Sunday, January 31, 2010

The man, the brand

Tucked away in a side street off Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan Salai, this memorial to India's first movie-hero-turned-state-Chief-Minister seems to be an effort to downplay MGR's prominence. But then, it is not a state sponsored memorial, which is on the Marina; this one is maintained by the MGR Memorial Charitable Trust, and is more a storehouse of memories of the man who had a tremendous run of over 5 decades in public life, the first four more as a movie star than a politician and the last, as the state's Chief Minister. Sadly, visitors are not allowed to take pictures inside the house. The official photographer inside will take your picture at certain pre-set locations.

The first thing you see when you enter the drawing room of what used to be MGR's house is the car he used for 10 years - a greenish blue Ambassador, TMX 4777. There is an urban legend that he was sold on the number 4777, because he first became Chief Minister on July 4, 1977. Some years later, when the registration series "MGR" fell due in Maharashtra, he made sure that he bought a car there and had it registered as MGR 4777 - though he never used it much. Other interesting bits that are little known: that he had a lion as a pet - 'Raja' now stands in stuffed glory inside this memorial. He bought the lion for his production "Adimai Penn" - a sequence where he fights the lion impressed Raj Kapoor so much that he wanted tips from MGR when filming a similar sequence for Mera Naam Joker. Though I don't have pictures of either, both car and lion can be seen on the Memorial's website.

In many ways, the house is quite a nice memorial of a man whose political legacy is being claimed by many, even today. After all, it is not everyone who can claim to have won a general election from a hospital bed not just once, but twice: the first time to become an MLA after he was wounded in a fracas in 1967 and the second, all the way from Brooklyn Hospital in New York, in 1984, to be re-elected as the Chief Minister. And if that wasn't enough, a 2008 movie about a taxi carried the number of his car - that's the power of the MGR brand!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

New steps

The Marina now has a three-kilometer long uninterrupted footpath - you can walk all the way from the Triumph of Labour statue to the lighthouse without any significant break. Almost at the end of your walk, you'll see the Mahatma striding the other way!

Friday, January 29, 2010


There must certainly be a phase in every schoolboy's life when he is able to deduce a lot of information from just the registration number of a vehicle. Though I haven't come across any grown-up who continues to have that hobby - or fetish, if you will - I'm sure there would be several enthusiasts who could tell me all about TNJ 3879. The best I can do with it is to date this vehicle as being from between 1968 and 1980, and on that, I would beg for a huge margin of error on the upper bound.

Confidence about the early date stems from the fact that until 1968, the state was called "Madras" rather than "Tamil Nadu" as it is today. Vehicles in the pre-1968 years had their registration numbers starting with M, rather than with T. Ergo, this vehicle is from the post-1968 period.

Make that "this registration is from the post-1968 period"; the vehicle looks much older and somehow it is etched in my mind as a Fargo lorry. The design of those lorries from the 1950s was something like this, so it could very well be from that period - it could possibly have been re-registered much later. By that logic, the TNJ registration is also outdated - so, is this vehicle going for a re-registration, unlike its brother, who lies nearby? That would certainly explain the new paint on it!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Another rest-house

Its appearance is not as imposing as that of the choultry or the sarai which lie to the south of the Chennai Central railway station. Given its location on the eastern side of the station, on Wall Tax Road, it probably served a customer segment less fussy than the ones frequenting its southern neighbours.

It is not much younger than them, though. The choultry was in all likelihood a late 19th century construction, while the sarai came up in the 1920s. This dharmasala is probably a contemporary of the sarai. The similarity to the sarai continues in that the sponsors of this dharmasala were traders - Paramananda Doss and Chotta Doss, who set up their eponymous firm in 1888, trading in cloth from Benares.

Beyond that, there's little that I've been able to find out about the twin Doss-es. Surely their firm continues to survive somewhere in the warren of George Town!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Misidentified - twice over!

Taxonomy is difficult, even for Carl Linnaeus, the father of binomial nomenclature. When confronted with butterflies, the difficulty increases manifold. Butterflies have more complexity than many other animal orders; apart from the sexual dimorphism common to most animals, butterflies also have seasonal morphs and, in some cases, locational morphs also.

In the case of this butterfly, Linnaeus had first thought of it as an African species (remember, the taxonomists of the 18th century depended heavily on travellers' memories about where a specimen was sourced from), describing it as Papilio terpsicore in 1758. In 1775, Johan Christian Fabricius, a Danish entomologist studied a specimen that came to him from Africa and described it as Papilio serena - he was very quickly told that his P. serena was none other than the P. terpsicore described by Linnaeus. In 1793, Fabricius got hold of a specimen from India and believing it to be completely new, classified it as Papilio violae. It was later that all the tangles were sorted out; it was then determined that this butterfly, the Tawny Coster, is one of the exceptions, the other being the Yellow Coster - other members of the family have stayed on in Africa.

This one of course was in Chennai, basking in the sun at the Adayar Poonga!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Protected building

You might think that, being the headquarters building of the Tamil Nadu Police, this long, low, white building is a well-protected one. In a way, however, you would be mistaken. Had it not been for some heritage lovers, this building would have been demolished sometime around 1993. In what was probably a first for Madras, the High Court came down on the side of conservationists led by INTACH, and stayed the demolition. Subsequently, the building was renovated and in 1998, was back to being used as the headquarters of the state's police force and the office of its Director General - and the south end of the Marina continued to have the same skyline as it had had since 1839.

It was in that year the Freemasons had begun using this building, constructed at a cost of Rs.25,000/- as their Masonic Lodge. Known as the Lodge of Perfect Unanimity, the lodge used these premises for their activities until 1856, when for some reason, the Masons moved out of this building. It seems to have lain unused until 1865, when W. Robinson, the first Inspector General of the Madras Police rented the building for use as his headquarters. The Masons were probably not particularly attached to this building, for they sold it off to the government in 1874, for Rs.20,000/-. Since then, the building has been used almost continuously by the policemen (and women - how can we forget that it is less than a month since the state got its first - and the country's second - woman DGP in Letika Saran, IPS!).

Currently, more office space is being constructed as an adjunct to this building - hopefully, all this activity points to a long innings for this classic building on the Marina!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Story listener

This temple to Hanuman is one that's not terribly old. Not that it is a spring chicken, but it's age does not run into multiple centuries, or even one, for that matter. It was constructed some time between 1930 and 1950 and was probably intended to cater to the traders and workers who frequented the nearby Thaneer Thurai market. It is said that the idol of Veera Anjaneya, the presiding deity of this temple was placed in such a way that when viewed from the street, it seems to be on its way to the market. Whether that was really the intention, or is it just chance that set the idol in that direction is a matter of conjecture, rather than fact.

In its early days, it must have been quite a popular temple. It was to this temple that Rajaji brought the manuscript of his interpretation of the Ramayana after he finished it, circa 1956. Between reading the manuscript and listening to discourses on the Ramayana from the nearby Sanskrit college, this Hanuman would have had his fill of Sri Rama's story!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Traditional, version 2.0

The Mylai Sri Karpagambal Mess is back in action after having been completely knocked down and re-built. It will take a while - quite a while - for this building to get that worn-out, we're-too-busy-to-think-about-painting-this look that its predecessor had. But inside, not too much seems to have changed. As it used to be, there are packets of various kinds at the entrance, and the serving staff seem to have stepped right out from the old building into the new. Just that with a little more light, we're able to see them more clearly than we're used to.

The Karpagambal Mess has always been one of those places which you could not be indifferent about. There are people who don't mind waiting for (what must seem like) hours to get a table, who make the pilgrimage to Mylapore only to eat at one of its tables. Then there are others who cannot stand the very mention of the name. The latter group, in most of the cases, comprises individuals who went in there with sky-high expectations about the Mess' much talked about adai-avial and badam-halwa ("melts in the mouth"). They did not anticipate having to deal with slow service and less than squeaky clean tables - so every little slip has been magnified and vilified quite disproportionately. With such strong, polarised views, it is rather difficult to take a middle-of-the-road approach to eating here.

As for me, I have no complaints about the times I've been here - in its earlier avatar or now. But then, I'd not be the first in a group to suggest we have a bite here, either!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

No game on the sands

It is not clear who was inconvenienced by kids - and several adults, too - playing cricket on the sands of the Marina. Apparently many of the walkers were, as were people who had parked their vehicles right next to the sands of the beach. So it was one fine day, a couple of months ago, that the cops began to chase away anyone found with a cricket bat in his hands on the Marina Beach. Many of the regular beach-cricketers were upset and staged protests; by one count, there were about 2,000 poeple protesting against the police action.

To no avail. The ban on cricket stays, and boards like this one, in English and in Tamizh, make sure the message is understood by anyone who wants to put bat to ball on the sands!

Friday, January 22, 2010

One for the birds

Last weekend at the Pallikaranai Marsh; this was one of the quieter spots, with not too many birds around. Just a few egrets, a few pond herons, a couple of pelicans swimming in the water and two purple moorhens - or purple swamphens, if you want to call them that.

It would take a bit of looking to spot the moorhens in the picture, though!*

*They are at the edge of the water hyacinths, to the left of the pelicans....

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Worship is work

If you haven't been to the Kapaleeshwarar temple for a few years, you will be surprised to see how this establishment has grown - literally. What I remember as being a ground-and-first floor agraharam-kind of shop is now a three storeyed modern building. That's reflective of how Giri Trading Agency has itself grown, especially in the past decade or so. Considering they have been in Chennai for just about thirty-four years now, their growth has been quietly phenomenal.

The organisation is itself older, going back to the 1950s. But it began in Bombay, not in Madras, though it did have very strong Madras roots from the day it was born - or even before. Like many others of his generation, TVS Giri Iyer had moved from Madras to Bombay, looking for work. One day, he wanted to gift a friend's son a sandhya vandanam book for the boy's sacred thread ceremony. Not finding any such publication catering to the Madrasi's need for specific religious texts and puja material, Giri Iyer sensed a business opportunity. On his next visit to Madras, he bought several such books and started selling them at the Matunga railway station. It was certainly not roses all the way, but believing that he was on to a good thing, he had all his nine children help him with the business. The boys were based in Madras to source the material and transport them to Bombay, while the girls handled the sales and distribution there. In 1976, they opened a 200-square foot showroom right at the entrance to the Kapaleeshwarar temple.

That decision coincided with a rise in the demand cycle for religious items - and the nature of the items also began to diversify. Apart from the books, devotional music casettes began to rise in popularity. In the early 1980s, they began a separate division to cater to the music business. From that time on, there has been no looking back; with increasing global mobility, the demand for pre-packaged puja items and quasi-traditional merchandise like bharatanatyam costumes began to come in from around the world. Today, many of Giri Iyer's grandchildren are active in running the various businesses, through their showrooms as well as their online portal (where you can even download a religious ringtone for your mobile phone!). All those businesses add up to an annual turnover of around Rs.20 crores - all of which has grown from the Rs.300 worth of books that Giri Iyer took with him to Bombay!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An old chapel

In the early days of its occupation of Madras, the British East India Company was nervous about admitting British missionaries into their possessions. This was because they were worried about having to deal with maverick British traders entering the region pretending to be missionaries, but with the goal of breaking the Company's monopoly over the India-Britain trades. Believing they would have a free hand to punish imposters of other nationalities, they allowed French (Roman Catholic) and German (Protestant) missionaries to go about preaching to the natives.

That's how Benjamin Schultze, a German Lutheran, became the first Protestant missionary in Madras. Though he had come to Tranquebar (Tharangambady) in 1719, it was only in July 1726 that he arrived at Madras and began work in the 'Black Town' area outside Fort St George. Needing more space, he requested his employer, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) to buy up a garden house, where the Chennai Central Station stands today. That garden house was, in 1719, the subject of a petition by Antonio de Carvalho da Silva who claimed that it was bequeathed to her by her grandfather, Joao Pereira de Faria (John Pereira). The whole area around it was called John Pereira's Gardens, so there seemed to be some merit to her claim. Fort St George however, took a stand that their agent, Mr. Foxcroft, had in 1671 let the area to John Pereira to farm for 31 years and it belonged to them, even if they hadn't repossessed the place. Finally, the Council directed that John Pereira's Gardens be leased out for 11 years. Though the gardens had within them a tiled house and a sort of chapel near it, the property did not find too many takers, as it had fallen into disuse and had become a refuge for gamblers, who used the space for cock-fighting.

Probably the SPCK got it cheap at the end of that 11-year lease period. But they too did not take any interest in developing the property, most likely because it was outside the walls of the Fort and directly in the line of Hyder Ali's maurading armies. Even the building of a wall did not make the Garden any more desirable; the SPCK too seemed to have forgotten that they owned this property. It was only in 1826 that Rev. J.Ridsdale began to take an interest in this space and began work to construct a chapel - the older "...small Tyl'd house with a sort of Chappell..." having been destroyed during one of the many skirmishes of the previous century. The Trinity Chapel opened its doors to the public in 1831 - Rev. Ridsdale seems to have died soon after. Somewhere in all the furore, it is said, the chapel was never formally consecrated. No matter; for after all these years, it doesn't really need to be consecrated, does it?!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


It looks like a hole in the wall, but like many establishments on NSC Bose Road, it probably opens up a lot once you get inside. Even then, this eatery is normally chock-full during lunch hours on weekdays, for it is widely regarded as a value-for-money joint, especially by those from north India. The lunch menu is standardised and quite workmanlike - roti, rice, dal and vegetables - so one does not have to waste time choosing from a menu. The portions are unlimited, which is just what the bachelors need - a midday meal that fills them up well into the next day.

Somehow, nobody seems to have told them that there is no Bombay any more; there is a bunch of people who do not like that word being used these days. Surely they wouldn't say a word against this 'eating room'!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Different, with similarities

It is said of us that we don't value history when it is all around us; like the villagers near the site of Harappa who did not realize the historic significance of the bricks from their village which were used as ballast by British railway engineers, many of us remain unaware of the history around us, just because it has always been around us. Add to it a tradition of transmitting information verbally rather than through any records and it becomes difficult to separate fact from legend.

The Madhava Perumal temple in Mylapore is steeped in legend. Depending on who you listen to, the temple goes back to the days of Vyasa - the 8th century BCE - or around 800 years, according to records available with the temple authorities. The four-pillared mandapam in front of the temple, which is a feature of Pallava temple construction, supports the latter estimate. For its age, the temple is quite well maintained, though not as crowded as one would expect given its antiquity and imbued holiness. In that aspect, it falls behind the Kapaleeshwarar temple, which is also of roughly similar stature.

Though the deities at the two temples are starkly different (Siva as Kapaleeswarar and Vishnu as Madhava Perumal), both of them have the same tree - the punnai (Calophyllum inophyllum) as the sthala vriksham (sacred tree)!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A newer vintage

It does look really old, but my guess is that it hasn't yet crossed the century mark. From what I understand, mixed-use buildings - with shops at the ground level and living quarters above - in Madras of the late 19th century and the early 20th century were fashioned slightly differently. Not from a functional point of view, much of that did not change until probably the early 1980s. If the straight line of the tiles in front is broken by a gable-like structure, that (to me, in my limited understanding) is indicative of a turn-of-the-20th-century house. Sometimes, those houses would have more than one such gable, but even a single gable is a give-away.

A house like this one is probably at least a generation later. The later part of the 1920s was when it became fashionable to have images of gods and godesses built into the facade (Gandhi Peak being a great example). This building does not have the soaring vision of the Gandhi Peak, but it does find space for the Lord Krishna flanked by Lakshmi and Saraswati. The cherub is probably to emphasize that it is not a religious building, but a fashionable one, rather.

Guess it has to wait a bit for that century, still!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Expensive pause

The first automated parking meters in Chennai came up sometime in October last year. Four of them were installed in Mylapore's North Mada Street, where parking has traditionally been quite haphazard. They haven't done away with the parking attendent completely, however. The idea with these meters is to pay the money for the duration you intend parking and leave that ticket on your vehicle's dashboard. The parking attendent's job is to make sure that all parked vehicles show off a valid ticket on their dashboards.

Theoretically, it is meant to tighten up cash collections and reduce the risk of parking attendants losing - or being robbed of - the fee they collect through the day. The Corporation hasn't yet released any results of how things have changed in the three months this system has been in operation at Mylapore, T.Nagar and Taramani, but I'm guessing they will not be in a hurry to rip these out and go back to the attendant-only system, which was being run by the Tamil Nadu Ex-servicemen Corporation (TEXCO). The firm supplying these parking meters is getting ready to install them at a dozen more locations.

One aspect that has gone almost unnoticed is that the parking fee has, from one perspective, gone up six-fold: earlier, TEXCO's authorised rate was Rs.5 for a maximum of six hours. It has now become Rs.5 for every hour - and you can park in one slot for only 3 hours at a stretch!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Eclipse in a box

Not wanting to be bothered with 'special sunglasses' to view the eclipse today, we just used a shoebox as a pinhole camera to watch the shadow of the moon cross the sun's face. And it did give us a rather good view of the eclipse's progress, though we had to keep moving the shoebox constantly to make sure it caught the sun's rays.

The astronomers of the Madras Presidency, during the 19th century, were considerably better equipped. They had state-of-the-art equipment at their command, for the British knew that accurate astronomical observations would directly help in better navigation - and also for better understanding the geography of the subcontinent which was now under their control. As part of these observations, the astronomers would also study the solar eclipses. It was only the later half of the 1800s that these observations laid the foundation for solar physics, a hitherto unknown branch of science.

More specifically, it was the total eclipse of Augst 18, 1868 which set off the spark for the new science. In a display of scientific cooperation, the team from the Madras Observatory was joined by an addtional team of British astronomers, as well as a team of their French counterparts, to study that eclipse. Observing the event from different locations in and around Madras, the teams found their spectrometers displaying a bright yellow line, which could not be explained away as sodium. It was based on these observations that Pierre Janssen and Norman Lockyer deduced the existence of Helium, leading to both of them being jointly credited as having discovered that element - though it is almost forgotten that it was the Madras Observatory which set it up for them*.

Our observations from the shoebox did give us a lot of fun; no new elements were discovered in the process, however!

* Though Janssen made his readings at Guntur and Lockyer at Vijaydurg, all the arrangements for observing this eclipse - and subsequent ones - were made by the Madras Observatory, which was the leading, if not the only, astronomical observatory in India at that time.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Tall grass and stems

Over the past week, teeth have been strengthened thanks to a daily routine of tearing into the stalks of the tall grasses belonging to the genus Saccharum. No, it is not some new-fangled vegetarianism ritual, but just that it is Pongal time and sugarcanes have been coming in to the city markets.

The street side shops today had another non-regular item, besides the sugarcane stalks. You can make them out in the photo, just beyond the sugarcane display. Those are the turmeric rhizomes, still attached to the plant. Today, both the plant and its rhizome are put to use. Tradition has it that the mud-pot which is to be used for boiling the milk-rice mixture must be smeared with turmeric paste; sometimes a plant is tied to the pot after the cooking is done. The leaves of the turmeric plant are used to place some of the offerings.

Sugarcane sales this year have been dull in Chennai: some reports say that the city's demand has dropped by as much as 30% over last year. Maybe the ongoing uproar over sugar prices has something to do with that!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Of pins and irons

Somewhere between the full-fledged, automated dry-cleaners and the mobile iron-man on your street lies the group of laundry/iron-ers (?) called 'pinmen'. Here's one of them on R.K.Mutt Road.

I haven't been able to figure out why they should be called so, but 'pinmen' seems to be a common term in these parts. Any ideas?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Solid housing

In front of Singaravelar Maligai, the office of the Chennai Collectorate, is this incongruous structure. The arrowhead-tipped bars blocking its entryways reinforce the first impression of this being a cage of some kind, though what it could have held within it escapes the first level of deduction.

It is in fact a specially constructed cupola, designed to house the 14.5-foot high statue of Lord Conwallis. It was built in 1925, in front of Bentinck's Building, which was the then home of the Madras Collectorate. The statue, in its cupola, had pride of place right in front of the building. But it was a very short stay there for the statue; exposure to the salty sea-air was corroding it and so it had to be taken away to the Connemara Library. The cupola continued to remain there, even as Bentinck's Building was left to rot and later demolished to make way for the 'modern' office of the Collectorate.

It is anybody's guess how long it will be allowed to stand - maybe it will take that strangler fig growing on it to bring it down!

Monday, January 11, 2010

From Headquarters to Main Branch

It is said of this building that it bears some similarity of forms with the Mughal buildings of Fatehpur Sikri. That should not be a surprise because the architects of the Indo-Saracenic era borrowed heavily - and in quite a motley fashion - from various building forms across India. In the case of this building, it should be even less surprising because its initial plans were drawn up by Col. Samuel Jacob, who was at that time the Chief Engineer of the then state of Jaipur.

It was built in 1896 as the headquarters of the Bank of Madras, which was one of the three Presidency Banks (the others being those of Bengal and Bombay) at that time. Befitting the stature of the bank, this building cost Rs.300,000, with the contract being executed by Namberumal Chetty. Col. Samuel Jacob's initial designs were modified by Henry Irwin, buthe north Indian influences were allowed to remain. Much of the woodwork and the stained glass in its windows date from the early 1900s. When the State Bank of India was formed in 1955, this building was designated the SBI's Madras Presidency headquarters. Since then, it had become the 'Local Head Office' and today, is just the 'Chennai Main Branch', a title that it continues to hold more out of courtesy!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Stage presence

The Tamizh month of Margazhi (Dec 16 - Jan 14, roughly) sees a buzz of activity in all the concert / performance halls across Chennai. The true impact of the 'music season' in Chennai is quite immeasureable: older Chennaiites around the world plan their holidays to coincide with as much of the 'season' as they can pack in; newspapers have daily supplements devoted to the concerts and the performers.

Every year, despite all my intentions of attending 'quite a few' performances, I end up going to none. But not this year. A friend was singing at the Sivakami Pethachi Auditorium and I made sure I was there. I understand he was on stage after a very long hiatus, but his singing did not reveal that - well done, Raj!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Unichrome reptile

It shouldn't take very long to spot the reptile in this photo. The little bit of time taken is also only because the chameleon has taken on the colour which predominates in its surroundings. But when you have six such creatures on a tree remaining almost motionless, it does take you quite a while to find them all.

The Indian Chameleon (Chameleo zeylanicus) is quite common in south India and Sri Lanka. There are very few species of the chameleon which can change a wide enough variety of colours as to blend with the background; this one restricts its spectrum mainly to green and brown. In the scrub jungle habitats around Chennai, those colours are good enough for it to remain unnoticed by a huge majority.

The power of the colouration can be seen in this exhibit at the Snake Park, Guindy. When the leaves dry up, the chameleons adopt their green-brown band and merge with the leaves, so that even then, it remains a challenge to spot all six of them in this enclosure. In fact, I was sure that there were only five until someone pointed out all six to me!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Restored glory

This magnificent building on the Marina has been a familiar sight for so long that one forgot what it was originally meant for. It was in 1864 that a competition was announced for designing two buildings connected with higher education in the city. The first was for the Madras Presidency College, which had been functioning since 1840 and the other was for a building to house the administrative offices and a large examination hall. It was a grand vision, for the University Board, which had been established in 1840 had, in the first quarter-century of its existence, done little to justify such dreams. A preparatory school was set up in 1840, a high school in 1841, an elementary school a while later and in 1853, a collegiate department was created - which in 1855 was renamed the Presidency College. The University of Madras itself was incorporated only on September 5, 1857. Here they were, less than a decade later, asking for huge buildings to be raised.

The competition attracted entrants from all over India and possibly from England, too. The prize-winning designs were submitted by Robert Fellowes Chisholm, who was then barely 25 years old, with less than a year's practice as an architect in Calcutta. Winning the prize brought Chisholm to Madras - which then became his base. The Presidency College buildings were constructed first and it was only in 1874 that the work on the building to house offices / examination hall was begun. The hall was large enough to seat 1600 students for their examinations. Under the hall was an equally large cellar, intended to be used as the storage vaults. In keeping with the grandness of the vision, the materials for construction were also the best; the bricks were from Commonwealth Brickworks, Kerala and marble for the floor from Italy. The intricate detailing on the domes and the supporting columns survive to this day.

That survival was made possible by a sustained project to restore this grand building in time for the sesquicentenary of the University of Madras in 2007. The budget of Rs.6 crore for the renovation was met in part by a long list of individual contributors who pitched in with amounts ranging from Rs.11 (!!) and Rs.25 to Rs.25 lakhs. Thanks to all of them, the domes of the Senate House continue to reflect the glory of the University's history!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Another with a name

As far as I have been able to figure out, there are only two flyovers in the city which have been named for someone. No prizes for guessing the first one - it was the first flyover in the city. Most people however continue to refer to it by the name of the locality where it is at - Gemini. That practice continued with the new flyovers which came up, whether it was on Peters Road, or at IIT. I am not sure if the officials thought of any other names for those flyovers, but none have been christened, officially. For some reason, this flyover, which opened about a year ago, was treated differently. It was named. There is only one reason why they named it what they did.

Over 40 years ago, in January 1969, a statue of 'Kalaivanar' N.S.Krishnan was unveiled at this junction and ruled over it from a traffic island at the centre. It was the last public function attended by Aringar Anna, the then Chief Minister - and a mentor, at least in their minds, to several present-day politicians in the state. Kalaivanar himself is also a much revered personage; such a combination bestowed the statue with a great deal of emotional value. The construction of the flyover meant the statue had to be removed. It was brought back though it is now to a side of G.N.Chetty Road, under the flyover. If that wasn't enough to soothe the statue's sentiments, the flyover was also named after N.S.Krishnan - it is called 'Kalaivanar Mempaalam' (Kalaivanar bridge/flyover) - thus becoming the second named flyover in the city.

There are rumours of the flyover on Cenotaph Road being named after Moopanar, but there has not been any announcement of that yet. If you still haven't figured out the name of the first one, it is simple enough. The one at Gemini is called 'Anna Mempaalam'. Well, you can try to argue that it is just an extension of Anna Salai on which it is located, but that wouldn't get you too far!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Schooling generations

Big Street in Triplicane is not broad enough for one to step back and get a complete picture of this three-storeyed redbrick building. The few trees growing in such a way as to cover the facade add to the difficulty of getting a good picture, so this one will have to do. That's okay, for in the case of this building, pictures cannot tell the story, because the story goes back to the middle of the 19th century. Where in the middle is not known exactly; the roots could well have been a little-occupied pundit trying to get the neighbourhood boys to learn the basics of reading and writing, or even just teaching them to chant shlokas. Make that two pundits: one teaching in Tamizh and the other in Telugu. Maybe that's how we find ourselves, in the early 1850s, hearing about two schools in Triplicane - the Dravida Patasala and the Hindu Andhra Dravida Balura Patasala. Both of them merged in 1860 and the new school was named the Triplicane Andhra Dravida Balura Patasala, where both Tamizh and Telugu competed with each other for pride of place.

Initially patronised by families who were loath to send their children to the Englishman's schools, the Patasala found itself in dire straits towards the end of the 1860s. It is said that in 1869, enrolment was down to 48 students and the school was in debt for 80 rupees. It was then that the governing body brought in M.A. Singarachariar, who was the Head Cashier of the Bank of Madras, to take over as the Secretary-Treasurer of the School. Singarachariar carried out that assignment in style and in the process, established the primacy of English as the language of the school. In keeping with that changed focus, the school was renamed as The Triplicane Anglo-Vernacular High School in 1873. And by the 1890s, school funds were ample enough for the leading contractor of the era, Namberumal Chetty to be engaged for constructing this building, which was inaugurated in 1897. In 1898, the school changed its name to The Hindu High School.

A minor change was made in the name in 1978 and the school has since been called The Hindu Higher Secondary School. The roster of its alumni is impressive - media moguls, police officers, high court judges, governors, civil servants, movie stars, cricketers. One of the more famous alumni reportedly brought his wife to the school sometime in the 1980s to show her the marks register of 1924-25. She hadn't believed him when he claimed to have scored a centum in maths in his school finals, so he had to prove it to her. That alumnus was Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983 - the school reportedly maintains the marks register of his time even today!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Brand value

Even without the 'de', this lodging place would have attraced the crowd it normally does. But just to make sure that any French tourist coming by feels completely at home, the name has been expanded as "Hotel de Kerala".

If you look closely, you'll also see the "Kerala Hairdresser" in the picture. Granted that the neighbouring state is one of the top must-visit tourist destinations, that still doesn't explain why the brand is flogged so much!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Three-card trick

Through most of the '70s, even well into the '80s, it was not uncommon to find cows and buffalos being led from street to street by the local milkman. Milk was fresh, straight from the udders and you could feel the warmth spread through the vessel as the milkman poured out your requirement. It was a leap, not merely of faith, but of several degrees of temperature, when Aavin began regular supply of milk through the city sometime in the '70s. Chilled bottles with candy-stripe tinfoil caps would be delivered at a milk booth, twice a day; folks from the neighbouring streets would have to come to the booth and pick-up their quota. Once you made a decision on how much milk you needed every day and how you wanted it split between the morning and the afternoon deliveries, you had to live with that decision for the rest of your life - or that is how it seemed to be.

Milk bottles gave way to half- and one-litre sachets; more choices came by. Toned, double-toned and low-fat varieties were added. More automatic vending machines sprung up. The gathering of housewives and servants at the milk booth of an afternoon gave way to aggregators picking up volumes on behalf of their customers; the new age milkmen, supplying sachets at your door, for a fee. With the state loosening its monopoly on milk in the late '90s, private dairies increased the choices available. Through it all, Aavin's milk-card remained a prize; with a discount of close to 15% being given to a card-holder, it made sense to buy a card. In the past, being allowed to buy one was the result of reams of documents and several 'inspections' and 'verifications'. You had to trade off the guarantee of supply (which the milkman was naturally very bad at) against the flexibility of your need (which Aavin seemed to consider an act of treason). And then the deal was "no card, no milk". But with Aavin simplifying the procedures significantly, the 15% discount looks very inviting. Even after the milkman's fee, you have something left over.

The dates for buying / renewing milk cards vary from locality to locality. Yesterday was our turn; our milkman came up and told us that there were new cards available at our booth, all we had to do was go there with proof of residence and we'd get our cards. And so, here I am, three years after having moved into my current flat, with the first set of my milk-cards!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

You understand, don't you?

My friend Ram, over at the other Chennai Daily Photo blog would be pleased with this one. It may not win the grammar prize in its class, but it gets the message across very effectively!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A word a day

When India became a republic in 1950, the Constitution of India did not mention anything about a national language. It was an issue that had many of the members of the Constituent Assembly take strong positions; ultimately the Munshi-Ayyangar formula paved the way for Hindi to be declared as the 'Official Language' with English as an associate Official Language for a period of fifteen years. The idea was to use that period to help all non-Hindi speakers learn the language and acquire some degree of expertise with it. The first Official Languages Commission's report recommended a step-by-step to eventually replace English and establish Hindi as the only Official Language, if not as the 'National Language'. However, violent reactions against the report led to Jawaharlal Nehru declaring that English could continue as the associate, additional Official Language for as long as the non-Hindi speaking people wanted it.

In 1963, the Official Languages Act was passed. Under that act, and its subsequent amendments, India continues to have both Hindi and English as the Official Languages of the Union - and any of the 21 other languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution can also be used to transact the business of the Union. In offices of the central government and almost all central public-sector units, it is Hindi which is being taught in various ways to those who are non-native speakers of the language. One such measure is the 'Word-a-Day'; it has been around for nearly 20 years now. The day's Hindi word is displayed at several places within the office and is expected to be used in conversation during the day.

And what's the word I chanced to see a few weeks ago? One that has been the casualty in disagreements about the national / official language!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Times change

Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.

So much has changed in the last decade and most of it has been for the better, I'm sure. As we move into the next decade, here's wishing that, ten years hence, we can conclusively say that the world has become more peaceful, healthier and just that tad cooler than what it is today.

A big change in the city of Chennai, just to the right of the clock tower (though not seen) in the picture is the almost-ready Express Avenue, a large mall which is set to open soon. Express Estates, which could justifiably claim to be the nursery of every sporting club in the city will only be a faint memory. But times change and we change with them. Including clock towers; this one at Royapettah sports different colours from what it had a couple of years ago!