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Special Madras Week Issue | VOL. XXII NO. 9, August 16-31, 2012
By Ranjitha Ashok and Biswajit

With many thanks...
...from Ranjitha Ashok and Biswajit

She sits in an ergonomically correct chair; thick jasmine strands fall gracefully over one shoulder. The highlights in her hair gleam, as designer-shod feet peep from beneath the pleats of her red and yellow saree.

She takes an elegant sip of the latest flavour-of-the-month offering on the menu from Coffee-iana, while tossing seedai into her mouth 'long distance'.

You approach her warily – she's been known to have her moods.

She stares at you for several unnerving seconds, and then pronounces: "I know you. You're the ones who presume to write about me....and have been doing so for a while now."

You swallow hard, then stammer: " we thought we should come and formally thank you...."

"For what?"

"For giving us the stories; for playing along..."

She grins.

"'Playing along', eh?" She gives you a quizzical look. "I've noticed you call me the 'Grand Old Lady' every time my Week comes around ..."

"Oh, only in the deepest, most respectful sense..." you assure her hastily.

She takes another dainty sip, and observes: "You know, the very first column in your series, and the last one, at the beginning of this month, were on the same subject – roads. Planned or coincidence?"

"Coincidence," you answer, taken aback, having only just realised this yourself.

"So much whining about roads over the years," she frowns, "and the many barbs over something even I can't help...."

"We never meant...." you try to interrupt, but she sweeps you aside, and when the Grand Old Lady makes a sweeping gesture – you stay swept, and silenced.

She takes one more sip of coffee and peers into the trendy cup.

"Amazing – look what they've done to coffee. Very intimidating – all this latte art and fancy names. And yet I notice the davara tumbler is still going strong. I like that."

She glances at you.

"Did you have to do piece after piece on garbage?"

We try to look contrite.

"People just don't get it," she says, "fancy pick-up vehicles and uniformed personnel can't compensate for lousy civic sense."

"Which was what we were trying to...." you trail away at her expression.

"Well," she smiles grimly, "you guys certainly mined the city for stories. Everything was grist for your particular mill. No idea was too small for you to churn a column out of it, eh?"

"Not always," you mumble, reflecting on all those times when the city sat congealed and silent, refusing to 'do' anything, as deadlines came closer, and The Chief's tone went from indulgent to sharp. All those times when you fell back on generalities. "Sometimes, this place was as still as a sack of pounded tamarind."

You realise you've spoken out loud when you see her huge eyes narrow.

"Don't you dare use my own little 'isms against me," she snaps, then grins impishly. "You did get into trouble at times, though. Those sniping letters every now and then. You should have seen the expression on your face whenever that happened."

She throws her head back and laughs heartily.

You bite your lip, chagrined.

"Who'd have imagined such innocuous stuff could provoke so much irritation?" you mutter.

"Humour can be dangerous." She now smiles kindly, coaxing a smile out of you in spite of yourself, "....and easily misunderstood."

There is a brief silence as she seems to brood on something.

"Mosquitoes," she says suddenly, making you jump. "You made it sound as if the whole city is just one big cloud of pests..."

"Er.... fact, Ma'am."

"I'll tell you what causes a constant buzz in your head," she states. "It's all those wires all of you have dangling from your ears all the time. Were people meant to be so connected 24/7? I don't think so." She glances at you from under her lids and smiles playfully.

"You people really love passwords, don't you? I wonder what I would use? 'Patinam'?" she grins, then goes on, "All those digs about those who love sports, and the....what was that word? Oh yes: 'Un-sports'. Well, I'm a sports-loving entity myself. Except cricket's gone a bit strange these days... I remember – back then..." her voice trails away.

She flicks her jasmine strands back.

"I am proud of how culturally alive we are, you know. Sure, the December Season has its own subterranean agendas – 'tiffin' (now that word brings back memories), groom/bride-hunting, the NRI invasion and sartorial one-upmanship – but it is one of a kind....and now I find there are theatre fests, art fests, book releases.... quite thrilling, actually – and yes, people need to know when to switch off their cell-phones."

You nod fervently in agreement.

"I'm glad you made roads and buildings talk," she muses. "Everything has a voice, you know. You humans must learn to listen."

"I like this new generation of grandparents," she says suddenly, "I quite like the way the look of the city is growing and evolving."

"Er....the traffic..."

"Driving conditions are pathetic, no question," she cuts in, "You know, to use a phrase from my all-time-favourite Madras Bashai, darting in with verbal repartee in a 'cycle-gap' in a conversation is smart – doing the same thing with a vehicle on the road is just plain arrogant stupidity. Lawlessness, constant horning – and CCTVs...really? You guys need CCTVs to stay in line? Whatever happened to an interior sense of right and wrong? And could we have less cables criss-crossing the city....sometimes I feel so trussed up – I can't breathe."

There is a small silence.

"Food seems to be big business. Does anyone cook at home any more?" she shoots a glance at you, "I notice there are some strange variations in yellai sapaad these days. Some things – you leave alone. Better, no? I'm okay with the changing face of food though – as long as you can still get thayir sadam when you need it."

"Did you know names have a shelf life too?" she goes on, "I hear parents using a whole new crop of names these days. Street names, house and telephone numbers, they become defunct too – and names on old signboards."

"Anything that saddens you, Ma'am?"

"Quiet dignity seems to be becoming an outdated concept. And all this 'security' guys can't even go to a movie without being checked.... what sort of world have you bequeathed to your children?"

You gently change the subject.

"What are your favourite spots in the city, Ma'am?"

"I can't say....each area develops its own personality, you know. Makes me feel like a mother with a huge brood of kids...none of them similar. But that's half the fun – a colourful family with a variety of characters, all jostling to co-exist. How boring life would be otherwise."

"You're okay with change, then?"

"Of course I'm okay with it. I have never been scared of change. Or overly resistant. That's just a myth other cities cited so often – it became a stereotype, a truism. At 373 years, I still want to learn. I'm eager for new ideas. But – I've always believed in keeping things in perspective.

"Remember how they called me 'a city of balance and moderation' at some study three years ago?

"I also accept, and have the courage to reflect, all of my history...that's what the ageing process is all about. Which is why I can't understand this angst-y attitude towards the past. All this 'touchiness' about everything, especially by those who claim to speak for me."

"And when Change does get too much for you...?"

She smiles.

"Ah, when that happens... all I have to do is disappear into the sabhas, gaana-paatu, malli-poo, the navarathri dolls on Mada Veedhi, pattu podavais, temple streets, sundal on the beach, the idli-kadais, the heaps of kumkum and turmeric, the heritage buildings... I have to say I'm thrilled over how well both my personalities are showcased all the time."

She straightens in her chair.

She is both 'Grand' and 'Old' – and needs her rest, you realise.

You get to your feet.

"Thank you, Ma'am – for giving us the stories," you repeat.

She smiles.

"The stories will never run out, you know. You'll be back...."

Then, she's gone.

All that's left is a lingering sense of jasmine in the air.

As you prepare to leave, you think to yourself: Nice.

Nice – to have been gifted a decade and more of dealing with a Lady who wears both her personalities with such élan – who, above everything else, has that best of all qualities – a sense of humour.

It's been...amusing.

Ranjitha Ashok
says farewell and we are not a-mused

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In this
Madras Week

Seeking a place in World Heritage
Will Union Finance Minister keep his promise?
Vincent D'Souza's thoughts for Madras Week
A thought from Singapore in time for Madras Week
Two at the top
Madras that is Chennai – in today's writing
Namma Madras Nalla Madras – Madras Week 2012

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Quizzin' with Ram'nan


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