Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Cricket in Madras, from 1792

It’s good to know that the Madras Day celebrations have caught on and that this year there’s been an even greater enthusiasm from residents in Chennai. I was at the Taj Coromandel this evening to listen to a presentation on the history of cricket in the city by my friend V Ramnarayan. Madras Musings and Taj were hosting the lecture.

I was there much ahead of the scheduled time and chose to wait and watch in the lobby. Even the Taj has not been able to ward off the ubiquitous mosquito. Anyway, who should come and greet me but my former colleague Lakshmy! She had a job on her hands. The Economic Times Madras Plus, of which she is correspondent, has decided to produce a special supplement on Chennai to coincide with Madras Week. She wanted historical information about Parrys and the Marina. We were chatting for a while when I spotted the city’s storyteller S Muthiah. She had questions to ask him and he kept her entertained with stories, old and new, of Parrys and the Marina.

There was Tim Murari with a friend, and I thought I spotted Minnie Menon as well. What was heartening was that there were several new faces in the audience, which clearly meant that there were people following reports about Madras Day, people who had learnt about the programme and were interested in knowing a thing or two about Chennai’s cricketing past.

Ram, although he hasn’t played cricket for Tamil Nadu, knows enough about the game in these parts to keep you enthralled for hours. He had some vintage slides to back his presentation. There were some lovely pictures – of Gavaskar flicking to fine leg, Gundappa Vishwanath essaying a straight drive (his 97 not out against the West Indies at the Chepauk was one of the best innings ever seen), Garfield Sobers executing an off-drive… these were on top of my list.

Tamil Nadu has won the Ranji Trophy only twice in the past 50 years – in 1954-55 and 1987-88. The state has played host to many players from other Indian states. Corporate support to the game has been fairly good. Indeed, most of the better playing grounds are maintained by corporates. And the game is well administered here too. Ram spoke about the knowledgeable and sporting crowd and bemoaned the lack of crowds nowadays for local cricket matches. “Lesser level cricketers are not considered entertaining anymore,” he said.

Following were some of the things I learnt:

- The earliest cricket match in Madras was in 1792
- The Madras Cricket Club was formed in 1846 by Alexander Arbuthnot
- MCC shifted to Chepauk in 1865
- The Pennycuick Trophy League began in 1898
- The Madras Cricket Association was formed in 1930
- The first Ranji Trophy match was played in 1934, the year Jardine’s Englishmen played

Ram took the audience through the Vinoo Mankad-Pankaj Roy record first-wicket stand of 413, the visit of the West Indies team in 1959 followed by the Pakistanis led by Fazal Mehmood in 1960, the tied Test between India and Australia in 1986, the establishment of the MRF Pace Foundation 20 years ago, and the coming of Dennis Lillee.

There was, of course, more than a mention of AG Ram Singh, the best cricketer never to play for India, according to Ram, WV Raman whom he rated as the best ever TN batsman, and Krishnamachari Srikkanth. Talking about Srikkanth, Ram mentioned how once when the opener was in his elements against the Pakistani pace attack at the Chepauk in the 1980s, Imran Khan felt sheer frustration not being able to give him a piece of his mind as Srikkanth had a tendency of walking towards square leg after executing each blow.

Then there was TE Srinivasan, a colourful character as Ram called him, whose jokes kept the team in splits. Once he had caused such a commotion in the dressing room that it upset the concentration of even the original Little Master, Gavaskar, who was batting at the crease then. According to Ram, Srinivasan during his visit with the Indian cricket team to Australia had commented to the press: “Tell Dennis that TE has arrived.” Well, that remark seemed to have sealed TE’s fate thereafter.

MA Chidambaram, S Sriraman and AC Muthiah’s names were not missed out – all administrators of the game in Tamil Nadu. And N Shankar’s name too. The chairman of the Sanmar Group was seated in the front row listening to Ram.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Reminisces of another age

It was in June 1983 that I arrived in Chennai after spending more than 20 years in Calcutta. Needless to say, it was a culture shock. I did not know the language, found it tiresome waiting at bus stops for buses that never seemed to turn up, and there was just no sign of a pretty girl. Meanwhile, I kick started my career with jobs as assistant in two or three companies, the first one on Mount Road, the second in Tondiarpet and the third in Parrys.

Our home was in Jawahar Nagar, Perambur, and I still remember travelling by buses on routes 29, 8A and 42. Initially, I was scared to travel by bus, not quite sure where to sit, when to buy the ticket, and how to stand. Could I sit next to a lady if the seat was vacant, did I have to approach the conductor for my ticket, and did I have to stand facing the women or the men? These questions kept popping in my mind ever so often. Calcutta was so different – you never thought twice about sitting next to a woman in a bus; indeed, if the woman was young and pretty, you could hardly wait for the seat next to her to be vacant; then again, where was the need to buy a ticket when you travelled by public transport in the City of Joy, unless the conductor was insistent; and, of course, if you didn’t have a seat, which was more often the case, you could stand any which way you wanted; chances were that you’d be pushed from one end of the bus to the other. Even today, I do not quite relish to thought of travelling by PTC buses, although memories of Calcutta have faded into the background. But that’s another matter.

May 1985 was a turning point in my career. I had found myself an officer’s job in the insurance industry and there we were, 25 of us direct recruits, provided excellent boarding facility at the company’s training centre down Nungambakkam’s Fourth Lane. The six months we spent there still remain the best days I have spent in Madras. Evenings would be at Cakes & Bakes on Nungambakkam High Road; it was the place to be in during those days. After dinner at the training centre, off we would head to Tic Tac, the open-air restaurant where you could see the kebabs being readied while you waited for them. Outside was Khan Saheb, the friendly neighbourhood paanwallah who greeted you and offered you a Benson & Hedges or a 555 cigarette while he expertly stuffed your paan. And, of course, who can forget the huge ice-cream scoops at Tic Tac? We usually gathered on the pavement outside the counter at about 11 in the night and took our time deciding on the scoop we wanted.

There was no Ispahani Centre then. Where MOP Vaishnav College stands today was a sort of a crèche, one corner of a huge untenanted ground or so it seemed. However, it was almost as if the Fourth Lane belonged to us. We would play table tennis well past midnight. There were a couple of romantic relationships brewing in our batch and there was enough to talk about. Many an evening was spent on the training centre terrace, gossiping and looking up at the night sky. And if you watched carefully, you would hour after hour notice the glimmer of an overseas flight, a tiny speck moving across ever so slowly. Except the occasional barks of an Alsatian dog in the opposite house, nights were quiet. It was Madras of another generation, a time when the world almost lay at our feet.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

He used his power for the common good

K. Venkataswami Naidu belonged to an ancient family of Naicks. His ancestor Beri Thimmappa had built two temples, one of Vishnu and the other of Shiva, in Devaraja Mudali Street in George Town – the Chennakesavaperumal and Chennamalleswara temples. Thimmappa held a seat in the Council and a salute of five guns was fired whenever he paid a visit to the Agent or Governor of Madras on Pongal days. He was presented with six yards of superfine scarlet on that occasion.

Venkataswami’s father K.T. Bashyam Naidu was known for his piety and generosity. Mother Srimathi Andalammal, who died when Venkataswami was young, belonged to the famous Bandla family. Their uncle K. Narayanappah Naidu and aunt Srimathi Narasammal looked after Venkataswami and his brothers. The uncle and his nephews built Appah & Company, which has a history of 60-plus years.

Venkataswami had his education in the institutions connected with the Pachaiyappa’s Charities. The Students’ Club there laid the foundation for his public work. It enabled him to get rid of his shyness and take part in meetings and excursions. Venkataswami studied law and became an apprentice under T. Ethiraja Mudaliyar and P. Venkataramana Rao. The early religious training he had under his father and some Vaishnavite bhaktas made him a great enthusiast for religious study and propaganda. Years later, in 1952, when Rajaji became the Chief Minister of Madras State, he included Venkataswami Naidu in his cabinet and gave him the portfolio of Hindu Religious Endowments. As President of the Tirumalai Tirupati Devasthanam Committee he initiated a number of useful and popular schemes.

Venkataswami was a trustee of the Pachaiyappa’s Charities for two and a half decades. In 1927, he, along with S. Duraiswami Iyer and N. Krishnamachari, filed a suit in the High Court of Madras and secured admission for Harijans in the educational institutions managed by the Charities. He was responsible for the foundation of the new Pachaiyappa’s College buildings at Chetput.

Like Thimmappa, Venkataswami took a great interest in civic matters. In 1928, he became a Councillor of the Corporation of Madras and continued in that post till 1952. He was the leader of the Congress Municipal party for 15 years. Venkataswami joined the Indian National Congress in November 1936. He contested the general elections the following year and topped the polls in the Madras City Constituency. He was elected Deputy President of the Madras Legislative Council. He became Mayor of the Corporation during 1938-39. He preached against war and was sentenced to the Trichy Jail for six months imprisonment.

Venkataswami was also connected with the Corporation Boy Scouts’ Association and was responsible for bringing about the merger of several scout organisations.

A genial host, he loved entertaining people. His devoted wife Srimathi Varalakshmiammal, who also belonged to the Bandla family, served him till the end.