Friday, February 29, 2008

Helping needy children, his focus

Earlier this week, I met yet another social worker, N. Subramanian, well past 60. His abode in Virugambakkam, where he has been residing for more than 30 years, is humble. There is hardly anything there to hold your attention. Except, Mr Subramanian himself. After retirement, he has spent more than Rs 50,000 in helping needy students with books and stationery; a portion of his monthly pension is set aside for such philanthropy. Thanks to him a few schools have received benches, and students Thirukkural books, atlases, dictionaries, grammar textbooks, pencils and erasers, and plastic toys. The schools include a village school in Kuruvimalai, Tirunelveli, which was established by Subramanian’s maternal grandfather A. Swaminatha Iyer, and where Subramanian studied till standard 5; Chinmaya Vidyalaya, Chinmaya Nagar; Avichi HS School, Virugambakkam; and the Corporation Middle School, Arumbakkam. Subramanian donated 200 engineering books to Dr M.G.R. Engineering College, Maduravoil, and established an endowment prize of Rs. 12,000 for toppers in mathematics.

The only son of D. Nagaraja Iyer, a schoolteacher, pursued studies (up to standard 10) at the Board High School, Polur. In 1963, Subramanian started work as a ‘field man’ at the Block Development Office in Kilpennathur, near Tiruvannamalai. The innings lasted only six months for he passed the Railway Service Commission examination and in January 1964 he joined Southern Railways as clerk in the signal and telecommunications department. He would serve the Railways for 37 years and more, retiring in May 2001 as a Grade 1 office superintendent. He was an “outstanding” employee and his contribution included a hand-written guide for those appearing for chief clerk exam. In a citation, the Railways described him as “…a self-made man who has climbed up the official ladder with nothing other than absolute sincerity, merit and hard work… a self-motivated, conscientious and forward-looking person.” Do we have people like him nowadays, I sometimes wonder!

When Subramanian arrived in Virugambakkam in 1977, civic amenities were woeful. He took the lead in getting the Corporation to lay roads and provide electricity. He remembers helping to move huge pipes to the Virugambakkam canal to allow free flow of rainwater. He patrolled the streets at night and fenced a public space in Kumaran Nagar, against encroachers. He and a few residents were instrumental in constructing the Karpaga Vinayagar Koil. During the tsunami of 2004, he organised relief material to Nagapattinam.

Another local hero.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A writer from Iceland



I met him at the YWCA guesthouse on Poonamallee High Road. Armann Reynisson, who calls himself entrepreneur-writer, can be credited with pioneering a new genre of writing in Iceland. Seven volumes of what he styles as vignettes or ‘contemporary sagas’ have been published in Iceland the past seven years. Each book comprises 43 vignettes in original Icelandic and translations into English (by Prof. Martin S. Regal, University of Iceland).

Reynisson’s vignettes are simple, short tales that resemble photographic portraits or character sketches. The stories reflect timeless Icelandic folklore traditions as well as today’s global interests. They are wonderfully evocative of a time or place. Most pieces focus on moments of real life or a set of emotions and capture the common threads that bind people together. Some are humourous, others sad, many of them lyrical. The vignettes touch the reader, intrigue and amuse; they are sensitive, candid and bold.

Reynisson, whose life in some ways is almost like a fairytale, was born in Reykjavik in 1951 and studied at the London School of Economics. Regarded as unorthodox and controversial by Icelanders, he once ran a number of companies and followed business practices that were common in other parts of the developed world but not in Iceland, which in the early 1980s was decades behind other European nations. Things came to such a pass that Reynisson’s life lay in ruins and he was all but deprived of his human rights. He was dragged from one court hearing to another for five years and finally sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Much later, those who hauled him over the coals realised that Reynisson had indeed been conducting his business affairs in a manner that was in line with ethical financial practices followed all over the world; such practices are considered lawful in Iceland today.

Reynisson was always a staunch supporter of art and culture and financially helped young and aspiring musicians. Those five years of horror brought about significant changes in his life and led to his changing many of his views and opinions. Instead of throwing in the towel when things looked bleak, he meditated, exercised and explored nature. He found new insights into people and existence and felt a deeper reality that people do not often see. In August 2000, the urge to express himself in writing finally led him to sit down and write the first vignette, about Iceland birds. One vignette led to another, one story a week. When he completed the 43rd vignette, he found he couldn’t go on. Ever since, he chose to end each book with 43 vignettes.

Each of Reynisson’s books has sold about 3,000 copies in Iceland, a number equal to about one per cent of the country’s population. There has been a lot of response to his books from Germany, perhaps due to the traditional cultural links between both countries. Many readers are keen to know what Reynisson has to say each year. His books are available at the Esperanto Society in Iceland, Scandinavian House, New York, the London School of Economics, and the National Museums in Paris and Kolkata.

“I am the first to write vignettes in Iceland’s 1000-year history (the Vikings moved in then) of literature. I write from my heart, concentrate on my feelings, not on style. People either accept it or not; they say I am very different from other authors. I write about everything in life, a few from my life experiences. My grandparents and parents used to tell me stories. Storytelling is a tradition in Iceland and that is one thing we have in common – Icelanders and Indians. I find some of our stories so similar to your Jataka tales. You don’t find much of it in Europe or the United States,” says Reynisson who is now on a tour of Indian cities, towns and villages to gain a first-hand experience. All he knew about India before setting foot here was that it was the land of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. He had no idea of the number of states or the number of languages people spoke.

“It’s almost a miracle how you can run this country (as one). Each state is like a different country. I have enjoyed your hospitality. People here are warmer than those in Europe. Although Icelanders look at the world critically, I have come here to see India in a positive light, am collecting the positive aspects, seeing how life can be beautiful in spite of difficulties,” he says.

Reynisson plans to visit different countries, to break walls wherever they exist, and to promote links between the West and the East. None other than Mahesh K. Sachdev, Indian Ambassador to Norway and Iceland, fueled his interest in India. Manjit Travels, London, organised his visit and advised him to go through the home-stay route. Indeed, Reynisson’s experience has been remarkably different from that of 25 years ago in West Asia and Egypt when he stayed in 5-star hotels and was cut away from reality. His Indian impressions, he says, will form part of his ninth book likely to be published in 2009.

(Armann poses at the Indian National Museum in Kolkata, and with officials at the Museum. After Kolkata, he left for Delhi and Agra, and Varanasi.)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Seniors who inspire... and how!

Talking about people who inspire others, I know of quite a few. None probably more inspiring than S. Muthiah, senior journalist, author, teacher and, of course, ‘Madras historian’. He is well past 75. Editor of Madras Musings, his baby, he runs a weekly column in The Hindu Metro Plus called Madras Miscellany, highly regarded for the quality of its inputs. He is now the honorary dean of the SRM School of Journalism & Mass Communication. He is on two books projects now, apart from being in the final stages of completing the three-volume Madras Gazetteer. He directs the activities of the Madras Book Club, finds time to attend Public Relations Society of India meetings, British Council meetings…. Well, I could go on and on. Mr Muthiah is, of course, well known in the community, highly respected.

I have met several unknown or not so well known heroes, especially while writing a weekly column for a neighbourhood paper. One such was C. Ramamoorthy, well past 80, who has been president of the Saligramam North Residents Welfare Association the past 22 years. Formed in 1978, the Association has a hundred members covering ten streets. Under Ramamoorthy’s leadership, civic amenities in the area have improved over the years. Sewerage pipelines were laid in 1993. The Corporation installed streetlights in 1999. Roads were re-laid in 2001. Thanks to his leadership, regular meetings between residents and police from the Virugambakkam Police Station are held. Ramamoorthy says that Rs. 10 lakh was sanctioned for a park near the Sankara Narayana Temple on Navalar Street but work is yet to commence. He hopes that the park will be ready by March-April.

Born in Lalgudi, near Tiruchy, Ramamoorthy, second of five children, studied at the Ramakrishna Mission High School, T. Nagar. His father, L.R. Chandrasekhar, was headmaster of the Sir Thyagaraya Chetty High School, Washermanpet. After S.S.L.C., Ramamoorthy joined Pachayappa’s College to pursue a B.Sc degree with chemistry as the main subject. He remembers receiving prizes from the principal Dr. B.V. Narayanaswamy Naidu for standing first in the intermediate exam. A year after graduating in 1945, he passed the Public Service Commission exam and joined the Board of Revenue attached to the Madras Presidency as clerk. For a year (1949), he was sent to Bazwada as revenue inspector. He returned as upper division clerk in the Commercial Taxes Department and was promoted as assistant commercial tax officer in 1958. When the department was made independent, he was posted to Tiruchy where he became commercial tax officer in 1979. On October 31, 1984, he retired, the day former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. He moved to his home in Saligramam and took to social work.

“You should have a sense of commitment. In this age of globalisation and privatisation, we lack ‘humanisation’; human values have been eroded by violence and terrorism,” he bemoans. How true!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

When love lasts a lifetime

I was interviewing Dawson Xavier for my column in a local paper and I was quite touched by the love he had for his deceased wife. Dawson married Rajeshwari in July 1963. She left him early, dying of a heart attack, when 34, in 1979 – a tragedy he remembers vividly. There are several pictures of her – sttikingly beautiful in her youth – in his home, in his album, and it is obvious he misses her very badly. He says he sees her alive in their five children – Edwin, Geetha, Viji, Rachael and Henrietta – and in his seven grandchildren.

Dawson, as choirmaster, has been conducting the choir during the English evening mass at the Infant Jesus Church in Chinmaya Nagar the past seven years. It is a job he has been doing at various churches in Madras the past 50 years – he has played at the Sacred Heart Church, Egmore; St. Antony’s Church, Pudupet; and for 19 years at St. Theresa’s, Nungambakkam. Self-taught, he was also Western music teacher at Good Shepherd Convent for five years (1991-95) and at the AVM School for seven years (2000-07). In the early 1950s, he was chosen to conduct the opening choir at the Lady of Fathima Church in Kodambakkam..

Once, years ago, he went to see Handel Manuel at the St. Andrew’s Church. Manuel put him through an audition. Dawson hummed and sang a piece, and Handel took him in as active member of the Madras Music Association. Dawson would serve the Association for 30 years, even conducting its choir, till it wound up.

Born in Madras, Dawson the sixth of eleven children, grew up in Narasinghapuram, behind offices of The Hindu and The Mail. His father, Arokiaswamy Pillai, was sales manager at Misquith & Co., an agency business next to India Silk House that sold violins, guitars, organs and pianos, all imported. Dawson studied at St. Gabriel’s High School. In 1950, he graduated in commerce from Loyola College. A year later, he joined the Armenian office of Binny & Co. as clerk. He worked in Binny’s for 39 years and seven months, as roving sales manager at the company’s showrooms in Mount Road, Rattan Bazaar and Walajah Road, eventually retiring as chief cashier at Binny’s head office.

Sometimes, I meet people like Dawson, of the old stock, and I feel blessed.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

She teaches Hindustani music in Chennai

Getting somebody to teach you Carnatic music in Chennai is not difficult. But Hindustani music? Well! I recently bumped into Tanushree Saha, a middle-class Bengali housewife who not only teaches Hindustani classical music, but also has a wide repertoire – Rabindra Sangeet, Nazrul Geeti and Bengali folk music such as Baul gaan, Bhatiali, Jhukur and Sari gaan. In 2004, Tanushree started her Hindustani classical music classes at her home. As luck would have it, a couple of singers from the Tamil film industry approached her for training; both benefited immensely, one has now turned music director. Their word-of-mouth publicity led to others following. Today, Tanushree, mother of two small children, caters to 25 students, some of whom come from Perambur, Mylapore and Vandalur!

The oldest of three sisters was born in Calcutta and grew up in Beliaghata. Her father K.D. Roy works for Archies Limited. Tanushree studied at the Brahmo Balika Shikshalaya in Rajabazaar up to Class 10. An average student, she was drawn to music and fine arts early and began learning to sing when she was four. Her mother Tripti who sang Rabindra Sangeet and Nazrul Geeti at home influenced her. Tanushree learnt Hindustani classical music from Sati Chowdhury and Shipra Sengupta. Chowdhury had sung alongside Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam and D.L. Roy.

Tanushree’s interest in music led her to pursue her bachelor and master’s degrees at the Rabindra Bharati University and at Viswabharati, Santiniketan. She now wants to do a PhD. in Bengali music. I found Prabir Kumar, Tanushree’s husband, very supportive of her.

For those in Madras, Tanushree’s classes are held during 9-11 am and 4-6.30 pm six days a week. She resides in K.K. Nagar’s 4th Sector (Ph: 98844 74691).

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A true hero

There’s so much of talent in India, sometimes it’s quite unbelievable. I have become addicted to some of these song shows on television ever since I started viewing Flame X Chal Udiye on Set Max several months ago. Some of the participants, especially the younger ones, seem to display a precocious talent for music. Not only that, most of them perform beyond their age and, enthused by audience response, judges’ comments, and the votes that flow in, become masters at entertainment.

All of them vie to get into the last-four stage or enter the finals, but, of course, somebody has to leave to make way for somebody else. Often, the voting pattern does not reflect the quality of the singer or the performance… but then, people have a way of deciding. What sometimes turns out to be ugly though is that votes for programmes such as Indian Idol are cast based on the participant’s background – which Indian state he belongs to, the language speaks etc. For example, in one programme (was it Amul Star Voice of India), we had people from Punjab voting for one participant in the final, while people in Madhya Pradesh voted for the other. In any case, the participants turn out winners, each having a fan following.

What these programmes have done is not only to showcase raw Indian talent, but also provide youngsters an opportunity to make it big in the music and film industry. Some have managed to produce albums, others have been promised careers by leading music directors. What more can you ask for?

Although I am addicted to old Hindu songs (the reason I watch K for Kishore unfailingly), I have now developed more than a passing interest in Idea Star Singer that is hosted by the Asianet channel every night. Two days ago, I was moved to see one participant, Sannidhanam (named after the area near the sanctum sanctorum in Sabarimala), receive a standing ovation as he left the contest for good. Apparently, he was the most popular of them all, and had sung his way to the last few stages. Although he had a large fan flowing – the votes kept him afloat many a time – the judges’ marks counted in the end, and he had to leave.

My mother and others tell me that Sannidanam hails from a poor family and all his songs are sung in praise of Lord Ayyappa. Sannidhanam cried as he left, and the judges and everybody watching the show swallowed hard. Many had tears in their eyes. Of course, he received attractive gifts for his efforts; an NRI in West Asia even sent him a Rs 2 lakh cheque. But that was not what Sannidhanam exemplified. I think he symbolised what hard work and passion can do – not just lift up your spirits but also take you several notches above in life. A child of poor parents turned hero that night. I don’t think a participant in any such programme on television has ever received a standing ovation. Here’s to you, Sannidhanam, for an inspiring performance all through! We hope that you will always do well in life.