Chennai’s best face!
Over the last few weeks, The Man from Madras Musings has been taking overseas visitors on heritage tours around the city. Having done this several times over, MMM ought to be somewhat immune to variations in interest and enthusiasm levels of his little flock but, unfortunately, he still remains sensitive to response and reaction. On some days he soars and on other days he just glides along. But when faced with a patently uninterested specimen, MMM is flummoxed. He stammers, stutters and the muse flees from him. One such was a celebrity who was recently here and, early one morning, MMM was asked to take the celeb, the celeb’s good lady and the fruits of their union on a tour. While the mere et fils were enthusiasm personified, the celeb couldn’t care less and barely managed to conceal his lack of involvement. It remin ded MMM of Sir Harcourt Butler taking Lady Willingdon to the source of some great river and waxing eloquent, only to have her complain that it was rather smelly.
But leaving aside the lukewarm response, MMM must admit that our beloved city does not make the conduct of such tours in any way easy. On this particular lovely January morning, MMM was taking the enthusiastic, the indifferent and the plain bored around Mylapore and what should greet the visitors but a blocked sewer on South Mada Street. A manhole was open and, out of it, slowly emerging, inch by inch, black, smelly sludge, making its way surely and steadily to the temple tank. MMM, hoping that nobody had noticed, was just beginning to speak of the temple tower (taking the eye as far away as possible from the ground), when the youngest among the brood piped up in a reedy but clear tenor. “It is rather niffy isn’t it?” And that was that. Conversation from then on veered towards drains, in sickness and in health, and when MMM tried to divert attention to what he claimed were the pristine waters of the tank, nobody appeared interested. By then the sludge was reaching the steps of the tank and that may have been a reason. When it came to breakfast, MMM was rather pointedly offered a drop from the bottle of hand-sanitiser, which, inci dent ally, no migratory bird travels without in our country. Understandable under the circumstances.
A couple of weeks later, MMM was leading a band of highly enthusiastic, young and energetic Americans. We were looking at sites in Madras that were in some way connected with the US of A. And those of you who know your Madras Rediscovered (p 287 of the book in case you missed it before) will immedia tely realise that the YMCA building on NSC Bose Road is an important stop on this trail. And so MMM got off the van opposite this stately edifice only to find that several fellow citizens had also decided to stop there. Only some of them were squatting while others were facing the High Court wall. And this being early in the morning, MMM need scarcely tell you what they were up to. Scattered across this stretch were vestiges of what earlier squatters had been up to. Those who had the misfortune to walk along this way were doing so with handkerchiefs pressed against the nose. How was MMM to speak of David McConaughy or anyone else in such an environment?
From there we went to the Triumph of Labour statue, which was after all inspired by American troops landing at Iwo Jima. MMM was reason ably confident that this part of Chennai would be clean. And sure enough it was, after a fashion. The base of the statue was a bright red, thanks to hundreds of betel-leaf chewing mouths having decided to expectorate at this very spot. It was some small satisfaction that the plants around the statue, no doubt brought up on an exclusive diet of betel juice, appeared to be flourishing. There was enough plastic littered around to choke the planet. MMM had just opened his mouth when he was drow ned out by several beggars who clearly pre ferred US AID. The tour went steadily downhill from then on.
January is hardly the season to fly anywhere. Even the birds know this, for they complete their migration well in advance. But human kind, and among it The Man from Madras Musings, cannot afford to be so season specific. So it was that MMM had to fly several times over the past few weeks. And on several occasions, he was faced with delayed flights. Twice the delays were due to technical failures and it is these that MMM is now writing about.
MMM’s view of technical snags in aircrafts is that they are better off detected on the ground than in mid-air. But in that he appears to be in a minority. The dominant voice is that of people who think that by yelling and screaming at the hapless man/woman at the counter, such snags can be rectified in a jiffy and all will be well. “You don’t know these damned crooks,” said one such passenger to no one in particular. “They have delayed the flight because all seats are not filled up.” This explanation was clearly based on mofussil buses that keep hovering around a terminus till every seat is taken up. But can the same be said of flights? Another passenger went up to the counter clerk and demanded to know what arrangements had been made for spending the night. And this was for a budget flight whose entire flying time was an hour at most! A third was asking an airport official as to what contingency plans were in place for such situations. There must be at least three alternatives, he said, little pausing to reflect that our city operates without any plan, leave alone alternatives, on most counts. A fourth was shouting and asking for a spare aircraft to be brought in immediately. A couple of NRIs were damning all things Indian and were, in fake accents, saying that ‘back home’ such things were unheard of.
All voices were silenced when refreshments, compri sing dry-as-dust cake, oily vadas and syrup water dis guised as coffee were served. After that was consumed, by some in enormous quanti ties, very few had the energy left to walk further on, leave alone shout. But one or two indefati gable spirits kept the crusade going, much to the amuse ment of everyone else in the airport.
Eventually, the aircraft, cured of its illness, made its appearance. We took off. Shortly thereafter, the flight ran into an air-pocket. Every one was bumped about and slowly a rumour spread that all was not well with the aircraft. MMM turned around to see the leaders of the pack that had bayed for the airline’s blood while on ground. They were all quiet now. Lips silently moving, they appeared to be praying for an early and safe landing. When we did touch ground, there was a delay in the baggage getting on to the carousel. MMM found his bag, but, last seen, the shouting and yelling was back in full strength. There was a growing body that wanted to claim compensation.
‘Tis the wedding season again and The Man from Madras Musings has drawn first blood so to speak by way of an invitation that “cardinally” invites him and his good lady. Watch out for more.