Monday, March 31, 2008

A priest in a temple

How often have you seen a priest in a temple and wondered the kind of life he would be leading? Well, I had a chat with P. Kumar Gurukkal who has been a priest at the Amman Koil in K.K. Nagar the past twelve years. He joined the temple, which has Muthu Mariammam as the main deity, in June 1996 after hearing of a vacancy at the temple from another priest, Swaminatha Gurukkal. Kumar Gurukkal has been the Sivan Koil archakar here all along and he is busy during festivals such as the Sankatachaturthi (conducted twice a month), Pournami Pooja (once a month), the Meeenakshisundareswar Thirukalyanam (usually conducted in Chitra masam, Uttara nakshataram), and the Aadi Thiruvizha conducted in a grand manner for three days in August, culminating with the Swami Porapadu.

Born in Poondi Village in Thanjavur District, to Parvathi and Parameswaran, a head clerk in Puthur Village near Ammapet, Kumar is the fourth of five children. Quite a few in his family have been officiating as priests in temples. Brother Kannan, for example, is a gurukkal at the Vinayaka Koil in Jaffarkhanpet, near Indira Theatre. Grandfather A. Peryaswamy was a priest at the Poondi Koil, Sivalayam; Parameswaran’s elder brother Venkatraman was a gurukkal as well. Kumar studied at the Ammapet Village School up to the higher secondary level, passing out in 1988-89. It was Sundaresa Sivachariar, Parameswaran’s uncle, who taught him the granth lipi, slokas and agamas – it was a daily routine every evening.

In 1990, Kumar arrived in Madras seeking employment. His first innings in a temple was as helper to the chief priest at the Vinayakar Koil (now better known as the Meenakshisundareswara Aalayam) in Periyar Nagar. Eighteen months later, he moved to the Vinayakar Koil in Thiruvanmiyur, as chief priest. With the temple revenues not enough to sustain his livelihood, Kumar Gurukkal was forced to look elsewhere. “I was a bachelor then but I wanted my future to be secure,” he says. He later moved to the Kaveri Vinayakar Koil in Saligramam, one of four priests, and worked there for four years. Kumar Gurukkal considers Sridhar Sivachariar, a Sanskrit pandit, his gurunatha. “He is the person who taught me so many things and showed me the way every time. Even how to conduct a kumbabhishekha,” he says.

Kumar Gurukkal married Jayageetha in September 1998. They have two daughters – Priyadarshini and Divyadarshini, school students both.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

This is public relations!

Now, have you heard of a trade union leader who is also part of management? I met a gentleman last week who was! G. Velayuthan is perhaps the only example of a trade union leader in India having worked simultaneously on the sides of union and management. In December 1972, 30 months after joining Kothari Industrial Corporation as stenographer, Velayuthan was elected joint secretary of the Kothari Group Employees Union. He went on to become general secretary and remained so till 2002. In 1994, he took over as chief executive of the company and later turned whole-time director. In his 36 years with Kothari’s, Velayuthan was also PRO and head-publicity & PR; he was the company’s public face.

How did he manage it all? “Maintaining the balance was easy. I could meet the chairman when I wanted. I never demanded anything, only asked for a share of profits for workers. Once, when the company was not doing well, I asked management to reduce workers’ salaries 25 per cent. After we tided over the crisis, each worker received a raise of Rs 1,000. My objective all along was to show that union is not management’s enemy; union is creator, not destroyer,” he explained.

Velayuthan was a Telephone Advisory Board member (1994-96), Southern Railway Advisory Board member (1990-94), Madras Productivity Council president (1995-97), Kothari Group Employees Cooperative Society president, and trustee of the company’s PF and gratuity schemes. A resident of M.G.R. Nagar-K.K. Nagar since 1972, he was chartered president of the Lions Club of Singara Chennai (1995), and chief commandant of TN Station’s Vigilance Committee and the Railway Police. He won the Union Government’s Indira Gandhi National Integration Award in 1994 and the International Integrity Peace Friendship Society’s Bharat Jyoti Award the following year.

Born in Kattakada Village, 15 km from Thiruvananthapuram, Velayuthan was the last of nine children born to Chellamma (she is 99 now) and Govinda Pillai, a farmer. Velayuthan studied at the Kattakada HS School and passed SSLC in 1965 (in those days hardly five per cent in Kerala’s villages would pass the exam, he says). He was class topper throughout. Velayuthan came to Madras – elder brother Kesava Pillai was working at the TN Housing Board. He passed typewriting-shorthand in 18 months. He was 17 when he joined Jaihind Travels, Royapettah. After two years, he joined Guindy Machine Tools. Then Kothari’s happened.

Velayuthan now runs Parvathi Fertilizer India Pvt. Ltd., trading in palm oil.

Monday, March 17, 2008

As you sow... so shall you reap

With the new generation taking to IT like fish to water, many parents who have established businesses now realise that their business may not continue beyond their lifetime. One such parent I met last week was M. Pugazhenthi, a first-generation entrepreneur. He established Anantha Book Centre, a stationery store, when he was only 25.

From Kumbakonam, Pugazhenthi arrived in Madras in 1976 – most of his relatives, especially from his mother’s side, were here, and the job opportunities available in a city tempting. In Big Street, Triplicane, Pugazhenthi worked at the Vasantha Book Centre, run by a relative. For five years he learnt the trade. Meanwhile, in 1973, he had purchased a house in M.G.R. Nagar and his sights were now set on opening his own store in the vicinity. Backed by his experience in Triplicane, Pugazhenthi established Anantha Book Centre in 1981, on Anna Main Road. In about 150 sq ft of space, he started selling notebooks and stationery items that were necessary for school students. Today, he stocks books on general knowledge, science, well-known personalities (you will find primers on Kamaraj and Fidel Castro), cookery, computers and numerology, as well as dictionaries in English, Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam and French, and story books for children. And there are envelopes, covers, account notebooks, files, diaries and calendars. If you are a stamp collector, you will find some rare stamps at Anantha; and some rare coins as well.

When Pugazhenthi set up shop, he was the only one. Now there are several. Since Anantha has been around for 27 years, everybody in the area knows the place and comes. Puzazhenthi says he sometimes wonders whether he is running the business well. Kalyani, whom he married in July 1983, comes to assist him by afternoon and stays till late evening. The business, however, is unlikely to go into the hands of the next generation – elder daughter Ananthi now works for Perot Systems, and Priya, while studying computer applications, is working for Cognizant Technologies. “They have reached a different status and will not be interested in this business,” he is convinced.

Pugazhenthi was born in Kumbakonam. His father K. Mohananandam was a landlord. The youngest of five children (four sisters), Pugazhenthi studied at the Banadurai HS School, Kumbakonam, passing SSLC in 1969. When his father died, he could study no further, and immediately began work as kanakapullai (account keeper) in an oil mill in Panrutti. And, well, he has indeed come a long way! And ensured that his hard work has not gone in vain - his children are proof of that.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Paul Theroux

I met Paul Theroux, American travel writer and novelist, at a meeting organised by the Madras Book Club recently. The subject was interesting; travel in the fourth dimension… the return journey. Theroux, 67, did not disappoint lacing his talk with humour as he traced his experiences across the world Amritsar, London, Tashkent, Hanoi… A travel writer has to be a listener, needs to be humble, an eavesdropper, invisible, he said. He should know, having authored so many travel books.

The hint was obvious – you don’t become a travel writer if you visit Kodaikanal, for instance, write a piece about it and get it published in a newspaper or magazine. Travel begins in the mid, with a clear mind. Theroux makes it a point to re-visit places he has been to years or decades ago. “You see the changes, what time does to a place. When you grow older, you can even predict. So retrace your steps. That is what travel writers have to do,” he said. For example, he hardly found any change in Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka, re-visiting the places after decades. Only when there is peace, things change, he pointed out.

Massachusetts-born Theroux is best known for The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), a travelogue about a trip he made by train from Britain through Western and Eastern Europe, West Asia, through South Asia, then South-East Asia, up through East Asia, as far east as Japan, and then back across Russia to his point of origin. He has had a long association with V.S. Naipaul, eventually falling out with the latter. You can read his portrayal of Naipaul in Sir Vidia’s Shadow (1998).

A film editor from another era

His is as soft-spoken as they come. Unassuming, shy to speak about his career. But propelled by his eldest daughter Bhuvana, he spoke. Even as a child, N.S. Suppurathinam was keen in being a part of the film industry. “I knew I wouldn’t fit in as hero, so I decided to become a lab technician,” he says. After two years at the Vauhuni Studios, he turned assistant film editor in 1956, editing on a freelance basis. This would be his work for the following 40 years and more. During this period, he edited more than 40 Tamil films, 50 Malayalam films and ten Telugu films. His first film was Ondru Pattal Onde Vazhvu, starring Prem Nazir, Muthuraman and E.V. Saroja. Arivali (Sivaji Ganesan, Banumathy) and Rani Samyukta (MGR, Banumathy) followed. Then Suppurathinam was called to work in a series of films starring K.R. Vijaya – Thirudi, Vazhyadi, Rosakari, Thai Veedu Seedanam, Mayor Meenakshi and Sonthangal Vazhlge. Some of the Malayalam films he remembers doing include Moodu Padam (starring Satyan), Mudanaya Puthran (Satyan) and Thacholi Udayanam (Prem Nazir). In Telugu, he edited Sambrala Ram Babu (Chalam) and Marupuranithalli (Krishna).

Suppurathinam worked for some of the well-known names in the South Indian film industry – producer-director-editor A.T. Krishnaswamy, and editors Chakrapani, B. Kandaswamy, M.V. Rajan, S.P.S. Veerappan, Angi Reddy, G. Venkataraman, N.M. Shankar and Madhu. “There were few people then in the editing profession, no competition like there is now. Then it was all about arranging shots in sequence and putting them into the editing machine called ‘movieala’, a condemned machine now,” says Suppurathinam, who spent the best days of his life in studios and hardly found time to watch films. “Father was such a sincere worker. Cars would arrive to pick and drop him. He would sometimes remain for days in the studios and we went there to provide him change of clothes,” says Bhuvana. With computerisation and youngsters, Suppurathinam found it difficult to work. He continues to be an active member of the South India Film Editors Association though.

Suppurathinam was born in Nagar Village, near Lalgudi, Tiruchy. His father N.B. Subramania Iyer was a schoolteacher. One of seven brothers and two sisters, Suppurathinam studied at the National High School, Tiruchy. In 1953, he arrived in Madras with less than Rs 20 in his pocket.

Suppurathinam is an animal lover. He has raised white rats, squirrels, rabbits, lovebirds, and a dozen dogs!