Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVIII No. 10, September 1-15, 2018

The day MGR died

- S.R. Madhu

Chennai shut down quite completely on August 8, 2018, the day after former Chief Minister Karunanidhi died. No shop, office, factory or school was open, nothing moved on the roads. No one had to compel any one to shut shop.

This reminds me of my experience when then Chief Minister MGR died on December 24, 1987. The death occurred early morning. I was not aware of it when I took a flight to Madurai. I was scheduled to take a taxi from there to Kanyakumari to interview the fishermen community there for a UN fisheries project, which I served as Information Officer.

It was when I got into the plane that I learned that MGR had died. “There’s nothing you can do in Madurai,” fellow passengers told me. True enough, Madurai airport was at a standstill. Taxi drivers laughed when I said I needed a drive to Kanyakumari. “We can’t operate even within Madurai,” they said.

No cell phones those days. Indian Airlines didn’t allow me to use their phone – but did so after some cajoling and pleading. I called my office and was advised to fly back to Chennai immediately. But the first available flight was only next morning.

I persuaded a cycle rickshaw at the airport to take me to a hotel nearby. It was a nondescript hotel with the most basic facilities. The only thing I could do in my hotel room was read.

Around lunch time, I hailed a cycle rickshaw for a trip to a good restaurant for a bite. The cycle rickshaw driver haggled. “You know the situation. I’ll be risking my life to take you anywhere. I’ll do it for your sake. But you must pay me Rs 100.” Okay, I said.

The rickshaw had gone just a few yards, when the driver let out a curse. A gang of loud-talking roughs was advancing toward us, quite menacingly. The driver did what was most prudent. He stopped the rickshaw, got down and fled!

The gang came up, its ringleader stared at me, I returned the stare.

“Where is the rickshawkaran?” he asked. “He ran away on seeing you,” I replied.

“Find him, he must be around,” the ring-leader told his henchmen. True enough, the rickshaw guy was crouching in a lane nearby. Two henchmen dragged him, quaking and quivering, to the ringleader.

Ringleader: What happened to you? Aren’t you ashamed of abandoning your rickshaw and running away? Did you think of your passenger?

Rickshawman: No, Ayya, I just went to the lane to relieve myself.

Ringleader: That’s all? Do you know the big news?

Rickshawman: Yes Sir, Puratchi Thalaivar is no more.

Ringleader: Then why are you working? Do you want us to beat you black and blue?

The rickshaw guy turned out to be quite smart at thinking on his feet. He came up with “Saar has come all the way from Madras to pray at the Meenakshi temple. Since he mentioned God, I decided to do an act of service. In fact, you check with Saar, I told him I would not take a single pie from him.”

Ringleader: Ok, we are getting into your rickshaw. Drop Saar at the temple. Then take us where we want to go.

I was dropped at the temple – for an unscheduled encounter with Goddess Meenakshi. Friends of mine later were unanimous that the Goddess had taught me a lesson – I should have planned to visit the temple before doing anything else.

After darshan at the temple, I was reluctant to risk another cycle-rickshaw experience. I walked back to my hotel – hungry and tired. Peanuts from a roadside vendor, bananas from another vendor, were life-savers. The vendors were careful to conceal their wares under a piece of cloth.

I was reminded of a staff discussion the previous week at my office. A few colleagues grumbled that at remote fishing villages in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, also in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, where our project helped fisher communities, there was nothing to eat all day, and they had to fast. My Swedish boss responded sweetly “Most of us overeat most of the time. We should grab every opportunity to fast and get back to shape.”

And that’s what I did. Fortunately, a taxi was available next morning for the airport. It was the airhostess in the Madurai-Madras flight who broke my fast by offering me a cup of coffee.

After the Madurai experience, I decided I would make sure that before I travelled anywhere, all VIPs who mattered in Tamil Nadu were in good health.

More than 30 years later, when Karunanidhi died, I prudently stayed home.

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