Varma and the e-idly

Imagine waking up one morning and being asked to discover
 a city you've lived in for 40 years
CHENNAI: When we last met Shreekumar Varma, he had just released his first novel, Lament of Mohini. The writer, journalist, poet, descendant of painter Raja Ravi Varma and grandson of the last ruling Maharani of Travancore was dressed in a simple white shirt, dark brown pants, and brown sneakers.
In the two years that have passed, a lot has happened in Varma's life. Penguin India has asked him to write a ''personal biography'' of the city of Madras (Chennai). He has just finished Maria's Room - ''a psychological novel of memory and love set in the rain-drenched shores of Goa'', completed Deep Inside about a man who returns to India from London to meet and reclaim his lost love and runs into a ghost, and webbed three home pages. He also writes a fortnightly column called All that glitters in Sunday Deccan Herald. Only the brown sneakers remain.
Varma's Madras has changed a lot too, in the four decades he has lived here. ''Just look at TTK Road, it has grown into a little dragon. But I maintain - Chennai is an electronic idly. Technology tries to encroach on its identity, yet the core of the city manages to stay the same,'' he says.
''It's weird writing about Chennai. I've been an insider all my life, and then suddenly, I have to wake up and start looking around, like I've just discovered the place.''
For his book on Chennai, Varma plans to cover the entire parameter of the city, from north to south, east to west, talking to people - those who've been here ages, those who have just arrived, those on a pit-stop, the foreigner who has decided to make the city home, the locally famous from actor Kamal Hassan to the Mylapore mami and George Towner, the Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, the former CM M Karunanidhi.
''This book will be very very personal. At the moment, I am writing it for myself, jotting down the things I have noticed change in the city. Like for instance, a sense of the city closing in. I used to live on Nungambakkam High Road, where Hotel Ganpath is now. Would you believe that place was so deserted those days that you could hear my dogs bark from the Gemini fly-over? It now takes 10 minutes just to get across the road. So, we moved to the empty St Mary's Road for a little peace and quiet.''
Then Park Sheraton got started (those days it had no airconditioning, just fans), and the Varma family could hear the hotel announce for car numbers through the walls of their house. Finally, the family got crowded out and moved to Neelangarai.
That's how far Varma has come. The rest of his impressions will take about six months, by when he says the book will be done. ''I sit down to write every morning, facing a window, my wife, children and the servants, chattering behind me. And then in the night, when everything is quiet I sit down again, this time to rewrite.''
And then, whenever he gets bored writing and rewriting, he switches off to Goa and the ''creepy'' Maria's Room. The protagonist is a Malayalee settled in Madras who visits Goa, he's Varma ''only he has a lot more hair on his head, is taller, more muscular, and 16 years younger''. ''I find fiction much easier. It's really tough to get non-fiction to read as exciting as fiction.''
That's why he says he'll be grateful for any personal inputs regarding the city - unusual memories, meetings with famous or unforgettable people, anything that would throw a DIFFERENT light on the city.