Sunday, December 1, 2013
In the one-and-a-half years since it was published, I had managed to get only half-way through the first chapter of "Tamarind City" until last week. Over the weekend, I raced through the rest of it, wondering what it was that kept me from finishing this much, much earlier.
I haven't been able to find a solid reason, but there was a vague feeling that by reading the book, I will be biased about what I write on this blog. Towards the end of the last week, I figured out that I was neither writing this blog going nor reading the book and I wanted to get at least one of that done.
Bishwanath Ghosh has an easy familiarity with the city, coupled with the eye of the outsider, that helps him spot interesting quirks in what the lay Chennaite would consider commonplace. Having been a fellow traveller on at least one of the walks that he had taken, it was easy for me to visualize Bishwanath taking in the details and then highlighting that one aspect which brings the city to life for an outsider - and for anyone who hasn't bothered to look around their own living space.
Most of all, it has spurred me to write again, and to remind me that I have to observe and not just see. The blog starts again. And you, if you have any interest in the people of Chennai, do get the book!
Monday, October 21, 2013
Once upon a time, WIMCO was an iconic brand, at the very least in the Tiruvottiyur area. It was one of the earliest factories there. The company itself was incorporated in 1923; the factory at Madras used to make matches, which was what the company was known for, so it is likely that its presence at Tiruvottiyur goes back to the first half of the 20th century.
I don't remember much about the factory, even though I had visited it a couple of times. But I remember this building on Tiruvottiyur High Road very well, since I passed it every day for a couple of years or so. WIMCO itself went through a very tough time in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with industrial unrest being almost a standard feature of its operations. Almost all the workers at Tiruvottiyur left. Wimco Workers Union was without a raison d'être. The building came to be used for other businesses.
Once this building goes - as it is bound to, soon, - there will be little left of WIMCO in this place. The last survivors will be the residential area, still called Wimco Nagar, and the suburban railway station of the same name. Wimco will pass into history!
Sunday, October 20, 2013
The area to the west of Mowbray's Road, in the early 19th century, was largely paddy fields. Further down was the 'Sudder Adawlat', native courts of the time; the main building was called Sadr Gardens - whether that was a corruption of 'Sudder' is a debatable point - and probably was the judge's residence. The Sudder Adawlat was abolished by the Indian High Courts Act of 1861, so by the time its most famous resident was born, Sadr Gardens had forgotten its courtly history and was just a comfortable garden house.
But destiny had a way of re-connecting Sadr Gardens with its legal legacy. One of the most respected judges of the Madras High Court, Justice Basheer Ahmed Syeed, lived at Sadr Gardens for most of his life, certainly from the time he became a judge, in 1950, to his death in 1984. He had professional company in his neighbours; many lawyers spilled over from Mylapore into Alwarpet, on the eastern flank of Mowbray's Road. Among them was Bhashyam Iyengar, a senior lawyer and one who, like Basheer Ahmed, was involved in many public causes. Bhashyam Iyengar had his residence at Champaka Vilas, just south-east of Sadr Gardens.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the paddy fields had gone. Basheer Ahmed was at the height of his social activism, having served on the committee of the Music Academy and also having set up the South India Education Trust; Bhashyam Iyengar was in the twilight of his life. There was a road, or more probably a path, between Sadr Gardens and Champaka Vilas. It was probably after Bhashyam Iyengar's passing away that this road was named after both these legal giants. Since then, many who see this sign for the first time are left wondering how this confusion of a Muslim name beginning with an obviously Iyengar appellation could have arisen!
Monday, October 14, 2013
It is barely 6 am and the light is wonderful. We are about 30km out of Chennai, on the East Coast Road. The Muttukadu Boat House brings back memories of how a college senior fell into the water just as she was getting off the boat, and how quickly panic gave way to embarrassment on realising that the water was only about waist deep at that time.
But that was low tide time and it is not to be taken as an excuse to jump into the waters here. Muttukadu was one more of those open stretches of backwaters along the coast, until a boathouse was opened here by the Tamil Nadu Tourism department, about forty years ago. Even then, it had to struggle to keep itself going. The boat rides that would take you under the bridge and then circle back to the pier were thrilling by themselves, but there was nothing more at the spot.
Not that there is much more available now for the typical holidaymaker out for a good time. The boathouse is bigger, some restaurants are nearby and there are different kinds of boats available. This early in the day, however, we were watching the pelicans and the cormorants, as a solitary fisherman punted his way towards the shore. Hope all of them had a good catch!
Sunday, October 13, 2013
At a time when the world was a much larger place, say a couple of millenia ago, a journey from Mylapore to St Thomas Mount was considerably long-haul. Going inland from the beaches of Mylapore, the traveller would most likely find thick groves, and then the scrub jungles. Coming out of those jungles infested with leopards, wolves and snakes, the traveller would be on the banks of the mighty Adyar river, which must be forded if he was to climb up that hillock of St Thomas Mount.
Thomas Didymus, he of the famed doubt, reportedly made this journey quite frequently. And in the course of doing so, he had at least one specific resting spot, according to legend. Hearing about this, the Portugese settlers at San Thome made sure they also took time out at this spot during their pilgrimage from their seashore settlement to the hillock shrine. Over time, they built a little church here in 1650. It continues to be in use although the name has been changed from the original Portugese Descanco Church to Illaippari Madha Kovil.
Saturday, October 12, 2013
Over the past few (several?) years, there has been a sustained effort to ensure that the names of stores and businesses are displayed in Tamizh as well as in English. Initially, the stores just transliterated their names into Tamizh, but these days, they have gone beyond, and have been using more specific words: e.g. 'அடுமனை' for 'bakery' and 'வந்போருலகம்' for hardware.
This was however a new one on me. I had seen the Tamizh word 'குவியம்' written as 'kuviyam' in English, though I did not know what it meant. When I saw this sign, I just had to look it up - and it seemed very nice, to 'mis-spell' it in English, and to make it fit the business of being an optician: 'kuveyeam' means 'focus'!
Friday, October 11, 2013
There were a lot of coloured flags along the school wall and I was trying to figure out what they were for. A small sign (you can see it too, if you click on the photo to enlarge it and then check between the second and third flags from the right) gave me a clue, even though I could not really believe it.
The Ewart School - it has a much longer official name - started off in 1913 with three students. It was part of the effort by the Church of England to provide girls with proper education, at least as a finishing school. Over its century, Ewart's has had 7 principals - each of them serving for a long enough stretch to leave their imprint on the school.
The school song is a piece by Rudyard Kipling. I was wondering if he wrote it for Ewart's, but no, he did not. And it is not his work 'A School Song', but the closing poem, 'The Children's Song' from 'Puck of Pook's Hill' that has been used here!
Thursday, October 10, 2013
If you have ever had questions about how the patterns of rural-to-urban migration have evolved over the years, this is one place you could probably look to for answers. The Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) was founded in 1971 by Dr Malcolm S. Adiseshiah after his retirement as a Deputy Director-General of the UNESCO. The work that he turned out was impressive enough for the government of India to think about making it an institute of national importance. Accordingly, in 1977, MIDS was taken over by the government (both centre and state governments collaborate in its administration now).
Even though its work continues to provide significant inputs to the development agendas of governments at various levels - remember, it does have a national brief - the main body of the MIDS continues to operate in these premises. It was Dr Adiseshiah's house, which the MIDS trust turned over to the government - and it appears to be pretty much the same way it was when it was taken over!
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
This pier is just outside and parallel to the eastern boundary of the Bharati Dock. It juts out a long way to the northeast, and helps to form a channel through which ships enter and leave the Port of Chennai. This basically means that you cannot sail a ship in a straight line from Port Blair to enter the Port of Chennai; even though the course of that shipping route is a straight line, your ship will have to turn to the north and then make a U-turn to get into the city's harbour.
The light at this end of the pier is named after the eighth Viceroy of India, Lord Dufferin. Did he contribute to the extension of the port in any way? I don't have an answer to that, but I hope that someone will be able to come up with an explanation of why and how it came to be called the Dufferin Light. The only other nautical connection that I have been able to find is that the first dedicated training ship in India for marine engineering was the RMIS Dufferin!
Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Monday, October 7, 2013
Tucked away at a corner of the Chennai port is a little waterbody called the Timber Pond. It does not berth any of the ships coming in to the Chennai port, but it serves as the parking spot for private yachts as well as the port tugs.
The Royal Madras Yacht Club has its office at the edge of the Timber Pond. First time sailors are let out into the Pond, where traffic is limited and, should the hull capsize, rescue can be quick. The kids in the picture are both out on their first sail all by themselves. They did topple out a couple of times, but kept their heads above water and right the hull. It all seemed so commonplace, that it was difficult to believe they had fallen off into some 40-foot deep waterbody!
Sunday, October 6, 2013
This stone tells of a tree being planted to mark the centenary of a building’s foundation. That’s a nice, ‘green’ marker, and it tells you that being green is not a new fad. This tree was planted by Lady Willingdon, the then governor’s wife. That should give you some indication of how long ago it was done.
That tree is itself now nearly a century old. Planted in 1923, it was part of the centenary celebrations at St Mathias Church, in Vepery. More of the church itself later!
Saturday, October 5, 2013
Once upon a time, the name of this street was a little longer. But with the government deciding that caste names and titles should not be publicly acknowledged, the original name of Kalavai Chetty Street was shortened. And in doing so, they anonymised one of Madras' prominent merchants, Kalavai Chetty. Some of his business partners, who were dubashes of the British East India Company, are remembered - with their full titles - in street names of George Town.
Kalavai Chetty was quite prosperous and lived north of Fort St George. His business dealings took up a lot of time and he was unable to visit the Kachhapeeswarar temple in Kanchipuram as often as he would have liked to. His solution was simple: build a temple in Madras itself. That he did, giving over a part of his lands on what is today Armenian Road. It may not have hurt him much, because at his peak, the leases he held included Tiruvottiyur, Tondiarpet, Vyasarpadi, Purasaiwakkam, Egmore and Nungambakkam.
The settlement of Chintadripet, where this street is located, was a little after his heyday, although he must still have been around. Maybe he gave up a part of his holdings here for the settlement to come up, and hence a street with his name came up here rather than in George Town. How nice it would have been to have retained his anglicised name, Colloway Chetty, in this street - when the Chetty dropped, that would have got us all mixed up!
Friday, October 4, 2013
It must have been a lovely residence in its time, but it is now a bhoot-bangla. Set back from the road, it would be missed by almost everyone walking past. All along Ritherdon Road, the buildings, even old ones appeared to be quite well maintained, so this one came as a surprise. Managed to get this one picture before the watchman there insisted we go away.
Surprisingly, there are several buildings like this one. Left to ruin because there are several claimants to the property, litigating over it. Wonder if any of the neighbourhood kids use this to play in… or is that too dangerous?
Thursday, October 3, 2013
Was ‘security’ in business complexes always this bad? Of course they used to ask you about why you were coming in, who is it you had to meet, and all of those questions, but it was still a human process. As an employee in one of those complexes – or factories – you had a friendly equation with the security folks, but with the implicit understanding that if you tried funny stuff, he wasn’t going to be your friend.
But the people working in this building on the OMR tell me that the guards make no attempt at being friendly. Even if the same guard has seen you for the past five years, s/he will still have a few questions to ask, and they are not about the weather or your haircut.
Well, maybe they are doing their job, but it makes you feel that you have accomplished something heroic!
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
The Khalas Mahal was once the palace of the Nawab of Arcot, and it has now been taken over by the government to house some of its offices. With that, many parts of the Mahal are now out of bounds, with even the employees not accessing them at all.
This balcony is one such. It was originally built with a lot of flourish, with a fair amount of detail in the wood-work, as well as in the three marble mosaics immediately below it. Unfortunately, not many people who visit these offices have time to look at these details, for they would be dreading other kinds of details the officers might demand of them!
It is the theme day at City Daily Photo and the theme for today is 'Details'. More details at the CDPB Theme Day page
Monday, September 30, 2013
You may have seen the mouth of the Cooum earlier and remember that as a fairly straight-forward affair. The river runs in through the city and empties out into the Bay of Bengal near the northern end of the Marina Beach. On the other hand, the Adayar river splits off into the Adayar Creek, a marshland ecosystem, before merging with the sea. The mouth of the river is therefore less well defined as that of the Cooum and for that reason, it is all the more interesting.
This view from the Government Music College shows a part of the mouth - the river Adayar appears to narrow down a bit as it passes into the Bay in the distance!
Sunday, September 29, 2013
It was probably too early in the day for the children to be out. And we weren't buying any of those colourful toys that this man was carrying around. The choice was tempting: Spiderman and Mickey Mouse masks, multicoloured toy windmills and those vuvuzela-like contraptions that are guaranteed to give a kid a great time.
But no, we weren't buying any. You will have to wait for the children to arrive, toy-man!
Saturday, September 28, 2013
Once upon a time, this was part of a palace, where lived Khairunnisa Begum, the widow of the last Nawab of the Carnatic, Ghulam Ghouse Khan Bahadur Azam. After her time, the building was given over to a school that was begun by her husband's ancestors and, since her husband had thrown it open to the public at large, is now known by his poetic name as the Madrasa-I-Azam.
When he set it up in 1761, Nawab Muhammed Ali Wallajah intended it for the education of the children of the royal family. His successor, Nawab Umdat-ul-Umrah, opened it up to provide education for children of other nobles as well as the officers of his armies. In the last days of the Nawab-dom, the agent to the Nawabs convinced Ghulam Ghouse Khan to open up the Madrasa to the public at large. The date on the top of this building refers to the time the Madrasa 'went public' in the mid-nineteenth century. The school moved to this building, the Umdah Bagh, in 1909.
The school was handed over to the government sometime after that. Even during the 1970s, the school was sought after, because it taught Urdu, Arabic and Persian. But it went into decline a little after. The school functions from other buildings on the grounds of the Umdah Bagh, but this one is all gone; a hand-lettered sign on the wall cautions visitors against entering the shell!
To see a photo from earlier times, take a look at this.
Friday, September 27, 2013
There was a time when these machines were a standard fixture in every house. Mostly they were there as a standby; it was not as if all dresses were home-tailored. They would be used to shorten the elder brother's trousers for the younger, or to let out the waist as the boy expanded. Serious clothes, like those for festivals, were always handed over to the professionals - who would deliver them the night before, after endless haranguing over the delay.
The tailors continue to run their business, even if their clientele has changed a bit. But the home machines are probably less used these days, which is probably why this pay-per-stitch service is popular in some parts of the city.
Thursday, September 26, 2013
Wednesday, September 25, 2013
The Ispahani Centre, on Nungambakkam High Road, is certainly more modern than its (somewhat) namesake in George Town. But for all that, the history of Ispahanis in Madras continues to remain a mystery - at least for me!
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Makes your head spin, does it? Looking up at these stairs inside Clive House, you do get a tinge of vertigo. The stairs are to one side of the great hall on the first floor of the building and take you to different levels, up, down and sideways.
The Great Hall inside Clive House is not much to look at, for it is just that - a big hall. It is when you think about the debates and the arguments that may have taken place there that you realize its significance in shaping the dominion of India. Though originally owned by Shawmier Sultan, an Armenian merchant, the Admiralty House was taken over by the East India Company in 1755. The Great Hall was used not only for meetings but also for banquets and balls. During one of the wars, when St Mary's Church served as a granary, the Great Hall was used for conducting services.
Most of the rooms leading off, and adjacent to the Hall are locked up today. You can troop up and down these stairs, but the only door that you can pass through is the one below that lets you out of the building!
Monday, September 23, 2013
The new auto-rickshaw fares have had people buzzing on the social media. Most of Chennai's residents have possibly never have had the experience of paying a standardized fare, having had to pay whatever was demanded - or to feel good at having negotiated a rate Rs.10 less than that.
The extent of the fleecing has become obvious with the introduction of the revised fare tables. From the numbers being reported, people have been paying a premium of anything between 30% to 40% over the current rates. All the auto-rickshaws are to have the revised meters fitted in before October 15; since September 15, they are expected to charge by distance, in line with the official rate cards which have been issued to each individual auto.
No card, no fare. That's the intent. With so much of potential saving, folks should insist on paying by the card. Yes, fuel prices may have increased after these cards were issued. But the impact of those increases on these rates is marginal. So, no misplaced sympathy for the auto-rickshaw drivers. The moment people start showing such 'understanding and sympathy', we will go back to the earlier anarchy!
Sunday, September 22, 2013
The new terminal at the Chennai airport has a whole lot of can-be-better items, discussion about each of which can go on for several pages. Maybe because those items relate to the more functional aspects of the terminal, there seems to have been very little said about the aesthetics of such pieces of art around the airport.
Most pieces are quite tolerable; this one of a horse is quite an intricate work. It has over 200 separate pieces that have been put together. Each of the pieces has quite a bit of detailed work on it and it certainly must have been done with a lot of passion. The finished product may not be to everyone's liking, but little can be faulted with the effort that has gone into it.
In the manner of most of the city's public installations (remember the flame and the women?), these pieces also have no descriptions. Shouldn't there be some recognition of the artist and highlights of the work itself? What do you think?
Saturday, September 21, 2013
Maybe 'Golden Boy' would be more appropriate, considering his background. Chennai has several statues of movie heroes, most of them in public spaces. This one however seems to have been installed by converting a corner of the property he occupied in Mehta Nagar, off Nelson Manickam Road.
You are right, that is Shobhan Babu's statue. In a career across four decades, from 1965 to 1996, he acted in about 120 films. In a majority of them, he played the lone lead hero - and popular lore has it that in almost every one of those films, he romanced more than one heroine. That may not be entirely true, but it certainly burnished his reputation as a glamourous star and kept the producers happy. Shobhan Babu is the only second actor - after Dilip Kumar - to have won three consecutive Filmfare awards for best actor, so there must have been something more to him than just the stardust.
The statue catches your eye, not only because it is at a busy intersection. Trying to recall the other 'golden' statues that I have seen only brings two others to mind - Jagjivan Ram's at Ezhilagam and Sivaji Ganesan's on the Marina. But neither of them is topped off with the black hair that keeps Shobhan Babu's glamour intact!
Friday, September 20, 2013
Thursday, September 19, 2013
Once upon a time, there were a group of islands at the point where the Adayar entered the Bay of Bengal. Today, the only reminder of that is the chicken-neck of Greenways Road, just as it reaches Foreshore Estate, which separates two parts of the Adayar Creek. It is not that the place itself is a reminder, for you can well zip along it without having to think about islands; it is just that, by the side of the road, you see a gate in a brick wall, with a sign next to it saying "Quibble Island Cemetery".
This is a cemetery that has not been in use for a little while now. The last entry must have been sometime ago - the closest I can date it is 2005, when Valampuri John was buried here. The first goes back to the late 19th century. The place is guarded and maintained by a caretaker, but I haven't yet been able to go inside and look around.
It would be interesting to do so. There is reportedly a lot of diversity in the graves; children and ancients, public figures and private citizens. But one particularly notable feature is that this cemetery was used Roman Catholics and Protestants alike.
And before my friend reminds me: the most popular tomb here is reported to be that of the comedian JP Chandrababu - it is said that fans place flowers on his grave even to this day!
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Vinayaga Chaturti was ten days ago; all the idols of the elephant-headed God would have been immersed in the sea by now (including that one made of silver, valued at Rs.20 lakh).
This one, however, is in one of the lobbies at The Leela Palace in Chennai and doesn't look like it is going to take a swim anytime now.