We’ve all done this. Stood in the middle of the road, even as traffic whizzed past, so we can take that amazing photo. Or maybe it was just me. And you were all stood on the side, relatively safer. Still, we are none of us strangers to standing at busy road intersections. We’ve all done this. Walk up and down the same stretch of road, looking at vehicles and people and shop fronts and stray dogs, waiting for that one super photo. We’ve all done this. Shrug away the strange looks and pitying glances of the people who just don’t get how, or even why, someone wants to be on the streets of Madras, taking photos of Madras.
Basically, we’re all super qualified. For a little bit of volunteering. There is a small survey currently being planned to measure the volume of pedestrian and vehicular traffic in Pondy Bazaar and T. Nagar. This is for an NGO called the ITDP, which is helping the Corporation of Chennai build better streets and better infrastructure on the streets. Volunteers will simply have to spend about an hour to 90 minutes tracking pedestrian movement and vehicles on a short stretch of road.
This will help inform the engineers, planners and the designers of what is lacking and what can be done on that road.
This is voluntary, but I see this as a great way to have a very different kind of photowalk, and helps us – the photowalkers – in the long run (heh!) by giving us better streets to walk on.
So. How many of you want to help out? There is a form and some basic instruction to help you do the survey. Drop in a mail or just leave a comment here and I’ll get you kitted out.
My brother got married over the weekend. It’s all great and good and nice. For him, definitely. When all the celebrations and the congratulations have stopped, when the last silk saree has rustled its way out of the door, I stand there. Knowing that while it was fun for everybody, it won’t be fun for me. Can you imagine the pain and the trouble I have to go through?
Seriously. The amount of sweets, fruits, candies, desserts and foodstuff that are the end result, the distilled essence of a Tam-Brahm wedding. And I, the Lone-st Warrior, have to eat through them all. Not stopping for a minute to distinguish between the textures of a Laddu and that of a Peda. Face down, head forward, just chomping my way through boxes after boxes of coconuty barfis.
It’s tough job, but I do it. Because those things aren’t going to go away on their own.
A Chevrolet Cruze, number 4244, blared its horn behind me for a good 20 seconds, turned a sharp corner at high speed, rushed down Sterling Road, overtaking other cars from the left. More horn blaring, he turned into Quality Inn Aruna. Now there is a man who’s hungry. Can only imagine his rush when he needs to use the toilet.
Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,
Till thou applaud the deed. Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale. Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse;
Whiles night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.
Thou marvel’st at my words: but hold thee still.
Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.
So, prithee, go with me.
காரியம் கைக்கூடும் வரை நில்
வெற்றி பெற்றால் சொல்
அறியாமை இப்பொழுது நன்று
இருளே, இரவே வா இன்று
இந்த நாளை கொன்று
கையால் என் பிணைப்பை வென்று
பந்தத்தை நீக்கிவிடு. பகல் சாயும்
காக்கை தன் கூட்டுக்கு செல்லும்
இரவின் இரை வேட்டை தொடங்கும்
என்ன தயக்கம்? என் பொருளில் என்ன கலக்கம்?
துஷ்டத்தின் துணை பாவமே. வேண்டாம். வேண்டுகிறேன் வா என்னோடு
Watching a living, breathing and growing organism die is both weird and learning experience. Especially an animal you are very familiar with and have come to love. Especially watching it die, day in and day out.
Arranged around the four sides of the squarish Panagal Park, and spilling over into one of the three roads that begin here, is Chennai’s famed retail zone. Pondy Bazaar, Ranganthan Street, Panagal Park and shopping are synonymous words. Used interchangeably and justifiably so. From glass bangles to gold, from leather wallets to jackets, from Bhel Puri to Chocolate Mousse, from kerchiefs to 9 yard saris, T Nagar is the to-go place for shopping in Chennai. This then, is the beast I refer to.
A living, breathing beast. Crowded, hectic, teeming with people, always active, growing in size and stature by day.
And dying by night.
Working for an advertising agency, I get to spend quite a few long nights in the office. My hours are nothing if not flexible, and this has afforded me a view of the city of Chennai not often seen. That of Panagal park/T.Nagar/Usman Road winding down for the day.
The death of this beast begins at 9. A slow process, is this business of winding down. Shoppers have to be sent their way, bills settled, accounts closed, merchandise counted, stock taken, employees checked, lights switched off, security alarms activated, guards briefed, shutters downed.
The first of the process is the most difficult. A 1000 shoppers (this is no exaggeration – there are easily a 1000 and more people at any given time) each demanding a different thing. To give all of them what they want takes time, patience and a hell of a lot of experience. But then, it has been done. 1000 become 200 become 5 become 1. The last of the shopper has been sent home, happy and exhausted, clutching the bounty.
When an animal dies, the light in its eyes go out. And that is what happens next – Neon signs and hall-lighting, direction markers and display lights, one by one, like an opera performance, they go out. Till at last, only the tiniest and feeblest of them stay on. To give the inmates an eerie glow. The finances for the day are tabulated, compared and analysed. Huge plastic bags dumped with all the loose coins, paper-notes rubber-banded and and bundled up in 100s. Employees go through a physical check to ensure none of them carry home a little “gift”, merchandise put back in shelves, stocks counted and stools, chairs, tables and drapes put in their place. After a day of hectic activity, the fans and airconditioners finally get some time to breathe, for themselves.
Slowly, the last man in the shop comes out. He is the owner/manager. With him is the night guard. The night guard pulls the shutter down and locks it. Once. Twice. And once more. The manager pulls on the three locks to ensure it is firmly in place and not a sham. The burglar alarms are activated. Our beast is now truly dead. Shrouded and placed on the coffin.
And the final rites, begin. The owner prays to the gods, for giving him a day of good business, and asks for many more such days. Camphor and incense are lit and offered to the dead shop. As a sign of respect. And off he goes, the owner. To his waiting car.
An unnatural peace settles around Panagal Park. The dogs too are quiet. The only sound is that of my motorcycle’s engine. Turning over ever so quietly. As I wait in the shadows, observing the scene. Now, my morbid obsession has been satisfied. The dead has already been forgotten. Only the living count. My bed and the home, waiting for my return. I kick the gear into place and ride away.
The words hiss and fume and splutter, like mustard seeds in boiling oil. We face each other, a few feet apart physically, but continents apart on what we want to do. The gulf before us is widening. Some words prick, some slash, some burrow deep. The words add one over another building a wall between us.The wall grows gradually one sentence at a time, one glare at a time, one awkward pause at a time. Suddenly I realise I can see only your face. The wall has grown far taller than either of us wanted it to. A few more sentences, and we will be cut off for eternity. Is that what you want? Is that what I want? You too realize that. We stop mid sentence. Looking at the wall of words we wonder, is there any way we can break it down?
I step forward hesitantly, and touch your chin gingerly, expecting you to pull away. You stiffen a little, then relax. My touch turns to caress. I am still waiting for the mustard seeds to splutter again. The heat is still there, but more simmering than spluttering. The caress gradually turns to a hug. The wall, that moments ago was rock solid, now melts like ice. Something intangible changes. And we are desperate to not let the moment go. The simmering heat melts the wall completely. A crushing hug, a desperate kiss, a squeeze here, a pinch there. We make love. Passionately, desperately, as if this is our first time. Or our last time. In the liquid moment of bliss afterwards, I turn to you and say “We should fight more often”
Some of you will know I took a beating in 2011. Two thugs on a motorcycle questioned my right to question their illegal, life-threatening actions.
Like any normal, middle-class young man, I outraged over the break-down of law, order and the system. I spoke to Baradwaj Rangan and he asked me to write a small piece on the entire incident, which might get published in the Hindu. Here’s the piece.
On Friday, the 16th December 2011, I took one for the team. One for the city.
My office is on Eldams Road. It is that schizophrenic street that began life as Yeldham’s Road; a broad two-way street at its middle-classy, southern end in Alwarpet, it tapers towards a one-way at its northern end in Teynampet. A market and a temple, and half a dozen tiny lanes, work together to keep this stretch crowded.
Two young men on a motorcycle were riding down the wrong direction of the one-way street. I was on my scooter, heading home to Kelly’s. Our paths crossed.
The rider overtook another motorcycle, also on the wrong side of the one-way. Swerving quite dangerously near me, almost pushing me onto a bus. Believing myself to be in the right, and with the arrogance of someone who has lived long in this city, I asked them, not very politely in chaste Madras Tamil, reasons for their action. Anger, fear and frustration vented, all would have been well, but for traffic. They turned around and came after me, this time quite legally coming up the right side of the one-way. After attempting to push me off my scooter, and verbal abuse, one of the two pulled my key off the ignition and threw it to the ground. As I bent down to pick it up, the other hit me on the head. More insults traded, I got hit again. This time I gave one back.
But two against one, especially when the one is a bit out-of-shape and hospital battered, is no match and I went down quite soon. With a deep cut on my upper lip spluttering blood, assorted blows around my head and upper body and a severely shaken faith in the goodness of my fellow citizens. For, in this entire tussle not a single other person intervened. The market was open, business was on and people were milling about. Shopkeepers attended to telephone calls and customers, in that order. Traffic surged around us. Yet, not one other human being came to my help and my calls to a shopkeeper to summon the police were in vain.
By this time, the two men had vanished into the traffic (again driving on the wrong side of the one way) and a passing group of women helped me to my feet.
My first call to the emergency response number, 100, failed. I tried again after 10 minutes, and managed to speak to a human. After describing the incident and telling them I was bleeding, I was informed that the police “will take action”. Not sure what I had to do, bleeding, seething with anger, I got on my bike to search for the traffic policeman who should have been on that stretch enforcing the law.
I found him, on the corner of Thyagaraya Road and Mount Road, an unending tide of vehicles on both sides of the road separating him from where vehicles big and small defy a sensible law with impunity.
The traffic cop couldn’t do much, except tell me to call 100. So I went down to the Teynampet Police Station, still bleeding from the cut. Complaint and the FIR registered at the police station I finally got home, got to a hospital and got the cut stitched up.
Sometimes we demand too much of individuals and too little of processes. We cleave to an icon, a person at the expense of an institution. A process or system cushion the falls caused by individual members’ lapses; road usage, the Police, or a democratically elected government.
An icon is useful to bring together people to forge a new identity or a new system. Not to ensure the smooth functioning of the system thence. What is happening in Chennai, and in the rest of India, is that a person is lifted over and above a process.
It is this character of our city that beat me. Not two people on a bike coming down the wrong side of a one-way street.
For reasons I do not know, the piece wasn’t published, and I didn’t follow up to vigorously; I had let steam out, I ranted and then I carried on.
I bring this up here now, because I think this symptom – of cleaving to an icon at the expense of the system – is at play in the ban on Vishwaroopam. And the only answer, in this particular instance, is to continue to cleave to an icon. That of Kamal Haasan. I asked on twitter why we don’t take to the streets ourselves, us middle-class-y people who outrage on such mute, remote media as the web.
The TMMK, misguided and stupid as I think they are, have hooked on to something important. They are demonstrating their numbers.
The government (or at least the majority party) is right to pander to this show of strength. After all, films come, go. They are as transient as is the idea of freedom of speech or culture or truth. What stays, what matters, what swings the vote is strength of numbers. Unfortunately, that is democracy. All democratic societies rely on some system where people buy and sell influence. In some countries that happens behind closed doors and at much higher levels of the government. In India it happens on the streets.
So, given that displaying your mating plumage is the way to get your agenda executed, why aren’t “we”, the people of twitter and facebook, the people who say they care about freedom of speech, of artistic expression, of middle-class sentiments expressed in middle-class homes, doing the same? Why aren’t we taking to the streets, throwing shoes, burning effigies and raising our indignant and righteous voices? Why aren’t we showing we have dicks, and balls, to back our opinions?
After all, we did it for far less deserving circumstances, such as Anna Hazare.