around Madras. It is estimated that the entire population of the Irula tribe - about 250,000 people today - has always been concentrated around Chennai, and was entirely dependent on catching and skinning snakes to make a living.

The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, while being a boon in general, struck a body blow to the Irulas' livelihood by making it illegal to hunt wild animals. And then in 1976, export of snake skins was banned under the Act. Many Irulas were forced to turn to other occupations, which they promptly made a hash of. Even after a couple of generations, the Irulas are uncomfortable in the mainstream, though a majority of them are now part of it. A small group, however, formed the ISCICS in 1978 under the guidance of Romulus Whitaker, the man behind the Madras Snake Park and the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust. The ISCICS members (about 500 of them now) continue to catch snakes, especially poisonous ones. But there is a difference; they catch them live, tag them, house them for about a month, during which time they are milked for their venom once a week. At the end of the month, the snake is released in the wild and they are not brought in again for at least 3 months.

The members of the ISCICS have been scrupulously following the processes for capturing, milking and releasing the snakes. They also have some space within the Crocodile Bank for demonstrating the venom milking and to speak about the snake species around Chennai. With all these efforts, they earn enough to live with the modern-day norms without sacrificing their ancestral skills - now, how's that for sustainability!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Multicoloured flower

The State Flower of Tamil Nadu is indeed a rather unique specimen. The young flower of the Glory Lily (Gloriosa superba) starts off with its mostly-flat green petals drooping downwards. As the flower grows, not only do the petals lengthen out, but they also begin to get all crinkly and move from their droopishness to curve backwards. In the process, they also change colour from green to red, passing through a stage of partial, if not complete yellow. As the petals curve back, the stamens of the flower follow them part-way, and in the mature flower, appear like outriggers stabilising the flower.

The flower has medicinal properties. Which also means that it is poisonous, if the dosage is exceeded or otherwise improperly administered. Seeing some of us carrying this flower with us, the locals ran up to ask us to drop the flower and to make sure we washed our hands well: it is indeed that poisonous, they insisted. Though it is the root that is the most poisonous (most medicinal), the leaves and the flower can also cause acute discomfort all along the digestive system, so why take a chance?

Because of its medicinal value, the plant is apparently becoming scarce. I don't think it is very easy to spot one in Chennai. In fact, I saw this one in the Thattekad forest in Kerala!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Missing, inaction

Rather, action has been on a few other fronts.

Have slipped out of the 'Daily' habit on this blog, but you have my word that it is only for a short while.

Regular service will resume on November 11, 2009, God willing.

Good habits should not be broken, so please do keep visiting, and keep those comments coming!