Category Archives: Madras

All about the city formerly known as Madras

Kadais (Part 4): That sinking feeling

There’s this tiny food stall on a by lane of R.A. Puram, off C.P. Ramaswamy Road, that sells noodles and biriyani and the like. I’ve never paid it much attention until recently, when my brother pointed out its signboard to me. It said: ‘Titanic Fast Food’.

Given that the fact that the stall is about the size of the cardboard box my refrigerator came in, that title is a tad incongruous. Ironic, even. But, I told my brother, good for the guy. He might be small, but he dreams big. Real big. He might be a roadside vendor, but his aspirations are palatial. Nothing wrong with the owner of a cardboard box wanting to be a Titan, you know? It’s praiseworthy. Motivational, almost. I was almost giving myself goosebumps at this point. Then my brother told me to look at the sign again.

Here, I even remembered to take a picture for once, so you can see it too:

20160317_094916

 

See that, on the left side of the signboard? Right beside the picture of the chicken rice? Yes, that’s an image of the Titanic. The ship. And yes, it’s sinking. Like, tilted-at-45-degrees-and-heading-for-the-ocean-floor sinking. If this were the movie, it would be the point at which Rose is on the raft and Jack is freezing his skinny butt off in the water and Leo fangirls everywhere are shedding copious tears.

Not, you’d admit, the most appetising image. Not particularly motivational either. Because now we’ve gone from Titanic Fast Food, the grand, imposing, colossal seller of roadside biriyani, to Titanic Fast Food, the roadside seller of biriyani who is doomed to sink without a trace.

I found myself coming back to that question I ask so often in this Kadais series of blogs: What was he thinking?? Why would you want to equate your business with catastrophe? Why would you want to give your customers a sinking feeling before they even begin to eat?

I mean, I’d understand if he’d used a picture of the Titanic as it was when it first sailed… majestic, a feat of human ingenuity and engineering. Yes, it did eventually sink, but it was pretty awesomesauce to start with. But why, why would you want to show it mid-tragedy, semi-sunk?

Unlike all those previous times, I’ve got nothing. Zilch. I have no explanations of the possible thought process behind the name. Except for one thing — he did get my attention. I may not ever actually eat his waterlogged biriyani, but I certainly won’t forget this roadside vendor who, apparently, adds a dash of disaster to dinner.

May his (food) cart go on and on…

 

 

 

 

 

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Fun toddler activities for rainy holiday afternoons

 

* Hide under the quilt and actually fool daddy for a minute into thinking you’re missing, make him panic, and then giggle: “I did a good job hiding, daddy!”

* Take the dish washing sponge from the sink and plonk it into the milk pan (which is, naturally, full of milk). Then do a victory lap around the house.

* Take apart a blob of green Play Doh and scatter it like confetti throughout the house, particularly in various empty vessels in the kitchen.

* Drop daddy’s golf ball inside the (thankfully) empty Bisleri can, so that it goes round and round inside but refuses to come out. Cue victory lap.

* Throw around cotton balls and call it a snowball fight (since it did not, after all, snow in Chennai for Christmas). Also, ride the little Christmas tree we bought like a horse and yell, ‘Giddyup!”

* Conduct scientific experiments on the toaster — how far do you need to stuff a piece of uncooked pasta into its side before the lever stops going up and down? (Answer: not very far).

 

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Toddler Talk: Confusion Central

Too many parenting choices making you crazy? You have company

Sometimes, at the end of another day of toddler parenting, I’m emotionally and mentally exhausted. And it isn’t my daughter’s fault. On these days, the trouble is all in my own head, the result of over-thinking, over-analysing, and over-worrying every little parenting choice or decision I have to make. It’s like having a half a dozen or so hyperactive squirrels running round and round in circles within the confines of my brain. Let me tell you, it’s not fun.

The worst part is knowing that I’m solely responsible for all the confusion. This generation of yuppie parents are uniquely gifted in this regard. We have too many options. We read too much – too many different perspectives in too many parenting books and news articles and websites. We sit on the fence between the traditional and the modern (Western?), flip-flopping awkwardly between the two. We obsess about the right choices to make, terrified of making the wrong ones.

For instance, do you do the traditional mottai (tonsure) or not? For the record, I didn’t. But then I wonder often if I should. One squirrel in my brain squeaks that the older folks have it right. Maybe the hair the child is born with should be removed for her well-being. Then the other squirrel pipes up – nonsense! The rest of the world manages just fine without turning kids bald in the first few years of their lives.

Squirrel 1: But there’s a reason why we have this tradition, isn’t there?

Squirrel 2: But the baby curls! So pretty!

You see? Round and round in circles.

Let’s talk about that other rite of passage… piercing your baby’s delicate, petal-like earlobes when she’s just an infant (holes! In those tiny, tiny lobes!). What’s the best time to do it? What’s the best way? Gun-shot or the traditional method? What about infection (oh my god, oh my god!)? Do you trust a jewellery shop to do it or go to a doctor? Squirrels, lots and lots of them.

It’s not just the traditional stuff. Vaccines are a huge part of it. As if the first year of parenting wasn’t hard enough already, you need to go every few minutes (or so it seems) and watch the doctor stick a big needle in your baby while you stand by helplessly and the child sobs as though the world is ending. Not to mention the fussing, and the mild fevers and rashes that follow. It’s all for the good of the child, though, isn’t it? Unfortunately, there’s always the internet to shatter your peace. ‘Vaccines are evil!’ shouts one site, ‘Conspiracy by Big Pharma!’ shouts another. Your doctor looks beyond exasperated when you ask her yet again if the vaccine is really, really needed, but you can’t help yourself. Whom do you trust? The world tells you – no one. Then what to do? Squirrels! Squirrels everywhere!

The choice of school, of course, is another one that makes us turn grey (or fat, depending on your stress-eating habits). Traditional schools or alternative? Big or small? AC or non-AC, basic?

It keeps adding up. And it’s all the worse because every person you meet seems set to judge you instantly. Should you teach your child only her mother tongue or more of the English she going to need in school? Either way, you’re going to hear “She doesn’t understand English?” or “Tamizh theriyada?” The list is endless… food choices (processed or natural? Maggie or ragi?), vitamins and tonics (evil or necessary?), disciplining (there are about 15 million books, articles and blogs written on this one topic alone, and about 15 million opinions more), and so on.

It would be easier, of course, if we just did what our mothers and grandmothers did before us, follow blindly in their footsteps. But that’s out of the question. We’re too ‘enlightened’. So we worry. We muddle. We confuse. And the squirrels in the brain go round and round, round and round, round and round…

TIPS:

  1. No helpful suggestions on this one. Too squirreled out.
  2. You’re on your own. You don’t know whom to trust. What right? What’s wrong?
  3. Panic attack? Join the club. Here, have a cup of camomile tea.

‘Toddler Talk’ is a lighthearted weekly column that appears in The Hindu MetroPlus

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Ganesh Chaturthi Conversations with the Daughter

Mmmm kozhukattais

Me: Look, kozhukattais! It’s Pillaiyar umachi‘s favourite food.

D: Will he eat it, amma?

Me: Yes! And then you can eat some too.

D: But I’m not an umachi!

***

Me: Today is Pillaiyar umachi‘s birthday, so we’re going to visit him at the temple.

D (thinks for a minute): How old is he?

Me (stumped): Uhm… I don’t know, baby. Thousands of years old.

D (firmly): No, I think he’s four or five years old.

Me : You’re right, you’re right.

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Kadais (Part 3): Flip a coin

So, I’ve been meaning to write about this shop on P. S. Sivasamy Salai in Mylapore for simply ages. Every time I pass its signboards — there’s one above the entrance and another larger one to the side, on the pavement, so you just can’t miss it — I’m floored by the remarkable honesty on display. This is what you call keeping it real. This is what you call not making false promises. This, folks, is the face of integrity.

A tailoring and clothing shop called “Hit or Miss Boutique”.

The first time I saw it, I was sure I’d seen wrong. I must have passed by too fast. Not read it right. The second time, I stopped and made sure to read it carefully. No mistake. I’d gotten it right. After that, every time I went that way, I’d make it a point to look for it, and revel in its weirdness. Over time, it’s become one of my favourite Chennai shop signs, up there with ‘Hotel Runs’ (which delivers nowadays, in case you were wondering).

“Hit or Miss”. Why? Why would you name your tailoring shop that? What earthly reason could there be to choose that name of all the possible names in the world? I’ve really given it some thought, and I’ve finally come to the decision that there could be no reason other than the desire to be totally and completely upfront. Really, he’s just saying — before you even enter the door — what every woman who has ever gone to a tailor to get her clothes stitched already knows. The process is inevitably a toss-up. Of the three dresses you give for stitching, one will turn out to be unwearably, irreparably bad, one can maybe be salvaged and one will be reasonably wearable. It doesn’t matter whether you give a sample or give your measurements, it doesn’t matter how many times before the same tailor has stitched similar sari blouses or salwar kameezs for you, the result is the same. Any woman going to a tailor mentally writes at least a couple of the outfits even before stitching begins. You just hope the ones that get utterly ruined aren’t the ones you really, really loved.

So, “Hit or Miss Boutique” is just telling it like it is. No false advertising here. He’s telling you, “Look lady, you’re gonna win some, you’re gonna lose some. That’s the name of the game. Take it or leave it.” It’s refreshing, really. Good on you, Mr. Hit or Miss, for putting the truth out there. No pretenses. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more commercial establishments followed this policy of honesty? The glitzy designer store could call itself “Le Rip Off”, the auto mechanic could call himself “No Idea Repair Works”, the private clinic could be “More Expensive Tests Hospital” and so on.

I applaud you, sir, and the next time I want to get something stitched with an uncertain outcome, you’ll be my first choice.

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Interview with… K. Muralidharan

Photo credit: R. Raghu

It’s hot, burning hot, in K. Muralidharan’s white-walled second floor studio. But still I linger, taking in the colours glimmering off the beautiful canvases in the noon-day heat. Elephants and monkeys and deer in burgundy and violet, mythical beings all in ivory and gold against a deep-blue celestial ocean, goddesses on a glowing golden yellow canvas…

“Colour is an endless joy for me,” says the senior artist, one of the stalwarts of the Madras Movement, as we retreat to the cooler lower floor of the house. “Any combination can be played with.”

That, of course, is one of the hallmarks of Muralidharan’s famous abstract figuratives — bright, playful colour, sometimes kitschy, sometimes earthy, always eye-catching. The other element that makes his works instantly recognisable is his use of mythological and animal figures and motifs.

“Indian mythology is like an ocean,” he says. “Each time I dip into it, it gives me something new.” He adds, “I grew up surrounded by mythological stories and folklore at home. It all came back to me later when I began working on my art.”

Cities and canvases

His current burst of inspiration, visible in these new works in his studio, however, come from a different source — the time he’s spent in Kolkata on and off since 2008, when his wife was transferred there in her public sector job. “At first I hesitated; Chennai was my home,” he says. “But going there was a boon. It’s a place steeped in art and culture, and once you live there, it engulfs you slowly.”

He spent his time there absorbing the art scene (“so lively and fresh”) and getting to know artists such as Jogen Chowdhury and Shuvaprasanna Bhattacharya. “It was like the conversations I’ve enjoyed with the artists of Cholamandal here; it rejuvenated me, sharpened my vision.”

Earlier this year, the artist returned home to Chennai, and has been working on a new series of large-scale works, with a 3-D wooden and bronze sculpture component worked in. His experiences in Kolkata are especially visible in his explorations of the feminine form — a blend of the contemporary and the mythological — and in a fresh fascination with texture and textile-like designs on his canvases.

But experiment though he may with texture and installation art, his primary focus remains the drawing, which, he says, is his gift from the masters of the Madras Movement. “Right from our days at the Government College of Arts and Crafts (he graduated in 1970), we learnt from the great masters such as L. Munuswamy, Alphonso Arul Doss and A.P. Santhanaraj not to lose sight of the drawing. It was always our forte.” He pauses. “That was truly the Golden Era of the Madras Movement.”

How it all began

Muralidharan owes his career in art to his elder brother, who, he says, wanted to be an artist himself, but wasn’t able to, due to family obligations. “When I finished school, he put me in the College of Art,” he says. Later, when the young artist gave up his job as a lecturer in the college (“I resigned within one week!” he laughs) and the entire family was furious with him, his brother was steadfast in supporting him. “He was so happy when I started getting recognition later on,” he says. “My sister too allowed me to stay with her when I was struggling… I’ll never forget all of their support.”

His turning point as an artist came with a scholarship to Sweden in the 1980s, when he was exposed to artists from around the world. “I realised the importance of creating work that reflected my experiences, and that was taken from our own soil,” he says.

Still, he struggled with finding a visual language that captured his thoughts. All that changed when he visited Hampi at the end of the decade. There, amongst the majestic religious ruins, he found “a new vision” for his paintings. “That is when I began the ‘Mystic Valley’ series, one of which won me the National Award in 1994,” he says.

And he’s never looked back, going on to exhibit internationally to wide acclaim. It was only recently, in 2010, when tragedy struck his family, and he lost his only son to cancer, that Muralidharan found himself unable to create. “It was a fatal blow to us. I didn’t work for nearly two years. Then I created a darkly personal set of works I’ve never let anyone see,” he says.

Back in the city which has always been his home, Muralidharan and his wife have been picking up the pieces of their life. She has devoted herself to religion and charity work, and he, once again, to his art. “Now I am a karmayogi,” he says. “I work 17, 18 hours a day, and don’t have time to think about anything else.”

“I live moment by moment. When I work, I’m happy. Art gives me a purpose for living.”

This article originally appeared in The Hindu Metroplus. You can find it here.

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Mosquito net mayhem

I’ve never really been one for mosquito nets for beds. I’ve always found them to be more of a bother than anything. But recently, the mosquito situation in Chennai, particularly the part of the city I live in, got really, really bad. The evenings were all-out war, with the mosquitoes launching coordinated attacks, and coming at you five at a time in continuous waves. Kill one lot with some Samurai mosquito bat wielding, and another would swoop in from five different angles. The bat was constantly crackling, the ground was littered with a morbid assortment of mosquito fragments, and the air was redolent with the smell of… yuck… burnt mosquito. Sitting up late into the night was impossible, unless you had three or four pairs of hands to simultaneously murder mosquitoes coming at you like bomber pilots from all directions and still do whatever it is you wanted to do… even if was just holding a remote and pointing it at the TV.

The worst, of course, was once you went to bed. Laying still in the dark, you were a soft target, especially if you were stupid enough to actually try and sleep. The fan would be going at what felt like supersonic speed but that made absolutely no difference. The entire night was spent scratching and swatting and tossing and turning. And if you actually did manage to fall asleep for a few seconds, you awoke to find multiple mosquitoes feasting on you. They were like diners who’d stuffed themselves beyond caring at an all-you-can-eat buffet… they couldn’t even be bothered to move when you swatted, and you’re left with a gross smear of your own blood on your hands and a very dead (but I suspect sublimely happy… “what a way to go!”) mosquito. In the mornings, our bed sheet looked like it was part of a murder scene (which, in a way it was), covered in blood stains.

After a few completely sleepless nights, I gave in and ordered the latest in mosquito nets for our bed. These weren’t like the old ones I remember seeing in my grandparents’ house as a kid, which needed to be tied to the window grills at the four corners to suspend it over the bed. This clever contraption folds and unfolds like the top of a convertible. When open, the net is stretched over a semicircular array of slim, almost flimsy rods, and the base rods perch along the edge of the mattress. I don’t know why they don’t use firmer rods… that would have probably made this whole post unnecessary (see below). I suspect it’s more for ease of transport and storage. This way, the delivery guy came carrying our 6 ft X 7 ft monstrosity with ease, with it neatly folded over and covered in plastic, looking for all the world like a bendy pipe. And once we ‘re done with it, we can store it away like that too.

Yes, something like this. But bigger. And unwieldier.

Our initial experience with our convertible mosquito net, or the mosquito tent as my toddler calls it, was blissful. For the first time in days, we actually slept through the night and our bed sheet had nary a squished mosquito on it in the morning. We were like mosquito net televangalists, singing its praises to whomever would listen, thrusting the phone number on them and telling them to order now! I loved everything about it, including the little strips of lace the aesthetically-minded net maker had pasted on. I loved the ‘ivory’ colour I’d chosen over ‘baby pink’ (the only two options). It was, I thought ecstatically, positively beautiful. But then… the honeymoon period ended and cracks started appearing in the relationship.

First of all, we realised that there’s really no graceful way of opening this wide, wobbling structure once it’s been set up. It’s okay if you lift it just a foot or so and scramble in or out. But lift any further, even by mistake, and the entire thing goes flooomph! and crashes open entirely, beaning whoever is still lying down in bed right on the head. That someone is, unfortunately, usually the husband, since I’m the one who gets up in the night to tend to the fussy toddler sleeping in the crib next to us. But there wasn’t too much damage done, on the whole; the bendy rods are really light, so he’d just mutter and grumble and go back to sleep.

The next step, though, is even trickier — pulling the darn thing down again, in the dark, while half asleep, all by yourself. Keep in mind that it is 6 ft wide, and as wobbly as a house of cards. It’s fine when the husband and I pull it closed together when we first go to bed, smiling at each other smugly like a cutesy couple in a mattress commercial. Doing it with a just-fallen-asleep two year old next to you and the husband snoring on the other side at 3 a.m. is a whole different story. What usually happens is that I tug and tug with increasing desperation, and the whole thing comes up increasingly crooked and sways alarmingly like a 6 x 7 ft ivory-lace jelly this way and that. Then, one base rod invariably falls off the edge of the bed, and then, yes, flooomph! on the husband’s head or face…

Things were especially bad recently because our little girl has been sick and that has meant more middle of the night wake up calls than ever. Last night was the worst ever, where she managed to clock in three rounds of fussing. And each time the net got worse and worse. It floomphed this way and that. It got tangled on this end and that. When it finally fell off on my husband’s side for the third time, he cursed, kicked it soundly off the bed, and went back to sleep. I sat on the bed for a moment, feeling bereft. The super tent-net lay on the floor at a pathetic angle, and I didn’t have the energy to pull it up in all its unwieldy glory. But… but… would I be able to sleep without it?

As it turned out, the mosquitoes were sleeping on the job last night, and I was in fact able to doze off without the net. Tonight, however, is a different story and we need it again. As I sit here writing, I see it has been resurrected by the husband. For now, all is quiet. Baby is asleep in her crib, husband under the jelly-net. I’ll crawl into bed carefully, but all bets are off for the rest of the night. Will peace reign, or will there be floomphing? Only time will tell.

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