Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Oliver, Kennedy and Appar Swamy

A few Sundays ago, on one of those rare sunny English summer afternoons, sunk in a sofa by the verandah and lulled by the stillness and quiet of Mayfair, I caught myself asking why there did not seem to be a word that captured this delightful kind of day.

Much later did it not occur to me there indeed was a word - Mylapore 1970s. (Two words, not one, but still). And its sweet spot in my opinion– an idyll leafy housing colony nestled between Oliver, Kennedy, and Appar Swamy Streets, where I grew up.

Though more than 35 years have passed I can vividly recall the memories of nearly all my childhood that I spent there. And the ones that stand out most being the long days of summer. Blessed by the absence of TV (there was one in the entire colony!) and with few friends of my age, I was, it seems, left to my own devices to keep myself busy. One such summer resulted in mastering cycling on my friends BSA. And when I was blamed (unfairly, in my opinion) for twisting the handlebar and thus had my borrowing privileges revoked I longed for my own. But the hints were firmly ignored by my parents, ostensibly for safety reasons. Not long after, when running an errand (a weekly routine of taking Peaberry +Arabica beans to get roasted and ground at the ‘coffee machine kadai’ in Appar Swamy Street, with strict instructions to sit on the bench and watch that the ‘fellow’ did not ‘substitute’), I noticed that the curmudgeonly Loganathan (or Logu to his pals) who ran the ‘repair’ shop next door had started a Hire Cycle business. To the uninitiated, ‘repair shops’ usually squeezed in the no-mans land between two shops, are places where you could get the reasonably uncomplicated domestic contraptions fixed - electric irons, immersion-heaters, taps, lamps and such. If you were lucky, they would work afterwards too. Clearly business had been good for Logu and he decided to diversify into the mobile (!) business. Parked in front of his shop were a clutch of cycles of varying vintage and makes – Raleigh, Atlas and even a brand new Hercules. Mustering up the courage to enquire, I paled when he told me the rates - 20 paise per hour for the older ones and 25 paise per hour for the brand new Hercules (it had a dynamo also). There was, of course, no question of ‘initial deposit’ (this was 70’s Madras; everyone knew everyone and probably still does!). To put the hire charges into context, my other objets d’desire then: NP Bubble Gum 15 paise, Commando Comic (at Easwari Lending Library) 25 paise, Bombay Halwa House Samosa 50 paise. And as pocket money to pursue my desires, I received monthly a princely sum of zero, save a tidy Rs. 5 for the entire summer, a reward for a (reasonably) blemish-free report card for the year that went by.

Oh, the joy that summer, and all thanks to Logu’s Hire Cycle. Throwing caution and budget to the wind, I sneaked away almost every afternoon for an expedition into the far reaches of Mylapore. (And sometimes, even as far as Santhome!) . The plan was simple. Every day around noon, when the household and the entire neighborhood slumbered into their siesta, I would tiptoe out, to Logu’s. Pay 20 p. Hop onto a cycle. Pedal away furiously for an hour. In any direction that caught my fancy. And to avoid the traffic (such as it was then!) and chance detection, more subterfuge - avoid the ‘big’ roads!

So began my forays into the great unknown, intrepidly zigging and zagging into Cross Streets and Main Roads that seemed to meet and intersect in complexities of varying geometric and algebraic proportions. I quickly learnt that CIT Colony’s Cross Streets followed the elegant 1st, 2nd, 3rd system. Whereas R A Puram’s Main Roads followed the more imposing Roman I, II, III. And the minor inconvenience presented by lanes that were not worthy of the title of a ‘Main Road’ or too friendly to be a ‘Cross Street’ was ingeniously overcome by calling them Link Streets. Whizzing past on my (t)rusty Atlas, none of these nuances escaped my attention(a skill that has stood me in good stead since, helping me flip through 30-slide PowerPoint printout just minutes before a meeting and holding forth thereon knowledgeably).

Emboldened by my escapades I ventured further North, crossing Edward Elliots Road, in pursuit of thrills. And Commando Comics. As a callow youth, barely into my teens, the greatest repository of excitement then was Easwari Lending Library on Lloyds Road, run by the doughty Mr. Palani. Summer afternoons spent in the cramped confines of his splendid establishment with just one table fan that would function at the mercy of either the EB or its thrifty Proprietor, was the result of a weekly pilgrimage in the quest of the latest Commando Comics. Having reached there on the ill-affordable hire-cycle, I had little time to waste - sifting through the stacks of titles to sort out the newer ones, surreptitiously read one or two while pretending to flip through and finally plea bargain my way out with the Proprietor who was prone to mood swings (especially when callow youth would try and defer payment). With the mission somewhat accomplished, I would snap the books onto the equally recalcitrant ‘carrier’ on the back of the cycle and then race back to return it to the clock-watching Logu. And then sneak back home.

And it was not always the pursuit of visceral thrills either. On one mission I noticed, tucked between the wall of Luz Church and Kennedy Street, a tiny lane which for some reason never seemed to have been baptized. Local legend had it that kindly neighbors took it into their fold and affectionately called it Kennedy 2nd Street. While the reason for naming it Kennedy Street in the first instance never really intrigued me then, many years later, ruminating on this and that as one is wont to, the ineffable wisdom (or humor!) of naming a tiny narrow lane less than five-feet wide after a man whose far-reaching vision galvanized humanity into putting man on the moon seemed to be wholly in character with the denizens of that tiny corner of Madras - Mylapore.

More than three decades later in London, I cheered when visiting friends took their daughters cycling though Hyde Park. And smiled when a recently married young friend tells me her partner and she had made Sunday cycling their routine. A more propitious sign for a life-time of excitement and thrills couldn’t be had! As for me, our recent move here seemed to have coincided with the launch of a Barclays/Boris hire-cycle scheme right in the heart of London. And this one costs a Pound for an hour! So as I sneak off on summer afternoons to explore the lanes and mews Mayfair and beyond (taking care to avoid the ‘big’ roads), life, it seems, has come a full cycle.

This post first appeared in http://bit.ly/qkhnZd . Thanks to Lakshmi Sharath for permission to use here

Friday, July 23, 2010

The 15 Month Plastic Diet.Never Have So Few Owed So Much.

Daily additions to my Inbox bulge it to a demonic size . As a young lad given to good habits I used to ruthlessly prune it during the day, slimming it by evening to a more svelte 36 (Unread) 24 ( Read,Replied and waiting for Reply) 38 (Read but Undecided on what to do) . On reaching middle-age punctually I gave in to the temptation to reward myself with a pair of those custom-made must-haves: Indecision and Procrastination . Thus my Inbox now is the more generous and comfortable 36-24-562.

At home a worthy compatriot to my Inbox is the Bag 'o' Bags - essentially a large plastic bag that accumulates regularly,er, plastic bags of varying hues and microns.

And is now my muse for this post .

This modest asset acquired in just 3 months during a stint in a service apartment, was squirreled away in one of the kitchen cupboards, the spoils of many a campaign to the supermarket. Raised on this hedonistic diet it had grown silently inside the cupboard, resisting periodic expunging, into a torpid Thing of Gargoylic Proportions. Often, in the kitchen, I would swivel around on hearing a faint scraping sound, only to see Thing pushing itself silently out of the cupboard, toppling over and spilling its entrails like a zombie from Elm Street Nightmares.

One such cardiac moment induced an epiphany of sorts.

"The Thing should not be fed any more",I ordained. "No more plastic bags in this day and age". And so began the feverish quest to exhaust the Bag 'o' Bags, a quest which in hindsight would have made even Hercules pause and think. Moi being a man of action, a plan was devised overnight for the rapid use of plastic bags. Having always doubled up as bin-liners , they were now changed twice a day under the guise of hygiene. Friends visiting us (a few nice enough bearing a bottle) would typically be seen off with some Thing :) to carry back, in addition of course to pleasant memories, as a token of thanks. Those who didn't were not going back empty handed either. An interesting article from a magazine would be foisted. A small box of the ennai kathrika (that they happened to appreciate, many a time of their own volition) was thrust into the unsuspecting palm extended for a goodbye handshake. Even a rope of onions once came to the aid of the (departing) party. Why all this munificence?To use up a bag or (sometimes cunningly as it was in the case of the kathrika to prevent ennai spill) two.

Over the next few months no effort was spared to use up the bags. Hitherto undiscovered uses that tested the outer reaches of ingenuity was trialled('Gloves' when scrubbing sink of aforesaid kitchen spotless anyone?).

Monday July 19, 2010 was a Red ( ok, Green) Letter Day. Chez Chandra's became a plastic-bag free household. 15 months and 3 days to the day.

A sense of accomplishment ? Nah. I feel I have now earned the right to sneer. At all the fuss being made on cleaning up a spill in the Gulf.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Salaam ,Istanbul

The Sophia Haggia is a remarkable monument. The Blue Mosque awe inspiring. And Istanbul ? Normal. Clean, wide boulevards. Cafes on promenades. Bookshops around every corner. 3 out of 4 are under the age of 30.Everyone smokes. All look as if they are either dressed to go to college (they probably are) or dressed to party (more likely). Its just about lunchtime.The city is buzzing. The air is crisp, and is soon filled with the call to the faithful from the mosques that dot the city's skyline. It is Ramadan. I too walk into (The Blue) Mosque. And watch the people as they come in. Men in cargos and gelled hair. Women in tees,streaked blonde,brunette... They bow, they pray, they leave. Once outside, they quickly fill up the bars, cafes and cars. Snatches of Akon, Linkin Park, 50 Cents mixed with excited chatter and ringing mobiles as they whiz away. Turkey is secular. Wearing religious head dress in Government offices is prohibited. As is in schools and colleges.Incidentally, nine out of ten follow Islam. As I said, Istanbul is normal. Why should it surprise you ?

"Everything Must Go"

A few weeks ago , finding a 2 hour gap between meetings , my colleague and I decide to spend it wisely . We research Oxford Street's newest retail trends.

Though am not much of a clothes person, I enjoyed watching my colleague check out the latest that M/S Hugo & Ilk had disgorged. And between his visits to the changing room, I avoided the shop assistants' disdainful look (methinks 5-year old ColorPlus Chinos take away from me) leafing through the stores glossies.

One glossy -"Suits for Hire" (Yes, and I was getting heat from Mr Snooty Tight Pants for wearing my own Chinos) was intriguing. Having made a note to myself " So,this is how HRH's Subjects get natty ", I FFWD to Intriguing part.

One of the priciest morning suits on hire was the Nehru jacket.I asked Mr STP nonchalantly if anyone indeed did hire these Nehru jackets. Dismissing my query with a haughty "Yes " he added with practised ease,"And no, its not Indians. But by gentlemen with better taste"(than Mr ColorPlus Chinos, presumably).

Hmmm. After a lifetime of trying to foist(!) Marxist ideals Che ends up as coffee mug merchandise in wannabe Starbucks. And The Architect(!) of Socialist India as a jacket for hire in Oxford Street. A free world leads to a Free Market, I suppose. Or is it the other way around ?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Privileged Leave

Among the many things the Brits left behind is a litany of curious terms and phrases. The ones to top my RankleList - "Yours Obediently" (yup, look up Wren & Martin), "Gripe Water" and ..."Privileged Leave". I suppose most of their origins could be worked out. What's been a little puzzling for me has been the last one. Try as I might, no leads. Till last Sunday.

The watchman knocks, and informs me, "Mangala( our maid) ne khabar diya.. aaj woh nahi aayegi. Parson se zaroor aayegi." Noticing me turn sullen he added, helpfully, "Unki beti guzar gayi, kal raat".

And true enough Mangala was at work Wednesday morning, 8 am (half hour late). No melodrama. No tears. Just rang the bell, walked-in and quietly resumed her routine.

Mangala is what you would call fashionably, a Single Working Mom.
4 kids. Alcoholic/missing/abusive/all-of-the-above husband. Father - cancer, at her home. A year ago, her 8 year old (and brightest) daughter is also diagnosed with cancer. For a whole year she has taken her for chemo. She couldn't afford chemo for her father and daughter. She, stoically, chose daughter. Never once did she discuss her plight or hint at an "advance". Never once did she skip work for this reason. Until it was all over. And until she took 3 days off from work.

I think I now know what Privileged Leave means. Privileged to give her Leave.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

"..and the seat next to me is empty."

Almost all noble souls who have attained Nirvana have listed years of rigor and penance as Syllabus for its attainment . I have had it easy. It came and slapped me on my face and went on its way.

There was this Lakme ad that ran on TV a few years ago. Its set in a plane. Our Hero is sitting right at the back ( in Economy , didn't telecheck earlier for front seat, loser ). And he sees a woman enter the plane . And can't help notice how beautiful she is , and as she walks closer he is hoping she'll sit next to him in the empty seat... yadda yadda yadda.( To cut a long story s, she does).

Cut to me . A decade later. Sitting in the Subway.Riding upto Penn Station from SoHo ,no less. Lady WASP gets in carrying groceries . All seats are taken save the couple next to me. She rides 10 minutes. All the way to Penn . And doesn't take the empty seat.
My friend smirks when I recount later. "Its not you", he says. "Its your beard". Being brown and bearded in NY today is tough. How would I know? I am just a paapan who grew up in Madras.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Terminal Sweetness

Hearing a commotion at the check-in counter, Salman Khan bounds up and offers help for this Dubai bound duo in distress at the Mumbai airport. (What’s the world coming to – Pete Doherty stops by to help an accident victim. Gold Coast Hospital wants to give the good doc his job back. And now this?) Back to the Distressed Duo. Their source of distress – inability to pay excess baggage. And so the ever generous Mr. Khan offers to have the ‘excess’ luggage tagged onto his name as he was traveling light. Duo delighted. Staff happy. Salman a hero. Muaah,muaah all around. Now I have a question – did the airline lady ask Salman "Have you packed the bags yourself ,Sir? Has anyone given you anything to carry ?"Half my kingdom for the answer.

PS: Of course the ‘excess’ luggage presumably gets priority cleared in Dubai (VIP luggage (sic!) after all). Duo then collects luggage. And are on their way. Interesting to know what was in them suitcases !