Thursday, July 28, 2011

Memories of another day - in the heart of Perambur

When I left Calcutta in the early 1980s and arrived in Madras, then a much gentler city, Perambur and Jawahar Nagar where we lived made up my world. Of course, it was a major change in my life as it normally is when you leave the place where you were born and grew up – leaving also friends you played with as a child, buddies who stood by you through thick and thin in teenage years, and several families with whom you had bonded closely over the years.

In Madras we chose Jawahar Nagar because my uncle, a doctor, and a few other close relatives resided there. My father was a heart patient and we thought residing close to uncle would be useful. As it turned out, father died within seconds of a major hear attack, his third. No proximity to any doctor could have saved him. He was only 64 or so and in earlier years if heart by-pass operations were as common as they are today, he might have had the courage to go for one and perhaps lived longer. The beginnings in Madras were, thus, made even more difficult for me, but how I overcame all that is a story too long to narrate.

Last weekend, I visited my uncle’s as we usually do at least once every quarter. This time, cousin in tow, I walked down some of the streets in Jawahar Nagar that had been home almost 25 years ago. It was of course not the first time I was visiting these places after two decades; but with camera in hand, yes.

Many parts of Perambur still retain their old-world charm. Many roads and streets and lanes still retain English names, such as Stapleton Road, for instance. There is one road from the flyover to Jawahar Nagar that is densely populated by Anglo-Indians. And whenever I see Anglo-Indians in strength I’m reminded of the good old days in Calcutta, where many of our neighbours were Anglo-Indians. Most of them left for Australia and New Zealand in the 1970s. Calcutta, though, still has quite a large Anglo-Indian population and I understand that this year Anglo-Indians from all over the world will converge in the city for an international meet.

Time stands still in many of the streets in Jawahar Nagar. You will find no high-rise building here. No builder has ever come to these parts eying property for a quick demolition job. It’s another matter that owners extend or refurbish buildings, but not more than two storeys. There is a lot of greenery, too. I was pleasantly surprised to still find the huge expanse of vacant poromboke land adjacent to the house we stayed, lying unused, after all these years.

Most of my friends are no longer there – and I’ve lost contact with all, except one. Those days we would sit on the grounds near the Murugan Temple late in the evenings, puff a cigarette and chat endlessly about politics, the more attractive local girls, booze and job opportunities. I was missing Calcutta badly but those evenings with friends made up for something. And soon enough, we were all on the job trail, and then our meetings got fewer and in a few years the ground had disappeared, having made way for independent houses. Yet, even today, Perambur holds lots of memories for me.

Pictures show some of the streets in Jawahar Nagar, quiet and shady, where time almost stands till, with the only give-away being the new cars; the road leading to 5th Main where I stayed; 5th Main Road, and a long shot of the building where we stayed (the promoboke land on the right still lies unused), fringed by palm and other trees.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Coming up soon... Madras Day / Madras Week

Well, the Madras Week celebrations are coming up soon, and the coordinators are at work, all voluntary work, that is. The coordinators are basically more like catalysts who try and motivate people in the city, in different areas, to put up something related to the city’s heritage on Madras Day or during Madras Week, which this year is between August 21 and 28. Of course, you can always organise a programme before and after these dates; after all, the dates are more indicative than anything else (for details always check out the Web site

Starting off the blocks before the others, like it has been doing almost every year since the celebrations started in 2004, was Asan Memorial School. When I called Suma Padmanabhan, the principal, a couple of weeks ago for the first hello of the year (it usually happens after we coordinators have had our first meeting, which is some time in end-June), she began listing out the theme and the people they had planned to call. The fact is Asan Memorial has Madras Week listed in the school calendar – I wonder how many other schools have it. I don’t think the Padma Seshadri group of schools has it either, although they belong to the same cluster as Asan (we have what are called CBSE cluster schools now). Keep it going, Suma.

This year, Asan Memorial School has chosen the theme, ‘Our heritage in brick and mortar’ and Madras Week celebrations there will begin early – August 17 – and go on for three days. There will be an exhibition with models and charts conducted by the Social Science Department and the heritage club. Likely speakers at the inaugural and valedictory include the Nawab of Arcot, Meena Muthiah, Gopika Varma and Shreekumar Varma. There will be an inter-school heritage quiz, ‘Heritage buildings of Madras’; preliminary rounds start at 9.30am on August 18, with the finals at 11am.

Another person who is off the blocks early always is Gita, the programme officer at DakshinaChitra now. I’ve known her a long time, from the time she ran the Adyar Arts Club close to her home in Besant Nagar. Gita is fast on the uptake and you just have to say something and she ensures things happen. So, this time, she has arranged a weeklong programme (August 21-28) at DakshinaChitra, with Abhishek Dadheech showcasing ‘Photographs of Chennai City’ at the seminar hall, a drawing competition for children in the 7-13-year age group with the theme, ‘Monuments of Chennai’, and a photography competition for children in the 11-15-year age group with the theme, ‘Bazaars of Chennai’. Well done, Gita.

Last year, Lakshmi Venkataraman was not very keen on being part of Madras Week, but this year it was different. She will provide space for two evenings - on August 22, when Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan will present ‘Ancient Light: Madras through the eyes of a photowalker’, and on the following day, when Chitra Madhavan will talk on ‘Lesser known temples of Chennai – some more’. However, celebrations will begin early at the gallery – on August 18 – with Maniam Selven (MaSe) exhibiting his paintings, the theme being ‘Madras: My Impressions’.

As always, Ashok Kedia (Garodia’s trusted man who is in charge of the trust activity after the philanthropist’s death) and the principal at Jaigopal Garodia Scjool, Anna Nagar, were only too pleased to host an afternoon of Madras Week celebrations. It’s on August 23, when Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan will suitably vary his presentation ‘Ancient Light: Madras through the eyes of a photowalker’ for a different audience comprising mainly students and teachers.

One of the heavyweight programmes this year (like in most years) is likely to be at Hotel Green Park, Vadapalani, where Spring and Zoom, KK Nagar, an activity centre for children, will welcome children to experiment and create exquisite products using the potter’s wheel and palm leaves, in what will be called ‘Madras – experience your cultural heritage’. Supported by resource persons from DakshinaChitra, it will be open to children five years and above. There will also be ‘Madras: Then and now’, a poster presentation by students.

Namma Arcot Road has lined up a pretty impressive run of speakers: Shreekumar Varma, Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan and Pradip Chakravarthy. Pradeep, as enthusiastic as always, will talk about how Kodambakkam is really the centre of Madras; he says he will look at how Madras was organised geographically in the 9th-12th centuries, what were some troublesome local governance issues and how they were resolved.
And for those who choose to stay back till the end of the show, there could be a special buffet dinner waiting at Hotel Green Park.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

'The games we played', by R.V. Rajan

R.V. Rajan is my senior by several years, but more than for his age, it for his leadership skills, simplicity, ability to don various hats, positive attitude and enterprise that I respect him. Of course, we’ve had quite a long association, the bonds growing stronger while we worked together at WAN-IFRA (World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers), with him as MD, being my boss in a sense although I was consultant. And then we also got to work together on a magazine produced by the Rural Marketing Association of India.

Other than being chairman of Anugrah Madison, Rajan today leads a fairly retired life, officially, that is. But in ‘retirement’, he has found many avenues to keep himself busy and to be productive. He is now a sought-after speaker in lecture circles, especially if it has to do with rural marketing, an area he is an acknowledged guru. After authoring a highly readable book, Rajan is now seriously pursuing writing, and his articles appear frequently in newspapers magazines, with a piece on his visit to the 106 divya desams in The Hindu being one of the last I had read. All the pieces, I’m sure, will find place in another book some day soon.

Today morning, I was surprised to see his mail, with an interesting title: Games we played. Here it is, reproduced with his permission, and like most of his pieces written in freewheeling style, I’m sure you’ll read till the end. I particularly enjoyed the part about gilly-danda. Here goes:

The other day my six year old grandson was looking grumpy and irritable. When I asked him what his problem was; he said, “I am bored! Nobody is playing with me.” Even a three-year-old child today talks of getting bored.

My mind raced back to the time when I was a kid, growing up in a Mumbai chawl with scores of kids of all age groups for company, I never knew the meaning of the word ‘boring’. The moment I returned from school, I would dump my school bag in the house and run out to play with other boys of my age group in the compound area of the building complex where my family was staying.

Even in those days cricket was the most popular game – the underhand variety, with tennis balls and stumps drawn on the walls of the building. It was not uncommon for the aggressive batsman in the group breaking the glass panes on the windows of the flats nearby trying to hit a six. As we grew older and started playing with the ‘seasoned’ ball (as the red cricket ball was called), the group had to move to the nearby Matunga Gymkhana Ground opposite R A Podar College of Commerce where I studied. I remember when I acquired a proper cricket bat and ball; I became a hero among the group. I was always included in our team, playing matches against other teams.

Playing marbles or gilly-danda or top (pambaram as it is called in Tamil) were other games popular among the boys. For playing marbles, one had to invest a small amount to buy a set of multicolor marbles, contributing to a pool of marbles, and then challenge others for a game. The game involved throwing the collection of marbles a little away from where you stood, and the boys would take turns to hit one specific marble in the spread out. Whoever got the aim right was entitled to keep the entire lot of marbles on the floor. Boys with perfect aim would have multiplied their collection of marbles by the end of the game…several times.

Gilly-danda involved hitting a small rounded wooden piece (gilly) with sloping edges on either side with a longer stick (danda). The knack was to hit the end of the gilly first to make it rise from the ground and then hit it hard with the danda to send it flying as far as one could. The experts among the boys would keep hitting the small piece again and again moving forward around the compound of the building with the others running behind them. Those boys who were not able to lift the gilly from the ground or could not connect it with the danda after it rose from the ground were declared out from the game.

Playing the top required special skills. You tied a strong string around the ridges of the conically shaped top with a bulging head, at the bottom of which there was a pin on which the Top could be spun. Keeping the end of the string between your thumb and forefinger, you would fling the top, which then landed on the ground, spinning beautifully for some time. It is also an art to pick up a spinning top from the ground on to your palm without breaking its momentum. Some boys were also experts in the art of flinging the top with a reverse swing, managing to get the spinning top directly on to their palms without hitting the ground. I must confess that I was not good at it and envied the boys who could perform this trick.

And there were games like kho-kho, based on the popular musical chair concept, featuring boys and girls instead of the chairs or Hu-Thu-Thu (kabaddi... kabaddi in Tamil). I also remember playing the “leap frog game” in which one of the boys would stand at the centre, bending at his waist while the others would run fast to jump over the boy using both their hands, placed on the back of the boy as a lever, to propel themselves forward. Once a boy suddenly decided to stand up while I was about to jump over him, sending me for a toss, resulting in a deep cut on my forehead. Even today, I carry the scar left behind due the stitches required to help me recover from the injury.

Hiring a bicycle by the hour and going around the buildings was another activity which the boys and girls indulged in. A serious accident involving the cycle that I had hired put an end to this activity as my mother refused to give any money for this purpose again.

Flying kites during certain seasons was an exciting activity in which even the adults in the building complex participated, at times.

If it was raining or for any reason we could not undertake outdoor activities then there were always games like carom, chess, cards and board games that would keep us busy. Even Pallankuzhi a traditional indoor activity using a wooden board with 14 hollow portions and a collection of sea shells or Dhaya Kattam (modern day Ludo), were popular with both boys and girls.

The variety and choice of games that we could play then were mind-boggling, and we had the freedom to do what we liked, as long as we did not get into trouble which necessitated the interference of our parents.

I pity the modern day kids, many of them growing up in apartment complexes without adequate space for outdoor games. Even if there are playing grounds in the locality, the paranoid parents do not allow them to go and play because of security concerns. The parents who can afford o fcourse send their children to special coaching classes for cricket, basketball or football etc. paying a hefty fee. Even these are aborted because of the priority given to attending the mandatory special classes on different subjects, considered necessary if the boys/girls have to perform well in their classes! The end result is that the boys and girls are always glued to a variety of gizmos and electronic media, entertaining themselves with games and cartoons at home. Missing the fun of outdoor activities, so necessary for the development of the body and mind of kids. And also for lessons in relationship management.

The only solution to this problem is for schools to have a compulsory games period for all classes at the end of every day before the children leave the school for their homes. If the school has space constraints then such periods could be rotated between different classes on different days.

If the situation is allowed to be continued, I am afraid the modern day kids will turn out to be intelligent zombies unable to face the real world. Young parents and concerned grand parents, it’s worth thinking about it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

When the Amrolias threw open their gates for animal welfare

The Boat Club Road is a great address to have. That the Chennai Adoption Drive has managed to get parking place there is no small achievement. But all thanks (although she hates being thanked) to Sharon Amrolia, an animal lover, who impressed me quite a bit with her maturity and openness.

Sharon’s in advertising, but hasn’t really decided what to do with her life. As it turned out, she is the daughter of J.N. Amrolia, head of HR in Ashok Leyland for decades. I remember having met him in his cabin years ago, and Sharon introduced him to me today after 15 years. Not that he would have remembered, but for me it was a pleasure saying hello to a thorough gentleman.

Sharon herself was gracious to take me around to her front porch where lay her very own Shadow, a 13-year-old Labrador. He (Shadow) had come ambling along to where the pups were and had rested for a while at a vantage point, keen to be part of the activity, but old age drove him back soon indoors.

It is a wonderful thing the Amrolias are doing – solid, silent contribution for animal care. After all, how many would open out their gates to let in visitors? We need more of them, don’t we?

More pictures: the entrance on Boat Club Road to the Amrolia residence; a visitor filling up a form after formally adopting a pup; a volunteer with a timid pup; Sharon with Shadow; and Priya (left) with the smallest pup on show, and Rupa with the most active one, both volunteers at Blue Cross, and both pups from the BC stable.

The Chennai Pet Adoption Drive begins to get up steam

Two young women have suddenly brought about a refreshing change to pet adoption in Chennai. Of course, it’s mainly puppies as well as adult dogs, with kittens and cats taking up a small share. All these years, there really hasn’t been a concerted pet adoption drive as such, save perhaps for the annual adoption camp conducted in recent times by the Blue Cross at the CP Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation premises, where on the campus is Chinny Krishna’s (founder-director, Blue Cross) home. But these are usually one-off shows and the buzz ends with the show.

What Anuradha Manish and Jennifer Murali have now succeeded in doing is to get the buzz and momentum going till the next show and the next, which, on average, is once a month. That by itself is a remarkable thing because it’s not easy to get together volunteers, puppies and people wanting to give up animals for adoption. It needs quite a bit of organising.

Anuradha spent her early years in Assam (her father was in the air force) before coming to Madras; Jennifer grew up here. Together, they have hit the right track – the social networking track, which works wonders in today’s world. Both are on Facebook and are connected to hundreds. With online media being the source of most news stories today, it isn’t surprising that newspapers are featuring the Chennai Pet Adoption drive every time there’s an exercise.

This was something the Blue Cross has never done with some amount of effort. Being an animal lover I remember the times I’ve visited the Blue Cross Web site and the blog, but would be disappointed to see hardly any activity. Blue Cross therefore would do well to learn a thing or two from the enterprise shown by Anuradha and Jennifer.

The exercise does not end with giving away pups or kittens for adoption. There is follow-up required, to see whether the animals are comfortable, whether they are being looked after the way they should. Often, instances are reported of a family adopting a pup and then tying up the animal at home. Anuradha, Jennifer and team have laid down the ground rules, one of which is that a pet must be treated as a member of the family and must enjoy the same freedom the family members have – to move about, to lie down, to play and sulk and generally have a run of the place. This means making new owners understand and convincing them that animals need to be loved and cared for as much as human beings.

Another premise is that Indian dogs are as good, if not better, than any foreign breed. We really do not need the German Shepherd, the Labrador, the Golden Retriever or the Cocker Spaniel to brighten up our lives. Our own local pup can do all that and more. After all, many of the foreign breeds are not used to the Indian climate although they have been bred here for years. This does not mean that we shun the Lhasa Apso and the Dachshund; it’s just that we need to look at animal welfare in the right perspective.

One of the things I suggested to Anuradha and Jennifer was that they should consider organising such camps in different localities, and find animal lovers who may be able to provide space for such activity once in a quarter or so. In today’s world of distances and difficulty in commuting, people are more likely to come when something is organised in the neighbourhood.

Today’s adoption drive at the Boat Club Road premises (read more about it in a later blog) had a fairly good start. At the time of writing this blog, eight puppies had found homes and there were eleven others waiting. I’m sure, as much as the organisers are, that they will soon be adopted by loving families.

Pictures show early visitors fondling pups and creating a buzz; kittens awaiting their turn; "Will I find a loving home?" this pup seems to wonder; and Anuradha (left) and Jennifer with two handsome babies.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Yes, the parks have disappeared… and the Monorail is coming

In the midst of all the confusion that Metro Rail has created in Madras that is Chennai, (more confusion will be created when the Monorail project takes off), we are losing more and more lung space and, very sadly, some of the parks along the planned route are fast disappearing, or have already disappeared.

When I had mentioned on Facebook about the Theosophical Society, thankfully, still remaining a sort of oasis in a city that is fast losing its tree cover, a friend quickly asked me to shut up, lest the powers that be plan something over or under the Adyar gardens of the Society and set about destroying a heritage site. He is right, but I’m sure even the powers that be cannot easily ride roughshod over property belonging to a well-known world institution that happens to have its headquarters in Chennai. But, of course, he has made his point.

Another friend is aghast at the fate that has befallen the once spacious and beautiful Shenoy Nagar Park, a fairly large lung space in the city. She perhaps forgot to mention a similar fate ‘bestowed’ by the powers that be on the park on First Avenue in Ashok Nagar. The park was built and inaugurated with much fanfare after a local citizens group had won a case that went right up to the Supreme Court (if I’m not mistaken). That space was encroached on and used for all kinds of shady purposes, with an eatery called Midnight Masala fronting one part on the roadside; an appropriate name indeed. When the group won the case, the encroachers were bundled out the very next day and soon the Mayor and others got down to brass-tacks and eventually decided in favour of a park, much to the relief of all the residents. The park turned out to be a crowd puller, with young and old converging there every day taking turns at the swing or simply doing the rounds. Now, thanks to Metro Rail, the park is closed and has become a godown of sorts – for the concerned Metro Rail contractor.

Am sure there are other parks and public spaces in Chennai that have been taken up by Metro Rail authorities. Does E. Sreedharan, India’s Metro Rail Man, who was instrumental in providing the capital the Metro and also headed the Konkan Railway project, even know what’s going on in cities like Chennai where Metro Rail work is progressing apace? Am sure he doesn’t. A person of discipline who is not given to discounting the voice of the masses would surely not have let public parks and temples and schools disappear. An old, historic temple in the Police Training College campus in Ashok Nagar was under threat until local voices reached a crescendo. Part of the Jawahar Vidyalaya School buildings has become an empty shell now.

If the Metro in Delhi skirts the Yamuna and does not pass through congested areas, the same is not the case in Bangalore and Chennai. In Calcutta, life was hell while work on the Metro progressed at snail’s pace for years. Today, the Metro is being expanded in outer areas of the city.

We all know the number of tress cut down mercilessly on Bangalore’s heritage walkway, MG Road. I still remember walking down the road early mornings in the early 1980s when the Garden City had a spring in the air and it used to drizzle almost daily throughout the year. That Bangalore has been lost for generations. There is official talk about sapling being planted on MG Road once Metro Rail work is over, but will we be alive to see the saplings grow into sturdy trees. Surely not the coming generation or two. It takes years for a sapling to blossom into a full-grown tree.

The one good (or fortunate) thing in Bangalore is that most of the old city space is owned by the defence establishment. The city grew up as a cantonment town, and the cantonment area is still one of the best parts of Bangalore. With defence you can’t fool around and there is no way you can encroach on its property. So, politicians and our wise city planners have no free reign in these areas. An example is the area occupied by the Defence Research & Development Organisation. I passed that way last week while heading to relatives’ homes in CV Raman Nagar and Kaggadasapura. What a wonderful sight the huge, centuries-old trees provided. I wished I could have rented a house in that area. The air itself was unadulterated, full of the scent of tree leaves and flowers. I felt envious of the people living there.

Unfortunately, Chennai does not have that status and except perhaps for Avadi where there is the Heavy Vehicles Factory, ensconced in a lovely township that is a throwback to the old, and a small pocket in Tambaram, there is little defence property. And now, with the Monorail set to become reality, I wonder what else is in store.

Pictures from Bangalore, taken during my recent visit: a view from a Godrej Properties high-rise in Hebbal which is fast losing its green cover; the bench where I often sit, surrounded by greenery and flowers, and watch the migratory birds in the ITC campus opposite; two shots taken within two kilometers, of the road leading through the DRDO campus on to CV Raman Nagar (this is proof of how well the Indian Defence takes care of its property); and did you say plants simply love Bangalore? yes, they do, they just glow and blossom like women deeply in love.