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Madras, namma Madras!

In the past few weeks, quite a few people have written something about my hometown be it their brush with the humidity and the pollution or how diametrically opposite it is to the North Indian cities, such as Delhi. Reading about these have made me quite home sick for my lovely city and I thought I shall put pen to paper and write about what makes me love it so.

Chennai, or Madras as it was known then and familiar to me today, has always been the perfect amalgamation of the old and the new. It is a city, where the kancheevaram sarees and old maamis live hand-in-hand with the Mocha coffee swigging, tank topped teeny-bopper. It is a city where the December Music Season is the highlight of the year’s cultural calender. But it is also the city where multi-stored malls and ginormous technology parks are coming up at an alarming pace. Kapaleeshwarar Temple still holds sway while Dublin continues to rock the party, come Saturday night.

The old and the new have meshed together so well that one barely leaves a dent on another. The Geetha cafes and Saravana Bhavan clientele still continue going about their daily toils, the latest opening of Baristas notwithstanding. Pizza Hut still has a mile long seating queue outside its premises most evenings and the latest branch of Madurai Idli Kadai just a little over a mile away doesn’t put any pro-Italianos off their stride.

It is also a city of crazy traffic and diabolical drivers. Having a countdown at the traffic lights seems to have made these speed demons crazier than before, what with all the revving that happens even when the timer has a good 20 seconds to go! Latest model Honda Civics aside, the potholes the latest bout of rains have gifted to the repaved roads will give your bones a workout no Shiatsu massage ever will.

It is also the city where the humidity hits you like a wet blanket the minute you set foot in. The sweat running in rivulets, combining with the dust and grime will make you look rather like an Indian brave by the end of the day. If you are not used to it, it may well make you weep!

Though Tamil is the language of the state and the DMK fervour had made sure that there is a bit of ziddi in speaking the language, the people are not averse to learning a new language. Proof of this would be the hugely popular language programmes run by the Alliance Francaise and Max Muller Bhavan, which teach French and German, respectively. But this trait is not to be found solely amongst the younger generation. My old vegetable vendor used to speak in highly fractured but extremely serviceable Hindi to one of my neighbours, who had moved to Chennai from Bombay a few years back. Though the lady had been a resident of the city for about 3 years then, she hadn’t picked up a word of the local language while the wizened vendor knew enough to sell her bhindi and baingan on demand!

Chennai, the city, is split into many zones, depending on its population. Accordlingly, in Sowkarpet, you will find Sindhis and Marwaris whilst in Parrys Corner,you will find lot more Telugus than Tamils. (Aside: Though the Sindhis and Marwaris have settled in the city and generations of their families have been calling Chennai home, none of them could speak a word of Tamil amongst them. This was a highly irritating factor during my college days. )
Eastern Madras is full of the brahmins whilst the South has folks connected to tinsel-town.

Though the city is now expanding in all directions at break neck speed and once shunned areas such as Velachery and Virugambakkam are now extremely sought after, the old demarkations still exist. The new perimeters haven’t erased the old they have simply, in typical Chennai fashion, become a part of the fabric.

It is also the city where education is supreme. Every year, during admission time, you will find anxious mums and dads queuing outside the city’s top schools, just to get an application form. The streets will be bereft of children come evening, as they will all be busy at the abacus classes, trying to master that ancient art, before taking off to the Bharatnatyam or singing classes. It is the same city where John Britto and Swingers dance schools flourish, helping wannabe Prabhu Devas turn their dreams into reality.

This is also the city where NIFT sits comfortably next to Co-Optex showroom. The city where the latest fashion trend is a saree with a pocket for one’s cell phone. The city where heels come with butti patterns to match the pallus. The city where hipsters jeans are worn with a zari top. This is the city where the paati’s Annamacharya keertans jostle for space with grand daughter’s James Blunt.

That is the magic of my city a city where the roads are full of potholes, the traffic snarls legendary, the water problem one of epic proportions, where sabhas are as important as the multiplexes but one in which a person can go for a spot of masala dosa and milkshake at mdnight, on the way back from a disco or a pizza and fresh juice for high tea, before joining the pattu saree maamis at Music Academy for a K J Yesudas kutcheri. A city where aalaapana and Air Nikes exist comfortably.

This is Madras, nalla Madras. We are like this only, saar!

Posted by DesiGirl 7:40 am 12 comments Links to this post  

BBC Children In Need: Charity Begins At Home

Every year, in November, this spotted, yellow teddy bear with a patch over one eye makes an appearance in the UK. He goes by the name of Pudsey and is the mascot of the hugely popular fundraising event known as Children In Need. As its slogan goes, every penny raised will go to the needy children of UK.

Members of the public take up the actual fundraising. High Streets might be littered with people with the collecting pails. Teens wearing wacky outfits and standing in the cold with a bucket in hand are a sight that will be seen all over the country on that day. If your town is really lucky, Pudsey might even put in an appearance!

The actual scale of this has to be seen to be believed. I am not talking about a few kids here and there trying to collect a few pennies. Huge organisations donate large sums of money. There are events held locally, proceeds of which go towards Children in Need. Most offices have a 'come dressed in your regular clothes' day, whereby employees pay £1 for the privilege.

Schools tend to take it a step further, try and make a fun event of it, so it is enjoyable for the children as well. Little P’s school wanted me to send in a teddy bear or a stuffed toy with him to school today. Which is why, the good folks of Brentwood saw me lugging a life-size teddy bear up the cardiac hill that is Queen Street. I tried telling him that taking the teeniest bear will give him an edge over the other kids when he takes part in the ‘My teddy bear and me’ race. Would he listen? Nah!

He could also go to school, dressed in his jeans and tee, paying a pound first, of course. The Ursuline down the road had given the choice to the girls – they could just dress up in pink and have a fun time, letting their imagination run wild. As I was huffing and puffing my way past, I was swiftly overtaken by this huge pink bunny and a spangly outfitted fairy. Looking at her skimpy outfit made me break out in goose pimples!

The grand finale to the day’s fundraising drive is the live show that takes place at the BBC studios in London and in other big cities like Cardiff, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Belfast. Pop acts, cast of local mega serials and other assorted celebs shake a leg or belt out a song, all in the name of charity. The lineup is usually impressive – popular girl band Girls Aloud opened the night’s proceedings in London followed by McFly, Ronan Keating, former Spice Girl Emma Bunton who pirouetted on stage, along with her other Strictly Come Dancing mates, putting their newly learnt dancing skills on display.

Cast members of Coronation Street, Holby City and Hollyoacks also donned the greasepaint and tights to perform live on stage as well as the cast of West End production, Sound of Music.
Terry Wogan was at the helm this year too, ably aided by Natasha Kaplinski and Fearne Cotton. Together they urged the viewing public to dig deep and donate. Throughout the show, hundreds of people were in the studio, manning the special Children In Need telephone lines and those willing to part with their cash could ring the line and pledge the money. The amount of money they manage to raise every year is staggering. Last year, it was around £18 million pounds.

What makes the people of Britian part with so much money year after year and take part in this event so enthusiastically? I have thought long and hard about it and all I can say is, the tag line ‘every penny goes to a needy child in the UK’ is the key. After the Oxfams and other assorted charity outfits that collect money for far-flung places, a homegrown one, for their own suffereing children, strikes a powerful chord in the people'’ hearts, making them give and give, year after year after year. And give they did, to the tune of £18,300,392 on the fundraising night last Friday.

Well, charity sure began – and ended – at home!

Posted by DesiGirl 6:44 am 0 comments Links to this post  

Beachkku jaana, beachukku jaana!

One of the best things about growing up in Chennai, IMHO, is the accessibility to one of the best hangouts in the world, Elliot's Beach. All through my school and college life, this beach was the ultimate cool hangout. There was a hierarchy to the place and one picked up on it pretty soon.

The layout of the beach is such that, there was a low-lying parapet wall, running alongside the bike park area and sat on this would be the sight-seers of various age, shape and size. Where you sit depends on the degree of cooldom of your clique - the closer you are to the Cozee circle, the cooler you become. To be actually sat right at the Circle is the ultimate in cooldom - that normally signals that there are no heights left to scale.

The actual beach, with the sand and the sea, is generally of no importance whatsoever. Unless you happen to be a 'love bird', doing a spot of billing and cooing from behind the catamarans and assorted boats, that is. To the regular folks, Elliot's is the parapet wall and Cozee corner. There is no greater entertainment than watching the odd built bloke and the multitude of wannabe-Salman Khans strut their stuff, atop the latest motorbike.

That was then.

This Summer, when hubby mentioned 'beach', I responded with my normal derision. Coming from Chennai, these excuses of English beaches generally strike me as majorly funny and I never want to patronise them. The sole exception was when we visited the Isle of Wight - this being a tiddly island, one cannot escape the beach and I let the cool waters bathe my feet.

My snort was snuffed out when a shiny key was dangled in front of my eyes. Turned out, a female colleague had generously lent us her beach hut for the day. When I quizzed my work mates about Frinton and its beach huts, the resounding 'wah-wah's that came my way made me rethink my viewpoint of a Brit beach. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned a medium-sized cottage, something along the lines of those in Fisherman’s Cove and in jubilation we set a date.

On a fine summer's day, we set off to Frinton, armed with all the usual paraphernalia. The whole caboodle seemed overkill to me, who had gone to the beach for the sole purpose of viewing some eye candy. As that isn't the tack a responsible mum of a 4 year old is supposed to take, I gamely went along to buy the requisite sun block, Noddy kite, buckets, spade and other assorted gear. With the GPS in situ, we set off on a rare early note.

The miles sped by, as we bowled down the A12, aided by the disembodied voice of the Sat-Nav. After a hour long drive, we finally could see the coast in the distance and I felt an odd feeling of glee. As we neared Clacton, we could see a bit more of the sea and its bluish hue raised my spirits. Buoyed by the vista and A R Rahman, we finally entered the town of Frinton-on-Sea.

The salty air, the brisk breeze and the masses of sand (it was low tide) made me long for Elliot’s and those bygone days. Shaking off the despondent mood even as we drove around the town, I started looking out for cottage #776. To say I was disappointed was putting it mildly. I was expecting designer cottages but what awaited me were itty-bitty plank shanties on stilts!

Grinding my teeth, I looked at the instigator of this plot, who blithely went ‘M promised me there would be deck chairs and things inside so we can drag them out and relax’. Determined to enjoy myself, I started to get our things from the boot, even as hubby proceeded to the ‘beach hut’ to check out our home for the day.

Ten minutes went by, then fifteen and finally, a good half hour. By then, aided by my little man, I hauled out the kite, the hats, towels, spare sets of clothes and enough food to feed those at the beach while there still was no sign of the man. Leaving the thayir sadam to fend for itself, I dragged my son and we went looking for his missing father. To my mounting annoyance, I found him outside the hut, staring at the horizon, with a far-off look in his eye.

Even as I revved myself to come up with a few well-chosen epithets, he turned a curious shade of green. Swallowing the curses, I went with a milder ‘What gives?’

‘Er, Houston, we have a problem,’ he quipped. He finished with a sheepish grin.

‘It seems like I have forgotten to get the keys to the beach hut’.

Posted by DesiGirl 6:23 pm 4 comments Links to this post  

A touch of nostalgia, on All Hallow's Eve

Maami, Maami, Golu vecha sundal,
Illatti kindal!

I remember getting dressed in my pattu pavadai (silk skirts) and walking up and down our streets with my group of friends during Navrathri. Our job was to go to every house that had kept a golu, stand outside their gates and recite the above-mentioned chant. It normally resulted in the lady of the house coming out with a grin and inviting us in for that Navrathri staple. If the oldies of the house were present, then we were urged to earn the sundal by singing a song dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi, usually to their own peril.

After the resultant cacophony, we were given the thamboolam, with some steaming sundal wrapped in old newspaper. Objective accomplished, we used to rush out with the booty, devour it on the way, discuss the merits of that sundal with respect to the previous house’s efforts and then go to the next house. By the time we finished the street, it was usually dinnertime and we would all be feeling slightly sick. But that never stopped us repeating it the next day and the next, till Vijayadasami.

Why am I prattling about Navrathri and sundal now? Well, last night, when I was walking home from work, I came across many a wicked witch and evil magician walking the streets, armed with broomsticks and wands. The Jack O' Lanterns gleamed evilly on some doorsteps and the dark creatures were on the prowl. It was Halloween after all, and pretty soon, the ubiquitous 'trick or treat' filled the air.

'Treats' in the form of teeth rotters like gooey marshmallows, toffee apples and other assorted sticky sweeties that children so love were dispersed at every house. Most of these 'monsters' were too little to figure out what the 'trick' part of the threat entailed. One tubby skeleton was really confused when I asked him what trick he had in store for me and looked ready to burst in tears as he thought he wasn't going to get a fistful of chocolates for his trouble.

But the older ones preferred the tricks to the treats. More than a month beforehand, the Council had put up notices in shops, tersely warning the shopkeepers not to sell flour and eggs to 'suspicious looking teenagers'. To me, all teenagers look shifty-eyed at the best of times; how does one weed the 'regular' ones from those buying Halloween gunk? Seemed like the local teens agreed with me as some unfortunate souls got their windscreens covered in eggs, despite of the warnings.

Despite the hype and the hungama surrounding the whole Halloween thing, to me, it lacked the magic of our old Navrathri days. We dressed up in our finery and got yummy (healthy!) sundal from most houses. Belting out Carnatic music songs that bore no resemblance to the original in various sruthis was pure enjoyment. Though pain flit across several of our audiences faces, I am sure they enjoyed it too.

But the tiny terrors banging on the doors, creating a din outside definitely seemed to be having the time of their lives. Though they had the parents' nightmare, sugar rush, to contend with at the end of the day, the accompanying adults seemed to be enjoying themselves as well. Jack O' Lanterns flickered away and the loo rolls wafted madly in the autumn gust.

Maybe it is just I, getting jaded and old before my time. Trick or treat, anyone?

Posted by DesiGirl 8:38 pm 1 comments Links to this post