Category Archives: Madras

All about the city formerly known as Madras

Hi God! What’s happenin’?

My 16 month old daughter likes to hang out at the family pooja area. When I say hang out, I mean it quite literally. I’m not talking about her piously putting her hands together and saying ‘namnam’ (as she was taught to by her proud grandma). That was so two months ago. Now, she chills out with the old Raja Ravi Varma prints (many of which belonged to my grandfather, and some to his father before him) and chats with them. She says ‘Hi aunty’ and ‘Hi uncle’, and so as to not be age-ist and leave out the more youthful deities, she also adds ‘Hi anna‘ and ‘Hi akka‘.

At first, we were all a little unsure as to how to react. It seemed wrong, somehow, that she didn’t realise that these aunties and uncles and annas and akkas were different from those she saw otherwise, the people she met everyday or saw in newspapers and magazines (she’s quite the little reader, and goes through the paper and any magazines lying around end to end, greeting all the men and women and children in the photos and ads politely). I tried saying, “No kanna, this is not aunty and uncle, it’s umachi. Say ‘umachi namnam’.” After several prompts, she did, but you could tell her heart wasn’t in it. It was a going-through-the-motions kinda namnam, and then she went right back to saying ‘hi’, stopping just short of high-fiving the pictures (she did wave, though). I let it go then. I realised that, hey, this is why we give God anthropomorphic forms, right? To make Him more accessible to us? So if my baby likes to hang out with Lakshmi Devi, Lord Shiva et al, gazing at them interestedly for several minutes, and blowing them kisses, well, more power to her. Maybe it’s the beginning of a deep, lifelong love of religion. Or of vintage Ravi Varma paintings. Who knows.

Still, this morning, when she applied her new-found knowledge of parts of the human body to the deities, and said ‘Knee!’ after regarding a picture of Lord Ganesha thoughtfully for some time, it was a little disconcerting. By the time she’d worked her way down to the feet and toes, I’d gotten used to it. Trying to pull the paintings down and give them ‘huggies’, though, that’s still a no-no.


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‘Please close the door’

The lift in our apartment building was recently replaced. It’s an old building, a relict of the Alacrity Era of flat-building in the city, and the lift was accordingly fairly ancient. It was one of those double-gated affairs that got water-logged when it rained too much, got stuck between floors when the current got cut, and was a perennial hazard to little kids who wanted to stick their hands into the gate. It also let out a high-pitched ‘squeeeeeeeeee’ sound every time it was opened, and continued squealing until both doors were fully shut. That amounted to, as you can imagine, quite a lot of squealing in one day. That’s not even counting all the squealing that happened when the voltage was low or one phase of current randomly disappeared (which happened often).

I think I’m going to miss that old lift. And I’ll tell you why.

The new one they’ve put in has The Voice. You know the one I’m talking about. That strident, school-marm-ish voice that admonishes you, ‘Please close the door. Dayavu saithu kadavai moodavum.’ over and over and over again from the moment the doors open until they’re finally shut. It’s like having a bossy lady materialise at your elbow, nagging you non-stop to shut the damn door in two languages every time you step into the lift and every time you step out. And in a small block of flats like ours, the nagging isn’t just restricted to when you personally use the lift. That disembodied voice floats into the living room at all times night and day, preceded by those ominous chimes: ding ding DING! Please close the door. Dayavu saithu kadavai moodavum. Please close the door. Dayavu…” It’s like being haunted by an anal, repetitive, bilingual ghost. An electronic ghost that’ll nag you to death.

There was a time when I was younger, when I was first introduced to The Voice, that I actually found it quite funny. My brother and I would joke that there was a lady called Nandini madam, in a starchy cotton sari, sitting above the air duct in the lift, waiting to speak to us. That was before I was bombarded by her voice over and over to the point of absolute saturation.

Of course, it might just be that I’ve developed a wee bit of an intolerance for these recorded voices. My other big electronic-voice  bugbear is that lady who, for one of the mobile providers (I don’t recall which one), waits until you’ve placed a call and heard it ring at the other end some 20 times, and then informs you in the most patronising tone ever that “The number you are calling is not picking up.” First of all, the number I’m calling can’t pick up, being that it’s, well, a number. And secondly, really? I hadn’t figured it out at all. I mean, the fact that their phone rang and rang and rang, and that I’m listening to you instead of them really didn’t clue me in. Thanks for letting me know that they’re not picking up. Really.

Anyway, when I moved into this apartment building after marriage, I was very relieved to find that Nandini madam didn’t live here. But now that she’s moved in, I have to take a call. Is this building big enough for the both of us?

Give me that squealy ol’ lift any day.


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Interview with… C. Douglas

Photo: S.S. Kumar

An interview with C. Douglas is rather like spending a couple of hours wandering through one of his tortured grey-black canvases filled with dark symbolism and cryptic metaphor. There are no straight answers to be had from this celebrated artist, no simple facts to be gleaned, no easy conclusions to be drawn.

“The hallmark of a good poem or painting is that you can keep interpreting, interpreting, interpreting,” he says at one point, as we sit at his work table, surrounded by pots filled with mud (a regular ingredient of his artworks), battered paint brushes, and books of intense Russian poetry. “What you get from it when you’re 16 isn’t what you get from it at 50. It isn’t a finished product.”

Douglas’ telling of his own artistic journey has a similar sense of open-endedness. He describes it at different times as a process of “learning and unlearning”, an “eternal postponement” in finding the meaning or essence of life, and a fight against losing our past, our history (“memory is so important, yet ignorance and forgetfulness is waiting for all of us like death,” he says. “The struggle of every artist and writer is to save us from forgetting.”)

‘Suffering’, ‘loss’, ‘struggle’… these are words that feature often in his narrative, but it wouldn’t be right to label Douglas the classic ‘tortured artist’. There’s too much contentment in his cosy existence in the tiny cottage (charmingly framed by flowering creepers) he owns at Cholamandal Artists’ Village, too much warmth in the companionship he shares with Zen, the improbably-named street dog he’s adopted, and too much enjoyment in his easy friendship with neighbourhood kids (“Hi pattas thatha!” a little guy squeaks as he alights from his auto after school — there is, apparently, a rather sweet story behind that moniker.)

As we speak, it also emerges that Douglas, today, feels a certain sense of comfort in being part of the city’s art scene. “I feel inter-related to the art world in Chennai,” he says, “I don’t feel alienated at all, otherwise I’d go away to Baroda or Mumbai. Chennai is home; I’m happy to stay here and contribute.”

His relationship with the city stretches back to the early 1970s, when he came to Madras from his native Kerala in search of an escape from boredom. “I wasn’t completely conscious of the reasons why, but I was unhappy and bored in those days, going about reading existentialist literature (which everyone was doing in the 1970s),” he says with a smile.

He was already drawn to art (“‘art is the flight from boredom’, as Nietzsche says”), and had studied under Balan Nair in Tellicherry. In 1971, his search led him to the Government College of Arts and Crafts in Madras, and there, he found an unexpected sense of belonging.

“I started coming to Cholamandal on weekends, and spending time with people such as K.C.S. Paniker and K. Ramanujam,” he says. “Through them, I found meaning to go on. They gave me understanding, a sense of faith. I remember, once the art critic Josef James told me, ‘Douglas, you’ll be taken care of here’.”

He adds thoughtfully. “I think that’s the important difference I found between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, this idea of faith, of nambikkai — not religious faith, but faith in life.”

In the years that followed, Douglas came to be known as one of the eminent artists to emerge from the Madras Art Movement. But his travels weren’t done. His marriage to Mona, a theatre artiste he met at Max Mueller Bhavan in Madras took him away to Germany for a large chunk of the 1980s, during which time some of the most distinctive aspects of his mature artistic style came together.

The result are the paintings that art lovers and collectors are today familiar with — works on textured, tortured paper, worked over in mud, resin and charcoal, filled with poetry, human angst, and, in his words, disaster. “I love the fragility of paper, that it can be torn and frayed, that it can at any time fall apart,” he says. “I sometimes wonder if I should switch to canvas for my larger works, but it’s too stretched and strong, too brave.”

Canvas is, in other words, the very antithesis of all that powerfully attracts Douglas about life — its evanescence and its frailty, its pain and its struggle. So are the expensive ‘art shop’ materials he largely eschews — “I took a vacation once and painted on nice paper, with nice materials, but then went back to my poor man’s paper and mud,” he says.

In the early 1990s, Douglas returned to Chennai and to Cholamandal, his place of comfort and belonging, and purchased his little nook in the village. But even today, the notion of ‘contentment’ sits uncomfortably on this 60-year-old’s shoulders. “There’s danger in being contented,” he says shaking his head. “Art is about wounds.”

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Book Launch: Rashmi Bansal’s ‘I have a dream’

“I Have a Dream”, Rashmi Bansal’s third book in her series on Indian entrepreneurs, is her most idealistic one so far. “In fact, there was some apprehension that it might not do as well as the other two, since it wasn’t about people making money or being successful in the conventional sense,” says Rashmi, who was recently in town to launch the book at Landmark, Citi Centre. “But the stories are so inspiring, and each one so unique, that I was sure readers would respond to it.”

The book tells the stories of 20 ‘social entrepreneurs’, idealists who aren’t driven by the bottom dollar, but have started NGOs for social change, led movements for the greater good, or dedicated their lives to the service of others.

“Working on this was a different experience altogether,” says the journalist, blogger, motivational speaker and entrepreneur, who is co-founder and editor of Just Another Magazine (JAM). “Many of the people I featured were quite reluctant to even give me an interview, insisting the credit belonged to their entire team.”

Her personal favourite is Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International (an organisation that works for clean toilets and the rightful place in society for those who once cleaned them). “When you see someone who has devoted 40 to 45 years of his life to create a revolution in a particular area of society, it really touches you,” she says. “He was just another person like you or me, who was floundering and trying to find his way, but when the opportunity came to make a difference, he made a commitment to it.”

Rashmi’s own foray into writing on entrepreneurship happened almost by accident, when she was approached by her alma mater IIM-A to do a project on MBAs who’ve chosen to turn entrepreneur. “The book wasn’t even meant to be published,” she recalls. “They had just planned to make about 100 copies to distribute internally.”

But, it did end up being published — as “Stay Hungry Stay Foolish” (2008) — and became an unexpected success. “A number of people wrote into us saying it had either given them the courage to begin their own businesses, or the motivation to keep going through rough times,” she says.

This was followed by the equally well-received “Connect the Dots” (on non-MBA entrepreneurs), and it was obvious that Rashmi had struck a chord. “There’s a wave of entrepreneurship in India today, and perhaps people needed new role models,” she says. “Earlier, our only models were foreign successes such as Bill Gates, or a Tata or a Birla. But, when you read about 20 regular people who’ve made successes of themselves, people with backgrounds similar to yours, it’s easier to relate to.”

Times have changed since Rashmi turned entrepreneur back in 1995, when she started JAM along with friends. “We just felt there was a need for a youth magazine and got charged up,” she says, adding with a laugh, “We started in one room, with Rs. 50,000, which we used to buy one computer — we didn’t even know the words ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘venture capitalists’ then!”

But, her experiences have helped her speak to the youth of the country today — through her blog ‘Youth Curry’, her seminars, and, of course, through her books. “I didn’t plot or plan any of this; I’ve just been lucky that all my experiences have culminated in what I do today,” she smiles.

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Book Launch: Amitav Ghosh’s ‘River of Smoke’

Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Details of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile at St. Helena, the intricacies of Parsi-Gujarati slang, and the wonders of the ancient Guangdong province of China.

The recent launch of Amitav Ghosh’s “River of Smoke,” the sequel to his bestselling “Sea of Poppies,” covered almost as much ground as the epic seafaring tale itself. Anyone in the packed audience at the Ballroom in Taj Coromandel who’d not already read the book was left in no doubt of the sheer scale of the story, which travels from Mauritius to China and from India to Europe, and the remarkable breadth of Ghosh’s research in recreating an all but forgotten time.

Former Governor of West Bengal Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who was in conversation with the author, opened the evening by saying in his lyrical way that this was a book that could be read over and over again, and analysed for its language, characters and plot, but “couldn’t be mastered.” “Not because it’s heavy or because it’s long, but because it makes you encounter, hold and behold, and witness the enormous canvas that goes beyond the book,” he said.

Set in the 19th Century, “River of Smoke” tells the story of Bahram Modi, a wealthy Parsi opium merchant from Bombay, his half-Chinese son Ah Fatt and others, and traces the period immediately preceding The Opium Wars, an event which Ghosh believes is of far greater historical significance than previously realised. “In the future, I believe people will be taught that their modern world began with The Opium Wars, and not the French Revolution, as we were told,” he said.

It is a time about which very little is known today, which is why Ghosh had to reconstruct it “brick by brick”, unearthing fascinating old documents such as the Laskari dictionary, outlining the forgotten pidgin language used by the seafaring Laskars and their European commanding officers (“I combed through the Harvard library and hey presto! There it was, written in 1812 and published in Calcutta!”). Then there’s the 1940s treatise on Parsi-Gujarati that he found, and the time he spent travelling around the “miraculous” 2000-year-old province of Guangdong…

How did he do it? That was the question posed to him by Gandhi and by the members of the audience. Did he feel weighed down by all that research? “Not at all,” Ghosh said. “The work is endlessly rewarding, whether it’s the pleasure of finding out new things or travelling to new places. I don’t know what I’d do without it!”

“Young authors are told to write about what they know,” he added, “but I feel one should write about what nobody knows. These are vanished, evanescent worlds that you have to rebuild, and to me, that’s very exciting.”

His long, detailed reading from the book gave the audience a feel of the world of “River of Smoke”, as he took them onboard a sailing vessel with Bahram, then into Bonaparte’s home when in exile at St. Helena, all the while making them chuckle at the engaging dialogue marked by his unique use of language.

Not surprisingly, Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin India called “River of Smoke” Penguin’s biggest fiction book of the year. “It’s been launched to wide acclaim in the U.K. and is already topping the charts in India — all in just three weeks,” she said, speaking at the launch.

It couldn’t happen at a more meaningful time, as general manager of Taj Coromandel, N. Prakash noted: “This is the 25th year since Amitav’s first book, ‘Circle of Reason,’ was published, which makes this evening all the more special.”

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Book Launch – ‘R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music’

The smiles came instantly, the feet started tapping of their own accord, and heads swayed to the lively tunes. The enduring magic of Pancham da’s music was on ample display as a medley of some of his best-loved hits played before the launch of the book,R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music at Crossword recently.

Clips of songs such as ‘Aaja Aaja’, ‘Kaanta Laga’, ‘Chura liya’, ‘Chingari koi bhadke’, ‘Aaja piya tohe pyar du’ and ‘Oh majhi re’ played for mere seconds, but it was enough to set the mood for an event that was all about remembering R.D. Burman’s remarkable contribution to Hindi film music.

The walk down memory lane was lead by none other than the evergreen singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, who talked about his decade-long acquaintance with the music director.

“We first met in the mid-1970s, when he’d come to perform in Chennai, along with Asha Bhonsle and Bhupinder, at the University auditorium,” recalled SPB. “Unfortunately, the sound system there was miserable on the first day, so I gave him my own sound system for the second show, and met him afterwards. I was literally just a ‘chhota-mota’ singer back then!”

The first song they did together was ‘Baaghon mein khile hain’ for “Shubhkamna” (1983), and their musical association lasted until SPB recorded ‘Aaja Meri Jaan’ in 1993. “It was the last song I did for him, and it’s a number that is still talked about in musical circles,” said the singer. “I get very sentimental when I sing it; I always keep it for the end of any stage performance.”

The packed audience was treated to a mini-musical biography of the great composer, as SPB talked about Pancham da’s struggles to emerge from his father’s shadow, his genius with syncopation (“he was the human embodiment of rhythm”), his punctuality during recordings (“I once came 15 minutes late and really got it from him!”), and later, Pancham’s regrets over the way he was treated by some filmmakers during the low phase of his career.

The evening ended as it began — with music — as SPB fans in the audience requested him to sing for them. He obliged with ‘Khoya khoya chand’ and ‘Sach mere yaar hai’ (his duet with Kishore Kumar for R.D. Burman in “Saagar”), his voice soaring effortlessly over the hubbub at the bookstore (he drew the line at a request for his ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’ songs, though, saying in his gentle way, “that’s not relevant”).

“My acquaintance with Pancham was not, perhaps, as much as that of some senior singers,” he said later, “but I grabbed this opportunity to speak about him because I still live with his music every day.”


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Book Launch: Jeffrey Archer’s ‘Only Time Will Tell’

And he’s back. Jeffrey Archer’s visits to the city have practically become an annual tradition now. For the third time in three and a half years, the British best-selling author returned in Chennai to meet his adoring fans, and, of course, to promote his latest offering.

“I’ll be travelling to five cities in six days, and I did 11 interviews just today,” said Archer, as he took the stage at Odyssey at Express Avenue Mall. “It’s non-stop work from plane to plane, but it’s worth it – I’ve just been told the book’s gone to number one on the bestseller list. This is why I love coming to India again and again.”

You really can’t blame the guy. Not only is this the country where he has the single largest readership, it’s also probably the only place on earth where the author with a somewhat murky past gets a standing ovation when he strides onstage like an aging, bespectacled rockstar. The crowd at Odyssey was somewhat smaller than that of the previous years’ events held at Landmark – there were actually empty seats at the start – but it did grow by the end, so Archer could say with some satisfaction before the book signing, “Look how many people there are!”

The book in question this year is ‘Only Time Will Tell’, the first of the five-part series, ‘The Clifton Chronicles’ that spans a hundred years from 1920 to 2020, and traces the life of Harry Clifton and the mystery surrounding his father’s death.

“This first book follows Harry’s life from his birth in the docklands of Bristol in 1920 up until 1940, when he has to decide whether he’d go to Oxford or to the war,” said Archer. “It’s only been out three days, but I’m sure some of you would have already read it; people in India are so fast, it’s frightening.”

The evening was full of such asides – how quick people are in India, how many aspiring writers there are (“only in India will all the hands go up when you ask that question”), and how many young writers have already written a novel (a 14 year old girl in this case, which Archer called ‘typical’). Once he was up on stage, he was fond, benign old Uncle Archer, completely in charge and holding forth on writing tips, mock-scolding the audience, and generally having them eating out of his hand.

However, what did come across as truly genuine was his gratitude for the reception he gets here, and he patiently responded to all the questions he was asked, whether it was about his writing routine (he’s up by 5.30 a.m. and writes for eight hours a day with breaks every two hours) or his exercise routine (he has a personal trainer from New Zealand – “I can drop and do 25 press ups right now.”) He revealed that Columbia Pictures has sent him the script for the movie adaptation of his previous novel, ‘Paths of Glory’, but that he was afraid to read it (“I’m dreading not liking the script and feeling it could have been so much better”), and that he wouldn’t be writing a book on vampires any time soon, “though I’m told they’re in”.

The event ended the way his launches always do – with a throng of autograph seekers surrounding him. “I was mobbed back in Mumbai,” he said, trying to organise the crowd better here; but you got the feeling he probably wouldn’t mind being mobbed – at least a little – again.

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Author interview: C.P. Belliappa (‘Victoria Gowramma – The Lost Princess of Coorg’)

In a quiet corner of the Brompton Cemetery in London lies a 19th century grave partially covered by the undergrowth. The graceful stone cross above it is slightly broken, but the epitaph composed by Queen Victoria can still be read: “Sacred to the memory of the Princess Victoria Gouramma (sic), daughter of the ex-Raja of Coorg…”

That’s where the strange and tragic tale of Victoria Gowramma, the princess from Coorg who was raised Christian and became Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, ended in 1864. But her story has come to light again in all its fascinating detail thanks to C.P. Belliappa’s rigorously researched book ‘Victoria Gowramma: The Lost Princess of Coorg’, which was recently launched in the city.

“Historical writings on Coorg – mostly gazetteers by the British who lived there during the 19th century – mention the story of Gowramma and her father, the exiled Raja Veerarajendra in a paragraph or two,” says Belliappa, author of ‘Tale of a Tiger’s Tail & Other Yarns from Coorg’ and ‘Nuggets from Coorg History’. “But the details were never there, and I got more and more inquisitive.”

His big break came when he accidentally stumbled upon three books written in the 19th century by people who know both the raja and his daughter. “I was able to download them – for free! – from, where old books are digitised and uploaded,” he said. “They were authentic, firsthand accounts, and comprised 75 per cent of the information I needed.”

The rest he found from the digital archives of the Times London – reports of court functions and events that contained all sorts of interesting titbits of information.

‘Victoria Gowramma…’ traces the intriguing series of events surrounding the princess’ journey to England with her father in 1852, and her difficult and often lonely life there subsequently. The various threads include the exiled raja’s attempts to reclaim the wealth the British took from him (his reason for taking Gowramma to England in the first place), and the grand plans by Queen Victoria to match-make between Gowramma and another young royal convert to Christianity, Maharaja Duleep Singh of Punjab.

“Queen Victoria believed that if two royals converted to Christianity were married, and their children were born Christian, it would encourage more of their subjects to convert,’ says Belliappa. “What’s interesting is that although the plan didn’t work, the queen continued to be fond of Gowramma to the very end.”

The book, then, is more than just a portrait of a princess; it gives you a glimpse into the political and religious power dynamics of the time. With its wealth of primary sources, it’s a solid historical work, though Belliappa admits that he was very tempted to go the historical fiction route. “I gave it a lot of thought, and decided finally that the facts themselves were so sensational that they didn’t need fictionalising,” he says.

Since the book’s release in England last year, the author has uncovered even more interesting nuggets of information – for instance, after a bit of detective work, he’s discovered that direct descendants of Gowramma live on to this day in Australia.

“I have enough material to add at least an epilogue in future editions of the book,” he says. “It’s been a very exciting time.”


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Interview with… R. Seshasayee

Pic: R. Ravindran

This interview almost didn’t happen. You see, R. Seshasayee has never — in all his years as one of Chennai’s most respected corporate leaders — given a purely personal interview, one not about his vast experience and knowledge of the automobile industry, but about his other interests and dimensions, his charitable work, his artistic talents and his philosophy towards life. And this interview request too, like others, was on the verge of being politely turned down.

“Then my wife gave me a talking to for 15 minutes,” says the long-time managing director of Ashok Leyland with a smile when we finally do meet. “I said I didn’t feel comfortable talking about myself, and she said, ‘Most people know you from just one angle, and it’s time you changed that!’”

That angle is, of course, his role as a visionary leader at Leyland for the last three decades (he’s been MD since 1998), and his high-profile participation in organisations such as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) (he’s served as president of both).

But here’s something you probably didn’t know. He’s also an artist who has done portraits and magazine illustrations, a Tamil writer and poet, and a lover of Carnatic music who trained under Maharajapuram Santhanam. And that’s just the beginning.

“I’ve always believed that every person has many desires and talents, and that it’s necessary to develop them all to be holistic,” he says. “There must be one anchoring interest, of course, a central calling in your life, but it’s perfectly feasible to be many things.”

He gained this perspective from his multi-faceted parents — his father, M.S. Ramaswamy, who’s a lawyer, a musicologist, a tennis player, and an entrepreneur, and his mother, Vasumathi Ramaswamy, a well-known Tamil writer and novelist, a social activist and an orator. “Growing up watching them, it was natural to pursue different interests,” he says.

So during his college years, he painted cinema posters (“we worked on huge banners — it was a very laborious process”) and was the staff artist for the short-lived magazine, Mala. “In fact, in my early years, I didn’t think of being a chartered accountant or an engineer, just an artist,” he says. (He eventually did go on to become a chartered accountant.)

He also, fascinatingly, was a ghost-writer for his mother towards the tail-end of her career, he reveals: “This is not to take away anything from her — she wrote several hundred short stories, novels and essays — but at that time, she was unwell and struggling to meet deadlines, so I’d finish stories or rewrite them for her.”

Once, for instance, he wrote the next instalment of a radio serial she was working on while he was travelling from Madras to Tuticorin by train for an audit of a food corporation. “I finished when I reached and posted it straight to AIR… She never even had a chance to read it before it went on air!” he laughs.

Today, he still paints and writes Tamil poetry in his spare time, though, he says with a smile, they’re not for the public eye. His active involvement with Carnatic music too came to a halt with the untimely passing of Santhanam, but he retains his interest and thirst for knowledge on the subject. “I definitely want to do an M.A. in Music, when I find the time,” he says.

Time is something Seshasayee seems to have a special relationship with. Apart from his demanding career, he finds time to be involved with 17 — yes, 17 — different organisations, including charitable organisations such as SCARF and the Indian Cancer Institute, and educational institutions such as the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT).

“Thinking about what you can do to touch as many people and institutions as you possibly can is part of living holistically,” he says. “We don’t function as individuals in isolation; it’s important to get connected with our society, our world.”

Ask him how he manages to do it all, and he laughs, “I get asked that often. But, you can be very productive if you think through all your actions in a focused way; that way you don’t waste any time.”

His reaction to his upcoming move at Leyland from managing director to executive vice-chairman (from April) is similarly clear-headed. “It’s necessary for the sake of the organisation to have a succession,” he says. “The next generation is coming up and we must make space for them.”

It’s all part of the larger evolution of his life, as he puts it: “You have to constantly ask yourself — where do I find joy next?”

For a man as multi-faceted as him, the answer could lie in one of many, many things.


While at Vivekanada College, he was an active leader in student politics.

One of his greatest ambitions when he was younger was to make a movie someday.

He is a gifted orator, with a talent for extempore speaking.

He enjoys reading Bharathiar’s poetry.

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The Great Pink Scooty Mystery

There’s a strange trend I’ve observed on our roads for some time now. I don’t know you if you’ve noticed it too. But everywhere I look, I see balding middle-aged men on Barbie-pink Scootys or their equally girly violet counterparts. The roads are filled with them. They seem to be all around me. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I’ve seen more greying, pot-bellied gentlemen riding these scooters than the young women the two-wheelers are apparently targeted at. (This is not me gender stereotyping. I know for a fact that young girls are supposed to want these scooters from those ads of Priyanka Chopra/Preity Zinta driving around on them, hoodwinking silly men and basically going ‘Woot woot! Girl power means pink bikes!” or words to that effect).

So how do we explain this phenomenon? One answer could be that these are old dads and uncles and grandpas borrowing their daughter/niece /granddaughter’s scooter at a pinch. Maybe they live in a middle-income, two-scooter household and some other member of the family (a virulently anti-pink brother, for instance) has made off with the staid grey Activa, leaving said old man with no choice. Could be. Maybe that explains some of the sightings. But I’ve seen too many cases for this to be the sole explanation. I mean, could there really be that many stranded old men in our city going pink against their wishes purely out of desperation? I think not.

Then there’s the look on their faces. I’ve seen men forced into embarrassing situations deemed too ‘feminine’ for them. I know how they react. Like the man forced to be at a sari blouse fitting with his sister. Or the newly-wed husband forced to buy feminine hygiene products for his wife at the local convenience store. Or the man who has to to put on his girlfriend’s fluffy pink bathrobe after a shower. Whatever. The bottom line is, they squirm. They shrink within themselves. They mumble. They fidget. They sweat. And they always, always avoid eye contact. But these old gentlemen, they’re different. They sail past confidently, back ramrod straight, head held high and if you stare, they look you straight in the eye as if to say, “That’s right biatch, I’m ridin’ pink. You got a problem with that?”

I don’t think these fine upstanding gentlemen are on these scooters as a last resort (or as part of some sort of mass expression of latent homosexuality — even Freud would agree that’s somewhat unlikely). No. I think they’re just riding the family scooter, bought by them to be shared with wife and kids and extended family, and that the old guys are proud to be on their shiny pink/purple purchase. And I’ll tell you why.

These grey-haired gents are a product of old India, India in the time of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana and the License Raj, India pre-Westernisation and globalisation and all those other big words. They grew up in a time when wearing pink or purple or any other colour of the rainbow didn’t make a man any less of a man (evidence: any of our good old Sambar Westerns or any desi film post the black and white era and pre 1990, for that matter). This was a time when two guys holding hands on the streets didn’t mean they were gay, just best friends forever (and ‘gay’ just meant happy). Gender-specific colour coding was unheard here of back then; it’s really mostly a Western concept — pink for girls and blue for boys and cursed are those who cross the divide! — that’s seeped into Indian society slowly since the economic liberalisation of 1991, along with McDonalds, cable TV, Loreal and Levis jeans.

Not buying the theory? Look out the window and tell me how many guys of age 30 or below you can see riding one of these bubblegum-coloured scooters.

I rest my case.

And I’ll tell you something else. I applaud the old guard for it. I think this colour coding business is silly. I don’t see why, for instance, the toy section for little girls  has to be painted over in a sea of blinding pink (and this coming from a girl who made her room so pink in her teens that her dad felt nauseated stepping in). What I mean is, it’s a choice. If you like bright pink, good for you. Even if you’re a 45 years old and a father of two. That was the M.G.R. way. If you don’t, ditto. I say, good for these guys, sticking with the old way that’s rapidly being lost to us. Like the men who don’t let the safari suit die, the middle-aged male lover of pink lives to fight another day in modern India, through the Scooty Pep. You go guys!


Filed under Humour, Madras, Uncategorized