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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 21, february 16-28, 2010
Three men, a sidewalk and a morning Tamil paper
(By Arun Ganapathy)

The art of communal newspaper reading in Chennai

It is still early in the morning outside ‘Devan’s tea/coffee centre and cool bar’ in Tiruvanmiyur. Babu has just sauntered in with the daily newspaper tucked under his arm. He orders a cup of tea, picks up a hot vazhaikai bajji from the counter and heads out to his customary paper reading spot at the edge of the sidewalk. This is the signal for Sundaram and Velu (no offence meant to any particular name here), also early morning customers for tea, to move in.

Welcome to communal paper reading in Chennai. For many in Chennai, reading the morning’s Tamil paper is a companionable activity comparable to communal bathing in Ancient Rome. Two or three or sometimes even more people share the same paper, reading it simultaneously on the sidewalk in front of a tea shop.

The activity begins when Babu, the owner of the paper, raises his left leg for an instant, pinches the edge of his lungi (which is a little longer than his legs) and knots it loosely at the abdomen, opens his paper to the centre page and starts reading. Sundaram and Velu, who are only remotely connected with Babu, treat this as the invitation to read the front and last pages and position themselves accordingly. For the next five minutes everyone is seriously soaking up the morning’s news.

Then Sundaram, who has been reading the front page, makes a comment on the State’s politicians’ chances in elections. It doesn’t matter that the combined psephological knowledge of the participants is that of Tweedledee; this comment is just the spark that’s needed to turn the next five minutes into a raging discussion in which the finer points of the politicians’ future and past, their character, the opposition’s political past and future, their characters, and the state of the nation described by the blanket statement of Naadu romba kettupoidichu (the nation has gone to the dogs) are thrashed out. This is serious – it would seem by the expressions on the faces of the three men.

Babu meanwhile has turned the page over and has another sip of tea and nibble of vazhaikai bajji. He is now on the crime page.

The crime page is a piece of prime real estate in a Tamil newspaper.

The morning’s paper has devoted a whole page to the murder of a teenage girl in the Tiruvanmiyur/Valmiki Nagar area. First conjectures (Dai definiteah avan dhan da dai) are quickly rubbished when Velu reminds the others that the accused is in jail.

Babu reads a bit more of the story aloud and a detailed analysis of the crime, motive for the crime, the modus operandi of the crime, the crime itself and every gory detail (dai brain arai inch vellilai vandhiduchi da) and every bit of information even remotely connected with the crime (like the crime history of the Tiruvanmiyur, Adyar, Valmiki Nagar belt) is thrashed out between more nibbling of vazhaikai bajji and sips of tea. It is so gripping by now that Babu lowers the page just enough to see the others’ faces while continuing to detail the final moments of escape drama.

When it is discovered that the criminal escaped without leaving any clue of entry or exit, spontaneous expressions of adeyappa, appadiya, etc. are followed by an appreciation and admiration of the criminal’s skills (Avan enna madri thirudana irukanum), with supporting facial expressions. Immediately on hearing this, Velu, who has hitherto been relatively silent, elevates the criminal’s status with his final comment, ‘Avan sooper thirudan da.’

(As far as I know, Tamil Nadu is the only State in the world where thirudan-s have qualifying adjective soooper before their job titles!)

The enthusiasm and excitement generated by the Sooper Thirudan are so great that more nibbles of bajji and sips of tea are needed. By the time these are had, Babu, Velu and Sundaram are ready for the final round: sports page.

The morning’s paper talks of last night’s failure of the Indians against the Lankans. The turning point in the match was a catch dropped by Kohli. Sundaram who, in addition to reading the newspaper, also watched the match on TV, now demonstrates – right there on the sidewalk – how the catch was taken (or not taken) and how it should have been taken, all this while adding his own sound effects to the action!

Aappadiye pidikka vandhan paru, kailiruadhu ball sirrunu slip aayidichu,” (the ball slipped from his hands just as he was about to catch it).

(A quick note here to readers that this kind of ‘audio text’, with the addition of sounds like suhrrrrr, sahrrrrr, and sullinuh, are also available only in Tamil Nadu.)

The discussion finally ends with Babu’s definitive pronouncement on what is to be done to rectify India’s cricket fortunes.

Main problem ennanna, MS Dhoni sari illai. Avanai captaincy lirundhu thookidanum (the main problem is that MS Dhoni is not OK. He should be removed from the captaincy).

And with that he folds his paper into a tube-like roll, tucks it under his arm, and each of them goes his own way.


In this issue

Planning for better days for the Cooum
Pedestrian safety – a matter of low priority in Chennai
Three men, a sidewalk and a morning Tamil paper
After the SVS days – the slide
Historic Residences of Chennai - 36
Other stories

Our Regulars

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


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