Saturday, July 1, 2017

Madras on My Mind - Edited by Chitra Viraraghavan and Krishna Shastri Devulapalli

I love Madras. Not in the gardens, pretty avenues, hip girls and restaurants and pubs kind of way that Bangalore impacts me but in a more earthy way. I have fond memories of Madras thanks to Dr Sunderam and Dr. Satyabhama, whom we adopted as our uncle and aunty early on, and who taught me how to end a letter with a Yours Affectionately. Early cricket trips to Madras included visits to the Cisons complex, buying music, eating at Woodlands, perhaps a visit to the beach and a late night movie after winning a match. In later years we discovered more of Chennai and each time I'd love it that much more. Standing in long queues at the US embassy, travelling the length and breadth of Madras on sales calls, interviews for jobs, visiting people on occasions good and bad. Maybe its got a lot do to with the people I knew. The Pais, the Sunderams, Jyothis then, and  Anil and Lalitha, Krishna and Chitra now, and we have a rousing time together so maybe, I'll put it down to people. And the food. And the place.

And the vibe. A cocky, earnest, yet diffident vibe.
Harper Collins, 224 p, Rs. 280
So when Chitra and Krishna embarked on the Madras anthology I was eagerly waiting to uncover some new flavors I had not yet tasted. And it did not disappoint with its many different voices and tones that fill 'Madras on My Mind'. I am not a huge fan of anthologies normally because I have to search for the odd good one or get that feeling that the mix did not jell right or something like that. But for the first time, in MoMM, I could pick any story and it completely satisfied me. For a serial reader like me (I read in the order that the book is laid out lest I lose out on some hidden secret) it was a first to randomly pick any chapter and read it and feel like it was a complete experience in itself. I think that says a lot for the book.

In the serial order then because I am at heart a government type. 'Flowers on the Madras Train' by Bujjai opens the anthology with reminiscences of a Madras seen from the eyes of a small town boy, of a time when he would stand on the Pithapuram railway station with his older sister and sing a song, which makes so much more sense now to him than now. Of all the what ifs, he says, there is no contemplation for what if I hadn't come to Madras. 'The Destoryer' by K. Srilata tells the tale of Murudeeswaran, who is commissioned to write about how he and Thirupu went about creating Madras. Editor Hema Malini never comes back for the story though. I loved 'Still Life at Marana Vilas' by K. Raja (translated by Chitra - my kind of  story), the writer's entry to the big city as a wannabe artist and his fight to survive, to escape hunger. The love story 'Orange , Like Firecracker Flowers on a String' by Priyamvada Purushotham is a doomed one between Sentil the guide and the French girl and has some lyrical quality to it. I loved Sanobar Sultana's 'House of Powders' and one feels like getting up and giving her a hug each time she feels left out. 'Sweet Calamity' by the multifaceted M. V. Swaroop reminded me of a Hollywood movie for some reason though it is set perfectly in Madras - the characters are so stylish and the writing slick. Rex Stoutish, the fifty nine year old detective, and his muse Nandini, and a rollicking chemistry in this love story with a dark edge. I thoroughly enjoyed reading 'A Passing Show' by Harry MacLure and one can visualise Dexter and his bike and his 'come on men'. I love the Anglo Indians..and can never forget Alice teacher who was our first love at Fatima School at Kazipet and one of our all time favorites. 'Learning Spanish in Chennai' is a story of a woman finding the courage to leave her husband who seems to have found another love. So its time for her to find her own. I wonder, why wait? But better later than never and one feels for Athira.

Krishna's 'The Rice  and Fall of 'Royal' Ramana Rao' entertains fully. He is paisa vasool as always as he relates the hopes and aspirations of a small time aspiring producer and his secret ambitions or failings which are well known to the industry underlings who relieve him of his money and maybe a bit of his lust. Delightful. Jaya Keerthi is a character I will never forget. V. Ramnarayan writes so well of cricket in Madras that you want to buy a ticket on the next Time Machine and go down one Sunday to watch one of those games and those characters in action. Superb stuff. Curd Rice Cricket is such an apt title but some of the curd rice eaters were also the biggest rum guzzlers, cigarette smokers (and one other vice I can't remember) like we found on the tour. 'Mind Your Tongue' by Dilip Kumar is a poignant story of two Gujarathi friends in Chennai who grow up together and experience different levels of success and how a sharp word from a stranger breaks the glow that binds their friendship.

'Eclipse' by V. Sudarshan is dark, gutting and intense and I had to drop it and then pick it up later when I was ready for it. 'Daylight Moon' by V. Sanjay Kumar takes you on a journey to find a lost someone. Aniruddha Sen Gupta's 'Objects of Desire' will remain forever - visions of flaming potlums and his burning mattress in the IIT will be hard to erase. I can smell that room, see him in action, caught in his altruistic frenzy totally oblivious to the dangers that arose. 'Redungattan' by Kalpana Komal paints the character Muniamma, the house maid, and her inexplicable ways beautifully. She is a fabulous character and one who we all know from somewhere. G. Sampath's 'Triplicane to Taramani' has a different structure, like a power point, and is a love story that transcends life and death. Chitra's 'Split Ends' is a classic - it leaves a stain of that feeling that courses through the story whenever you think of the boy and his mother and their optimistic struggle. I liked 'The Appalling Lack of Vice & Spice in Chennai City' and can totally empathise with the protagonist - if only there was more vice and spice in our life it would be so much more colourful. Now which city would have more of these I wonder? Vamsee Juluri's 'My Mother's Madras' is compact, perfectly executed and pitch perfect. Loved it. The line '..home is a place with no regret, even if longing is still what makes it what is' haunts. I think I understand it but I don't. And P. Balasubramanian's 'Water and After' leaves you feeling alone in that city. It shows up the loneliness of the cities, the way the people are equalised in one stroke and all that is good and bad really. His resolve to get to his destination shines through and he lays the untold story all around his journey.

The anthology is one of the finest I have read simply because each story is so different, brings something unique to the table and has been carefully chosen, thought through, organised and presented. The effort and the care shows and that is what makes the experience so much nicer. That someone did not take the reader for granted and actually made the book worth its while for the reader is itself such a nice feeling in times when people seem to get together and write stuff that only the inner circle understands. 'Madras on My Mind' shows Madras and its many angles, told through many different voices, tones and experiences. I loved it. Great work Chitra and Krishna. And all the others who contributed to it and made me like Madras a few shades deeper than I did earlier.


Chitra said...

Hari, thank you once again for your wonderful generosity, your affection, and for paying so much attention, and taking so much trouble over the review. Glad you liked the book.

Harimohan said...

Great work Chitra. Like I said, the care you took in making it as complete an experience for the reader shone through. Loved it.

V Ramnarayan said...

I completely agree with you, Chitra. Hari is that rare animal, a former cricketer whose interests are varied, and whose writings are often inspiring, but also a most generous soul who sees merit in the work of others and applauds it without reserve. I am proud of my friendship with him.

Harimohan said...

Thanks Ram. You beat me at the generous bit, the writing bit, the cricket bit and the interests bit by a mile. I can never forget the way you walked into the book event of 'The Men Within' in Chennai so unassumingly and told me such good words about the book when you had no need to. Ample proof! (Not to mention the singing bit too.)