Today, 28th May is that great man’s birthday. May is also the month of his death. I wrote a piece on him for The Hindu which appeared today. Click here
Archive for May, 2010
Nonplussed at Nolambur
And where is Nolambur you may well ask. For the same question came to the Man from Madras Musings when he was informed that he had to pay a call on someone residing there. All that MMM got to know was that the nearest landmark was the Ambattur Industrial Estate after which MMM had to pretty much try his luck. If he succeeded, Nolambur was the ultimate reward. If not, he would go around in circles for the rest of his life, rather like a Swami who is searching for the meaning of existence, though today Swamis do many other things also.
And so on a hot day (what else can it be?) MMM found himself at the Ambattur Industrial Estate asking for directions to Nolambur. He was informed that taking alternate lefts and rights and never breaking the rhythm would ensure that he reached the place. And sure enough MMM did. It was only after reaching this new settlement that the problems actually began.
This is one of those villages en-route to Poonamallee (or should we say Poovirundavalli?) that had led a peaceful existence for centuries until its inhabitants realised that they were sitting on gold in the form of land. And so the real-estate lobby moved in and having divided the place up, sold it all off in the form of that most admirably coined word for the real estate industry – plots. And before the cows in the meadows near Nolambur could blink, houses had come up and shortly thereafter, flats. In the hurry and scramble for putting up this settlement, these mansions for the gods so to speak, some of the finer points of life were forgotten. Understandably so, when the first priority is a roof over the head, it is not surprising that inconsequential matters such as roads, streets, drainage, garbage tips and street signs were given the go by. And so, the visitor to Nolambur has quite a time in negotiating the place to find his or her destination.
Just as the villages of yore were identified from a distance by the temple spire, Nolambur takes pride in a certain gated community that apparently houses a significant percentage of Chennai’s population. This is the tallest, grandest.. etc edifice in the place and all other spots are identified with this spot as point zero. But the challenge lies in reaching this. You keep seeing it all the time but you just can’t reach it given the maze of streets, unless one of the locals accompanies you. MMM found that most locals could give directions from this Valhalla in the wilderness but none could tell you how to reach there in the first place. MMM eventually did and from there proceeded to his destination.
The roads of Nolambur, if they can be called that, for MMM is quite sure that they are in reality an underground mountain range whose tallest peaks alone stand above the ground, defy description. Rather like Hannibal in the Alps, MMM found himself ascending great heights one moment and then plunging into deep ravines and abysses the next. And in the short flat stretches, some kind soul had taken it upon himself to strew speed-breakers at random. Some were so high that MMM was quite sure that his car would be suspended on top, rather like the thin end of a wedge. It was almost as though the planner who laid out Nolambur had trained in designing roller-coaster rides. In fact, MMM is quite convinced that Nolambur is an amusement park cleverly disguised as a residential township. Leaving aside the roller-coaster roads, there is the maze through which you have to find your way to the gated community If you missed yet another integral amusement park feature – the bump-a-car, you just had to negotiate street corners and you could manage that as well. As for merry-go-rounds, the whole township was one anyway.
Having reached Nolambur, it was time for MMM to leave almost at once and as he wondered about the stamina required for the return journey, MMM looked out of his host’s window and could see a highway in the distance. In fact, what MMM had all along mistaken to be the distant rumble of the Eyjafjallajokul volcano (for at this distance even Iceland appeared close by) was the traffic rushing along the highway. It appeared to be a much saner route back home than the great adventure that MMM had just completed. MMM was informed that there was no direct connection to that highway and the only way it could be reached was by cutting across an open field, full of ruts and potholes and probably mad cows as well. MMM decided to risk it. And sure enough within five minutes he was on the highway, dodging cars and trucks, well on the road home. What is a mere field with ruts, potholes and cows in comparison to our roads?
Last week, the Man from Madras Musinsg attended a social do in the heart of the city. Valet parking was arranged by the thoughtful host and with an admirable efficiency the valet saluted MMM, took his key and gave him a card. The efficiency was not so evident after the party. On his return to the gate, MMM gave his card to the valet manning the keys and waited. And waited for long. There was no sign of the key or the car. MMM realises that in Chennai it is good to be patient but not so the good lady who partners MMM in sickness and in health. She was all for buzzing about and looking for the vehicle. And sure enough the car was found, unlocked and with all contents intact. In the meanwhile the search for the key was reaching epic proportions with MMM’s host and several guest also getting involved. It was finally found, beneath MMM’s car where the valet had dropped it. A round of apologies later MMM, accepting them all at his gracious best rather like a constitutional monarch, left.
But mark the sequel. A couple of days later, MMM was at another do (he keeps going to these places in the hope that he would one day be photographed and featured in page 3) and on alighting from his car, a beaming valet came and shook MMM’s hand. “Don’t you remember me sir?” he asked. “I was the one who lost your key the other day.” And the way he said it made it sound as though he had done MMM a favour. Perhaps he had. Looking back, hunt-the-key had provided more entertainment to all than the party itself. MMM wondered if a repeat performance was likely. If so, he hoped it would be with someone else’s key.
Let there be light
And so the State swelters while the city makes merry. The Man from Madras Musings alludes to the power cuts of three hours and more in the rest of Tamil Nadu, most often at midday when the heat is at its worst. And Chennai appears to be completely immune. And symbolic of this perhaps is the daily illumination of the new ‘green’ Assembly complex in the best Kalyana Mandapam fashion. It is enough to give the rest of the State a complex. An Assembly complex or a power complex? Also perhaps make the rest of the state green with envy.
But modalities remain unclear
In what will come as a shot in the arm to heritage enthusiasts and conservation activists, the Government of Tamil Nadu has finally recognised the necessity of saving and maintaining heritage buildings in Chennai. This reading is based on a statement made by the Minister for Slum Clearance and Accommodation Control that “Chennai has many heritage buildings with historical significance and architectural excellence. The list of buildings will be released and the CMDA will maintain them”. As this was said on the floor of the Assembly, it can be taken as a commitment on the part of the Government and it will hopefully make it to a policy document. While welcoming this development wholeheartedly, Madras Musings would like to point out that much will depend on how this well-intentioned idea translates into ground reality.
The first question concerns the buildings that will be included in this list. Will the Government base its selection on the list that INTACH put together more than ten years ago? It would be significant to point out that many of the buildings on that list have vanished thanks to the decade long delay.
Assuming that the Government does indeed base itself on the INTACH list, has it applied its collective mind to issues concerning ownership? A number of heritage buildings are in the possession of organisations that are Government of India undertakings, Central Government departments, private corporate houses, private societies and individuals. A few examples would be the General Post Office (and several other post offices), the State Bank of India properties, the railway stations and a residences. How does the CMDA hope to take on the maintenance of these properties? And who will fund this? If the CMDA hopes to leave it to the discretion of the individual owners, the proposal will never get off the ground. There is also scope for any number of disputes.
What would really be best would be to follow a structured plan. The first would be to finalise a list of buildings that would be sub-divided into three – buildings of utmost heritage (historical and architectural) importance where no changes can be done both internally and externally, a second list of buildings of medium importance where changes can be done to the interior without altering the façade and a third list that would comprise buildings that can be recommended for preservation or at least commemoration by way of plaques.
A strict code of maintenance for these buildings will have to be drawn up which would then be applicable to all parties concerned irrespective of ownership. This should also stipulate what are the minimum levels of maintenance that will have to be adhered to. At this stage, if any private individuals or institutions feel that they cannot continue with maintaining heritage properties in their possession, they can come forward to discuss transfer of development rights or seek alternative land elsewhere. This will require more teeth and structure being given to the TDR provisions in the Second Master Plan, which are inchoate at best at this moment.
The Government will need to appoint a Heritage Committee that will go into applications for proposed changes/maintenance activities at any listed building. Such activities can be sanctioned only after the committee’s approval.
Lastly, the Government will also need to show the way by employing teams that are trained in heritage building conservation for structures within its own control. Simply handing over such edifices to PWD or CMDA personnel for maintenance is not the answer as they are not capable of work requiring finesse in execution.
It is only if all these guidelines are in place that the Government’s excellent idea of maintaining heritage buildings really have the desired effect. Otherwise this too will be one of the many rules and regulations, observed more in the breach.
Mauled by malls
The Man from Madras Musings has often wondered as to what is it that attracts people to malls. Could it be the air-conditioning? Or is it the joy of window-shopping? Or do they go in for serious purchasing? This to MMM will be one of those great unresolved mysteries to be filed along with the Big Bang, Jack the Ripper and the Man in the Iron Mask. But of this MMM is quite certain, he and malls are poles apart and there is no love lost between them.
Last week MMM drove to a mall and if the journey there was not bad enough, the parking ordeal could go down in song and dance. There are malls with subterranean parking lots and there are malls with high-rise parking lots, but there are no malls with sufficient parking slots. The one that MMM went to was of the high-rise variety. And it was constructed in such a fashion that you accessed each of the levels through a narrow winding ramp, rather like the keeps of yore where witches kept damsels with long golden tresses. To be rescued by knights.
And so MMM drove in, his heart ready for any fate. A series of cars was ahead and he was tailed closely by a long line of cars as well. Each hooted merrily to the other, to those in front to hurry along and to those behind to warn them that despite the best efforts the car in question was sliding backwards and would soon connect bumper to bumper. Given the narrow flute like construction of the tower which housed the ramp, the horns were all amplified many times over and gave you the impression of being in a kind of hi-fi hell.
At each of the levels, just as you though you could relax your grip on the hand-brake and giving the foot on the clutch a rest, there were ushers whose only job was to ask you to proceed upwards. “Rise higher” appeared to be their motto and you would not be far wrong in assuming that MMM had gone to attend a motivational congregation. As the cars kept ascending level after level, all tooting and blaring, it appeared to MMM that if he went any higher a satellite or a space-ship would be waiting to take the car into outer space, to be brought back as and when MMM finished his errand at the mall. But a final level was reached where there was a narrow slot into which MMM was urged, through word and gesture to navigate his car. This prompted an angry honk from the car behind, whose owner no doubt had earmarked the slot for himself. The anger prompted the man to relax his grip on the hand-brake and so he slid a tad behind only to immediately set off a volley of protests symbolised by more forceful tooting/honking etc. MMM did not wait to see how it all ended. No doubt all cars remained in a state of suspended (but honking) animation till someone removed his or her car from one of the slots and then resumed battle.
It had been a long while since any of the sweet young things that write articles on heritage for newspapers have called up the Man from Madras Musings and tested his avuncular (for they always call him uncle) patience with their lack of knowledge of this city of ours. Just as MMM was beginning to wonder if this breed was dying out and needed to be added to endangered/heritage lists, along came a call. There was no “uncle” at the other end and MMM was “sir”d right through. The caller wanted to know from MMM as to what he considered were the five heritage spots of the city and so MMM went on to list them, beginning from Fort St George. In passing, MMM said that this had housed the Assembly till recently. Whereupon there was a titter at the other end followed by the comment that “recently” was a relative term and no doubt MMM meant several years ago for has not the Assembly been for long at this huge grey-coloured heritage building that stood opposite P Orr & Sons? This momentarily took MMM’s breath away and the caller, no doubt under the impression that MMM could not place this building also added most helpfully that it had recently been renovated most wonderfully and inaugurated by the Prime Minister! No doubt most of MMM’s regulars don’t believe a word of this and are thinking that MMM is making it up because of deadline pressures and the Chief has thrown up his hands asking MMM to write any thing to fill the space. But MMM would like to assure all his readers that he is prepared to stand by what he has written, even under oath.
That was not all. MMM and caller parted after this, she no doubt to type her piece and MMM to muse on the ways of the world. But that evening there was a call once again. “Sir,” she said. “My editor does not like the five heritage spots that you said were your favourites. Can you give me five other favourite spots of yours?” MMM did not deign to reply. It was the end of what never promised to become a beautiful relationship.
The Man from Madras Musings has been what can be called a passive viewer of all that has happened in the name of cricket in the past few weeks. MMM is not referring to what happened behind the scenes but what took place in front of the camera and at the stadium and all he can say is that it can only be classified as a teenage mutant of what was once cricket. Take for instance the season in which it is conducted. A midsummer night’s nightmare would perhaps sum it all up best. To MMM, the bright lights, the totally unsuitable attire (whatever happened to pure white cottons) made of 100% polyester, the baying crowds and the decibel levels only resembled a Roman gladiatorial arena where you tested who could withstand it the best. And it was no surprise that in Chennai’s humid April, even the mightiest took ill in the middle of the game. As far as MMM was concerned, the cheerleaders were the only ones wearing the correct attire (if you could see it). MMM also wonders as to what the carbon footprint (yes, MMM is quite up-to-date on technology) of this jamboree was if you taken into account the to-ing and fro-ing all over the country, the usage of electricity and the plastic wastes churned up. Not to overlook the electronic media overload as well.
In the midst of all this chaos, it was no wonder that a top-ranking player made the malaprop of a lifetime. Speaking of his love for Chennai he said that he liked to ride a bike at night in the city and whenever he stopped at red-light AREAS, people came up to him and spoke to him in Tamil. MMM was puzzled and intrigued. For one, MMM would like to know where these coloured districts are and secondly he would assume that the lingua franca was spoken at such places. You would hardly expect conversations to be in French.