Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXIX No. 1, April 16-30, 2019
The Firangipani tree, (paneer pushpam in Tamil) stands majestically tall, enveloping all its sinewy arms with its white and pink hued flowers, within the compound of the house opposite mine. One day, on an impulse, I picked the fallen flowers to adorn my earthen bowl and lengthen their lives for perhaps one more day.
The next day, as I went to collect the milk packets, a bag containing the elegant flowers was hung on the gate. I again arranged them. The appearance of the flowers became a regular feature. I enquired around and came to know that the watchman of the opposite house would collect the flowers and share their unselfish lives with anyone who showed an interest in them. I did not confront him, though I would fret when I didn’t have the time to arrange them. I did notice however that he would draw the kolam on his quadrangular front with a chalk piece and adorn them with the fallen flowers.
One day the flowers did not make their appearance. Two days later, I came to know that he had gone to his village and would return after a week. The new watchman did not show the same kind of perseverance and somehow I missed the flower routine.
A week after he returned, he approached me with a hesitant voice, saying “Amma I am back, I will give you flowers tomorrow”. He was perhaps in his late sixties or seventy maybe. I started the flower conversation. “I get up at 4 in the morning”, he said. “I gather the fallen flowers, sweep the portico, wash and make the kolam and I share the flowers with anyone who asks for it,” he said.
“I also adorn the flowers on the twin trees of the Neem and the Peepal growing together.” “Where is it?” I asked. He looked at me with disbelief. “You don’t know? It is just a few yards away”, he pointed across the street. I had never noticed it. “It is so auspicious, you haven’t seen it?” he asked again.
Why did he do it, I enquired.” The Neem is the embodiment of Mahamayi, the Goddess. Ganesha resides in the Peepal tree”, he explained, his faith and belief enmeshed with the local myth, reflecting his reverence for trees and nature.
In the years that I had lived in the street, I had not even registered the existence of these trees. I walked to the trees and sure enough the neem and the peepal were intertwined, their separate branches crowned with their respective leaves. A gentle breeze tugged at the leaves. The trees had become a sacred little shrine quite a while ago. The watchman’s consciousness of everything that nature offered had made him seek a lasting relationship of altruism with the trees.
Ever since the Abyssinian goat herd accidentally discovered that the coffee berries were the root cause for the lambs that nibbled them, to frisk, gambol and more importantly look less sheepish, a drink of coffee had been making most of its votaries go after that beverage like dumb sheep. A gentleman, otherwise jovial and friendly, will be seething with rage, if he has not been served coffee first thing in the morning. He will be game for blue murder.
There was a time when coffee was enjoying unchallenged monopoly among the upper and middle echelons of society. If tea was offered injudiciously, it would be construed a veiled insult, abuse, snub, rebuff or affront. The quality of coffee served by a host (read hostess) will determine social status. During the boy-meets-the girl ritual of yore, the matrimonial matter may not be taken forward even if the bride-to-be looked like an amalgam of the celestial Ramba, Urvasi, Menaka and Tilottama, due to the faux pas committed by bride’s family in serving tea, never mind if it was brewed from top drawer Darjeeling leaves that even Queen Elizabeth would have condescended to sip with royal grace.
When I was young, The Tea Board, that had perhaps resolved to propagate tea in Madras, sent a van around the city offering free cups of piping hot tea to wean the coffee drinkers away. In fact, the film Kalyana Parisu by director Sridhar had a song by the trickster Thangavelu, who turns a new leaf (tea leaf?!) marketing the drink, singing, ‘tea..tea…’. I think it was cut to make the film snappy. Tea was considered by those with stiff upper lip as a lowly beverage, served in glass tumblers, with the moniker ‘single tea’, which the blue collars enjoyed, along with a beedi. Tea was for the brawn. Coffee was for the brain!
Gallons and gallons of coffee and tea might have passed through many throats since then. Tea has now come up big, acquiring equal status. Hostesses ask the guests’ preference, ‘Coffee or Tea? without inviting their ire: and also ask a supplementary, ‘with or without sugar’, as depletion of bodily insulin has become a national shortage.
A ‘double’ strong ‘degree’ coffee requires as much skill to prepare as it requires to drink. It should be of darkish brown colour with a surfeit of froth embellishing the top. A liberal ingestion of milk makes it look anemic and ergo fit to be drunk only by the wash basin.
There are a few ground rules in brewing good coffee. My granny had taught me the art of preparing an authentic tumbler of Kumbakonam coffee in an early morning ritual. I still keep it guarded the way Coke formula is kept. As a tailpiece, the ultimate insult to a waiter can be paraphrased in the outburst of the customer, who barked, ‘Waiter, if this is coffee, bring me tea. If tea, bring me coffee.’
I happened to read this edition rather late. As usual, the Edition carries a lot of insightful references to Madras. I would like to comment/supplement on three subjects dealt in the issue – (MM, March 1st).
It was very fortunate that successive Governments DMK and then AIADMK supported the Adyar Creek restoration. As you rightly pointed out, further work beyond the first 35 acres needs to be taken.
There is a lurking danger of encroachment. Recently I observed that the water in the Tolkappiar poonga side was drained out. There was a strong rumour that the local politicians are conspiring with the Park authorities to claim some land on the side lines and sell it. In Foreshore Estate area where I live, there was a talk of bids. Luckily, the Creek got refilled with water but the rumour was strong. This was one major advantageous environmental development that took place and I pray that the rumour is unfounded.
The south western part of Greater Chennai spanning Vandalur to Walajabad via Padappai and Oragadam too requires metro rail connection. The previous government promised Hyundai in the MoU. Rail connection from Ambattur to Walajabad as a grand circular railway is also needed. Perhaps you may do a survey and if it is worthwhile take up in public interest.
This is a hub of business retail and wholesale alike. But the stake holders are not participating in the development of Madras. They continue to operate in filth and squalor. Only organisations like you can whip up the sentiments and try major campaign for the real Great George Town. It requires the participation of the trading community who thrive there.
– A long time subscriber to Madras Musings
Dr. A. Raman’s account of pharmacy education (MM , March 16th) opens up, albeit tangentially, the fascinating world of terminology and etymology pertaining to weights and measures. For instance, both “inch” and “ounce” have the same root (meaning “twelfth”), and there was indeed a pound of 12 ounces in the Troy and apothecaries systems! Another trip into history may reveal why the “pound” became a measure of quantity/weight and also currency, and the origin of the abbreviation “lb”.
‘Kasyap’, A-7, Nehrunagar Fourth Street, Adyar
Chennai 600 020