Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Sunday breakfast with Rotarians, and a slice of heritage

Sundays are usually lazy days, at least that is how you feel in the early part of the morning. So, you don’t expect a packed attendance at a Rotary breakfast meeting. There were hardly 15 Rotarians when I arrived in time for breakfast – idli, vada, pongal, sambar, coffee – about 8.30 am. But in the half hour following, the number doubled and by the time the hosts draped a ponnadai around my shoulders it was house-full.

The members were made up of a motley group comprising advocates, professors, builders, teachers, businessmen, students and others. I was introduced by an elderly member and I noticed she had taken pains to scribble two full pages, adding copiously to an email I had sent her about my background. In the event she made several errors, but on occasions such as it is best to let them pass.

A sumptuous breakfast is unlikely to keep you awake for long when you are seated comfortably and as it turned out there were a couple of heads suddenly dropping on shoulders and then springing back to attention. But these occurrences were momentary and by and large the audience was wide awake. That was enough motivation as I launched into the romance of old – of Andrew Cogan, Francis Day and Beri Thimmappa, of Madraspattnam, Chennapattnam and George Town, of St Mary’s Church in the Fort, the oldest British building in Madras, and of some of the early institutions established by governors like Elihu Yale.

And then, about how during the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture was considered the form best suited to convey imperial majesty in the Indian empire, and about the genius of Robert Chisholm, Henry Irwin, and Paul Benfield before them.

About Senate Hall, its classic restoration and sad present state, about Bharat Insurance Building or Kardyl Building built for WE Smith, pharmacists, a classic example of neglect, and about the fate that awaits the Royapuram Railway Station, the oldest in India after the one at Bori Bunder was long gone. Even as Mumbai’s VT and the Niligiri Mountain Railway are preserved as heritage structures.

About the Metro Rail continuing to create a stir in the city on a regular basis – with CSI Wesley Church the latest, and earlier with a building in the Teachers Training College campus in Saidapet, with P. Orr & Sons before that, and many other smaller instances.

About the need for a comprehensive Heritage Act without which buildings will continue to be razed. Like a 164-year-old church in Coimbatore was, and how part of the Rangammal Palace in Madurai was.

I thought I’d get into the details about Khalas Mahal (the one bright spark now) and the Chepauk Palace when I noticed the elderly lady who introduced me nodding her head gently. My time was up and the Rotarians wanted to say their goodbyes and leave. They had given me an hour (much more than the allotted or usual time given to speakers) and now they wanted to catch up on fellowship. For a Sunday morning it wasn't so bad after all, I thought.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A meeting with the legendary B.G. Verghese

Some names keep floating in your mind from an early age. And even if you didn't know when you were six or seven or eight, what these names meant, you knew they related to some great people. Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance. Nehru was a name I remember my father and uncle others in their group talk about – I must have been about four then or, may be, five. I still remember our maidservant, Veshu (God bless her wherever she is), in Calcutta showing me pictures in The Statesman, and pointing to the Moomins, a comic strip that was quite popular. There were several other names – Edwn Aldrin, Elvis Presley, Rajesh Khanna, Bradman – that meant something special during my formative years of childhood.

One such name was that of B.G. Verghese. I remember my brother-in-law mentioning Verghese’s name while reading The Statesman. It was probably in 1975, when Verghese received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for outstanding contribution to journalism. His name quite possibly must have cropped up when there were endless discussions at my home about the Emergency, when Verghese lost his editorship of the Hindustan Times for daring to criticise Indira Gandhi, to whom he was information advisor in the late 1960s. So, the name stuck.

Years later, when I enrolled for a course in Journalism, B.G. Verghese’s name came to the fore when A.S. Padmanabhan, who took Writing classes for us, spoke eloquently about Verghese’s thundering editorial in the Hindustan Times: Kanchenjunga, Here We come.

Years later again, two colleagues of mine presented me with Verghese’s Warrior of the Fourth Estate, a biography on Ramnath Goenka.

So, Boobli George Verghese has been a sort of constant in my life ever since I can remember. But I had never in my widest dreams thought about connecting with him. Life as they say has strange ways. When I started editing Vidura, one of the journals produced by the Press Institute of India, it suddenly occurred to me to send a soft copy to Verghese. I was more than pleasantly surprised to receive his reply, thanking me and wishing me well. I then sent him soft copies of the other journals – Grassroots and RIND Survey.

I was in seventh heaven when Verghese one day sent me an email saying he valued the contribution I was making, and editing three journals was quite creditable. I couldn’t believe that a person of his stature, former editor of the Hindustan Times and the Indian Express, and a sort of doyen in the field, could be so generous. To every email I sent him, he would respond. I found this quite remarkable, considering that most editors and journalists today hardly ever bother to reply (at least from my experience).

A few months ago, I invited Verghese to inaugurate a two-day workshop on national security in Bangalore that the Press Institute of India had organised. He had earlier spared time to send me valuable inputs regarding the subjects we had chosen for talks. Verghese agreed to come and I had his tickets booked. At last, I thought, I would be able to meet the legendary figure about whom I had heard so much since childhood. However, it was not to be. Verghese’s wife had a fall and Verghese himself was down with a bad back.

Two days before the workshop I received a call on my mobile phone. It was a stentorian voice with clear, excellent diction. He was sorry, the flight tickets would have to be cancelled, he said. I was downcast but managed to respond and wished him speedy recovery. We at the institute were all disappointed that Verghese was not coming.

Our correspondence continued. A few weeks ago I received his email saying he would be in Chennai to speak at the diamond jubilee celebrations of the Triplicane Cultural Academy at the PS Senior Secondary School Dakshinamoorthy Auditorium and that he would be happy to meet me. I marked the date in my calendar and made a mental note as well.

Finally, yesterday, after his scintillating speech, I met B.G. Verghese on stage and got his book, First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India, autographed. It was an unforgettable moment. The hall by then (past 8.30 pm) was deserted except for a close friend of mine who waited patiently. Tired, after his hour-long speech and replying to questions from the audience, I sensed he wished to get back and retire for the night. I did not press for much time with him but said I’d try and meet him in Delhi when I visited next. It was a humbling experience and it struck me that for all his frailties at his age B.G. Verghese was still a giant of a man.