Make mine music loud

February 9, 2016

The charismatic leader’s centenary is fast approaching and instructions had been given that this ought to be celebrated in a manner befitting his status. The Man from Madras Musings assumes that no clear detailing was done as to how the revelry was to unfold. Clearly, money had been handed out and every street corner was to celebrate it the way it felt best.
Those who are regular readers of MMM’s outpourings will know that his residence is pretty much the centre of things – drunken brawls, rash driving, road rage, political meetings, wedding bashes – all of them happen just below MMM’s window. And so it was with the centenary of the people’s hero. Early last Sunday, when milkmen had barely stirred, MMM and those who lived nearby were all woken up to the sound of song hits from the various films in which the man of the masses had acted before he went on to great heights in politics. The volume was a tad too loud but MMM does have a liking for film numbers of a bygone era and so he lent his ear – not that he had a choice anyway.
However, there were clearly only a few songs with the celebrants below MMM’s window and so they played them over and over again. Within a couple of iterations, MMM had enough and hoped that the commemoration would be over by lunchtime. A peek out of MMM’s verandah revealed a large portrait of leader, on a small makeshift platform. Potted plants flank­ed the picture and on either side were giant speakers, connected to a CD player and amplifier that rested on what is known in our city as the fish cart. This struck MMM as rather ironic for it was during revolutionary leader’s tenure in power that this excrescence first made its appearance, was challenged in court and was finally banned. A couple of the faithful followers hung around the ensemble, seemingly unaffected by the high decibel levels.
The music ceased by lunchtime and between noon and around 4 pm there was complete silence, allowing MMM to have his afternoon siesta. But given that the picture and the potted plants had not moved, it was clear that the revelry would resume in the evening. And certainly it did. MMM and the neighbours shut their windows and doors to keep out the sound as much as possible. Some made bold to complain to the local police booth where the personnel said that there was nothing they could do as this was an event sponsored by the ruling party.
What was surprising was that the fiesta did not attract anyone other than the two or three organisers. And there was nothing done other than the playing of the music. At around 8 pm, MMM’s good lady declared that she had had enough. Despite MMM’s entreaties to the contrary she marched off to the event organisers and demanded that they turn the music off. Rather astonishingly, they complied at once. MMM’s good lady returned with a triumphant smile. They were all in a highly ‘spirited’ condition, she declared, but were willing to take instructions from a lady.

Brick by brick, the Vidya Mandir story

February 8, 2016

I felt like Benjamin Disraeli when he acquired the Suez Canal shares – Madam you have it, he is reported to have said to Queen Victoria. Only in our (Karthik Bhatt & me) case, Madam had gone, taking her last bow on February 2, a day before Vidya Mandir completed 60 years. I refer to Tara Satyanarayana beloved Principal of the school during the time when I was a student. I would have loved to have met her with a copy, but that was not to be.



For some reason, posting two images in WordPress is like having twins – the one that comes out later is the older. Similarly, the back cover has come up first.

The book was released this morning at the school following a rollicking speech by Justice V Ramasubramaniam. To me, VM was the only school and I look upon my Calcutta alma mater as a penitentiary in comparison. But let us not get into that. I am glad both my sons studied at VM for the full duration of their schooling and emerged typical VM-ites- fun-loving, multi-talented and with a whacky attitude to life.

By way of what the book has to offer, I give below the preface that Karthik and I wrote for the book. I also give my profile as it appears in the book, which I hope is in the true VM spirit. This morning I got to know that the book title, which was suggested by our editor Minnie Amirapu, is very similar to that of the IIM-A book. To that I would only say ‘Ah yes, the other centre for excellence on the west coast.’

For those who want to read the book, an e version will soon be out.

By the way, given that we grew up singing The Animals went in two by two, it is appropriate that two of us wrote this book.

And now for the Authors’ Note:

“The two of us had always hoped that we could co-author a book. It was also always a dream for each of us individually that some day a book on our school ought to be written. We never ever thought that these two would become one project. We deem this to be a blessing of our alma mater and the teachers who taught us while we studied here.


We thank the Committee of the school, in particular V Srikanth who mooted this idea and helped us throughout the process. Our gratitude is also to Shoba Raman, the Principal, who came forward generously with permissions, access to archival material and arranged with the school’s secretarial staff to fix interviews with various teachers, students and other associates of the institution, past and present.


The people who opened their homes and hearts to us while we went about the process of interviewing and collating information were many and our heartfelt thanks to each one of them.

At this moment, we also recall with affection the many teachers who are no longer with us and who therefore we could not connect with. We also record here that not all past teachers could be contacted and we assure them that though their voices are not in the book, their presence looms large in every line.

Our thanks to Rukmini Amirapu, our editor of many books, for having suffered our prose once again and converted it into this readable format. Many thanks to Shweta Joyson for photographing the school as it is now, and to Malvika Mehra who despite the short time duration available, came up with this design. Our thanks are also to Sudarshan Graphics for printing the book.

Having said all that, we now feel like a couple of school children who having submitted their answer sheets in an exam, are eagerly awaiting the teacher’s feedback. We hope that the reader, like the Vidya Mandir teachers, will look upon this work kindly and give it an A. Can we hope for an A+?



Sriram V.

Karthik A Bhatt





February 3, 2016.”

My profile as it appears in the book:

“Sriram V, born in 1966, studied at Vidya Mandir from LKG to Standard VI and was then exiled to Calcutta, Delhi and other places, where he finished schooling, did his engineering and acquired an MBA. Having never grown out of the VM influence, despite the best efforts of other schools, colleges, universities and the organisations where he worked, he now runs his family businesses which are into industrial hydraulics and software. He is however better known for his work on the histories of Carnatic music and Chennai city. The author of many books on these subjects, he is also a columnist with The Hindu and the associate editor of Madras Musings, the fortnightly founded by historian S Muthiah, that keeps alive the heritage of the city. Sriram’s heritage walks/tours in Chennai and other historical locations of Tamil Nadu very popular events.”

Coming back from the event today I thought I should have collected some sand from the playground in a small jar and worshipped it at home. I owe everything in life to my grandmother and this school in that order.

All right Karthik, you can let the autograph seekers in.






Admin back to old ways

February 5, 2016
concrete road

Concrete Road at T Nagar

Barely fifteen days after the battering that our city ­received by way of the rains, our Corporation swung into ­action. And by that we do not mean it was done with new ­dynamism. It just went back to all its old ways, which is indeed a pity, given that at least part of the problem was caused by the shoddy manner in which it executed its civic projects.
Take the example of road works that are now in progress. Not a thought is being given to correcting the errors of the past. Every pot hole is filled in with loose gravel and a coat of tar is being put on it. Within a couple of weeks, and with ­vehicles repeatedly going over these, all the filling would have worn away.
If that is not bad enough, levels are not being looked into. All roads with flyovers now have slopes leading away from the pillars to the surrounding streets. These gradients have just got steeper with the recent repair works. Consequently, any time it rains next, you know where the water is lgoing to drain from – the flyovers and the main roads onto the streets. Now, how are the drains laid? From the side roads on to the main roads. But if the lanes are at a lower level, then? Common sense isn’t it? But not for the civic agency evidently.
Come to think of it, the Corporation is not the only culprit. There is talk of the Highways Department reviving the elevated road along the Cooum. Apparently, the necessary clearances have been obtained from the National Green Tribunal. The greatest worry with this is that the pillars are going to eat into the riverbed, thereby impeding water flow. This may not be much of an issue on normal days but when the rains come and water levels rise, these pillars are bound to cause flooding of surrounding areas. We have already seen instances of this with the MRTS raising pillars in the Buckingham Canal. When confronted with this, it is reliably learnt that those in charge of such matters have shrugged it off saying that the canal with its 5,000 cusecs capacity could hardly have contained a 55,000 (or was it 80,000) cusecs flood. But that is not the point here. While we hope that deluges of such magnitude will not befall us again, we need to be prepared for such eventualities. Keeping our waterways free of encroachments would not be a bad idea.
Last but perhaps the most damaging of all is the adamance with which the Tirumazhisai satellite town is being planned and thrust upon the city. Straddling as it will the mouth of the Chembarambakkam tank (which caused all the recent misery), continuing with this scheme will be nothing short of disaster. Once again, the thinking appears to be that such floods are unlikely to recur. A township at the mouth would be nothing short of a ticking time bomb.
It is time our administration, and that includes officials and parties in power, shed their timeworn ideas and schemes. What has happened recently is a call for reform – in planning, execution and development. Simply declaring new plans with no thought on environmental impact is merely going to make matters worse in our city. The people have shown that they are all for change – the voluntary decision of some Kovilambakkam residents to demolish their encroachments is an instance. It will be a pity if the administration does not read these signs and insists on having its away.

Reeling real estate

February 4, 2016

20140221_180412-1Those who follow these long and loquacious posts of The Man from Madras Musings (and may their tribe increase), will know that he remained holed up elsewhere during the big floods and returned only after the waters began receding. Coming back to our Ch-enice, MMM and his good lady happened to cross several flooded localities, all of them touted as prime real estate at one time. ‘Come soak in the atmosphere,’ said a large hoarding just outside what must have once been a fairly upmarket gated community. The atmosphere was pretty much soaked. Another said that the residents could view a lake no matter which side of the building they occupied. This was no false claim by the way, for the lake was really all around the edifice. ‘Ready to move in to the lap of nature’ declared a third, only nature had moved in faster and was not willing to move out. Some developers came in for considerable flak on social media, with their names and faces being put up and shamed as those who stole our waterbodies. MMM noticed that several of those uploading these details were residents of the same schemes that they were now trashing. Suddenly, the crime was someone else’s.

All this apparently, has pushed back the real estate market in our city quite a bit. MMM notices that our newspapers have indefinitely suspended publication of those attractive property supplements that sold high rise and residential schemes on lakes on the front pages and then for the sake of form threw in some small laments on the back on why we need to protect our environment and preserve our heritage.

The plight of these real estate developers is even worse, MMM understands. As a great humorist wrote after a Stock Market crash, one day these men were millionaires and the next day they were selling apples on the street. He also added that several were jumping out of windows, but that MMM will not include, though in the current context, most of them did make their money building multi-storeyed structures with plenty of glass windows.
Many people who MMM knows, and who migrated to the far-flung outskirts, are now wanting to come back to the core city. That is going to cause its own set of problems but MMM will not dwell on that. What he wonders about is as to how long this wisdom will last. Consider the facts – Chennai gets a flood of this magnitude probably once in forty years. Most of our buildings last around twenty. Already there is talk that these things are but rare occurrences. So what is the guarantee that we will not be soon flooded once again, this time with advertisements, brochures, hoardings, mailers and fliers about villas in the midst of nature, gated communities boasting three bhk with own swimming pools? And, who knows, some enterprising realtors may even offer boats, or at the least life jackets, as a free add on for those buying flats.


Can we become citizens again?

February 3, 2016

It is well known that our city does not have a single administrative entity that is willing to look at all the problems facing it. That is certainly a matter of concern that will probably need much looking into and a solution at the policy level. Meanwhile, there appear to be several manageable aspects at a micro-level that we as citizens, particularly those of us belonging to the middle class and above, have forgotten. These are responsibilities that we need to take on ourselves if the lessons from the recent floods are not to be discarded.
Our public transport system is in a shambles, the only consolation being that it is probably better than those in other Indian cities. Rather than fight for a better service, we have gone ahead fixing up our own private transport systems – cars and two-wheelers – that clog roads that were never meant for so many vehicles in the first place. We are 10 per cent of the total population at most and yet we have managed to get an inordinate amount of road space – most road schemes today cater to the car user. Why cannot we fight for better public transport that all of us can use and enjoy?
Our power scenario, especially when it comes to transmission and distribution is bad, with a high percentage of loss. To overcome this, all of us have inverters and generators, thereby setting up our own power systems, rather than demanding better service from the agency that is responsible for it and for whose services we pay. The same goes for water – we have silently witnessed and actively connived in the whittling down of our water sources. Many of our houses do not implement rainwater harvesting schemes. And new buildings are now constructed with such high plinths that all the surface water runs off on to the road where it ceases to be our responsibility. The reason for the high plinth is that road levels keep rising. Rather than question that malpractice, we have been happy enough to contribute to it.
Our city’s civic body does not have an effectively plan for segregating garbage at source. Therefore, we too do not separate it at home. We are quite happy to send our rubbish out, from where it journeys to the two big landfills in our city and forgotten thereafter. Studies have shown that if segregation was done at home, with food wastes being composted and recyclable wastes being sent to agencies that deal with them, what is left would be a miniscule percentage of what is now being churned out. That by itself would solve much of our garbage problems.

How many of us know the names of our ward councillors and how many of us would like to meet up with them? Perhaps that is why there is no accountability. Yes, dealing with Government agencies is no fun and can be time-consuming, but it has to be done. In building our individual homes and gated communities, we have been happy to exist in cocoons, with no care for our environment. The recent floods have shown that we as citizens can rise to the occasion. Why can we not do this on a day to day basis? Can we begin reclaiming our city and our civic rights? Unless we do this, there is no way that our quality of life is going to improve. Perhaps our resolution for 2016 ought to be this. And unlike most New Year resolutions, let us hope we do not forget it after a while. We do not want another flood to remind us of our responsibilities, do we?

Not world class but third class

February 2, 2016

Whenever they come to power they promise to make Chennai a world-class city. Some coined catchy phrases for it – Singara Chennai was one. Singapore is their avowed model for what Chennai ought to be like. When it comes to the Cooum, they quote the Thames to us and, likewise, they claim that the metro rail, when operational, will teach the London underground a lesson or two. Ask them about flooding and they will tell us about how we will soon beat Holland in best practices. When it comes to action, however, all this is forgotten. With the city and State in election mode, we have witnessed some of the worst behaviour possible in the last two weeks and it is only going to get worse.
One of the two political majors had a summit conference somewhere outside the city. The entire route was covered with bunting, banners, cut outs and political graffiti. Party workers thought nothing about erecting welcome arches right in the middle of roads thereby constricting what little space there was for vehicles. Even the flyovers were not spared. Some that have sharp bends and therefore have glow signs to indicate where the turnings were, had these covered with posters thereby increasing the risk of accidents. Traffic lights were hidden, as were road signs, thereby creating chaos. Pavements were dug up to erect banners and cut outs. Private walls were defaced and some commercial establishments even had their parking spaces intruded upon for hoardings to be put up. It must be acknowledged that all of these (minus the posters and graffiti that have stayed on), were removed immediately after the event, probably following the sharp backlash on social media. But while they stood, they caused enough trouble and gave us an idea as to how third world or worse we can be. It was then the turn of the other political major which, not wanting to be left out, decided that it would hold a political rally, in the middle of a working day and on one of the busiest thoroughfares.
The meeting was ostensibly to protest against tardy distribution of flood relief but the looming elections were clearly in the minds of the organisers. Traffic was held up for long, even as the other nuisance elements of posters, banners and flags caused other hardships. A large turnout of the cadre was reported, which makes you wonder as to what the cadre does for a living if it can attend rallies on a working day. The party has, of course, claimed that the rally was a great success. But what of the thousands of office-goers and other commuters whose day was spoiled owing to the disruption? What of those who had medical emergencies? Do people in world-class cities suffer such inconveniences?
If all this is the way Chennai is to function, then what world class are we talking about? On the one hand, these leaders conduct global investor meets, travel abroad to attract business and keep claiming we are well on our way to stardom as far as international ratings among cities are concerned, on the other they make life here difficult even for the pursuit of normal activities such as walking or driving around. Interestingly, there are well pronounced judgements of the High Court outlawing each of these offences – hindering movement of public by conducting rallies and usurping public spaces for political propaganda. But when the enforcing agencies choose to look the other way, what can the law do? In the face of such impunity, all claims of improving Chennai sound hollow, do they not?

How to make the city world class

February 1, 2016

The waters have receded, those manning centres for immediate relief have gone back to their respective activities, and now the focus shifts to long-term rehabilitation. There is now a realisation that Chennai cannot afford to expand the way it did. That it does need to grow is a reality, but such growth has to be based on a sustainable model. How can this be done? A macro approach at the planning and policy level is necessary, but there has to be considerable attention to detail at ground level.
Did you know for instance that there is really no agency that looks into the planning and lay-out of any new colony in the city? This is not unique to Chennai alone – all Indian cities suffer from the same problem. At a rarefied level exists the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority and it concerns itself only with master plans, of which it has produced but two, the last one being ten years ago and subject to much dispute. It reserves for itself the right to sanction construction. The Corporation, which is supposed to monitor adherence of actual building to plan, does not control what happens by way of drainage, water supply or electricity, each being under an independent authority. The roads do come under the Corporation, but if it is a national or state highway, then there are additional powers that hold control. It is therefore no wonder that our residential and business areas are such a mess – a road laid by the Corporation can be cut at any time by Metrowater, a footpath can be blocked by an electrical transformer or junction box. There is nobody who controls all these activities.
In world class metros (and Chennai has been touted as that by successive administrations), the city’s municipal body is paramount.The Mayor is empowered to treat the city as a corporate entity – his Council can seek public funds and loans to execute specific projects, with accountability to the people. Here it is more a political office and funding is completely controlled by the State, making the process opaque and serving ends that are at times completely deviant from what is for the general good. How else can we explain the plethora of flyovers, the huge development of residential colonies with no civic infrastructure, and arbitrary beautification schemes that have no relevance to day-to-day life? And with independent bodies taking care of various aspects of city life, what can the Corporation do? It can at most collect property tax, lay a few roads, and hope that the rest will be handled well.
Do areas within city limits and the number of people residing there alone decide what makes a metro? That would definitely appear to be the case with Chennai, which around five years ago suddenly witnessed a threefold increase in area, with no plan in sight for what was to be done with the space. Consequently, each of the wards behaved exactly as they were when they were villages or ‘upgraded municipalities’ with no cohesion to the Corporation. That is really not the way a city is to be administered.
A few years ago, there was a hue and cry when a demand was made for Mumbai to be declared an independent Union Territory. Perhaps the idea was not bad after all. The time has come to take a deep look at they way our top five metros are run if they are not to break down when it comes to infrastructure. The trouble is, our political masters will be loath to let go of the power that goes with it.

Hidden histories: Commemorating Conran-Smith

January 29, 2016
Conran Smith!!

Conran Smith!!

Sometimes I think the Corporation of Chennai exists solely for my amusement and the long life of this column. I wonder what Eric Conran-Smith, after whom this lane and its adjoining road are named, would have had to say…

Source: Hidden histories: Commemorating Conran-Smith

Banner barriers

January 28, 2016

And so another year has ended, yielding place to new and the political class fulfils itself in many ways. The Man from Madras Musings has a number of resolutions for himself in the new year (the completion of the Chief’s assignments on time being among the first) but he also wishes that the politicos would make some resolutions, including one to that will keep the city’s pavements free of banners hailing various leaders in, it must be admitted, alliterative language but at the same time most of it qualifying to be purple prose.
As to what the reasons are for the recent explosion of banners MMM does not know, but he assumes that they are all in view of the elections looming large. If MMM is not mistaken, there is a High Court judgement against these, but then those are rarely ever implemented are they? What has therefore resulted is a rash of banners all along routes that certain VIPs in our city take when they do such mundane things as going to office, or take a flight out or return home after a short visit somewhere. MMM will not be surprised if these people have banners and posters put up even within their homes, en route from say, bedroom to kitchen or the area where they perform what are known as ablutions.
And so we are in a strange situation – the Corporation keeps building pavements, and, to give it some credit, has been reclaiming certain lost ones as well, only to have the political parties aggrandise all of them and for the sole purpose of erecting banners. Some of these have also been put up inside private properties, ostensibly with the permission of the owners. MMM spoke to at least a couple who said they protested but were informed that in case they continued resisting, they would soon see banners put up about themselves, lauding their heroism in the past tense and their pictures in the middle of two weeping eyes. Seeing the present quite tense, these people gave in, all in the interests of surviving into the future.
Someone else called MMM and asked him if he knew the whereabouts of an activist who made his name trying to regulate traffic on the streets. MMM did not know that plucky old man but he did wish others, including himself, had the same fighting spirit. He also wished that the administration displayed a greater degree of spine. After all, these were roads down which police officers, bureaucrats, the judiciary and others also travelled to and from office. Surely they would have noticed something wrong with such practices. But then not everyone relishes the idea of standing up and then being transferred to the archives or museum departments do they?
MMM would like to point out the positive side. The casuarina tree felling industry is doing well, the trucking industry that ferries these to and fro is also flourishing. So are the thugs who come and erect the banners at various places. The digital banner printing industry is booming. Ghost-writers and poets who come up with the eulogies are also now inching up the income tax slabs. Pavement work now continues unabated. Times are good for some people after all.

A great display of cooperative spirit

January 27, 2016

Some stuff I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the flood –

When was the last time anyone credited Madras that is Chennai with community spirit? Most writings on the city have dismissed it as comprising an insular community where neighbours hardly ever bother to find out who lives next door. That notion it appears is now in for a complete revision. Last fortnight’s floods have brought forth a new Chennai as it were, where the citizenry has risen to the occasion in providing relief and rehabilitation for those affected.
It is not as though State agencies did not do anything. After the initial shock, everyone noticed several instances where Government-run services continued to function right through the crisis. The Metropolitan bus transport did not suspend its operations even for a day. Telephones largely worked and as for power supply, it was shut off only in places where human safety would have been at risk had it continued. Hospitals worked overtime. Even the Corporation, which has come in for a big share of the criticism, did its best. Officials were available on call round the clock and there are many stories of acts of kindness – oxygen being supplied in the dead of night on the basis of a single call, boat services for many marooned, and food supplies to those completely cut off.
Who would have thought that a radio jockey of a private station would become the beacon light – offering entertainment for three days and at the same time passing on information, acting as a node for vital communications and calls for help? When thanked, all he had to say was that he did not expect it, his actions were guided by a single thought, that his beloved city could not drown. Working closely with him was a young film star who became a real life hero. That, of course, led to several others of his kind realising that they were missing a good press opportunity and jumping into the fray. But his contributions really stand out.
It however, cannot be denied that it was the common resident who emerged up top. Right across the city, thousands of volunteer camps sprang up. Some large, some small, but all of them worked with the single goal, to ensure relief supplies for those affected. Dry provisions, cooked food, clothes, blankets, medical supplies and personal products were all collected in no time and sent out.
The effort has since diminished somewhat but it has not died out. The emphasis has now shifted to long term rehabilitation, with many volunteers banding together to collect funds that will help in this initiative. The task is by no means over, for there are still areas of the city where water has not drained and residents, particularly those below the poverty line, are completely cut off. All these angels of mercy have done these acts without any consideration of personal credit or publicity.
The political establishment has not exactly covered itself in glory. The sticker fiasco and the charges of intimidating volunteers and hijacking supplies apart, there is a sense of disillusionment about politicians of all hues. There is also a feeling that Government funds, when disbursed, will be slow and too small in quantity to be of any use to those affected. The city will therefore continue to look at private initiative. It is reliably learnt that the donors are also responding and several of the givers are planning to route a significant portion of their funds through NGOs and not necessarily via the Government. This deserves encouragement, for it is only by this that we as a city can live up to what Ramalinga Swamigal sang of as Charitable Chennai.


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