Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Shades of the past and the present in Mumbai

I did not find many cut-outs or hoardings except a few, like the ones in the first two pictures. Roads were wide and well laid, at least the ones on which I traveled. There were several decrepit buildings I saw – such as the one in the second picture – that exuded an old-world charm.

But the winner was the swanky domestic terminal at the airport. Have a look at the fashionable bar… I didn’t mind splurging a bit and sitting on the bar stool.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cab drivers and courtesy in the city of dreams

Last week I made a dash to Mumbai to interview the technical head of India’s largest circulated newspaper and the world’s largest circulated English broadsheet daily. I traveled by the Indigo flight, which was fairly comfortable. But they were hawking snacks and juice on board at atrocious prices. Imagine paying Rs 50 for a small tetra pack juice, and Rs 150 for a double-layer sandwich! I noticed the person seated next to me buying a small packet of cashew nuts; he must have regretted having paid Rs 50 for it because there were hardly any cashews inside.

Nowadays, as soon as the flight takes off, the air hostesses and the announcer launch themselves on a PR spiel. The height this time was when the stewardess announced proudly: “Being on time is a wonderful thing and we at Indigo are committed to it.” The flight was actually flying late – the ATC (air traffic control) had cancelled the flight’s scheduled time of departure because people had checked in late (trust us Indians). On the onward journey, it was a pleasant surprise though, with the flight actually landing a few minutes ahead of schedule.

Despite repeated instructions, we really know how to make a fool of ourselves, don’t we? When the seat belts had to be fastened, a passenger got up hastily and opened the overhead shelf. The air hostess came bounding in and tried to get him back to his seat but he wouldn’t listen. Reason: his wallet was in the bag overhead. Another passenger was happily playing games on his mobile phone, or was he trying to text, I had no idea. I find it sickening when people can’t stop fidgeting with mobile phones even for a second. Both in Mumbai and in Chennai, even as the aircraft landed, people were calling out to their dear ones (I suppose) saying they were still the in the aircraft etc. Now, are such calls really necessary when the seat-belt-fasten sign is still on and the plane is taxiing on the runway?

Well, one of the things I like about Mumbai is the presence of the good old Fiat cars on the roads. Many of the taxis are Fiats and they still do a wonderful job, ferrying people. I took a prepaid taxi to the newspaper plant and the young driver – he must have been hardly 20 – not only knew exactly where the place was, he took me right up to the security gate and asked me whether he could carry on. He was not expecting a tip, just courtesy to an outsider. No haggling, no arguing, no reckless driving. Later, another driver took me to a restaurant when I told him I was hungry and had not eaten. This after he had dropped me where I had to get off; he didn't charge me a penny extra for driving me down almost another kilometre. Wish we had more of such drivers in Chennai.

But the sad part is we don’t. Indeed, no sooner did I arrive in Chennai than I bumped into my neighbour. He had come on the same flight and we decided to hire a cab and leave together. Outside, chaos reigned and a couple of cab drivers refused to come where we had to go. My neighbour, who has had a bypass, lost his cool and let go. He told a small gathering of drivers that it was because of them and the auto drivers that the city was being put to shame. Surprisingly, nobody uttered a word, they listened in silence. Just then, one of them came forward and offered to drop us – all this after we had paid the fare indoors.

Anyway, here are the cabs of Mumbai…

Friday, September 24, 2010

Dr Yesudian's clinic - where your fate is decided on Monday mornings

Talking about Dr Patrick Yesudian’s clinic on Poonamallee High Road, I must mention that it is not easy to get an appointment with the doctor. There is a telephone number but nine out of ten times your call will not be picked up or you will find the number engaged or you will hear the phone ringing endlessly. Even years ago it was difficult seeking an appointment on the phone. Now it’s not just possible. Perhaps if you do not belong to Chennai and manage to get through you may be told to come, and also that you will have to wait a long time to meet him.

The system followed is quite out of sync with today’s world. Appointments for the week are given every Monday morning. If you want an appointment for the week you have to be present in person (you could of course depute someone). For example, I reached the clinic at around 7am. There were a few people standing outside the shut door on the first floor. A crumpled piece of paper was stuck to the door knob. Opening it out, I saw that 37 people had already written their names. I scribbled the name of my mother, No. 38. Nobody knew exactly when the assistant would come to do the honours, some said 8am, others 8.30am and yet others 9.30am. I went outside to take a walk.

Knowing that anything was possible, I returned before 8am. Soon, a two-wheeler arrived and the assistant got off. Even as she climbed up the stairs, those waiting made a dash for the door. She opened it and went inside. Nobody dared go in. Looking at the crumpled bit of paper the assistant began calling out numbers and names. She ordered the people to stand in a line, one behind the other. The line went right into the dark recesses of the long dingy corridor, snaking its way back towards the stairway and then into the other half, into yet another long dingy corridor.

With four flats on either side, all doors locked, there was hardly any ventilation. Only a musty smell and body odour pervaded. The man behind me kept coughing and blowing into my neck and I held my breath for several long seconds before letting go. If your resistance is poor you can easily pick up infection here. I was thinking of swine flu and TB and all the rest and hastily covered my nose with a handkerchief.

There was the unmistakable flavour of some sort of a military regimen. The girl gave orders in a staccato voice, no smile or expression on her face. It was clear she was enjoying the moment, the sheer power she exuded. A differently-abled person came up to her hoping for some relief, but she did not change her stance – he had to go to the end of the queue and try his luck. I got an appointment for Wednesday, wrote the name down, thanked her and smiled. I received a wry smile in return.

By now I was sweating and all I wanted to do was to get home and spend a long time under the shower. All the different odours were making me want to puke. I wished Dr Yesudian would one Monday witness the scene and decide on a more convenient system. The phone can be made better use of; there is the email now. Surely, there must be a better way to book appointments. How difficult it must be for older people to come twice – to get an appointment and then to meet the doctor. With distances to be covered and all the traffic, one can well imagine. But say what you might, it’s force of habit that’s unlikely to change.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Dr Patrick Yesudian - a physician of the highest class

There are three classes of physicians. The physicians of one class feel the patient’s pulse and go away, merely prescribing medicine. They are the poorest class of physicians. Likewise, there are teachers who only give instruction but do not stop to see whether their teachings have produced a good or bad effect.

There are physicians of another class, who prescribe medicine and ask the patient to take it. If the patient is unwilling to follow their directions they reason with him. They are the mediocre physicians. Likewise there are mediocre teachers. They give instruction to the student and further try to persuade him in various ways to follow the instruction.

Lastly, there are the physicians of the highest class. If the patient does not respond to their gentle persuasion, they even exert force upon him. If necessary, they press their knees on the patient’s chest and force the medicine down his throat. Likewise, there are teachers of the highest class who even exert force to direct the mind of the pupil towards God.

Well, these are not my words. These are the sayings of Sri Ramakrishna Pramahamsa. I often read his sayings and they remain etched in memory. Although His words above may sound too simplistic, how true they are! We always bemoan the lack of or fall in standards, the lack of commitment or discipline, honesty and straightforwardness and the like. But seldom do we praise people for the good they do or the devotion and quality they exhibit in work. I am indeed inspired when I meet people who are committed and work for work’s sake, nothing else.

Talking about doctors, one whom I hold in high esteem is Dr Patrick Yesudian, consultant dermatologist. Probably the best skin specialist in Chennai today (considering that the legendary Dr A.S. Thambiah is well past his prime). I first met Dr Yesudian or was forced to seek an appointment with him ten years ago when my mother suffered from severe mouth ulcers which no doctor (we have a couple in the family) was able to diagnose correctly. From general physician to specialist to dental surgeon and then finally to Dr Yesudian. The journey took two or three months but it was perhaps worth the wait, because we met the right person.

The dapper Dr Yesudian has a commanding presence. There’s something in him that immediately draws respect. He is a man of few words and you can tell easily that he is not one to suffer fools gladly. Even without exerting pressure of any sort, he can get the patient to listen to him. When we met him in 2000, he had little to say. He took a long, hard look at the ulcers, got through the clutter of the various treatments, test reports and prescriptions and came to brass-tacks quickly. He ordered a few tests, including a biopsy, and asked me to get the biopsy slides as well. The report alone would not do for him.

A mouth biopsy is extremely painful as can well be imagined. My poor mother went through it all without much fuss. Once the reports came in, Dr Yesudian took less then ten minutes to write out the prescription. He diagnosed the condition as a form of Lichen Planus. My mother was put on a short course of steroids. After the first shot, there was a remarkable improvement and in a couple of weeks the sores had disappeared. My respect for the doctor grew.

My mother had no complaint of mouth ulcer for ten years… until early this year. After a couple of old teeth were knocked off, she began experiencing pain again. This soon developed into a sore that would never heal. What was worse, the sore was spreading across the palate. Back we went to a couple of dental surgeons we knew, one of them Dr Prem Kumar who is rapidly making a mark for himself in the field of orthodontics, having already authored two textbooks and translated Graber’s Textbook of Orthodontics.

Their medicines really did not work and, this time, Dr Prem suggested that a biopsy be done. Biopsy over, my mother was put on a course of medicines by Dr Prem and his senior at the Government Dental Hospital. They diagnosed the condition as a rare form of Plasma Cell Gingivitis, but thought it worthwhile taking Dr Yesudian’s opinion.

So, off we went to Dr Yesudian’s clinic. Ten years had hardly changed him. He had as many patients, if not more, waiting. He tweaked the prescription a bit and included a short-term steroid. My mother’s condition has improved and she now swears by the good old dermatologist on Poonamallee High Road.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

City eyesores - is it Besant Nagar's turn?

Every time I wonder what my next blog should be about, in comes N.S. Venkataraman, trustee, Nandini Voice for the Deprived, with something thought-provoking.

Besant Nagar, according to him, especially the part near Elliot’s Beach, has become an eyesore. But is Besant Nagar the only area in Chennai that is suffering such a fate, Mr Venkataraman? At least Besant Nagar is a posh area and residents here are perhaps not used to eyesores as millions of others in various parts of the city are.

Take Ashok Nagar, KK Nagar, Vadapalani, Virugambakkam and Porur, areas that are more familiar to me. Not only are the roads here in terrible shape, it almost seems that the civic administration is not really concerned about what happens in these parts. Anna Main Road and roads surrounding Padma Seshadri School in KK Nagar have lain battered for years, and no hope is in sight. Indeed, if you wish to take pictures of people digging roads, you can come to KK Nagar and be assured that you will get the picture you want. The turn near and into Nesapakkam is in such bad shape that yesterday, while negotiating it, I felt like I was on a boat on the high seas and felt sorry for my car tyres.

Mr Venkataraman lists the bus terminus in Besant Nagar as the area’s biggest eyesore. “There is an elliptical island near the bus terminus, once created as a beauty spot. Now, it is dry and in bad condition and no one knows who is responsible for maintaining it. Probably, no one,” he says, and adds that it is disgusting to see drunken (“sometimes in semi-naked condition”) men lying at the terminus day and night. And no wonder – a liquor shop is located nearby and lighting at night is poor. “What is even more distressing is that sometimes drunken women are also seen lying there,” he points out. My, my! Since when did the city come to such a pass! To add to all this, there is the smell of urine around the terminus.

Garbage lies unattended on several streets in Besant Nagar. Venkataraman says that on Fourth Cross Street and in Kakkan Colony, sewage overflows at regular intervals and residents have to step on such water to cross the street. “The story will not be complete without mentioning the frequent sewage overflow opposite Velankanni Church on the main road. The one beautiful beach, on which several lakhs of rupees were spent by Chennai Corporation for its so-called beautification, is an example of how not to maintain a natural beach. Stray dogs share space with men and hawkers everywhere and the fish stall emanates a nauseating smell in one corner,” Venkataraman says. Of course, there’s the Besant Nagar crematorium. But that perhaps is another story.

“So where is the civic administration?” Venkataraman asks. Wonder who can give him a convincing answer.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Arcot Road awaits a fair wind

The Madras Week celebrations and the positive vibrations coming off them have inspired a small group of catalysts, who seem to have a common wavelength, to start a whole new initiative in the area beyond Kodambakkam, encompassing Ashok Nagar, KK Nagar, Vadapalani, Virugambakkam and Valsarawakkam. The group comprises teachers, special educators, journalists and young independent women. I have been invited on board as ‘adviser’ and so have an ace storyteller and a veteran editor-publisher.

Another trigger for the group was when the seemingly impossible happened one bright afternoon. A popular resource person two of them had called to conduct a workshop for children apparently had told them that she really had no idea where the Kodambakkam Bridge was! Indeed, she had never really ventured into parts of the city beyond Nungambakkam and thereabouts. And would they kindly guide her driver towards the venue.

Truth can sometimes sound more improbable than fiction. The resource person lost her way after coming past the Vadapalani signal, surfaced from one of the by-lanes, drove past the venue, took a U-turn and headed for Kodambakkam Bridge – only it was from the wrong side. And as the children and parents waited for the ‘star performer’, a couple of sensible women got astride a scooter and headed furiously down the same road in an effort to rein her and the driver in and lasso them back in the proper direction. A good 30 minutes later, the pilot scooter arrived, with a rather bemused resource person and an expressionless driver who was unsure about even driving in through the gates though they were kept wide open in anticipation. Hearing all this, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

How could she ever not know of Kodambakkam Bridge and Vadapalani and AVM Studios and Vijaya Hospital and Ceebros and Mega Mart! The teachers were seething with rage and filled with wonder. And out of that wonderment dawned the desire to do something that would make people wake up and take notice of Arcot Road.

How do the catalysts hope to achieve that? By organising in the area heritage walks, talks by prominent people, music shows, plays… No mean task it was, I told them. If the idea has to bear fruit, responsibilities have to be borne, shared, and plans executed without fail. The group, though, is up to it. They’ve already had a few meetings, contacted the GM of a well-known hotel in the area and sought permission to use space there for an event a month. They are exploring other possibilities, other venues as well.

Let me not cough out all that I know. But surely, if these enterprising young women and men continue in the same vein, there might be a whiff of fresh air blowing down Arcot Road sooner than later.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

If you're banking on the human touch, you'll be saddened; it's missing

There was a time when I used to look forward to going to banks. I was not a child then, although it might have seemed so to the onlooker, me walking a couple of steps behind my father. I had then just about arrived in Madras, fresh out of college, yearning to go back to Calcutta where I had left all my friends.

There were bank accounts to be transferred, not many, just two. My father had been one of the typical office goers of the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s, content with the 9 to 5 job, happy with the weekend off, which gave him enough time to play cards with a group of very close friends, most of them Malayalees, of course. More about that later.

We were residing in Perambur when we decided to make Madras our home (it’s another matter that the city never really became one as far as I was concerned – I still miss good old Calcutta). I would occasionally accompany my father to the Indian Overseas Bank branch on Paper Mills Road or thereabout. Father would, as was his wont, head directly to the manager’s cabin and I would troop inside, behind him.

My early ‘banking experiences’ were extremely pleasant, thanks to a very charming manager, who was not only committed to providing the best service possible but also went out of his way to enquire about the customer and his family. Sometimes, my mother would be with us. So, eventually, the manager began treating us as family and he would order for tea, which I thought my father looked forward to (God bless his soul).

After my father’s death, my mother took the lead and handled our accounts, and I would accompany her unfailingly each time. So, over the years, I have been taught and told how to apply for the locker key, in which direction to turn the key and how many times, and how to ensure the locker remained locked once the task was done. And during all those numerous visits, my mother and I have met some lovely staff, always willing to help. There have been rare exceptions though, like one manager who was extremely rude to my mother ad I never forgave him for it. Later on, I learned he was a union leader and considered the branch his personal fiefdom.

My memories of those banking days came alive a couple of days ago when I visited a local branch of the Bank of India. Here I hold a savings account, in operation since 1988. I would have seen at least 20 branch managers in these 22 years, several staff, some retired, some no more. Every time there is a new face, I take the initiative to say a hello and forge a relationship. It works. But not always.

For example, I was intrigued to find that day a lady at the desk go through the exercise of verifying my signature despite knowing me fairly well and having seen me often enough. It is a different matter if she was only checking the availability of funds. She was probably doing her job, textbook style, but coming from the old stock I expected the human touch but it was conspicuous by its absence.

The branch had also introduced a new token system whereby you press a button on an equipment and hey presto a slip appears, complete with a token number. All you have to do is wait for your number to be announced. Typical of the present-day world where the focus is more on trying out new devices and going ‘high-tech’. But, sadly, amidst all the competition and customer-centric hype public service organisations engage in, little do they realise that they are getting further and further away from the customer. And I’m not just talking about the ATM.

The days I watched my father sip tea in the branch manager's cabin is indeed history. Yes, you might be called for tea today - when the bank schedules a public grievance meet or a medical camp and goes all out to get numbers, and customers on its side.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Nothing to beat nature... and birds

Well, after a very long time, I finally got to relax and unwind. And what relaxing and unwinding it was! At the end of it I was itching to get back to work. Once you are used to a certain regimen, idling can get very difficult.

But the holiday was worth it. A mini family get-together in Bangalore, a city I love. Where I usually stay is a lovely place at the end of what resembles a cul-de-sac, behind the ITC campus. Once upon a time, the air would smell strong of tobacco, but after the company stopped manufacturing cigarettes here it's as close as you can get to heaven. The factory is silent now and some portions have been converted to offices. The trees on campus remain and there are so many of them it is a veritable jungle. Without them it might have been just another piece of concrete bric-a-brac.

Some years ago, we would see migratory birds nesting in the trees here during the latter part of the year. Nowadays you see them all through the year. My cousin says they have forgotten or lost their migratory trail thanks to cellphone towers and what have you. Poor birds. But they have found a home here and are loathe to leave.

There are egrets, cormorants, storks and a smaller version of the flamingo. I sometimes wish I had a binoculars to get a better view of these magnificent birds. They cackle through the night, and that, coupled with dogs barking (every home here has a pet dog and there are wise old street dogs too) intermittently, ensures that visitors have a tough night. Residents are of course used to the background music.

Yet, this is where I come to whenever I am in need of rest and relaxation. It's only a five-hour drive from Chennai and I don't have to pay any hotel bill. Small mercies. And every time, I return rejuvenated.

Here are the magical trees. My camera isn't powerful enough to zoom that distance, else it might have captured some of the activity up on high.