Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXV No. 14, November 1-15, 2015
Nowadays Madras is called Chennai. Deepavali as it used to be properly called in olden time is now Divali. Perhaps it is representative of the changing trends in this, our city.
A couple of years ago, I received an invitation for a cards party on the eve of Divali. To say I was surprised would be to put it mildly. Card sessions were always popular in the North where it is considered auspicious to lose money on the eve of Divali. But that they flourished outside Sowcarpet in Madras was news to me. Given my orthodox upbringing I had never learnt even one card game. Come to think of it, I cannot even shuffle a pack of cards and in those Math sums involving probability I needed counselling on what was an ace and what was a club etc. To me, the Queen of Hearts was a woman who made tarts that were stolen by a Knave. I called my friend and begged to be let off the card session, but my wife insisted and so we went and I made a fool of myself. I can in fact be called the Ace of Duds. However card parties before Divali are the rage in Chennai now.
To come back to Deepavali, time was when it was celebrated in Madras in the wee hours of the morning. Now we celebrate it by gambling and dancing into the wee hours, returning home with the milkman. Even in the old days we never slept the night preceding the festival and if we did it was invariably with the tailor. No, no, don’t get me wrong. It was just that we had no malls selling ready-made clothes and so all households bought yards of cloth from Binny’s and got them stitched. A favourite anecdote of my grandfather’s was of a corrupt brother-in-law in Government service who would order extra bales of curtain cloth for his office each year during Deepavali.
All brothers and even dads and uncles got the same designs and we all looked like a particularly badly assembled army regiment. The tailor would invariably take on more than he could chew, I mean sew and so we would all throng his doorstep the evening before the festival and return home late at night, triumphantly with the clothes. They would invariably be large and our tailor always consoled us by saying, “So what if it is large? You are growing children and soon the clothes will fit you.” Women fared better and got their stuff from Nalli’s.
The festival involved us waking up at an ungodly hour, like most Tambrahm events and also necessitated us taking an oil bath. Apparently Naraka, stipulated this to Lord Krishna just before he was bumped off. And so we all endured the shikakai (no shampoo) falling into our eyes and turning them blood red and also feeling oily all over for the day. The new clothes, being all starchy, did not help. Crackers were burst before dawn, also as per the Naraka Standards. Then would come the bhakshanams (the savoury and the sweets – made at home and not bought from Grand Sweets) and we would fall on them. This would always lead to an upset stomach for which there was an antidote as well – the lehyam, which was a gooey, dark substance which tasted of flavoured mud but which magically put your system right.
By midday, Deepavali would wind to a close. The radio (and in later years DD) would always play “Unnai Kandu Naan Aada” from the movie Kalyana Parisu just to drive home the fact that it was Deepavali in case we had missed it. To make it clear to the meanest intelligence, they would play the happy and the sad versions and the latter would always cause some orthodox aunt or uncle to demand that the radio be switched off. Playing dirges on a happy day was simply not done. Wonder what they would say now when the channels bring special films all day long with murder and gore galore!
Doing the rounds of the homes of elders and getting blessed was de rigueur. If a newly wed couple was present it would be talai deepavali. Blessings would include the request for some “good news” from the couple pretty soon. Quite often the “good news” would be on its way or sometimes be present in person, a bundle of squalling humanity. Those were fertile times. Some of the younger uncles and cousins would under the guise of visiting someone far away push off to the theatres to see the latest Deepavali release. The others would fight for the latest Deepavali Malars, the huge tomes that all the Tamil magazines brought out for the occasion. These were so big and would change so many hands that they would return to the house only in time for the next Deepavali.
By evening, Madras would be dead. Or at least the Tambrahm side of it would be. No good event is celebrated after the lighting of the lamp in the evening was the motto. And as for lighting lamps all around the house, forget it. Why do we have Karthikai, would be the answer.
Wonder what happened to all that? Madras has changed and today the city speaks knowledgeably of Choti Divali, Dhanteras and so on. It is now a five day event, with the oil bath surviving amidst it all! Go for it Chennai is my verdict. One thing however has not changed. It always rains during Deepavali and keeping the crackers dry remains a challenge.
Two churches in Broadway, several houses along the way, the Law College buildings, a couple of heritage structures on Mount Road… the list of victims of the Metrorail is long and rather illustrious. The latest to join this select club is Ripon Building, the 102-year-old heritage structure that is home to the Corporation of Chennai.
The story has been the same in all cases. As the drilling works progress, old buildings along the way develop cracks. The residents are alarmed, the newspapers report the matter, the structures are evacuated, a team from Chennai Metrorail visits the site and then claims it is not responsible for the damage, IIT Madras is called in to submit a report that is never made public, the cracks are given a temporary fix and then the drilling continues to progress. Surely by now, with such a pattern emerging, the authorities should know that some precautionary steps need to be taken when tunnelling for the Metro happens – at least in the vicinity of a heritage building.
The experience with Ripon Building has been no different. Even as drilling, tunnelling and excavating happen in its vicinity, the edifice has begun developing cracks. These were first reported a month ago and since then they have continued to widen. It must be remembered that the entire structure rests on a series of terracotta wells for its foundation, all of them filled with stone rubble (Jali). If these are disturbed by the work in progress, such cracks are bound to happen.
A team from Metrorail has since visited the place and IIT Madras has been asked to prepare a report. This has probably been submitted but has not been made available to the Corporation, which therefore remains in the dark as to what has caused the fissures and what needs to be done next. In the meanwhile, the cracks have caused much fear and excitement among the staff in the premises, with the ensuing discussions presumably resulting in less work happening at the civic body’s office than usual.
It will be laughable if Metrorail claims that the Ripon Building cracks are not due to the ongoing tunnelling work. The edifice is still in the midst of a Rs 27 Crore restoration activity that has been ongoing for over five years now. If there was indeed a different cause for the damage that has now surfaced, surely the team of architects and conservation experts in attendance would have noticed it and reported it by now. The responsibility for the latest issue is clearly with Chennai Metro and it needs to do something.
What is amazing is the sheer lack of concern and the unwillingness to arrive at a lasting solution for this problem despite such a track record.
Barely a year after we patted ourselves on the back for being the only Indian city to be named among 52 favoured travel destinations by the New York Times, and just a month after the success of the Global Investors Meet, our city is faced with a dubious first. Its airport has been rated among Asia’s worst. And that may not be surprising to those who have to frequently use the facility.
The survey, conducted by the travel website, ‘The Guide to Sleeping in Airports,’ talked to over 26,000 passengers during the course of one year, beginning from September 2014. Chennai’s terminal, in faring poorly does not have the consolation it did a few years ago when the same survey also included Mumbai and Delhi’s airports among the worst. Those have since invested heavily in improvements and in the latest poll have been ranked among the best in Asia. Not surprisingly, the Airports Authority of India, which manages Chennai’s airport, has strongly disagreed with the survey. It has in fact given the facility a rating of 4.3 out of 5. In its ranking, based on the Airports Council International’s Airport Survey, Chennai has moved in one year from 114th position to 56th.
If the exterior and the yard of St Mary’s Church are not attractions enough, the interior is a treasure house of memorabilia. Any historian of the Raj can spend a lifetime just going over the gravestones, the memorial tablets and other artefacts in the church. It is also fascinating for the lay visitor, for setting foot inside is to be transported to another era. Time appears to have remained unchanged inside St Mary’s.
Among the earliest descriptions of its interior is that of Thomas Salmon, an ensign with the Madras Garrison who wrote of it in 1699 after he had returned ‘Home’.
Many years ago, when the ‘Mylapore Festival’ that I curate annually began to blossom, we decided to move the hugely popular kolam contest and display to the streets.
North Mada Street was our obvious choice – since it was less populated on the weekend. And, it would create a gateway to the other venues of the cultural fest.