Wednesday, April 28, 2010

It was Bangalore again, and the romance endures

If it’s Bangalore, there’s always something about the weather. I was away a few days in the Garden City that is now sadly a shadow of its former self. The green cover continues to disappear even as old buildings are being pulled down to make way for new-age monsters. Either there’s nobody in the family to care for these old homes or it’s commercial interests that swing the decision.

However, there were storms or thunder-squalls every evening I was there. They brought the temperature down and reminiscences about the old Bangalore as well. I usually stay at a relative’s in Cox Town, part of the lovely Cantonment area. This part of Bangalore still has an old-world charm about it, especially his place tucked away in one corner not far from the ‘railway gate’ as the area is called. It’s a cosmopolitan mix – Anglo-Indians, Muslims, Marwaris, Malayalees, Tamilians, Gujaratis, Kannadigas, they are all there. It’s a microcosm of what India really is. Over the years, I have made numerous visits here and have seen different generations growing up.

The layout is right behind the ITC compound. Once upon a time, you could get the strong smell of cigarettes as they were being produced at the factory, but no longer. The sound of trains hurtling by continues, though. I understand ITC has stopped cigarette manufacture here and the factory building and other units have been changed to suit the requirements of IT offices and John Miller’s ready-made shirts and trousers.

In the ITC compound are several trees, Ashoka, fir and casuarinas. Scores of migratory birds come here to nest; many remain through the year. Whenever I’m here, I wake up early and sit on the bench outside and bird-watch. You can see eagles up on high, puffs of clouds floating by – well, it’s a heavenly feeling. I envy my cousin who gets to sit out every day. He, of course, understands the way I feel and even makes piping hot tea for me while I sit on the bench and watch Nature.

An architect, he tends a lovely garden. This time, I saw him in action, trimming the overgrown branches, employing a gardener to do most of the work. My cousin tells me he loves to sit outside and work on his laptop even as he finds time to look up and watch the birds and the clouds. There’s never a dull moment here. Then, there’s a stray dog that waits at the gate, hoping to get a morsel, a German Shepherd in a house opposite and a Labrador somewhere close.

Despite all this, I was saddened to see the building opposite his, not a very old one, having been demolished. The owners, Anglo-Indians, have left for Australia for good. Once, the house used to come alive with the barking of their Labrador, the mother shouting out to the dog, her daughter talking to her friends, or paying guests arriving on motorcycles and partying on the first floor.

Sad. It’s just open space now. Large stones or boulders lie as the contractor waits for the right moment to start construction. How tall will this new monster be? My cousin dreads the very thought of the building obstructing the view of the Ashoka, fir and Casuarinas. I empathise with him. We hope to be able to see the birds once the new building comes up.

Why couldn’t the owners have sold the building to somebody who would have retained the original and been happy to do so? It was such a solid building, hardly 40-50 years old. The only reason I can think of: commercial interests. Why would they bother? They are not going to be here in any case; they’re away in Australia (Melbourne is what I hear) amidst all the greenery. And who cares for an old building in a city far away, never mind if it was once their home?

I clicked some pictures on my mobile phone, of the garden and the flowers. Couldn’t take pictures of the birds and the trees, though. A mobile phone can’t really match up to a camera. Sweet memories again, of a Bangalore visit.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Outside Chennai airport: Chaos, but you could just laugh

With construction apace at the Chennai airport, parking can be nightmare at times. There are no clear indications for one, and when you finally heave a sigh of relief assuming you have found place very near the terminal, a woman in uniform with a hand-held machine saunters across and says the fee is Rs 100 and that you can go all around and come back to a slot just adjacent and pay Rs 60.

You wonder what's the big difference in the quality of parking space between the two. Indeed, the Rs 60 slot looks better. But than you are too tired to even ask and get into the finer details. Who cares! And so you reverse and go all around, hoping you'd find space.

There are a couple of signboards like this one, planted in the midst of all the chaos. You can almost sense the Brits and Americans chuckling at the spelling. And look at the bike parked right at the entrance to the enclosure.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Breaking convention at Tirupathi?

Perhaps referring to my earlier blog about waiting in queue for seven hours and more to catch a glimpse of Lord Venkatachalapathy at the Tirupathi temple, N.S. Venkataraman, trustee, Nandini Voice For the Deprived, sent me this email today:

"Mukesh Ambani's wife, mother and Tendulkar's wife broke convention to enter the Tirupathi temple after closing time, to pray for success of Mukesh Ambani's Mumbai Indian team in the IPL final. Lord Venkatachalapathy obviously disapproved the methods of these so-called VIPs and their team was defeated. It remains to be seen how the Lord would deal with the TTDC chairman who opened the gates for these so-called VIPs, breaking the convention."

I do not know the source of Mr Venkataraman's comments. However, if it is indeed true, it only goes to show how our system works. Sad, considering that ordinary mortals desperate to pray there are more often than not treated in shabby fashion.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How the manager of a travel agency made a difference!

Even if Shashi Tharoor deserved the boot, one must give him credit for what is due. For a person who studied in St Stephen’s, Delhi, and left the country to make in mark in the United Nations, graduating to a position none less than director-communications, standing for election as UN Secretary General must have been the icing on the cake. I’m sure he didn’t really expect to win that one though. Without the United States approving, election to such a coveted post is just not possible. But Tharoor must have decided to swim with the tide then and make an honest attempt to pull off something spectacular. By the time reality dawned bright and clear, and a South Korean beat him to the post, Tharoor had made enough friends in government here in India (especially leaders of the Congress, including Sonia Gandhi and Dr Manmohan Singh who endorsed his stand) and it was only a question of time before he would be offered a position in government.

That Tharoor took easily to Indian politics (at least it appeared so), before, during and after the election, and as Minister of State for External Affairs, is something to be appreciated. Even during the current fiasco when the Opposition was baying for his blood and he was eventually hounded out, he kept the smiles on and even quoted Mahakavi Vallathol in Parliament, while stressing that he was innocent and had done nothing to tarnish his reputation. His conscience must have been clear.

Even as Tharoor’s fate was sealed, the volcanic ash spewing forth from Iceland made the lives of many, many travellers miserable. My family played host to a girl doing her clinical psychology in the UK, stranded as her British Airways flight from Chennai last Friday was cancelled. Her supervisor had given her only two weeks leave for Easter, and she had already overshot that by a week. And here she was, uncertain when she would be able to get back.

So, off we chaperoned her from one travel agent to another till we met the manager of one, a very warm and helpful woman who made everybody feel at ease and ensured she’d do her best for the youngster. She kept her word, checking the news and departure of flights every hour it would seem, and, finally, today morning managed to get a BA ticket for tomorrow (Thursday), ex-Bangalore. She also reserved a seat on the Chennai-Bangalore leg this afternoon. So, the girl’s countenance abruptly changed; she was back to her normal charming self – well, almost. She was smiling and bursting into laughter and chatting up all of us. We were all so glad to see her so happy and while bidding her goodbye at the airport we felt sad because during the few days she was with us it was almost like she was family. Hope she will read this some time and know that she is being missed already.

All thanks to the sincere efforts of a manager in a travel agency who, if I might use the phrase, “went beyond her calling”. After all, there were tickets blocked for Friday and Sunday, although at prohibitive prices, and she really need not have made the extra effort to see if a seat on the first BA flight out of Bangalore after the weeklong aviation crisis would be available. This is what honest, good work can do. It creates goodwill that cannot be purchased for a price and at the end of the day it is also excellent PR. Well done, Usha Surendranath! All I can say is keep up the good work. And at least as long as you are there, my first choice would be PL Worldways.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Did Tharoor deserve the boot? May be he did

It has been quite an eventful week, wouldn’t you say, what with the Tharoor-Modi saga drawing itself out on television and in the newspapers, and, of course, some of the worst days in aviation history seen after World War II.

Shashi Tharoor deserved what he got, many would say. After all, it was not his first gaffe after assuming public office, nor was he unwise enough not to gauge the consequences of talking a bit too much. After all, when you are a minister in government, there is a certain restraint you have to bring to bear, if not for dignity’s sake then at least for ensuring you are not opening the doors to criticism and the inevitable boot.

In any case, it was not a first time for Tharoor; he always seemed to have a way with courting trouble, the foot-in-the-mouth disease sort of thing, and this time neither Sonia Gandhi nor Dr Manmohan Singh was amused by his dalliance with the IPL. Whether Tharoor will survive to be minister again can only be guessed but my hunch is that he may well have written his obit in politics, with such derring-do. Sad really, when you come to think that he had so much in him and could have contributed in a significant way as minister.

Strangely, his contribution to ‘external affairs’ was insignificant. His remark about Saudi Arabia acting as interlocutor on issues concerning India and Pakistan was just an example of his naiveté and certainly was not welcomed by the PM or the External Affairs Minister. In the end, Tharoor dug his own grave and it will take a while for him to regain all that he has lost.

Anything can happen in politics, but my hunch is Tharoor must have had enough for now. He would rather withdraw and settle down with people and things more private and personal.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Why a Heritage Act is needed for every Indian State

To dwell a little more on the importance of a Heritage Act… In India, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is the premier institution concerned with the conservation of monuments. The ASI first protected built heritage in India under the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act. Promulgated in 1904, the Act provided effective preservation and authority over monuments, particularly those that were under the custody of individual or private ownership. In 1951, The Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Declaration of National Importance) Act was enacted. Consequently, all the ancient and historical monuments and archaeological sites and remains protected earlier under The Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904 were re-declared as monuments and archaeological sites of national importance under this Act.

In order to bring the Act on par with Constitutional provisions and provide better and effective preservation to the archaeological wealth of the country, The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958 was enacted on 28 August 1958. The Act along with Rules came into force with effect from 15 October 1959. It repealed The Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Declaration of National Importance) Act, 1951.

In India, about 5,000 monuments alone have been declared as heritage sites. Another equal number of monuments have been identified by the various other State departments of archaeology. The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958 declares buildings that are 100 years old and above as monuments and provides for their protection. However, although thousands of buildings in India need to be protected, only few are.

Built heritage is also protected by the State Department of Archaeology. But the Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department protects almost nothing by way of built heritage in Madras. INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) Tamil Nadu, though, has been playing a vital role in the listing, documentation and conservation of historical structures and precincts. In Madras, INTACH Tamil Nadu has, as far as I know, listed only about 700 buildings (which appear in Madras - The Architectural Heritage written by architects K. Kalpana and Frank Schiffer, an INTACH publication) or so in about a quarter of the city and has been unable to proceed further for want of funds and lack of local response.

Heritage being a State subject, there should be a Heritage Act for each state, and Heritage Regulations that cover cities under the Town Planning Acts. Tamil Nadu has neither. And INTACH Tamil Nadu has for 15 years been campaigning for this. Without an Act or Regulations, the heritage buildings, most of them landmark buildings of Madras, are slowly vanishing.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Will it always be a losing battle for heritage lovers in Chennai?

Thanks to my association with a group of catalysts that has been organising Madras Day and Madras Week celebrations the past few years, my knowledge about the city’s history has grown, but there is still a lot more I’m dying to learn. One of the things is that I have been deeply saddened by the callous attitude of many towards conserving heritage. There is now a feeling of helplessness among heritage lovers that despite all the progress made on several fronts, not much has been made on the heritage conservation/preservation/ restoration front in Chennai and Tamil Nadu.

The State does not have a Heritage Act and the result is that anybody can pull down a heritage structure without approval or guilt. I dwell on heritage today because I received a call from a heritage enthusiast, a writer-historian, saying that two more heritage structures in the city were in the process of being pulled down – Conway House in the St George’s School & Orphanage campus on Poonamallee High Road and St Ebba’s School on Dr Radhakrishnan Salai.

Of course, those who wish to pull down old buildings will always come up with the argument that if restoration is not possible what is the use of keeping such buildings ‘on the ventilator’. Yes, indeed, they do have a point. But what organisations such as INTACH stress is that if a built or natural structure is of historical importance, every effort must be made to maintain it and keep it alive for posterity. And need I point out that most of the old buildings constructed during the Mughal and British period are solid and strong. How many times have we seen cracks appear on our so-called modern structures?

The point is that unlike in the developed countries of the world, in India we hardly value our heritage. We realise this only when we marvel at how well maintained most of the old buildings in these countries are. Two years ago, when I was in Vienna and Darmstadt (Germany), I was floored by the kind of care bestowed on old buildings, on natural heritage, on almost every resource that the country had. Why can’t we develop such a culture here? What can be done to instill in youngsters such a feeling so that when they grow up and get into government they will know what is right for heritage and what is the right kind of conservation? I wonder!