Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXIX No. 8, August 1-15, 2019
(Continued from last fortnight)
Arumugam had a flair for languages. Besides Tamil, he spoke Bengali, Telugu, Hindi and some English. He became my self-appointed Tamil teacher and with the philosophy of one teaching a foreign language, he focussed on what I would need in daily life. So he included numbers, asking and answering polite social questions like soukhyma, enna samaachaaram, enna vishayam, etc., followed by objects like tanni, uppu, chakkarai, chaavi, puutu. He explained the difference between yaarume illa and onnume illa, pesha and solle and soon followed adverbs like sheeghram and medhue–medhue. Meaning, he said, was not a property of words, it was in the context. Do not foreclose your options by saying illai and aama at once. It is best to say paakalaam (we’ll see), even if you have made up your mind. Make the visitor wait while you can. You rise in the hierarchy of power, more people wait for you. They will never take you for granted. G.B. Shaw would have hired Arumugam to train government officers.
Arumugam had an original and practical mind. He taught me enough in a few months to help me make friends among peons, drivers, cooks, waiters, guards etc. When interviewed for the position of a warden at IIT-M, I had the cheek to tell the Dean Tamil teryum, I knew Tamil. The British hardly knew Tamil and ruled the presidency of Madras for centuries, I suggested.
Advanced lessons in the sociology and history of Madras (it was not Chennai yet), came from Mrs. Junie McMurray, Technician Grade II. Junie was 46 years old on Feb 25, 1980, when she joined I.I.T – not very young, nor fat (she could be called ‘full’ in English), fair, tall, charming, single, English-speaking, unattached. Some called her Venus, some Durga. Some men, as they sometimes do, had other ideas. But she told them where they belonged: tail between legs, they made an immediate exit, never to risk their lives again. In most, she inspired respect.
“My grandfather was an army major,” she would say. Her grandfather lived in Bangalore, as most ‘class’ Anglo-Indians did. Once, as he was speeding on his motorbike, he sighted a camel up ahead. But he did not panic. He just jumped off his bike and over the camel, hump and all, landing right back on the saddle of his bike on the other side, like the British Army Major in Ruskin Bond’s story. Her grandfather had been a part of the musical band of the British Army in India and had led the band in playing God Save The King. ‘Precision and economy make you great, Junie!’, he would say. Did she go to college? ‘Come on! Why would a girl want to waste her precious years poring over books! A girl needs to be smart so that she runs her home, makes her folk leave every morning and return every evening.’ Perhaps old-fashioned, but not boring!
Her Christmas parties were fabulous. The quarters she occupied might have been small, but the parties had the who’s who of IIT-M on the guest list. Ribbons, festoons, flags, balloons and some recorded hymns, both Tamil and English, repeated themselves every year with the same colours and cadence without losing their attraction. The insides of the home got a new coat of paint, some new wallpapers and little bulbs that glowed for a week, non-stop. She brought Christmas to IIT-M campus and kept it aglow, brighter than anywhere else! She introduced guests to her cat, chicken and parrot, recounting their feats with the kind of glint that parents with a JEE rank in their families have. Proud, yes; arrogant, no way!
Junie had the world on her finger tips. Her albums contained rhinos from Assam, boatmen from Bangladesh, elephants from Congo and tiger moths from Venezuela. She was a passionate philatelist. ‘She shared her space and whatever else she had with birds, beasts and all else,’ said Sister Valsamma, her companion at Aasha Bhawan, the home for the aged in Upper Gudalur, near Ooty, where Junie spent her final days. Generous she had always been. Even in the pre-bottled and pre-water-and-coffee-dispensing-machine age at IIT, no one stayed thirsty within walking distance of her water-bottle or tea-flask. Her gold chain often rested in the vaults of the pawn broker, but her neighbours, on or off-campus, did not suffer so long as Junie had any metal on her body. ‘How will you manage in your old age?’, her friends asked. ‘The Lord will take care of me!’ Her faith was infectious. Bhogwan aachhen, God is still there, like Mother Teresa used to say in Calcutta. Did she have a foe? Not really, though at times, she resented the trips from the tappal to the Ad Block, while others tired their legs trekking to the canteen. But the work did not suffer, not while Junie was around.
Junie had always told her husband, a security sergeant at IIT, to cut down on liquor and cigarettes, but, as an English poet said, ‘No use to talk to him, he was but one and twenty, or only a little older’. So finally, when the lump in his throat turned malignant, as, in Junie’s words, ‘it had to’, Junie changed from a shy and obliging young bride mixing soda with liquor and cleaning ashtrays, to a twenty-four hour nurse, sister, mother, priest and provider, wiping her eyes at times, at others, his lips and bottom, until he was lowered into the grave one day.
Loyal to his memory, she didn’t allow even death to part her from him. Her ‘No!’ to all the star-studded rings proffered to her was firm and final. But Junie responded to the call of duty, and joined the D.H.S.S as Peon Grade – III, and, like Cleopatra, turned the stool she sat upon into an object of the burnished gold and kept it so until she left about sixteen years later, as if saying dignity was not exclusive to a class.
Advanced lessons in Tamil, of course, came from the hostel workers. The dean asked me if I knew Tamil. I said yes and no. I took the keys and learnt. I told a worker accused of stealing, onne ke talkaai thengaa maari break pandre. Both Arumugam and Junie McMurray, for different reasons of course, would have felt proud of me!
But my Tamil would have remained pathetic without my lessons in Taramani. Taramani was almost reserved for drivers, tailors, plumbers, electricians, construction workers and daily wage-labour of many other hues, just as Anna Nagar, Besant Nagar and other Nagars are for Delhi-centric bureaucrats, businessmen and politicians. None of my colleagues at IIT-M was happy that I was quitting IIT Campus for Taramani. ‘For Taramani?’, they screamed. It had no sewage, no piped water supply, no telephone lines, not even reliable electricity supply. ‘Your neighbours would be jealous, you would be robbed! Taramani?’ Yes, I said!
Four out of ten there spoke Telugu, but all spoke Tamil. Tamil here is at once rooted in tradition – nii akkaa lo, nii amma lo – just as it is modern – bastard, bloody etc, besides a lot else that even Rajnikanth can use. The economics of Taramani is never disturbed by its sociology, but politics here is part and parcel of life. The area is vertically divided between A.I.A.D.M.K & D.M.K – two leaves, irettai ilai, and the rising sun, suuryan. There is enough work here for many to be full-time salesmen for two bamboos of the same ditch, as Kamraj allegedly said once. The divide is so sharp and discourse so passionate that a men’s hair cutting saloon here forbids political conversation, arasiyal pesa kudaadu!
But even Taramani had no regional bias! They accepted us as one of their own. Whenever I joined the queue near the water-tankers with my vessel, they often let me have my fill first. They put up with me when I protested against loud-speakers and litter near my house! I put up posters on my compound wall saying I would break any litterers’ or sticklers’ or scribblers’ heads like a coconut, thengaa-maari!’, but they did not mind and continued as usual. I went to the police; an inspector came and asked me to give him either the name or the photo of any litterer. I wished I could. Then a senior police officer came home and advised me to solve this problem ‘socially’. Then one day, somebody told me that I should stick a Ganesha or a Shiva tile on our compound-wall! With due apologies, we decorated our compound wall with tiles showing nearly all members of the Shiva family. And litter at my doorstep disappeared. God is a policeman in Chennai – yes, literally! Past midnight once, when I was unconscious due to some food poisoning caused by a stale samosa, resulting in fever, diarrhoea and dehydration, my niece went to the bus depot at Taramani to bring home an ambulance. Two policemen followed her into our flat and eventually helped her bring me down from our second floor flat into the ambulance which took me to a hospital. We do not know who they were! Proverbial exceptions, of course, were there! Like a drunk auto-rickshaw driver who insisted on over-charging and thought that I should use no language other than Tamil while I was in ‘his state’, or a drunken neighbour who assaulted a visitor from my village because my guest did not speak Tamil. Police had to step in saying they would ‘give better training’ in Tamil teaching! Like Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar said, anyone in India can speak about education.
But Taramani in general was pretty tolerant. Our Tamil was accepted, our Hindi was respected. Some members of my family even made some money giving Hindi tuitions. Chennai today is the most cosmopolitan city in Asia. Go to any restaurant in Thiruvanmiyur and you will hear a Bengali manager welcoming you and an Assamese, Nepali, Bihari or Oriya waiter serving you aaluu parathaa or chicken biriyani to the tune of a new rendering of jiiyaa bekaraar hai, a Hindi super-hit of the 1960s. It comes through Radio Mirchi, not Radio Pacche Mulgai.
(To be continued next fortnight)