Hands-free Women!

Shreekumar Varma

March 11, 2006

We have to hand it to the modern woman. She juggles so many things, and still has her hands free for more. Take this lady and her daughter who went shopping in Pondy Bazaar recently. Their last stop was one of those places where they decorate your hands with mehendi. Sometimes, this comes at a cost and it’s a gift to appreciate your buying spree. An auto driver was somewhat disconcerted to find two frantic women gesticulating at him with both hands. When he finally approached them across the crowded street, they asked him to load all their shopping bags into his auto. Normally, that’s not something an auto driver will deign to do. But he took one look at their colourfully wet hands and smiled understandingly. He then watched in amusement as they hopped in, holding their hands aloft like Spiderman attempting a wall. The auto bumped and jumped its way through lumpy roads, and the women swayed dangerously, injuring their head and shoulders, but never holding on to anything for support. When they reached home after this courageous adventure, their designs were still in triumphant shape, but I wonder how they paid the auto driver.

The Good Doctor

Dr T J Cherian who passed away this week was nothing short of a legend. More than the national awards he picked up, it was the faith, trust and gratitude of his students, juniors and patients that kept him active well into his eighties. My father was a staunch patient and I was once his ’attendant’ in Devaki Hospital. Dr Cherian had his quarters close by, and would casually come and go, and we got so dangerously comfortable that my father was reluctant to be discharged. His methods were different. He’d watch Discovery Channel, hold the patient’s wrist, listen to a list of ailments and instruct his nurse, driver, and receptionist - all at the same time. Questioned about this, he said, "Those who know me will understand. The others may find it a little odd. But it will certainly relax them." First-time patients were charged higher at the reception than for subsequent visits. My father asked him what would happen if some smart patient claimed to be an old patient just to avoid the higher fees. With that familiar twinkle, Dr TJ replied, "I’ll ask him to continue with the medicine I’ve already prescribed!" His patients were a life-long commitment. A bachelor wedded to his work, his patients swore by him and thought he’d live forever.

BY THE WAY... appears every Saturday

Shreekumar Varma

Dec 17, 2005

December Flows

Welcome to Chennai. It’s a time of music and water. Wherever you go, you’re bound to run into one or the other, both flowing at the same speed. Puddles, potholes and displacement. And crowds of jasmine-and-silk, sabha-hopping and celebrity-gossiping.

Now’s the time you see commerce and culture in holy matrimony. Amazing deals are struck to initiate young performers into the afternoon music and dance slots in sabhas. Fortunately, rasikas are spared the backdoor activities orchestrated behind sweet music. Sabhas lord it over small fry, and get lorded over by the Big Ones. Recently, after a performance, a famous and generally beaming instrumentalist ignored admirers and scowled till the organiser had counted out the pending fee. Once the notes were pocketed, a bright smile dawned. “What can we do?” laments a fellow performer. “We have to stand firm. We’ve even received empty envelopes from some organisers!”

But it’s mela-time, and rasikas hop happily from one venue to the other where a masala dosa is as keenly discussed as a snazzy vocalist with a filmi background. Sometimes you see a celebrity singing or playing away to a woefully scanty audience. That’s probably because there’s so much happening you don’t know where to go. In spite of the pages of information dished out, you’re often lost in a maze of music.


Beyond all this, barely below the surface, is the tension of Tsunami Day. It’s amazing how palpable is the December 26th fear. As though the Anniversary will see a replay. Having witnessed the panic last year, and having walked to the sea against a terrible exodus, I can understand that fear. Especially since it coincides with the deluge aftermath. There’s too much water around. For a generally water-starved city, that’s ironical. Hundreds of people are lodged in schools and public buildings, their minds still back home, worrying about their belongings. When offered food, some of them refused, saying, “There’s no toilet around, it’s best to remain with an empty stomach.”

Rowdy Road

Remember those reincarnation films where pale-faced heroines floated around humming ghostly songs? Well, the road outside my house doesn’t quite sing, but it gets painfully reborn every year. And it doesn’t quite die, it just gets horribly mutilated so that even the street dogs take side-roads. The authorities finally heaped up gravel and sand to mend it. Which was when the rains came, churning those heaps into a river of stone. Now the road is in the ghost stage, and no one knows when some hero will come and coax it back to life.  

Shreekumar Varma

Feb 4, 2006

Art-felt Indulgence

Dinner with Douglas, an artist friend with a darker, newer vision. Veteran of many exhibitions, he prefers to be alone with his art. Music and colour flow through his veins. Paris-based artist Viswanadhan and his lovely wife, Mukthi’s messiah Meena Dhadha,  Latha, also an artist, and Seattle-based artist Paramasivan completed the guest list. Questions tumbled forth. Is it impossible to sell paintings in Chennai? Has commercialism so ridden the aesthetic world that it’s difficult to find pure art any more? Have we started buying the artist along with his canvas? Someone felt Art was the only commodity whose value kept rising, while everything else rose and fell. In that case, could a wealthy artist be as good as one who isn’t bothered by money and fame? Questions you hear periodically through the years, in our country and outside. No one has answers. Because every artist wants to be recognised and acknowledged (whatever his art). When it finally happens, he’s taken by the flow. It’s the rare artist who creates his own flow. That night too, we dispersed, enjoying the fine dinner and conversation, and the answers were tucked away for another occasion.

Kid Stuff

Driving back at night through our city streets is one of my greatest pleasures. Last week I was stopped by a midnight marriage group behind the Thiruvanmiyur temple. The bride and groom were in an open car, surrounded by relatives and well-wishers. I smiled at the groom, imagining this would be his finest hour, but received a scowl in return. The bride didn’t look ecstatic either. The crowd squeezed into itself, and I managed to get past. Weddings, especially here in the south, are based on age-old traditions. The rituals date back to the time of child marriages. But today, people get married at a reasonably late age. So you have thirty year-olds going through the streets in open cars, playing ball and other little games, a grown bride sitting on her father’s lap, the embarrassed couple going back and forth in a swing, etc. I remember a rather big-built nephew celebrating his thread ceremony in his late teens. As per tradition, he had to sit on his mother’s lap. It took all her maternal instincts to hold back her scream.

Soul Of Chennai

The last couple of years have seen a lot of looking back. Landmarks in this city celebrated, and events remembered. If you have a day off, why don’t you take a trip to north Chennai and see what the years haven’t touched as yet. Down and off Wall Tax Road (old name), you’ll suddenly come across cobbled streets and ancient buildings. You’ll find a temple or two that beckons you from a misty past. Cobble streets in Chennai? Some of our tarred streets do feel like that, but an actual cobbled street? You’re in for a lot of surprises if you can survive the crowds and find your way to the soul of Chennai, which is called Madras.

Mom's kitchen

Shreekumar Varma

Feb 25, 2006

Imagine an evening at the beach. The sun melts into the sea, sky bristles with gold and pink, and you cuddle up to your beloved. A pale cover of darkness allows you to do what you want. Magic moment. Infinite possibilities! As your beloved dissolves, you whip up courage for the crucial question. When suddenly you freeze. You jump up and squint into the darkness to find a grinning face inches away from your own. “What the----!” A cocky voice pipes up: “Sundal, sir? Or murukku? Nice tender mango?” The mood is dead! Your beloved is back to her senses. You’re livid with rage. Many years ago, I clenched my teeth but bought his sundal. And then I talked to him. His story was a revelation. Despite the variety of stalls and snacks available on the Marina, these boys survive. They live in little houses in Mylapore and Triplicane. Some travel greater distances. They return from school, pack up delicacies made in their mother’s kitchen and head for the beach. Sometimes they sell well, sometimes not. They’ve come a long way, in more ways than one. Recently I saw a man who travelled all the way from Mylapore to Neelankarai carrying his mother’s condiments and savouries. A regular job had replaced school, but evenings were the same. The habit and need continued. Next time your romance is broken by sundal, you have the option to shout or to listen.

Cool Customer

One evening in Alwarpet. Heavy traffic. Girls and boys dressed to kill. You could clearly see what fashion has been doing to Chennai. The pavements were crowded. Amidst all this, an island of cool. A man, thirtyish and unkempt. With not a stitch on him! He had an amused expression as he watched the world, the tension and hurry. No one seemed to notice him. They were all caught up in their own concerns. A little boy smiled at him, lingered for a while, then hurried away. A policeman had his back to him, trying busily to make sense of the traffic. A lady stopped in sudden shock. She clutched her companion’s arm, giggled nervously and tripped away. The man leaned lazily against a lamppost, shook his head and dug his nose, grinning all the while. The world wasn’t interested in him, but he certainly was interested in them. I left him immersed in his hobby.

Interrupters of Maladies

What’s common among all medical specialities? What would you find in every clinic, irrespective of its status and type? In this particular almost-four star hospital, people in wheel-chairs, elderly folk, fidgety folk, waited patiently to see the doctor. Suddenly, between appointments, twelve neatly dressed “patients”, all wearing ties, rose as if they were invisibly connected and marched inside. Even as the grumbling began, the others noticed that they carried bulky bags, the symbol of the medical representative. Some people have all the pluck.