This article appeared in The Hindu dated November 22, 2014 under the Hidden Histories column
Those of you who follow the writings of The Man from Madras Musings will know that he has contempt, only contempt and nothing but contempt for the Tamil serials that are beamed on the various channels every evening. He has written about their terrible production quality, poor acting skills, awful story lines and obsession with tragedy. You may want to ask as to why MMM persists in watching them. MMM assures you that he does not, but there are times when, while pacing up and down some regions of his house, he cannot but help overhear a dialogue or two. And such is the slow pace and trite plot of most of these productions that you can pick up the story line at any time and any point in the narrative.
But amongst all of these, the very nadir is an offering that rejoices in the name of Divine Daughter. The dramatis personae includes a short-tempered hero, his estranged wife, his aged parents, her bewildered and grief stricken mother, a well-meaning uncle, a half-witted sister, an evil sister-in-law with a submissive husband, and a couple of hangers-on whose existence, like that of the serial, has no meaning or purpose.
Whenever time hangs heavy on this cast, which is often, the producer or director or screenplay writer, if there is one, has a character fall ill or suffer an injury. The afflicted person (and by that MMM does not mean the viewer) is then wheeled into the ICU of a hospital where he/she rests for a whole week, with all the other actors weeping and moaning and saying how sad it is all. MMM wonders as to what kind of a hospital it is where not one but a whole dozen people are allowed into the ICU where they can talk loudly, quarrel, swear and even come to blows.
It is the considered view of MMM that the actors draw lots to decide on whose turn it is to get admitted to hospital next. A fortnight ago it was the hero who drew the short straw. Now, being a specimen of physical fitness, it was not easy to get him to fall ill or suffer an accident and so they had someone knife him. He was then rushed to the hospital with the weapon inside him with, of course, the entire chorus following him headlong into the operation theatre. After a couple of episodes of wailing and lamenting in which activity the heroine’s mother, like Abou Ben Adam, led all the rest, the doctor pronounced that it was imperative that an operation be done on the hero for which, hold your breath, the family would have to cough up Rs. 12 lakh! MMM wonders what kind of a surgery it was, perhaps all the organs of the hero needed replacement.
This decree of the doctor was received in melodramatic style – old parents aghast, estranged wife weeping (though why she should weep after the way he treated her in episodes 203 to 243 beats MMM), her mother lamenting for the nth time as to why God had chosen her, like Mona Lisa, for all the world’s sorrows, the evil sister-in-law pursing her lips in joy while her husband simpers, and the half-witted girl making a half-witted pronouncement as is to be expected. Last seen, each member of the family spent a full episode trying in vain to muster the Rs. 12 lakh though as to why they cannot each contribute just one lakh to make up the amount is beyond MMM. All this while the hero is still in the ICU with the knife or whatever it is stuck in his abdomen, fifteen days after the stabbing. MMM recommends the grandmother’s remedy – feed him bananas and watch his stools. But that would mean the storywriter has to come up with some other plot, would it not? In the meanwhile, watch this space in 2019 for further updates.
It came with a bang, but as it leaves, it has caused heartache all around. For Chennai, and perhaps the rest of India, it is a lesson on the good and the bad of liberalisation. What is certain is that life will never be the same for the 8000 former employees of Nokia and for the larger group that was employed by the ancillaries of the company, as they all wind up and leave.
When Nokia set up base in Sriperumbudur, it was held up as an instance of the positives that can be wrought by an open economy. The State Government bent over backwards in the wooing process – guaranteed power, land at concessional rates and fast track clearances of all approvals. The agreement was signed in 2005 and within a year, the first batch of cell phones was being shipped out. Nokia was then the world leader, controlling over 60 per cent of the international cell phone market. By 2010, when its performance peaked, the Chennai facility was its largest unit worldwide and together with its ancillaries employing over 40,000 people.
And it took good care of them. Salaries were higher than what they would have got in the traditional auto ancillaries. Moreover, women were preferred for the jobs and that transformed the lives of several of those who lived in Sriperumbudur and around. Buses came to pick them up from their homes and drop them back. There was job security and some wonderful facilities such as crèches where mothers could leave their infants while working. There were some negatives too – not that many people were bothered about them while the going was good – farmhands were no longer available in Sriperumbudur and so agriculture declined. The land was divided into housing plots and sold as real estate – but who cared?
Then came the swift descent. With smart phones making their appearance and Nokia having overlooked their potential, it began losing markets worldwide to companies such as Samsung, Apple and Chinese manufacturers. The behemoth was soon in the red worldwide and was acquired by Microsoft. All except the Indian plant that is. It remained outside the purview of the sale thanks to a dispute with the Indian Government over income tax. The IT authorities allege that the company evaded tax to the tune of Rs 21,000 crore while paying royalties to its parent since 2006. Microsoft made it clear that it was not interested in sorting out matters concerning complicated Indian tax laws and so the plant here was a clear untouchable. It continued manufacturing phones for its parent under a contract till earlier this year when Microsoft stopped releasing orders. With that there was no option but for the plant to close.
There are some firsts in this closure. Chennai has never before been impacted this way by something that it strictly had no control over – demand for phones changed all over the world. Secondly, this is perhaps the first time that the Government is remaining silent when a large employer has folded up in the city. Earlier instances, such as Binny’s and Standard Motors, saw the State intervening and messing matters up to a great extent. Lastly, beyond making a few feeble noises, the Unions have remained passive as well. They view the severance package to be quite generous and would not like to interfere in the process.
Some things have changed forever however – for instance, land in the area can never go back to agriculture. The clutter of real estate is here to stay. And most employees are finding it difficult to work for other companies, having become used to Nokia’s good practices.
Can the plant be revived? That will happen only if another cell phone manufacturer is interested. And they are unlikely to come if the tax case takes its own time for resolution. If there can be a quick settlement, prospects can brighten. After all, India is the largest market for cell phones and it would make sense to manufacture here. Amma phones, anyone thinking?
“Make in India” may be the buzz now, but there was a time when ‘to make in Madras’ meant fighting vested interests. The accompanying advertisement may bring old memories — of pencils such as Kohinoor, Ajantha and Spectrum, all sold by V. Perumal Chetty & Sons, and manufactured at their Madras Pencil Factory. That factory closed in the 1990s, but it had a history that stretched to a time when ‘make in Madras’ was considered possible.
It was sometime in 1899 that the Madras government got Alfred Chatterton, of the College of Engineering, to study the potential to set up industries. He did pioneering work in this area, first demonstrating that aluminium could be used in place of brass and copper to make vessels. That effort led to the Indian Aluminium Company (INDAL). The established business houses of Madras, all British-owned, were not happy with this. They were comfortable exporting raw materials to Britain and importing finished goods. Local industrial development they felt would mean Indians would take to it, thereby threatening them with competition.
But Chatterton was undeterred. In 1908, he convinced the Government of Madras to set up a Department of Industries, a first for the entire country. The Swadesi movement led by patriots such as V.O. Chidambaram Pillai was gaining ground then. Chatterton openly sided with the Swadesi Movement, declaring it “a good sign for India to develop her industrial life” and “Madras to rid itself of its character of an overstocked market of literacy employment”. His colleague Frederick Nicholson went a step further, stating that in the matter of Indian industries, “we are bound to consider Indian interests — firstly, secondly and thirdly — I mean by firstly, that local raw products should be utilised; by secondly that industries should be introduced and by thirdly, the profits of such industry should remain in the country.”
Both Chatterton and Nicholson felt that the government would need to set up small industries, which could then be sold to Indians to run. Nicholson established the Fisheries Department and created the Lalita Soap Works in Madras. Chatterton founded the Government (later Madras) Pencil Factory at Korukkupet. He imported wood from East Africa for the pencils and ran advertisements with a strong nationalist slant as you can see, to drum up business.
The business houses of Madras lobbied hard through the Madras Chamber of Commerce and got the Department of Industries closed in 1910. It was only after repeated protests by Indians in the Madras Legislative Council that it was reinstated in 1914. Its resurrection was celebrated with a Madras Industries Exhibition organised by the Department.
The Government operated the pencil factory till 1918 and then put it up for sale. A syndicate of Komati Chettys of Madras, led by the Perumal Chetty clan, bought it and the rest is history. Chatterton and Nicholson were knighted, which is not the kind of reward that civil servants would get today if they went against the establishment for the sake of public interest.
This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column dated November 15, 2014
It has happened once again. A few days of continuous rain and consequently our roads have given up. Wide craters, deep ruts, cracks and potholes have resurfaced, putting paid to the Corporation’s claim that it had relaid 10,000 roads at a cost of Rs 400 crore. To what purpose this expenditure if the surfaces cannot withstand a few days of rain?
It was early in February this year that the Corporation formed a quality control wing comprising 21 employees. They were sent around in vans to collect samples from roads being laid. It was discovered that around 85 per cent of the thoroughfares failed the quality test. The parameters tested included temperature of the bitumen and aggregate mix when poured, the quality of the bitumen used, the level of penetration, and the road thickness. The Corporation then declared that it would ask the contractors to relay the roads or withhold their payments.
What happened after that is not known but it is a well understood reality that contractors operate in cartels when it comes to dealing with the Corporation. They claim that they need this protection as they have to deal with corruption and also political interference. What they earn at the end of the day is always less than what was promised on paper, they claim. It is their view that if they were to be asked to adhere to all quality norms, they would go bankrupt! One way to break the cartels is to go for global tenders. But then no international bidder will want to deal with the tortuous ways of our bureaucracy. These companies are also invariably interested only in large projects. The Corporation has for years broken up its roads into small stretches and allotted them to various contractors. This will never do if global tenders are to be invited. The civic body is clearly caught in a bind of its own making.
That the much-touted panacea of concrete roads has also failed was more than evident. This was despite the Corporation claiming that the number of areas that experienced flooding had come down by half thanks to the use of concrete. The lack of quality in the way the concrete was laid has led to the creation of permanent bumps and potholes that nothing can now remove them. Added to this was the problem of junctions where tar roads met their concrete counterparts. Huge craters had opened up at these places, causing accidents as well.
The quality of road laying apart, the very methodology that is followed appears flawed. For years, we have seen that fresh layers of tar are poured on to earlier road surfaces, thereby increasing road levels arbitrarily at various places. Ours being a flat city, even small alterations in gradient can cause flooding. This has been completely overlooked, resulting in side roads becoming higher than main roads if covered in concrete. The water then pours out and floods the arterial roads. The rising road levels have also resulted in buildings being constructed on high plinths. With most modern constructions having largely concrete covered surfaces, there is no water absorption capacity and the surface run-off has no option but to flood neighbouring areas.
It has also been noticed that, for several years now, road digging for underground activity such as drain-clearing or laying, ducting and cabling gathers momentum just when the monsoon is around the corner. This year has been no different. The Corporation claims that it has very little to do with road-cuts. Its web site blames TANGEDCO, the CMWSSB and the PWD for these things. But surely it has the influence to ensure that these bodies complete their activities well before the monsoon?
With such a mixture of malpractice, poor quality, dysfunctional departments and administrative sloth, it is no wonder our roads are in such a mess. With one more month of the monsoon left, our problems can only worsen.
Close on the heels of the Corporation conducting a training programme on heritage conservation for its engineers, the State Government has decided to conduct a six-week training programme on conservation and restoration of monuments and temples. This is mainly for the engineers of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Board which controls all the State-run temples, but it is open to other Government engineers wishing to attend. This is a most welcome move, but it is to be hoped that the training is put to good use in practice.
It cannot be denied that in the past few years, the Governments, both at the Centre and the State, have been allocating handsome budgets for temple restoration. The 13th Finance Commission had allocated Rs. 90 crore for the renovation of over 200 temples in the State with the rider that the restoration could not tamper with the heritage value of the shrines. Thus far the State has utilised Rs.67.5 crore of this for work on 183 temples. The balance will be spent this year on 46 temples.
While the Government spending on temple restoration is heartening, for these are most often the only surviving symbols of our rich heritage, what is not so laudatory is the manner in which it is done. We keep reading news reports of age-old murals being whitewashed, ancient edicts and inscriptions being sandblasted and, worse, being covered with vitrified tiles. Stones bearing valuable historic records are thrown away and the craze for building gopurams at times ensures that ancient pavilions are destroyed with no hesitation. The necessity to provide air circulation in sanctum sanctorums has seen ugly metal ducts making their appearance, often by gouging stonework. Tube lights, ugly wall paintings, and plenty of protective grillework complete the picture. All this often causes irreversible damage which could be avoided if those in charge are sensitised. And this is what is hoped this workshop will achieve.
Said to be the first of its kind in the country, the programme is to be conducted by the State Archaeology Department with the course curriculum having been drawn up in consultation with IIT Madras, the Archaeological Survey of India, the Museums Department and the Madras University. A notable absentee is the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) which should have ideally been roped in given its track record. In recent years, INTACH has been responsible for some brilliant restoration work across the country. In the city, we have the Senate House completed in 2007 and, as for the rest of the State, the restoration of the Muchukunda murals in the Tiruvarur temple in 2011 is another splendid example. Why then this hesitation in consulting INTACH? It is time that the Government wakes up and realises that some private participation in its laudable exercises will do no harm.
Apart from getting INTACH involved, we feel that attendance at the training programmes should have also been made compulsory for the Public Works Department (PWD) too, given that it is the department that is going to be working on the restoration of two important city landmarks – the Chepauk Palace and the National Art Gallery (formerly the Victoria Memorial Hall). The funds for these projects are to come from Finance Commission grants and so the same rider of “restoration without tampering with heritage value” will hold good. The current methods adopted by the PWD are in no way sympathetic to heritage restoration and need to be overhauled completely. For this to be done, its engineers need to be sensitised to heritage restoration the same way as those of theCorporation and the HR&CE. Will that miracle happen soon?
The Rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain is a well-known song. In Chennai, rains are somewhat of a rarity but when they do come, they stay on the plain too, rarely making it to the drain. To the mind of The Man from Madras Musings, there are some areas in the city where gondolas need to be pressed into service as soon as it rains.
One such is this thoroughfare in Royapettah that connects to a rather important office. This road gets locked, sorry, blocked on most days for reasons of security and, so, drainage work is next to impossible. As a consequence, it is always ill-prepared for the rains and floods that almost immediately follow. This time it was no different.
The day after the rains, MMM happened to be driving by when traffic came to a halt. MMM’s car remained stationary for over fifteen minutes at the entrance to this road and he got a ringside view of how the Chennai Water Supply and Sewerage Board (or is it the Corporation) handles such situations. The police obliged by putting up the usual metal barricades of which they appear to have plentiful supply. A huge tanker lorry then pushed its way through the traffic, liberally spraying everyone around with the stagnant water. A short while later, the vehicle was brought to position after much shouting, yelling, cursing and swearing, of which we are as amply blessed as we are with metal barricades.
Four raincoated men now got out, their gumboots making for an impressive display as they waded about. MMM felt proud to see them. Chennai was becoming like Singapore, he thought, with its drain workers being so well dressed. But it went steadily downhill from there onwards.
Locating the blocked manhole proved a challenge and involved asking an evidently lower level worker (less fully clad) to grope for it. When discovered, it was opened with much effort. A tree trunk was shoved in as a marker and then a hose was reeled out from the tanker to pump out the water. Either the pressure was too high or the hose was of a sound vintage, for it immediately broke into three (or possibly four) pieces. The groping routine was repeated to locate the pieces, which then had to be tied together with rags. In the meanwhile, the water pressure was so high that it spouted up in a powerful jet, drenching everyone, that is those who had been spared by the tanker when it made its entry.
Fixing the hose after it was reassembled was a difficult task, as the water would keep pushing it away. And even when it was put into position, it kept breaking up. By then the traffic had begun to move. Last seen, MMM noticed one of the men sitting on the hose to contain the pressure while others were trying to fit the other pieces to it.
As is always the case, there were plenty of passers-by who did their bit, namely shouting advice, giving a running commentary of sorts, and generally passing the time of the day. What MMM was not prepared for was a foreigner taking pictures on his ipad. MMM looks forward to the day when he will be able to see how the story ended, probably in a video on Youtube.
Years ago, when The Man from Madras Musings was a Cherubic Child of Calcutta, his father had done the rounds seeking admission for him (by which MMM means MMM and not his father) at various schools in the latter city. A missionary institution with a vast campus, named after the Apostle of Madras, was willing to give him a seat. But what made MMM’s pater pull his son out at the last minute was a signboard in the campus. Addressed to parents, it advised them to take a certain pathway “for the safety of their child.” This some wag had turned to face in the direction of a deep and reed-infested pond. MMM’s father, no doubt knowing his Hamlet and of what happened to Ophelia therein, withdrew his ward at once, who then went on to be the leading curse of another school but in a smaller and more concrete-covered campus.
This incident came back rather vividly to MMM’s mind recently when it poured cats and dogs in our usually rain-short city. Undounted by the rain, MMM decided to honour his commitment to attend an event that was being held at a college deep in the southern fringes of the metro that we know so well. Arriving by noon at the place, MMM was asked by the security to drive on. MMM obeyed and drove on until he came to a fork. A signboard bearing the legend “No Entry” very clearly declared the road on the left to be out of bounds and, so, deducing from this that the road on the right was the only way, MMM went ahead.
Sailed may have been the mot juste, for what lay on the right was a vast sheet of water. But you know how it is, what with working for the Chief and walking hand-in-hand in life with the One who is also known as She Who Must Be Obeyed, MMM never questions instructions. In that he is more or less like any member of the Light Brigade. And so he went ahead. It was only after driving on for some time that MMM realised that the waters were rising and the wheels of his car were making squelching noises, thereby indicating that they were negotiating what may well have been a tank bed.
Lord Ullin’s Daughter was the poem that came to MMM’s mind (The waters wild went over his child etc) and he decided to reverse, not wanting to be discovered the next day like the Scottish peer’s daughter with one hand stretched for aid. The reversing through water was an adventure by itself but MMM will not bore you with the details. Many prayers and much effort later, MMM and car reached dry land. MMM made it to the event late what with all these water sports en route. In contrast to MMM’s rather bedraggled appearance, everyone else there was shipshape.
It was then that MMM discovered that everyone else had happily driven through the road on the left, disregarding the No Entry sign. Like Robert Frost, they had taken the road less travelled and been successful, while MMM, conformist that he is, had nearly come to a watery end. In Chennai, or for that matter anywhere in India, it pays to overlook road signs and traffic signals.
I have to thank fellow heritage enthusiast R. Shantaram for this picture of G. Venkatapathy Naidu Building which used to stand on Mount Road, just next to the Madras Mahajana Sabha and opposite the New Assembly/Secretariat now turned into a multi-specialty referral hospital. It has since been demolished and the vacant plot awaits development.
This article has to do with one occupant of the old building — Allbutt & Co, whose signboard you see at the bottom of the photograph. This was one of the oldest pharmacies in the city, opening in Broadway in 1881. It shifted to Anna Salai/Mount Road in the 1930s. Together with another old pharmacy in the vicinity — JF Letoille that happily survives — Allbutt was a remainder from an era long gone.
The name was always a mystery and Shantaram had done some research on the subject, tracing it to a possible link with Dr. Henry A. Allbutt of England, a Malthusian who did much to propagate birth control techniques in England. He came to grief over the book he wrote on the subject in 1886, titled rather interestingly – The Wife’s Handbook. The General Medical Council found it too modern for its tastes and he was struck off medical register forever.
During the early 1880s, when he was researching the subject, the Madras Malthusian League invited Allbutt to be its patron. In that capacity, he established contact with several leading medical practitioners of India, one of them being Dr. Varadappa Naidu of our city. In 1888, Allbutt translated a French work on medicine into English. The New Handbook of Dosimetric Therapeutics or the Treatment of Diseases by Simple Remedies, was dedicated among others as a “token of admiration, friendship and esteem to Dr. Vurdapah Naidu of The General Hospital Madras, Introducer of Dosimetry into India.” The book has footnote references to Dr. Naidu’s experiences in Madras as well. It is obvious that Dr. Varadappa Naidu, when he set up a pharmacy in the city, named it after his illustrious friend in England.
There was more to Dr Naidu. In his Telugu memoirs, Chinnanati Mucchatlu, Dr. K.N. Kesari, the leading Ayurvedic practitioner of the city records that it was common for Dr. Naidu to refuse fees from poor patients, requesting that they use the money instead to buy milk for their children. He was personally well off, being the hereditary Shrotriemdar (landowner) of the Koyambedu area. In 1908, he gifted Rs. 30,000 and a plot of land in Vepery to the Madras Society for the Protection of Children. The Dr. V. Varadappa Naidu’s Orphanage came up here. This later shifted into vast premises of its own in New Washermanpet, thanks to the generosity of Dr. Naidu’s descendants. It continues to function from there.
As for Allbutt’s, it was run by Dr. Naidu’s kinsman G. Rangiah Naidu for several years. But with the owners of the Venkatapathy Naidu Building wanting to demolish and redevelop the space in 2012, Allbutt’s days were numbered. I wonder where it moved.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated November 8, 2014, under the Hidden Histories column http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/all-about-allbutt/article6574632.ece
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