Saturday, May 31, 2008

Of cricket, school, and a visitor

The IPL cricket tournament is into its final stages. Rajasthan Royals are in the finals, and today is the other big semi-final in Mumbai where the Chennai Super Kings take on the Kings from Punjab. T20 matches are fun, although for the players it is serious stuff and I have never seen quite the kind of passion that has been displayed by the players in these matches. It’s not just the pressure of having to perform because of the money that they have been paid, there is a strong passion that has already built up in terms of individual team spirit. Well, there is glitz and glamour too, and with film stars like Shahrukh Khan and Preity Zinta, musicians like Sivamani, and former cricket stars like Gavaskar and Shastri actively taking part, there has never really been a dull moment. Now that the controversies of the Harbhajan slap and the cheer girls are on the backburner, the focus is more on cricket. And a heartening fact is that several young Indian players have benefited immensely from the experience. Chennai cricket fans are knowledgeable about the game and quite sporting. Streets in Chennai may be a bit deserted this evening as the Super Kings battle it out with the Punjab Kings in Mumbai. Anyway, may the better team win.

Summer holidays are almost over. Corporation schools in Chennai are slated to re-open in the second week of June – the State Government has extended holidays by a week because of the heat. But I wonder whether that is good news for children, many of who might be bored and are waiting to be back with their friends in school. Most private schools will re-open on June 2.

Barbara, from Germany, arrived yesterday for a month-long internship in my office. The original plan was to put her in a guesthouse near the office, but on second thoughts, we decided to find a paying guest accommodation for her. In today’s world, a guesthouse with a lone caretaker and rooms occupied by you-really-don’t-know-who may not be very safe for a young woman. Fortunately, a friend of mine offered to help and the last I heard from her was that Barbara’s had some rest and sleep after landing and is all set to begin work on Monday. Welcome to Chennai, Barbara! We will try and make your stay here as comfortable as possible.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A citizen's initiative yields results

Residents in towns and cities need lung spaces. If Bangalore, Chandigarh and Pune have gardens and parks, Chennai never really had many, and the ones that were there were not in good shape or even used. Things have changed in recent months though, with a few new parks coming up, and, what is heartening, is that these parks are being maintained fairly well and people are rushing to them mornings and evenings.

A park that has caught the fancy of residents in Chennai is the one on Ashok Nagar’s First Avenue. The park came up on what was earlier encroached land, which had a wine shop, a low-class eatery, hutments, and what have you. Thanks to the initiative taken by a few residents in the area, particularly V. Ravichandran, founder-chairman of Citizens Guardian (registered as a trust to take up public issues anywhere in India), the encroachers were finally removed and none other than the Chennai Mayor arrived to inaugurate the park after it was built.

Indeed, Ravichandran shot into limelight in April 2006 when six months after he had filed a public interest litigation against the encroachers, the Madras High Court issued a verdict in his favour ordering the removal of all encroachments. In months, 14 grounds and 1076 sq ft of land turned into a lovely park. “People were ridiculing me then; many were sceptical about the encroachers being evicted. For even the Supreme Court order of 1996 and the Madras High Court order of 2001 had not yielded results,” he tells me.

Ravichandran’s passion for social work began early. When barely out of school, he led a team to the TNEB chairman’s office to complain about electricity problems in the area they resided and managed to get a “permanent remedy”. An active member of the Ashok Nagar Citizens Council, he got a storm-water drain network installed in Ashok Nagar’s 8th and 9th Avenues, after toiling for six years. In February last year, Ravichandran had filed a PIL stating that 18 grounds of the Government Peripheral Hospital in K.K. Nagar have been encroached upon, when the existing facility should be upgraded to include trauma care. This week, Ravichandran filed another PIL, against the State Government and various civic agencies, alleging that the Rs 1,200-crore Chennai City River Water Conservation Project has not achieved its purpose – canals are still polluted, storm-water drain network has not improved – and is a colossal waste of money.

Ravichandran grew up in Ashok Nagar. His father, Viswanathan, was a manager in Bank of India. Ravichandran studied in Shrine Velankanni, T. Nagar; Padma Seshadri, K.K. Nagar; and P.S. High School, Mylapore. After obtaining a B. Sc Maths degree from the University of Madras, Ravichandran taught at the Premier Institute of Computer Studies. He then joined Unichem Labs as medical representative. Innings with Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, Bayer Dental, Mira Consultancy Services, and Rohini Global Herbal Products followed. He now runs Novadent (marketing of dental products) and Sri Chakra Printers.

Ravichandran now looks to network with other citizen groups and take the initiative of turning Chennai into a more livable city.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A philosopher and social worker

Sometimes you feel enervated when you meet people with an extra ounce of zeal and energy. And when the person is well over 70, it can surprise you. Prof. T.N. Ganapathy struck me as a livewire when I met him in his cozy little study filled with books on philosophy. When he was general secretary of the Ashok Nagar Citizen’s Council (1979-90), Ganapathy had fought valiantly against encroachments. He was the one who coined the name ‘Citizen’s Guardian’ for an NGO that is now active in protecting the common man’s rights, raising issues, battling encroachers and lawsuits as well, after its success in a court case that enabled a park to be constructed on Ashok Nagar’s First Avenue.

Prof. Ganapathy has 54 years experience as a teacher of philosophy, including a three-year stint as senior fellow at the Indian Council of Philosophical Research, New Delhi; the institute published his The Philosophy of the Tamil Siddhas in 1993. After retiring as head, department of philosophy, Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda College (a record 23 years, 1968-91), he served as member of the academic council at Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Prasanthi Nilayam, Puttaparti. Since 2000, Prof. Ganapathy has been the director of the Yoga Siddha Research Centre, co-sponsored by the Kriya Yoga Order of Acharyas Inc., Canada. The founder-secretary of the Tamil Nadu Philosophical Society has authored many books – on logic, theism, absolutism, Tamil siddhas. The Yoga of Siddha Boganathar was translated into German and Russian.

Born in Manganallur, Tanjore, Ganapathy was the 11th of 14 children; only three survived beyond five years. His father S. Natesa Iyer was stationmaster in Manganallur; mother Kamalambal a pious woman with no formal education. “I inherited her wisdom,” he says, recollecting the days he stayed in a joint family with 40 cousins. Ganapathy was brought up by his uncle and aunt, Venkataraman Iyer and Meenambal. One of his books is dedicated to them. He studied at the Hindu High School, Madras; Tandankurai Village Panchayat School; Madras Christian College; Board High School, Ayyampet; and Peter’s High School, Tiruchy. Intermediate and B.A. Philosophy was at National College, Tiruchy, when Ganapathy travelled by train from Tanjore and walked ten miles every day. “I am what I am because of some great teachers like A. Paul and Shanmugham Chettiar who moulded me.” After graduating in 1952, Ganapathy taught philosophy in the same college. He later stood first in M.A. Philosophy (Nagpur University).

Prof Ganapathy is now focused on organising the Second World Conference on Siddha Philosophy in December, in Chennai.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Being in government helps

How does it work to be a government servant or having been one before? Works well, I’d say, especially if you are looking for somebody for social service. It’s probably their experience of having tackled government machinery in the past, machinery that can be quite frightening to the uninitiated. Probably also because such a person is often aware of the way government functions, and knows the alleys and pathways to get along.

I met a former government servant who has found success as a social worker too. M. Jayaraman has been president of the Padmavathi Nagar Residents Welfare Association in Virugambakkam ever since it was rejuvenated in 1995. Once slush area abutting an abandoned burial ground, Jayaraman says that the early residents in the 10-15 houses then struggled hard to get CMDA approval and to organise civic amenities. Today, there are 160 houses on 69 plots, but leading from the front in those days to get things moving was Jayaraman. Once, he overcame all hurdles to get the sewerage connection. Of course, it helped that the person sitting in the local civil office who had earlier proved to be a cog in the wheel turned out to be his own cousin. Naturally, the Padmavathi Nagar residents were enthused by Jayaraman’s victory and the Association received a fresh lease of life. Even today, Jayaraman oversees every activity, from posting security personnel to garbage clearance. His aim now is to get the residents to work towards zero garbage, and to plant avenue trees.

Born in Kandakirayan Village in Mannargudi Taluq, Thanjavur, Jayaraman grew up in Tiruchy under the care of his uncle Muthuswamy Pillai. Forthright, Jayaraman tells me that his father S. Murugesan was a freedom fighter who hardly had time for the family. After schooling at All Saints SPG Model School and Bishop Heber High School, Jayaraman graduated in chemistry from St Joseph’s, Tiruchy. He was a class topper and university rank holder. “My aim was to study and come up in life,” he says.

Jayaraman first worked as teacher at the Bishop Ubhaharam Swamy High School in Tirupur. A chance meeting with the boss of his elder brother Thinakaran (retired as chief conservator of forests) at an agricultural research station in Nellikuppam led to Jayaraman getting a job in the Department of Agriculture, Government of Tamil Nadu, as research assistant, in December 1958. Well, that was the way you got jobs in those days!

He served the department for 35 years – at the Tiruchy Sugarcane Research Substation, Coimbatore Agricultural College & Research Institute, Institute of Remote Sensing, Anna University – eventually retiring as the joint director of agriculture (research). He obtained his M Sc degree under a fellowship programme (1972-74) with the International Institute for Aerospace and Earth Sciences, Netherlands, specialising in remote sensing for soil resources.

Post-retirement, Jayaraman has been running Larc Agro Consultancy, authorised by ISRO, National Remote Sensing Agency, Hyderabad, and Space Application Centre, Ahmedabad. Now, it you need some expert help concerning soil, you can contact him at 23771968.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

A priest at Sathya Gardens

I do visit temples occasionally, and the one I visited this time was the Sarvashakthi Vinayaga Temple run by Asthika Samaj at Sathya Gardens in Vadapalani. It was quiet and serene inside as I prayed and waited for R. Swaminathan, the Sivachariar or chief priest. Bhasmam and sandal paste smeared across his forehead and arms, the plump priest ushered me into his small room. “The Vinayaga deity here is very powerful. The temple has been a sort of unifying force for all the residents here. Devotees call from abroad or visit, and request us to do jabams to remove barriers – poor job satisfaction or having no children. My 27-year experience here has shown that no prayer goes unanswered,” he told me, adding, “I feel so much at home here and have refused good offers from abroad.”

Swaminathan Sivachariar teaches Vedas and slokas to children; he has taught more than 300 children so far. He conducts Veda classes for the elderly and Devi Mahatmiyam classes for women. He has organised about 500 kumbabhishekams in temples across Tamil Nadu, and more than 1,000 Ganapathi homams as well as Navagraha, Sudarshana, Chandi, Sasthiabdapoorthi and Sadabhisheka homams all over India, including in the metros. He has helped nearly 100 Sivachariar families settle in Madras after installing the priests in various temples. His nephews Ramesh and Suresh officiate as priests at the Sarvashakthi Vianayaga Temple. Swaminathan Sivachariar has been performing pujas in companies and factories the past 25 years; his client list has 1,000-odd names.

Born In Iyyanpettai in Thiruvarur to S. Rama Gurukal of the Meenakshisundareswarar Swami Temple, Swaminathan studied up to Class 5 at Vivekananda Thodakapalli. Then for three years, he learnt the agama shastras from Viswanatha Sivachariar. This was followed by a five-year stint at the Veda Pathasala in Agaramangudi where he studied under Subramania Sharma Gurukal. In 1979, he joined the Madras Sanskrit College and for five years he studied Sanskrit and practiced astrology. His earnings as astrologer are used for the welfare of temples. He is married and has three children.

Brilliant soldier, inspiring and caring leader, he symbolised everything good in the Indian Army

Born to Dare, a book by Chennai historian S. Muthiah about former soldier Inder Singh Gill who died a few years ago, is a must-read for all young army officers. For it recreates General Gill’s career, opens up a broad canvas with some evocative descriptions of the life of military officers and staff, and well and truly inspires. The book, as Kamini Madhavan, senior editor, Penguin Books (the publishers), mentioned at the launch, is in the best traditions of writing. And Muthiah needs to be commended for a fantastic effort in researching, gathering material and putting together a marvellous book for posterity.

The author was a friend of Gill, and later became his admirer as he discovered more about the military man from outside sources. The two met several times and in time their friendship grew over military stories. The times spent with Gill probably helped Muthiah to caricature the brave-hearted officer.

For Muthiah, Born to Dare was “the hardest book I ever wrote”. Gill had left hardly any material to research on – “he ensured there was lack of material”. Then there was the bureaucracy to contend with. But Muthiah never gave up, starting with the stock of letters Gill’s wife Mona provided. He also found several books in Gill’s library useful – Gill had scribbled comments in many of them, and one of the words he used most often was “bullshit”. Quite a few army officers gave freely of their recollections of the man, and interviewing them in Chennai was Ranjitha Ashok. All those memories made the book possible, without doubt an important contribution to India’s military legacy.

At the launch in Chennai, there were never-ending but fabulous recollections of General Gill – by Major General Kochekkan; Dr Gopalji Malviya, prof and head, Department of Strategic Studies, University of Madras; Dr M C Muralirangan, director, Gill Research Institute, Guru Nanak College, Chennai; and Prof T V Ramanna, former principal, Guru Nanak College, Chennai. They are too many to be mentioned here, but what was spoken about the man only added to his legend. Mona Gill was present too, and I’m sure her eyes must have been moist as she heard the legend of her husband being recreated.