This happened in 1939
Archive for January, 2010
I find that I have not been adding links to some articles in which I was involved (either as subject (hehehe) or ones which I wrote) that appeared in The Hindu. So here goes:
1. Konnakkol Pakkiriya Pillai
2. Sorting out Sruti Bhedam
3. The article on Four Score and More
4. Article on the release of the book
5. My first article for the Hindu’s Sunday magazine
Majoring in Mega Serials
Each year there comes a time when the Man from Madras Musings in confined to bed with back problems. This year was the worst in MMM’s living memory and MMM, always prone (a painful word under the circumstances) to melodrama hobbled around claiming that all was lost. MMM’s good lady thought otherwise and felt that positive thinking ought to do the trick. All that MMM had to do according to her was to keep repeating that he had no backache and presto he would be right as rain. But that did not happen and so off MMM went to a doctor who recommended bed rest and that meant MMM had sufficient time to brood on life in general and on mega serials to be specific.
MMM having made a study of these during his enforced rest has come to the conclusion that all you need for making a serial that can be termed mega are three sets- a police station, a house and a hospital. You keep rotating the story between these three locations. You also take precautions that not all three locations are featured in the same episode but ensure that considerable time is wasted in showing the characters rushing from one to the other. For instance, Character A has just been unfairly hauled up before the awful majesty of the law in the person of police officer B who is in the pay of villain C when D, the wife of A faints at home on hearing of what has happened to A. This brings on the commercial break with a voice over announcing breathlessly a slew of sponsors after which D is shown being rushed off to hospital by neighbours/ relatives E,F, G & H, all of them in poor shape and not capable of running along with a prostrate D. At the hospital the Doctor, say I, takes a look at D and draws a deep breath and then the titles come on and that is the end of the day’s episode. The next day you show A coming home and being informed by E/F/G/H that D is in hospital and so he rushes off there. En-route villain C sees him and calls B and gives him hell for letting A off. Commercial break comes on next followed by B taking a deep breath prior to setting off on A’s chase and that brings the day’s play to a close. The next three days are spent in showing D struggling for life in hospital with E/F/G&H lamenting and predicting dire endings (which MMM as audience was earnestly hoping for) while A, in a bid to dodge C, is taking several circuitous routes to reach the hospital. In the middle of all this, the cast resigns en-masse and you are told that A1 will now act as A, B1as B and so on. Sometimes one or two cast members, perhaps sick and tired of lamenting, being on the run and putting on worried expressions, quit the serial whereupon they are promptly bumped off in the story. A couple of photographs with rose petals strewn around will suffice. And in case the script-writer is really stuck for ideas, then an entire evening is spent in showing the story till now in flashback. This is also perhaps to refresh the script-writer’s mind (if there is such an organ) as to what are the convoluted threads that have been woven till then.
Almost all serials feature men with two establishments (the small house being an integral feature), wife-beating, drunkenness, gambling, fraudulent financial deals and corruption. In short they serve to showcase all that is negative in society. If it is a Hindi serial, it invariably depicts battles between the rich, with each family being so feudal in its set up that it makes you wonder if we are really in the 21st century. Each serial has a villainous character who is forever plotting to corner the family’s business share, or poison the in-law or plot the downfall of a brother or a sister. The juvenile story line, the poor acting, the clichéd dialogues and portrayal of characters as black or white with nary a shade of grey make for the worst possible entertainment. And yet thousands must be tuning in to watch these and that includes children as well. Surely there ought to be a law that regulates these. But given the number of sponsors that are announced before every episode, MMM is quite certain that the producers are laughing all the way to the bank and so nobody is really bothered about impact on society.
Tigers in winter
The weather is already hotting up but early mornings are still pleasant and as the Man from Madras Musings looks out of his balcony, he being not walk-worthy as yet, he finds a number of men prowling about, all of them with tiger like ears. No, MMM is not hallucinating but is referring to a new variety of ear muff which is being worn. These are simple bands that stretch over the rear of the head and form two pads over the ears. Almost all of them sport tiger skin like designs and it makes MMM wonder if we are suddenly transforming into a city of tiger-men if not werewolves. Wonder what happened to the ubiquitous monkey cap which was worn by an earlier generation. Also, MMM who is rather challenged when it comes to matters concerning hair, wonders as to how these tiger pads protect the top of the head, which if bare causes greater problems in winter as compared to exposed ears.
And so, we are hearing noises about the water levels dipping and therefore not being adequate for the forthcoming year. But the powers that be have made reassuring noises that we can last till the coming monsoons and if they fail, things can get sticky, both literally and figuratively. And the very thought of water tankers fills the Man from Madras Musings with horror and he trembles like one afflicted with ague. For the past few years, thanks to rainwater harvesting and relatively copious monsoons we have seen a little less of the water tanker. There have been occasions when MMM has seen water being supplied in certain areas by tankers that are painted with petroleum signs on the outside. Such being the levels of desperation to which we sank. The bigger irony is when water tankers bear all kinds of messages asking us to conserve water while the vehicles themselves have such poor plumbing that water is forever leaking from them. Very often, the top lid of the tanker is left open and the water splashes liberally on those who are passing by. Sometimes the shock of suddenly being doused by water can throw a two-wheeler user off balance and even result in a fatality. But that is not something that we appear to be bothered about.
New Year Greetings
And as always, the Man from Madras Musings received his share of outlandish greetings, the most weird ones of course coming in through the cell phone. The longest one wished that MMM has “12 mths of happiness, 52 wks of fun, 365 days success, 8760 hrs good health, 52600 mins of favour (what does that mean?), 3153600 sex (yes) of joy”. It also added HpYnEwYr which MMM assumes means Happy New Year. At the end of the message and rather understandably so, given the length of the missive, the sender’s name was omitted.
More things to do
Just as the Man from Madras Musings was heaving a sigh of relief that this column is done and at the same time worrying over what to write in the next, he finds a political party’s local cadre election is just beginning in the marriage hall opposite his house. And so, joy reigns supreme. MMM is quite confident that there will be enough and more to relate. Till then, have a good time and a happy pongal (HpYpNgL).
And so the old man has gone and the newspapers and the electronic media are full of how he was a great leader etc. I thought I must pen a few words on living in Calcutta during the Jyoti Basu years for those were the years that moulded my life.
We, my parents and I, went to Cal when I was ten- 1976. For the first time, I experienced what would become a part of our daily life – load shedding. This meant the electric power being turned off at the mains as the state did not have sufficient power to cater to the demand. Every day the newspapers would carry details of how some unit at the Santaldih and Bandel power stations was not working, the Damodar Valley Power Corp supplied only so much power and how therefore several parts of the city went without power for so many hrs of the day. Gradually it became a situation when we managed without power for most of the day – 10 to 12 hr powercuts became the norm. I learnt to study by hurricane lamp and to sleep in an open verandah at night where thanks to our flat being on the 3rd floor and there being no highrise in the vicinity, we were assured of plentiful breeze. Each time the power failed, a collective groan would echo across the entire locality and when it came back a cry of relief would resound too. Miraculously, during Durga Puja and on cricket/football match days, the power would not be cut. In fact, the government would make an announcement to that effect well in advance. Discussions in offices (where people invariably discussed more and worked less), schools, buses and roads centred on load shedding. The Statesman, then Calcutta’s leading newspaper once remarked that it was strange that while the CM was called Jyoti, the state was always in darkness. Some other publication said that the city was full of Mukherjees, Bannerjees and Chatterjees but no energy. We learnt what an inverter was and bought one that was housed with a bank of lead-acid batteries in the principal bedroom of the flat. God knows how much lead fumes we must have inhaled. The brand name Sen & Pandit became famous. The Government published schedules by locality for load shedding. The only thing we could be sure of was that the scheduled hour was when the power would definitely not go off. At all other times it was anybody’s guess.
A newspaper carried a report that the area where the CM lived was free of power failure. This was hotly denied but it was apparently true. Jyoti da had a heart attack and was advised against living in his flat which necessitated his climbing up the stairs. He then shifted into a small bungalow in the Raj Bhawan campus. The Telegraph I think it was, published a story on how those who lived in the vicinity of the CM’s old flat were willing to even carry him up each evening provided he returned thereby ridding them of their power woes.
Calcutta was also notorious for the functioning of its telephones. They rarely worked. And yet people got bills regularly, often for exorbitant amounts. Linesmen were famous for connecting your telephone to someone else who made international calls at your expense. Telephones remained dead for more than two years in some houses and once an irate group of citizens organised a funeral for the telephone. Hundreds joined the march including yours truly and amidst chantings of Hari Bol the instrument was consigned to flames at Keyatolla Ghat or some such place. Everybody laughed. In Calcutta, a good sense of humour could keep you going.
The roads were another story. Bramhapur, developing as a new suburb was called Bumpur. And Strand Road had so many potholes that it was decided that each one would be named after a political leader.
Despite all this we survived and came to love the city. Cost of living was cheap and the Government never revised the bus and tram fares and you could get around on payment of 25 paise on long routes till well into the 1990s. Vegetables and rice were available a plenty though when it came to the former, variety could dip to all time lows in summer. The people were so friendly and warm and the language was beautiful. The city was a heritage lover’s delight. Thousands of crumbling mansions stood, undisturbed thanks to litigation or apathy. And during Durga Puja, Calcutta was heaven. Jyoti babu and his ministers were simple too. Oftentimes during a traffic jam if you turned around you could see Jyoti babu in his Ambassador, waiting patiently for the holdup to clear. Just one car ahead of his for security. In those days, only Governors and Presidents used vehicles with outriders.
The city was famous for its bandhs too, always called for on Friday or Monday just to ensure that the people got a long weekend. Bandhs were always a grand success irrespective of who called it and the same went for rallies too. My father and his colleagues used to mutter that all this was no good for industry and that companies were leaving the state in droves but I did not understand it then.
Afraid that I would develop into a heritage loving culture vulture, complete with unshaven look, long hair, jholna bag and drinking tea at adda shops, father packed me off to Delhi. Then many years later, complete with MBA, yours truly returned to Calcutta to work in Lintas. It was 1989 and along with the rest of the country, Calcutta and West Bengal too were trying to come to terms with change. By then ITC was the only big ad-spender in Calcutta and all ad agencies wept with delight at its smile and trembled with fear at its frown. Roads were still bad. Power continued to fail. But suddenly the telephones began working thanks to new electronic exchanges. Metro made a difference to travel though minibuses, an excresense of a new kind contributed along with the bumps and potholes to spondilitis. Industries were practically non-existent. You had to just travel by rail down the Howrah-Rishra line to see hundreds of sick units – old British firms, all having seen their heyday and now being eyed by speculators for the real estate – not the factory land but lovely bungalows and flats in posh Alipore. By 1990, power failure was a thing of the past. The generation capacity had increased but wags said that there were no industries to draw power anyway and so domestic consumers got it in plenty.
In 1991 I joined a multinational firm in Calcutta which too had seen better days. Labour problems were rife and a permanent pandal would stand outside the building for protestors. “What do they want?” my Sardar boss would thunder. Then he would laugh and say, “See these b**** c****! They will now shout slogans and five minutes later pull out a harmonium and sing songs”. And sure enough that is what happened.
Our company had completed a new chemical plant in Rishra with Japanese collaboration. Jyoti da came to inaugurate it thanks to our chairman who was his close friend. It was a big event and the first major investment of any kind in Calcutta in many years. The press was there in full strength. The unions were there too. It was expected that Jyoti da would make some new policy announcement. The unions were confident that it would be some new populist measure. The industrialists were resigned to their fate.
Jyoti da began and there was a collective gasp. He chastised the unions for bringing the state to the morass in which it found itself. He said he would do nothing to help those who were unproductive. He said that the only way Bengal could regain its past glory was by proving that it was equal to any other state when it came to work culture. I looked at the union leaders – all of them aghast to a man. I looked at the rows of industrialists and they all looked as though they had seen a new dawn. “Lovely speech old boy” said our chairman patting the CM on his back. In any other state you would be better off touching the feet no matter how you close you were. Jyoti da rarely smiled. He just nodded and got into his car and left. It was much later that we found that he had forgotten to take his expensive silver momento. He had no flunkeys who could take care of such things. The next day, one newspaper said that he had sung paeans to industry. A union leader in the company put it more succintly. Das Kapital he said, had become Capital Das.
I left Calcutta in 1993 and have not returned since. Wonder how the place is now. My friends assure me that it has changed quite a bit. I hope the people have not.
As 2009 wound to a close and the heritage movement in Madras that is Chennai clocked yet another year to its tally, it is clear that the awareness is slowly seeping in and today, both Government and private parties are to an extent sensitised about the need for conservation and preservation. What is needed however, is knowledge as to how to go about it, failing which the awareness will not translate itself into anything beyond shedding a tear or two every time a piece of heritage vanishes.
But first, let us look at some of the positive developments. Victoria Public Hall is undergoing a thorough restoration, though the cloak of secrecy that surrounds it is still worrying. The library building on the Masonic Lodge premises in Egmore has been splendidly restored. Close on the heels of this came the opening of the restored P Orr & Sons showroom on Mount Road. Purists have pointed out that the building was never white but always capped in red, but nevertheless we have to be thankful for the way the renovation has been done. Elsewhere, on the DPI Campus in Nungambakkam, the Madras Literary Society building has been restored to its old glory and as this article goes to press, work is beginning on the heritage gateway that fronts the campus on College Road. It is to be hoped that work will also be undertaken on the more important gate which fronts to Cooum. The police station in Triplicane has escaped the hammer thanks to timely intervention from the highest quarter. Restoration of historic Ripon Building has been announced and it is understood that the work will be done in keeping with the heritage status of the structure.
But despite all this cheer, what worries those with the interests of conservation at heart is the absence of any consistency when it comes to taking a decision on heritage structures. And even if a decision is taken, there is no clear-cut guideline as to how the process of restoration ought to be handled. Thus, while the restoration of Chepauk Palace began over three years ago very little can be seen beyond the liberal use of white paint on some walls. Similarly, it is not clear as to whether the Government is using the services of those qualified in preservation of heritage structures in its conservation activity at the Victoria Public Hall. The National Gallery (formerly the Victoria Memorial) was declared out-of-bounds some years ago on the grounds of structural weakness but nothing has been done so far to get the structure strengthened and restored. Ironically, the gateway to the latest Government sponsored exhibition at the Island Grounds is modeled on this building and the artisans who fashioned the entrance have even been given an award by the Government. While there has been considerable hype over the saving of the Triplicane police station, what is not being pointed out is that neighbouring buildings such as the Kalaivanar Arangam which served as the State Assembly for some time and Cooum House which was meant to be the official residence of the Chief Minister of the state, have been razed to the ground. Action was promised in restoring the High Court campus and a committee was formed to go into the modalities. But since then nothing has been heard of this and it is not clear if the committee has met even once. The Saidapet Teachers College campus has seen excellent restoration of buildings fronting the road, while those behind have been allowed to languish.
If this is the fate of Government buildings, those in private hands have fared even worse. The Bharat Insurance Building is now a cause-celebre with the matter pending in court. Similar is the case with Gokhale Hall on Armenian Street. In both cases, the owners began demolishing the structures and work was suspended only after the court intervened. Both buildings have survived for the past few years as roofless shells, completely exposed to the elements. Work began on the demolition of the historic offices of Binny Limited, also on Armenian Street, last week. In the last two years, several cinema theatres, many with unique facades such as Roxy and Crown, have vanished. For every successful example of restoration, there are at least ten buildings that have been pulled down.
What we need is a well-defined policy and a framework which will be consistent towards all heritage structures. And for this we need a Heritage Act. Can we hope for it 2010?
The recent directive of the Madras High Court that the State Government ought to set up a heritage conservation committee within three months to protect heritage buildings in the state has come as a shot in the arm for those who have campaigned long and hard for this. But in the euphoria that has followed this announcement, it cannot be forgotten that the Government has in the past made several half-hearted attempts in this direction only to lose steam midway. Will the latest directive therefore make any difference to the way governments of all political hues view heritage?
Fourteen years ago, a consultation initiated by the Town and Country Planning Department resulting in a Heritage Act draft, along the guidelines suggested by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. Subsequently, it was felt that this ought to come under the purview of the local authorities and the same was passed on to the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) for buildings that fall within the city limits. In 2002, another set of draft regulations were put together in consultation with the CMDA. These remained in the draft stage.
The Second Master Plan of the city has incorporated certain rules concerning heritage buildings, but all these lack teeth as there has been no inventory of such buildings after which a grading activity which will classify the structures on the basis of their importance also needs to be done.
As part of the draft regulations, the Madras Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) began listing out the buildings which it felt ought to be classified as heritage structures. These numbered around a 100 and were mostly public buildings. It would be no exaggeration to state that the number of buildings that ought to be classified thus could go up to 1500 or more. As none of these buildings are covered under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958, several have already been pulled down, defaced or irrevocably altered.
Another development took place in 2006 when the Madras High Court directed the formation of a committee in connection with cases pertaining to outdoor advertising. The committee, headed by a retired judge, was asked to list places of heritage, aesthetic, religious and educational importance and come up with recommendations on how these were to be treated. The committee in its report had listed several such buildings and also classified them by way of importance. The final judgement, as is well known, ordered the removal of all hoardings, which was done. But the government did not take cognizance of the aspects concerning protecting of heritage buildings.
What is interesting is that the Government already had a heritage committee, which rarely meets. The last meeting, held some time ago, had agreed that the list of heritage buildings that has already been made out would be publicised by means of advertisements and a public discussion would be held. The final list of buildings would then be published and those on it would be protected from all changes. However, the advertisements have not been forthcoming and the buildings continue to suffer. It is the view of this paper that the Government will reply to the latest directive of Court stating that it already has a committee in place and that would be the end of the matter.
In the meanwhile, the city and the state continue losing their buildings. What is needed is a political will to get a Heritage Act passed and in its absence, our heritage stands in the danger of being obliterated.
Chennai, seen from afar
The pilot had just announced that we were cruising at some impossible height in a speed that sounded dangerously high and for good measure he added that the outside temperature was at some cryogenic levels. None of these made the Man from Madras Musings comfortable though he was told by the pilot to relax and enjoy the flight. In order to divert his mind from the frightening statistics provided, MMM picked up the in-flight magazine and shiver his timbers if the first article that smote his eye was not the one titled “48 Hours in Chennai”. And what was written there gave MMM plenty of material for this column.
“A city that is at ease with its 2000 years old history…”began the article and here is where MMM would like to take up issue with the chief who has all along been hoodwinking us into believing that Chennai is only 370 years old. But there was more to follow.
On the subject of the Marina Beach the article said “while on the beach, choose any café as a relaxed grazing ground and munch on a sandwich and coffee”. Now where are these cafes is what MMM would like to know. The best he has managed so far is the boy who sells sundal and murukku to those sitting on the sands and the woman who purveys health drinks made out of strange grasses.
On Fort St George the article has this gem: “The sprawling land around the façade and the majestic fort overlooking the sea have witnessed several fights over the 350 years of its existence.” Now what is all this about chief, unless we include the battles political that have taken place in recent years?
According to the writer Mount Road has “swanky malls that house all the trendiest designer labels”.
The article states that Kapaliswarar Temple must be visited at 2.00 pm. Now MMM would like to inform the writer that the temple is usually closed at that hour and even if it were open, walking on the granite stones at that time is not really advisable unless you are training to be a fire-walker. The write-up also claims that this is the biggest temple in the city, a fact that can easily be disputed.
Elliot Beach apparently is picture perfect “with golden sands, surf and hill cottages”! Also “visitors can windsurf, swim, sunbathe, snorkel, sail or take boat trips.” You can also eat “fresh catch” fried by locals and served with mint sauce. Now unless we are looking into Elliot Beach Part 2 or some such sequel, the article must have been written by someone doing some ardent crystal ball gazing. In fact MMM is willing to bet that the nearest the writer came to Chennai was to look it up on Google.
Be that as it may, MMM had to agree that all this made Chennai far more exciting than it really is. Perhaps this article would do much to restore Chennai’s reputation which has been much maligned by Lonely Planet calling it the most boring city in India. Incidentally, the article had a picture of what MMM is pretty sure is not Marina Beach. But the caption claimed that it was so. Oh well! What does it matter?
More footpaths vanish
Walking by the side of the beach the other day, the Man from Madras Musings was intrigued to see some road laying work going on near Sivananda Salai, the rather idyllic road that connects Beach Road with Mount Road. Now MMM hears this stretch is to remain idyllic no longer. The trees that lined it on the banks of the Cooum have been cut and road widening is in progress. All this is to ensure easy access to the new Assembly building which is rising rapidly. And, MMM noted with a pang, that the sidewalk along the University walls has been done away with on Sivananda Salai. Incidentally, does anyone know what happened to the statue of Swami Sivananda that stood at the junction of Mount Road and the road to which he lent his name? The statue vanished one night when the University claimed that it needed the land on which it stood. A committee was formed to find out the whereabouts of the statue and install it elsewhere. It is MMM’s guess that the statue is now keeping company to Neil in some vault of the Madras Museum.
Railways beef up security
The Man from Madras Musings never ceases to be amazed at the efficiency with which our railways function. And he is not joking. Given the volume of traffic the system handles, it is truly a wonder. But there is one aspect in which they always come up with something amusing. And that is railway security. MMM has written in the past about how an X ray machine was introduced to scan baggage. Now this works pretty well at airports where the traffic is manageable but railway stations are another story altogether. And so, the X ray became one more item of curiosity at the Central and MMM, who invariably had his bags scanned, noticed that the man who was supposed to see the scanned image was often facing the opposite direction looking deep into the eyes of a lady constable opposite. She, was in charge of opening and checking the bags of those who rather incredibly could opt for not scanning their bags! And even more incredibly, here too, there was a choice on whether bags needed to be checked or not.
The latest in all this is a sticker that needs to be pasted on the bag after it has been through the scanner. Now, most people who travel by train do not budget for a baggage scan in terms of time and are in a big rush. The pasting of the sticker has become yet another bottleneck. And the sole woman who is in charge of this is further impeded by the fact that the stickers are rather imperfectly perforated and so do not come off all that easily in her hands. Consequently, a big crowd collects around her, each person impatient to have his/her bag duly stickered so that he/she could rush off to catch the train and here was this woman, all thumbs, with one sticker stuck on to each of her fingers and trying in vain to get them on to the bags.
All this was too much for the man-who-was-supposed-to-man-the-scan-but-chose-to-scan-the-lady-constable-instead. He bellowed out to the woman-who-was-to-stick-but-got-stuck as to why she was causing such a delay. Whereupon the woman-who etc said that the @#*&: (such a rich vocabulary delighted MMM) stickers were really the limit and what could be done by her, a mere woman? The scan-man then offered to help but that meant that the bags had to fend for themselves on the scanner and all the while the passengers were hotting up like hell. In the meanwhile the lady constable who was till then being scanned by the scan man instead of the bags looked on serenely. She reminded MMM of Mona Lisa.