Click here for more...

(ARCHIVE) Vol. XVIII No. 13, october 16-31, 2008
the new age malaise
(By Ranjitha Ashok)

According to a recent newspaper report, using the word ‘grandmother’ is not on any more. Just that little bit too “reactionary”, apparently – because you are stressing a mere “familial position,” labelling the lady (Whoa – even that’s considered sexist, it seems) in a manner that does not convey the true essence of this person.

“No, Saar, we don’t have trains going to Calcutta, only to Kolkata!”

After all, she is so much more than just that. Exactly.

Now here’s a fine mess we’ve got ourselves into.

We are getting so tightly bound within this swirling ­cyclone of words, words, reactions, and more knee-jerk reactions, it’s becoming difficult to breathe normally.

(Oops! Is that a mistake too? After all, who decides what’s ‘normal’?)

Talk about language-ing yourself into more and more difficulties, of painting yourself into a word-laden corner. Words that were considered innocuous, or were, at the most, mildly attitude-sprinkled, in your youth, are now on an ever-growing list of absolute no-nos.

Which kind of makes you wonder if you really grew up nice at all. Where does this end, and what does it mean for Chennai? After all, this city has a certain linguistic pizzazz to it that’s such an intrinsic part of its character, especially when emotions run high.

If ‘familial’ positions are a no-no, then what happens to the much-used Machaan so popular among the male of the species here…even if the guys in question don’t share the tiniest twig-space on the family tree?

Thinking of looking at someone who’s shor…er…no, ­“vertically challenged”, and comparing him with a certain humble member of the family Solanaceae?

Sorry, that’s just not acceptable. You offend the human and the vegetable in question, with the latter’s deep purple colour is an indication of sheer rage, apparently.

Looks like you cannot move an inch without offending someone or the other. And since touchiness is infectious, and all existence so frightfully mixed up, there’s a whole lot of protesting going around.

Like if the dull and the indolent are compared to inert mounds of tamarind.

Tamarind wants to know why it is being picked on, and are you implying in some way that it is less in gloss and stature to … say… the Alphonso…?

Incidentally, the garden variety of mangoes is a bit fed up with being linked with a certain lack of brain-power.

Of course, not all fruits and veggies are edgy. The cucumber, for instance, is swanking around, a little smug… after all, its particular link is so very contemporary.

Apparently, large ungulates of the bovine kind are on strike. They don’t like their feed-of-the-day being used in a derogatory manner during human flare-ups, and the buffalo, in particular, wants to know where we get off, using his noble name so loosely.

Listen, should you really be using terms like ‘Two-wheeler’? Sure, you think you are referring to a set of wheels, but there’s actually a certain something hovering around somewhere within that description, giving rise to the suspicion that you may just be making digs at ­honest citizens who don’t drive four-wheelers, you nose-in-the-air So-and-so.

Discerning members of the public will come down on you like a ton of something heavy, as they will see layers of social uppitiness in such statements.

And you are “hurting the sentiments” of these vehicles, you know.

Like, if you dare make even mildly teasing remarks about the Nano, for instance. That would make you a socially insensitive, arrogant … no, can’t think of a word strong enough.

See how tough things are getting?

Porambokku… now there’s a pathos-ridden word if ever there was one. Except that we now have Mother Earth (Is that okay to say?) mad at us. She feels that she’s really put up with a lot of nonsense from us, and that we’d better watch what we say.

And we’d better – she’s really not someone we can afford to irritate.

Old Hollywood buffs, beware. Doing your famous Cagney take-off won’t work any more, because members of the Muroidea “superfamily” have been heard murmuring darkly to themselves, especially over being described as ‘dirty’.

The World Association of two billion (give or take) members of the Suidae family has placed on record their general unhappiness with this particular adjective too. They aren’t exactly thrilled over the constant snide references to gluttony either. “Why can’t you humans refer to our intelligence – even occasionally?” they grunt, thoroughly irritated with centuries of stereotyping.

Many words are having a hard time today, and are seriously considering re-inventing themselves. And adjectives are facing a huge dilemma, becoming an increasingly polarised lot within the lexicon world. Already burdened with a tendency to wilt rapidly if over-used, they are now emotional wrecks, prone to nervous tremors and sudden bouts of neuralgia.

Naturally… all sorts of motives and implications are now being imposed upon them.

Of course, watching your words, taking the trouble to be sensitive, politically correct and not hurting anyone is essential to civilised living. But when even the mildest of human communication becomes a mine­field… it’s probably time to call upon that age-old, unglamo­rous, but essential ally – common sense.

At the rate at which old familiars are being pointed at and tut-tutted against, we’ll be left bereft of words., and will have to resort to sign language ... where, in keeping with these troubled times, the particular finger used or hand gesture made, will then come in for questioning.

Every day, in every way, we’re getting curiouser and curiouser.

“No, Saar, we don’t have trains going to Calcutta, only to Kolkata!”


A miracle tree
in your backyard?
(By Vijaysree Venkatraman)

As children, many of us hated one vegetable with particular passion and greeted its appearance on the menu with exaggerated distaste. I reserved this treatment for the slender drumstick. The sight of the chewed-out sheath piling up by people’s plates, when they are done with the pulp within, grosses me out to this day. Some cooks use a fistful of drumstick leaves to flavour the lentil-rich adai.  Others capture the characteristic aroma of these sprigs in clarified butter – a delicacy I haven’t thought about in a long time now.

But at an international conference in Boston, which I call home now, a Red Cross volunteer spoke of a “miracle tree”, which could be a possible solution to malnutrition in poor, tropical countries. Ounce for ounce, this tree’s leaves contain more beta-carotene than carrots, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, more Vitamin C than oranges, and more potassium than bananas, the slide read.  The protein content is comparable to that of milk and eggs, it further proclaimed. It dawned on me that la moringa, whose virtues the speaker was recounting in French, was none other than our scrawny drumstick tree.

The scientific name Moringa oleifera comes from the Sinhalese word for drumstick. A dozen other species native to parts of Asia and Africa belong to this same plant family. “But typically their leaves taste rank or cabbage-like, and some varieties are simply obscure,” an evolutionary biologist tells me. In Mexico, he encountered the moringa once again. Here, the drumstick is an unknown culinary entity, but the fern-like foliage makes the tree an ornamental. “Perhaps it arrived long ago via the Philippines – where the vegetable is popularly known as Mulunggay – when Spanish galleons sailed between Manila and Acapulco,” the researcher surmises.

From research literature, I learn a number of facts about this tree, a familiar sight in Chennai. The moringa is drought-resistant and thrives in soils considered unfit for any cultivation. Both the leaves and the pods are edible, which makes it a good food crop. The seeds yield edible oil that can be used as a bio-fuel. The residue of the ground seed can purify turbid water. Typically, gardeners prune the moringa once a year to keep the produce within arm’s reach. Because of its soft wood, timber is the one thing this low-maintenance tree is not good for.

There is no zeal, they say, like the zeal of the new convert. I asked my parents to plant a moringa in their compound in Chennai, so that I can have a fresh supply of the greens when I visit them. They responded with an instant ‘no’, saying that it will attract the kambli-poochi. They don’t know the English equivalent of the name, but I guess that it is just a very hungry caterpillar. I was skeptical of this furry creature. Even its name seems made up.

Soon, Nancy Gandhi, a long-time resident of the city, also wrote saying that she once had to cut down her a moringa because it became infested with the kambli-poochi. When an American, albeit a naturalised Chennaiite now, mentions the dreaded pest with the funny name, I tend to believe her immediately. Still, I am certain that some veteran gardener would know a nifty solution to this problem.

Meanwhile, there was nothing left for me to do except write about the merits of the moringa for an international newspaper headquartered in Boston. In Chennai, my photographer, a middle-aged man, eagerly set out to find me a suitable image. As he roamed the streets on this mission, a helpful auto-driver asked him what he was looking for. The reply, “a pod-laden moringa tree,” earned him a smirk and knowing smiles from passers-by. These responses could have had something to do with the local belief that the moringa pod is an aphrodisiac.

There is no denying the moringa’s excellent nutritional profile, which is borne out by laboratory analysis, but there has been no clinical study to prove that the plant can combat malnutrition. Perhaps my article will get philanthropic foundations to fund such a study. I could save the world from hunger, I think grandiosely. And if I write about its supposed virility-enhancing qualities, some rhinos might be spared too. New England is no longer puritanical, but sneaking this last bit into the article might be hard.

One thing about my current home, however, will never change. The winters will always be brutally cold here. I simply can’t expect the hardy native of the tropics to survive in my Boston backyard. Frankly, I sometimes wonder how I manage this feat myself! Still, there is something I can do. I can write and spread the word about the dietary goodness of a tree whose produce I had done my best to avoid during my Indian childhood.


A studio’s ‘memorial’, a flyover

Round the City’s old studios with RANDOR GUY

(By Randor Guy)

A studio situated on Mount Road was, during its peak, considered the best in South India for its quality films, for being a beehive of activity, and for the way it was run modelled on Hollywood studios of the Golden Age. That was Gemini Studios, founded by Indian movie moghul Thiruthuraipoondi Subbramania Srinivasan, better remembered as S.S. Vasan. Today, all that remains of it is a memory nurtured in the popular name for Madras’s first flyover.

S.S. Vasan

Gemini Studios was active from the moment it was founded in 1940 until, sadly, it closed its doors some three decades and more later. During this period, Vasan produced (directing some of them too) movies in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. With Chandralekha in 1949 he broke open the doors of the Hindi cinema world which till then had been shut for producers from South India. He made several Hindi movies and enjoyed the unprecedented, unbroken-to-this-day record of producing seven movies in a row which celebrated silver jubilees. At one time, Bombay-based producers were scared stiff that the Hindi cinema industry would have to shift its venue to Madras. No wonder he was hailed as the ‘Cecil B. de Mille of India’.

Memorable Gemini movies like Dasi Aparanji, Kannamma En Kadhali, Miss Malini (in which the future Tamil film superstar Gemini Ganesh made his bow in cinema in a short, also-seen role, as an assistant director of a drama troupe, with his name appearing in the credit titles as ‘R.G.’ – Ramaswamy Ganesan!) have been lost forever.

Today, it is sad to reflect that not even a trace remains of this historic venue of movie production excepting, perhaps, memories and recollections of many, a few movies in circulation, and still photographs (which, together with posters, are a part of the decor of The Park, the five-star hotel now on this site).

The Gemini property was once Spring Gardens, a garden house belonging to a prosperous British resident. Years later, this property was acquired by Mahadeva Iyer, a Congressman, interested in the arts. He promoted an enterprise called Mahalakshmi Studios, but it did not survive long. (The area on Mount Road known as Congress Grounds was also owned by him. There is a street in T’Nagar, Mahadeva Iyer Street, named after him.)

K.G. Subrahmanyam

Around the mid 1930s, lawyer-turned filmmaker Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam acquired the property and promoted a joint stock company under the name and style of Motion Pictures Producers’ Combines (MPPC). He put up a studio on this vast property. It was known as MPPC Studios. In keeping with the trend of those days and to save on unnecessary expenditure, the shootings floors were thatch-roofed. Thatch was supposed to be a good sound-proof medium which would not throw back the sound waves and cause an echo, thus spoiling the recording below. Of course, it was also a cheap material.

K. Subrahmanyam brought to Madras many Bengali technicians – colleagues who had worked with him in Calcutta – to continue to work with him at the MPPC Studio. He put them all on the payrolls. They were strangers to Madras and its culture, but they loved to work with him. That was not all. Quickly they adapted themselves to the new atmosphere and ambience. They settled in Madras with their families permanently and never thought of going back to Calcutta. Their talents and skills contributed in large measure to the growth of Tamil cinema in its early decades. Sadly, not many are aware of either their valuable contribution nor have film critics and historians given their work their due.

The popular and busy Motion Pictures Producers’ Combines Studio, after early successes created by its highly professional team, ran into trouble and came up for sale through court auction. Vasan was the successful bidder.

Caste, labour and medicare
Literature on Madras (an annotated bibliography from the Web)
compiled by Dr. A. RAMAN

Social History

Brimnes N (1999) Constructing the colonial encounter: right and left hand castes in early Colonial South India. Routledge (a Taylor & Francis Group), Abingdon, Oxford, UK.

This book offers a systematic analysis of the violent clashes between the South Indian ‘right’ and ‘left’ hand caste divisions that repeatedly rocked the European settlements on the Coromandel Coast in the early colonial period. Whereas the Indian population expected the colonial authorities to intervene in the disputes, the Europeans were reluctant to get involved in conflicts, which they barely understood. In the XIX Century the significance of the divisions diminished, a development that has long puzzled historians and anthropologists. This book addresses the larger issue of the nature of colonial encounters. The rich material relating to these disputes convincingly demonstrates how Europeans and Indians, as they sought to incorporate each other into their own social structure and conceptual universe, participated in a dialogue on the nature of South Indian society.

The British Library Board (no date) India Office records: family history sources: Madras Presidency (Hyderabad, Madras, Mysore).

Those interested in family (English and other European) history should consult this source.

Ahuja R (1998) Labour unsettled. Mobility and protest in the Madras Region, 1750–1800. Indian Economic and Social History Review, 35: 381–404.

In pre-colonial India, spatial mobility was as prevalent as ‘sedantrism’; early colonialism forced a process of ‘peasanta­sation’ – the progressive settlement into agriculture of otherwise mobile groups and communities.

Ahuja R (1999) The origins of colonial labour policy in late eighteenth century Madras. Interna-tional Review of Social History 44: 159–195.

This article challenges the view that the English East India Company was unable effectively to dominate society in the colonial metropolis of Madras before the end of the XVIII Century. Instead, the colonial interventions, even into the social organisation of labour, were persistent in goals and methods. Hence, an early colonial labour policy, according to Ahuja, is clearly discernible. The ruling block’s strategies concerning the regulation of labour were not based on liberal ideas but rather on a paternalistic brand of contemporary English social theory. This disposition found practical expression in interventions into the city’s labour relations by means of various ‘police committees’. Moreover, British legal techniques were used to regulate labour relations in Madras. On the whole, early colonial labour policy was distinguished from contemporary practices in Britain by a far higher level of coercion.

Mentz S (2005) The English gentleman merchant at work: Madras and the city of London, 1660–1740. Museum Tuscu­lanum Press. Copenhagen, Denmark.

Europeans in Madras, seeking to profit by conducting private trade, formed what Søren Mentz designates English ‘gentleman’s diaspora’. Especially in the 1680–1710 period when the English East India Company’s directors tacitly tolerated their illegal activities, these merchants used the Company as an umbrella under which they could invest funds, often coming from financiers in the City of London, to make quick personal fortunes. Through diligent and thoughtful use of the surviving private papers of these merchants, Mentz deliberately seeks to reverse what he (unconvincingly) calls the domination of ‘Indocentric’ historiography that “Since the 1950s ... has frozen British merchants in an Asian context isolated from the mother country and disassociated with the general development of the British Empire”. Instead, Mentz specifically locates his own work as recuperating the XIX Century ‘Eurocentric’ traditions of James Mill and W.W. Hunter.

Medieval History

Stein B (1989) Vijayanagara. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

The Vijayanagara rajas ruled a substantial part of the southern peninsula of India for over three hundred years, beginning in the mid-XIV Century. During this time the region was transformed from its medieval past toward a modern colonial future. Concentrating on the later XVI-XVII Century history of Vijayanagara, this book details the pattern of rule established in this long-lived Hindu kingdom that was followed by other, often smaller, kingdoms of peninsular India until the onset of colonialism. Through an analysis of the politics, society, and economy of Vijayanagara, the author addresses the central question of the extent to which Vijayanagara, as a medieval kingdom, can be viewed as a prototype of the polities and societies confronted by the British in the late XVIII Century. The book presents an understanding and appreciation of one of the great medieval kingdoms of India as well as a more general assessment of the nature of the state, society, and culture on the eve of European colonial rule; refers to the early state of ‘Madras’.

Institutional History

Arnold D (1986) Police power and colonial rule: Madras, 1859-1947. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, India.

Focussing on developments in the Madras Presidency between the rebellion of 1857-1858 and independence 90 years later, this book examines the creation of a British constabulary in India as a powerful coercive tool of British colonialism. The author targets the use of police force against dacoits, Nationalists, Adivasi hillmen, and urban proletariats, and reveals, through the organisation and social composition of the constabulary, how internally as well as externally the police force mirrored the underlying character of the colonial system as a whole.

Vibart HM (1881, 1893) The military history of the Madras engineers and pioneers: from 1743 up to the present time (2 volumes). W.H. Allen & Co. London, UK.

Antique volumes; should be of use and interest to military history enthusiasts.

Medical History

Ernst W (1985) Asylums in alien places: the treatment of the European insane in British India. In: W. F. Bynum, R. Porter, and M. Shepherd (eds) The anatomy of madness: essays in the history of psychiatry. Taylor & Francis, London, UK. pp.10–47.

This book chapter includes cursory references to origins of the ‘madhouse’ in Madras and the evolution of the mental hospital and psychiatric care in Madras.

Chakrabarti, P. (2006) “Neither of meate nor drinke, but what the Doctor alloweth”: medicine amidst war and commerce in eighteenth century Madras. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 80: 1–38.

Madras in the XVIII Century was a site of continuous warfare sparked mostly because of trading interests. This paper studies how these influences of hostility and commerce shaped the medical establishment of the English East India Company. It begins by analysing the struggle of the medical establishment to cope with military and logistical requirements; it then shows how the Coromandel trade provided a peculiar dynamic to the practice of medicine in Madras. By aligning the history of medicine with that of trade, the paper traces the parallel trajectories of intellectual and material wealth. The development of modern medicine is seen as a process of adjusting to and engaging with diverse ideas and items – sometimes co-opting them, sometimes realigning them in new modes of production.


An Ode to Plurals
(By S.R. Madhu)

(Prem, Ramani, Aditya – for your entertainment)

We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,

But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.

One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,

Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.

You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice,

Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.

If the plural of man is always men,

Why shouldn’t the plural of pan be pen?

If I speak of my foot and show you my feet,

And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?

If one is a tooth and a whole set is teeth,

Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be beeth?

That may be singular and those is the plural,

Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,

And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.

We speak of a brother and also of brethren,

But though we say mother, never say mrethren.

Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,

But imagine the feminine, she, shis and shim!

Let’s face it – English is a crazy language.

There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger;

neither apple nor pine in pineapple.

English muffins weren’t invented in England.

We take English for granted, but if we explore its paradoxes,

We find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings
are square,

and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don’t fing,

grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham?

Doesn’t it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend?

If you have a bunch of odds and ends

and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught?

If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

Sometimes I think all the folks who grew up speaking English

should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane.

In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital?

We ship by truck but send cargo by ship.

We have noses that run and feet that smell.

We park in a driveway and drive in a parkway.

And how can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language

in which your house can burn up as it burns down,

in which you fill in a form by filling it out,

and in which an alarm goes off by going on.

And, in closing: if Father is Pop,

how come Mother’s not Mop?


In this issue

Corporation trying to...
Power-less industries...
Living next to...
A memorial to the call...
Historic residences of...
Other stories in this issue...

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for your Diary


Back to current issue...