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Special Madras Week Issue | VOL. XXII NO. 9, August 16-31, 2012
Madras that is Chennai – in today's writing
By T.K. Srinivasa Chari


Krishna Shastri Devulapalli, Krishna or KSD for short, has spent most of his life in the good old Madras of the 1960s and onwards and continues to do so after it became Chennai in the 1990s. Based on his life and times in this city is a trilogy of fiction he plans to write. The first of the books, Ice Boys in Bell Bottoms, came out last year.

With a poet-grandfather and an illustrator-and-writer father, KSD, just by watching them in action, took to cartooning, illustrating and graphic designing pretty much like a duck takes to water. Grandfather was a Telugu poet and lyricist, a legend of his time, Devulapalli Krishna Shastri. His father is D.S. Sastri, popularly known as Bujjai. They lived for more than 25 years in the 1960s and 1970s in the T'Nagar of capacious bungalows and avenue trees. There, Krishna's creative family, comprising grandparents, parents and his two sisters, revelled in Madras, then an extension of the Telugu film industry.

A delightful mix of fiction and autobiography, Krishna's Ice Boys in Bell Bottoms is peopled by some of these characters marvellously etched out. With no room for monotony, daily happenings transform into dramatic situations. While the book is set in the T'Nagar Krishna grew up in, the appeal of the stylishly told rambunctious novel is universal, bringing smiles on the faces of not necessarily only those who swear by Madras and its sights and sounds.

References to places in the city are woven into the narrative as Gopi's father is a regular at the Race Course in Guindy on weekends. Mother who, on and off, rides different hobby horses like embroidery, cookery and doll-making, goes shopping to the markets of George Town. And Gopi's grandfather finally agrees to write a song for 'Telugu Terence Hill', Kalyan Babu's hit copies of Westerns where a Telugu-speaking cowboy is visualised riding the Pallavaram hills. Influenced by his father's craze for the 'golden age' of Hollywood, Gopi buses to the three-km-long entertainment district of Mount Road, from Gemini Flyover to India Silk House, twice a month. With a princely sum of five rupees in his pocket, Gopi plans the trip to the last paisa: Rs. 2.90 for the ticket, 60 paise for to-and-fro transport, and the remaining Rs. 1.50 for eats during the intermission.

The book recalls that before the word multiplex was invented, Madras had its Vee-cumsee Complex with its three gems, Safire, Blue Diamond and Emerald, the last-named showing only Hindi movies. Underground was its discotheque, Nine Gems, and the office of Silversands, the Caribbean-style beach resort in Mahabalipuram. There were also Anand and Little Anand, Devi and her three sisters, and the venerable Casino. Off Mount Road was the then new Satyam complex, and Midland and Leo a little further away. There's passing mention of Tondiarpet and Burma Bazaar and, not to forget, a film studio in Vadapalani with its toy bridge, artifical streams and man-made ponds. There's also the French and Tamil side of Pondicherry where Gopi and his classmates go on a rather out-of-the-ordinary school excursion.

Gopi, the narrator of the book, is a boy of his times, and Krishna hardly sees one in the boys of today, what with younger generations wising up to the world, having lost their sense of innocence and waiting. Though every generation thinks theirs is the best, Krishna feels today's environment kills the imagination of boys. They have been handed over a template of professionalism by their parents. As a boy in the 1970s, the world was his playground and he and his contemporaries could create their own pastimes, unlike today's generation which has pre-digested stuff.

Early in life, Krishna learnt drawing watching his father bring alive comic books. His father's studio was an inviting training ground for him to ultimately learn the art and craft of storytelling. His other reading influences were the absorbing pulp fiction of James Hadley Chase and Mickey Spillane. Krishna also owes much to the mathematical precision of the American sitcoms in drawing guffaws. Travel writer Bill Bryson and humorist Dave Barry have been later inspirations. Closer home, apart from his family, he greatly respects Ashokamitran. In later years, as he began to draw, he started putting himself in the shoes of the writers. Toying with the idea for a major original effort (he has retold many Indian children's stories) from the late 1990s, he sat down to write it in late 2007 and the book was released late last year. Asked to compare illustrating with writing, Krishna says, "The funny thing is most drawing begin as words or a description in your head and most writing begins with an image. While I drew pictures with lines earlier, I am doing it with words now."

Krishna acknowledges that being married to Chitra, a writer herself and editor to boot, is the reason the book has taken the shape it has done. The reception of the book, says Krishna, has been "affectionate". The young and old alike have been communicating their responses, particularly mentioning the humour quotient of the book. A woman-turned friend left him a complimentary letter in his neighbourhood bookshop. And, of course, the ultimate compliment: the publishers are ready for reprint.

His next book is not the second in the trilogy (Rally Days & Disco Nights) but a thriller set in the Tamil film industry to be called Jump Cut. A writer, according to Krishna, is someone who, first and foremost, tells a good old-fashioned story, then aims at getting the reader to say, 'Wow, that's exactly how I feel' or 'Man, I wish I'd said that.'

Looking at the Madras of then and Chennai of today, Krishna says the change has been predictable, with bungalows and trees giving way to matchbox flats and flyovers. Development claiming its individuality is true of other cities too. But Chennai has its beaches, its saving grace against claustrophobia, and anytime he feels boxed in, all he has to do is stand on the Marina, and he knows the world is out there.

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