There are controversies on celebrating 22 Aug as Madras day, as it is associated with colonialism. But people who belong to the city are aware of its history, which goes far beyond the three hundred plus years that mark this anniversary. The day is just an occasion to reaffirm love for the city which so many of us, irrespective of where we happen to live, will always call home.
Here is a short excerpt from The Reengineers, which begins with a love letter to the city.
“Aside, which called itself ‘The Magazine of Madras’, is now as much a memory as the city’s old name. Yet, the vibes of my city remain unchanged. The vibes that you get from the old Leo coffee ad in which a woman serves filter coffee in a steel davara-tumbler to a man against the backdrop of a butter-Krishna Tanjore painting, suggesting a typical Madras home where kolams of rice flour bloomed in the courtyard at dawn and the warm morning air carried the strains of the Venkatesa Suprabhatam.
The feeling of home still pervades my city, despite the impersonal flyovers that now criss-cross above the old familiar roads, the acres of shining skyscrapers that buzz with the sounds of the software cities teeming within them, and the gleaming malls that may soon outnumber the tiny Ganesha shrines on each street, all of which make the Chennai of today such a different world from the Madras of 1991, where this story first begins, and then begins anew.”
The Reengineers, p.3-4
Excerpt with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India from The Reengineers by Indu Muralidharan
This is the old Leo coffee ad mentioned in the paragraph. I was a child when this ad used to be aired on television. But every time I watch it, it makes me timesick for the sweetness and simplicity of Madras of the nineties.
A Dystopian Romance
Together they watched the olive coloured water lapping over the boundaries of the steel-grey contours of the software city, at the gates of which raincoated security men waded through water that was fast rising above their knees, to regulate the vehicles that were gliding out. The traffic on the main road had been frozen for six hours and showed no signs of movement. The queue of jammed vehicles had begun to resemble a single entity, a monstrous being rasping out its smoky breath, with myriad eyes that blinked wearily at intervals, the roaring sound of a thousand motor horns now reduced to faint whimpers and frightened moans.
The man turned to the woman.
‘The office resembles a castle now, with its own moat,’ he said.
The woman smiled at him. He noticed that as usual her face lit up like an instantly waxing moon when she smiled and then almost as immediately her lips straightened again, like naughty children caught breaking the rules standing back in attention. He wished he could say something funny, to see her smile linger for a few moments more.
‘Does it always rain this heavily in Chennai?’ He knew that it was a hot, humid place, having googled the city in particular, and India in general, almost as much as he had googled her name.
‘It never rains, except for a few monsoon showers around October. Rains are usually considered a good omen here, a blessing from the heavens.’
“No wonder the clients loved our presentation today, the good omens must have helped,” he wondered if she would take offence at the remark made in jest.
But she merely looked thoughtful. “Would you like some dinner?’
“Of course. Was looking forward to authentic Indian food before I return to London.’
They made their way out through the cold grey maze of open desks. The office was only half deserted for the late hour of the night. Stranded employees sat peering into weather reports on the screens before them. Some discussed the situation worriedly in groups, others curled wearily on sofas and beanbags in the think zone.
The food court was teeming with people from all forty other companies in the software city. The cashier of the Chinese kitchen where the woman usually had lunch shook his head as she approached the counter, they had run out of supplies. Shutters were coming down fast on the dosa corner, the salad bar, the pizzeria, the patisserie. The woman disappeared into the unruly crowd of techies who thronged the open Subway, vociferously demanding food from the cashier who stared back at them silently with a flicker of pity in his eyes. She emerged in a few minutes, clutching the last packs of potato chips from the display, which no one else had thought of buying.
The man and the woman retreated to an empty table. Through the glass walls they could see the rain outside, pouring down in a steady, relentless stream, rising the water levels. They talked about work. Their conversation flitted from the project and the clients to books and art, and finally they dared to talk about the perilous circumstances around them. They did not talk of escape strategies but about climatic changes, the truth behind global warming, the potential dangers of EMP attacks, the need for self-sustaining homes, the charms of a quiet life, pure air, naturally grown food, starlight on clear skies and birdsong.
“Sounds too idealistic though, growing food in the backyard would hardly make it easier to pursue jobs in fields like ours, when the technology changes every quarter. Leave alone the finer pursuits of art and literature,” the man said.
“It would be the opposite, methinks. Many people are already shunning the nine to six routine to seek themselves and their roots. Organic farming is now almost a clichéd solution to quarter and pre-mid life crises. But great books are more likely to be written in those cottages in the countryside, and perhaps, finer music than we have ever known.” The woman said, looking through the glass walls, as though the idyllic future lay outside it.
By then they had grown accustomed to the sounds of the rain that continued to cascade down, more like a waterfall than a monsoon shower. The man nearly placed his pale bony fingers above her hand before he caught himself in the act.
“Some more chips?” The woman asked the man. The question loosened the thread of the conversation that had tied their minds together, like a spell that wore off at the mention of something as mundane as chips.
“We call these crisps. Chips in England are fatter and softer. I heard you call them fries, like the Americans do.”
“Well, have some more crisps then” the woman said with a smile, moving the remaining pack towards him. Her action reminded him of a movie that he had watched with his four year old nephew a few weeks before. As an avalanche of thoughts had been sweeping back and forth through his mind, all he could recollect about the film was a hummable song, two lovable dogs, and a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.
Back at their desks they resumed work, he reading out the comments from their presentation and she cross-checking the client’s website to make notes. Suddenly a picture filled her laptop screen with such radiance that it lit up the entire bay where they sat. It was a photograph of a young family of four staring rapturously at a toy catalogue. A child sat on each parent’s lap, the boys’ flaxen curls mirroring his mother’s, the girl’s brown hair the exact shade of her father’s. For a while they sat in silence looking at the screen, the business scenario having receded to the background of their minds for the moment. That was when the cab driver rang.
Twenty one years later
The man was composing a tune at his desk when the doorbell chirped. No sooner had he opened the door than two young men pounced on him, just as they used to do back when he could carry them both in his arms. The twins were tall like their father. Ian had soft black hair and blue eyes, Ishan had his mother’s eyes and scraggly brown hair shot with gold.
The man answered their excited questions peaceably as they wandered about the living room, revelling in the feeling of being back at home. He drew the curtains open. The garden was bursting with flowers and fruit, a splash of glorious colours and smells, and sounds of birds and insects that collectively came across as one sylvan silence. How curious, he thought, that on that night so many years ago, when he had felt small and helpless against the forces of nature, in the shadow of doom cast by the rising waters that could have swept him away had he only stepped out, in that hour, everything that now made up his life had bloomed into being.
He heard the study door open, followed by the sound of approaching footsteps. The sound, which had once accelerated his heartbeats so wildly, now deluged his consciousness, flooding it with warmth and peace.
He turned to the boys who had jumped up, their smiles lighting up the room.
“Here’s Mum,” he said.
On a recent flight, I was alarmed at first when I saw that my seat was next to a lady with a few months old baby. I have nothing against babies in social situations, as long as they are at a safe distance of at least a hundred metres away from me. The prospect of spending eleven hours in the close proximity of one was daunting. However the mother was a sweet lady who kept the baby fed, warm and entertained with great efficiency throughout the flight, and so charmingly apologetic when the kid tried to grab my blanket, glasses and book, that I did not mind the least when the little human tried the above antics or held on to my shoulder with a hot, grubby paw as it slept.
The plane soared silently through the skies, the baby clung to its mother and I clung to the collected plays of Ibsen, each of us cocooned in our own worlds.
What stood out in this mundane encounter was the fact that the lady played Tamil rhymes to the baby whenever he showed signs of getting cranky. His cries immediately toned down to a soft whimper on hearing the sounds, while his mother sang softly along, cooing to him in Tamil.
The sounds of the language brought with it to me, the forgotten warmth of long conversations in colloquial Tamil and casual Hindi with friends and family, the correspondence with most of whom has now been reduced to standard paragraph long Facebook messages on festivals and birthdays. I thought of cousins from Chennai who had acquired funny Tamil accents after a few years abroad, of friends who had studied Tamil as a second language with me and now chose to sign off their emails in French and German and Spanish, a Tamil Professor who told me with great pride that her grandson did not care to speak the language for he dreamed in English. Language is so much more than a medium for communication, it holds within its intonations, slang, idioms and dialects, so many personal associations of time and space and memory specific to each speaker. Perhaps all these people had their individual reasons to choose to distance themselves from certain languages, and make new memories with others.
Watching that homely baby with large intelligent eyes focused on his mother’s smartphone, it warmed the cockles of my heart to think that thanks to his excellent mother, one more child would grow up multi-lingual and perhaps one day, grow to admire Kamban and Bharati as much as he would Keats and Shelley.
I had been to the Chennai book club meets at the Pasta Bar Veneto, Burkit Road earlier and enjoyed the intellectually charged discussions. It was a pleasure and a privilege to visit the event as an author for the first time, earlier this month and talk about The Reengineers.
It was a most enjoyable evening spent discussing modernism, surrealism, postmodernism, the relevance of genre to a reader and the significance of book covers among other things. I was especially delighted by a set of intelligent questions that a reader had for me.
He referred to a paragraph in The Reengineers (one of my favourites) which talks about a chain of writers inspiring each other across centuries, their words transcending time, space and even language. Thus Shelley inspired the Tamil poet Bharati to write under the name ‘Shelley-dasan’ (Shelley’s devotee), who in turn inspired the poet Bharati-dasan and so on. This gentleman wanted to know if I had a particular author whom I could relate to, as my inspiration.
While there is no single author whom I relate to completely, I told him about the four writers who have been my biggest inspirations – Nabokov, Salinger, Julian Barnes and my beloved Muriel Spark. I am a devotee of all of them, worshipping at multiple shrines of literature.
“The Madras summer begins in March. I remember reading in the Aside magazine that the season of hell begins in this month, the other three seasons of the city being, of course, hot, hotter and hottest. It was my favourite time of year, for the end of March meant the beginning of the long vacations. The idea of dying at the age of fifteen in the beloved summer month had seemed morbidly romantic, and I had almost looked forward to it. However, later that summer, I truly rejoiced in the heat, for the years of ice within me had finally thawed.”
I was especially delighted that The Reengineers was published in March. For in spite of Elmore Leonard’s much quoted rule of never starting a book with the weather, I chose to begin the novel describing a summer day in Madras.
A summer day in Madras in 1991, which is so far away in space and time that looking back, it feels almost like a different country. It was the age of the last few years before the advent of the internet. When time flowed so gently that a vacation felt like a lifetime, a weekend was an age and an evening passed like an eternity.
Fifteen year old Chinmay lived in this charming epoch of time and was planning to die there, but something happened on that day which changed his life. The Reengineers narrates this story.
I am giving away two copies of The Reengineers in exchange for reviews, and two more copies as part of a Goodreads giveaway. Both giveaways are open until 22 April 2015.
Please do enter the Goodreads give away or contact me for review copies of the book (the give aways are currently open only to readers in India), if you wish to know what happened to Chinmay on that summer day, the stories that he came across during his surreal adventure and why he chose to live at the end of it.
It is difficult to categorise ‘The Exorcism of Satish Kumar MBA’ by Ramiah Ariya into any particular genre. The book starts off as typical corporate lad-lit fiction with a lowly software engineer trying to find out if he is next in the list of employees to be laid off, and swiftly picks up pace to metamorphose into a part satire, part science fiction and part paranormal thriller laced with office politics, international conspiracies, sorcerers with postgraduate degrees in neurology, mercenaries of a private equity giant, car chases along the traffic-clogged Chennai roads and a sequence of bizarre quests including a voyage into the underworld.
An unlikely protagonist, Arjun Palani is anything but a hero, even to his timid self. Having been fired three times previously, all he wants is to hold on to his job in BSD Technology which has started to lay off its employees in batches ever since the CEO disappeared. But when his friend Raj hacks into the company’s laying off list, Arjun is surprised to find that not only there are specific instructions not to terminate him, he has been singled out for the first time in his career for a special assignment.
The new project requires him to complete a series of strange tasks such as fetching cannabis and kidnapping a young woman descended from a warrior clan. Determined to keep his job, Arjun takes up one challenge after the other, noting that he is the only one to actually work while the management team members sit in a conference room and talk among themselves in worried tones, even as mysterious screams and crashing sounds issue forth periodically from the adjacent room which is kept locked. At some point, he realises that both he and the CEO were pawns in a game which itself was part of a much larger conspiracy linked to a software program that could affect the world, which then triggers his journey into the underworld and his adventures thereafter.
There are several things that I enjoyed about the book, most of all the humour which pervades almost every other page. Arjun Palani is a genuinely funny narrator. His philosophical reflections on life and the corporate world invoke laughter even as he goes through difficult and dangerous situations. There are several hilarious scenes such as the dosa shop for sad programmers where Arjun and his friends trick the rival company’s men into getting beaten up by worn out techies, Arjun’s crush on Malini and his jealousy when she prefers Raj over him and his description of the Technology Evangelist Muthiah’s motivational therapy classes.
The human bonding between programmers over technology comes out in the interaction between Raj, Legolas and Akram, which reminded me more than once of the geeks selflessly helping each other in Robin Sloan’s ‘Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour bookstore’. Raj comes across as a true friend, who saves Arjun’s life through his technical skills. He was my favourite character in the novel. The book takes the reader on a tour through the city of Chennai before the action moves to Ahi, the other world. Most of the characters are sketched out in detail, and come alive, even the long dead warrior chieftain Vellaya Thevan.
The second part of the book is somewhat surreal and a few loose ends are left open, presumably to the reader’s imagination, though this does not take away anything from the story. There are several though-provoking lines within the lighthearted prose which allows the book to be read at various levels – as a fast-paced, humorous thriller or a satire which ruminates on unpalatable realities in the corporate world.
Note: Ramiah is my colleague and I have also enjoyed reading his Tamil short stories on his blog http://ramsrants.blogspot.in/. I look forward to read his next book.
P.G. Wodehouse not only inspired but also unconsciously influenced generations of writers. Apart from the pale imitations of his short stories published in magazines and journals, shades of Wodehouse’s writing have coloured even the novels of popular and celebrated authors – the motifs, the metaphors, the style in places. The novel No Onions nor Garlic by Srividya Natarajan evokes Wodehouse in its theme and style of writing and yet has a unique voice all of its own.
The plot revolves around caste politics at the English Department at a University in Chennai headed by the formidable Professor Ram, the self appointed champion of Hindu religious values and author of ‘Daddy What is the Significance of the Poonal and One Hundred Other Questions About Hinduism’.
Professor Ram is seeking suitable matches for his NRI children – wilful daughter Jayanthi and divorcee son Chunky. An advertisement in The Bindhu newspaper for a mutual, pure Brahmin (no onions nor garlic) alliance brings Professor Ram’s student Sundar and his sister Uma as prospective matches. But Sundar is in love with his dalit classmate Jeeva.
Professor Ram finds that his supreme authority in the university premises is challenged by the dalit students when they install a statue of Ambedkar and decides to take counter action, setting up a reluctant Sundar as the leader of the opposing Brahmin group. A mix-up over a tiffin of Jagadambal jump start your day idlis bring Professor Ram into direct confrontation with his arch enemy Professor Laurentia Arul, which leads into some unexpected twists and encounters that culminate in a cinematic, hilarious ending.
There are a number of side characters – The grumpy Mrs.Ram who visits a shady Godman Sri Sri Sri Sastrigal to keep herself ‘purified’, Sundar’s ex-naxalite father who likes to wear a helmet while entertaining visitors at home, his harried mother Sachu who habitually resorts to melodramatic emotional blackmail of her family, his eccentric brother Kicha, the runaway sculptor Akilan and Caroline the visiting scholar from Canada who views Indian food as ’95 percent life-threatening microbes’ among others. Among the most interesting of these side characters are Mr. Seshadri, the corrupt alcoholic builder and Thiru, the auto driver who makes a guest appearance throughout the book at important situations. All the characters are cartoon-like caricatures caught in incredibly funny situations, but the underlying tone of the novel is that of a sharp, though not unkind social satire.
The city of Chennai almost comes across as a character in the novel – not only in the occasional descriptions of places but the thoughts, the attitudes, the slang terms, the regional anecdotes, the local idiosyncrasies, the little eccentricities that are native to a specific place that are inherently a part of the narrative. Almost every page invokes a smile and very often, loud laughter. This is a brilliant, genuinely funny novel which reads almost as good as Wodehouse at his very best.
I have bought several copies of this book over the years as gifts for friends and family. Almost all the reviews of the book are uniformly good and applaud it as a ‘laugh-riot’, but I am surprised that more people are not raving about it. This is one of those books that deserves to be on many a bestseller list, if only for the pure laughter that it evokes in almost every other page.
Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
The Reengineers unfolds over a period of a day and an hour that begins and ends in Madras as Chennai was known then, in March 1991. Though the novel begins and ends in that time and place in a beloved old library in a poet’s house in a Madras suburb, the rest of the story is set in more recent times in the fictional town of Conchpore.
This post is about that bygone age of the eighties and early nineties that the novel refers to as the time ‘when life was lucidly defined in glorious shades of black and white, when the world was a relatively simpler place where time flowed at a slower, gentle pace’.
It was a different epoch of time, an era before the advent of the internet or mobile phones, when there were two television channels in most homes and cable TV was a rarity that had just started to make its presence felt. Was life was really better back then? I am not sure, for the world in the present day seems to be much better in several ways in comparison. Society is more broadminded, relatively. The internet is turning everyone into culturally and intellectually cosmopolitan global citizens. There is so much more freedom, so many more choices regarding every aspect of life, opportunities abound in every field like never before and even though it is still a very, very long way to the safe, perfect Utopia that was visualised in the optimistic fifties and sixties post independence, I believe that we are on our way to getting there.
Though nostalgia is passé, sometimes a phrase in a book or an old song brings to me memories of those days when time seemed to be endless and yet seemed to have so much more quality. Today if I wish to read a book, I can order it online and get it within a day, or buy an ebook and start reading immediately. I also have instant access to what readers around the world thought about the book, through the reviews on sites like Goodreads, Amazon and the many book blogs. But does this instant gratification and the deluge of readily available information live up to the joy of walking into a library, physically browsing through the books and finding unknown treasures by chance? Any song that I feeling like listening to is likely to be online, accessible at the click of a few buttons and sometimes the payment of a nominal fee. But it was something else, the joy of physically attending a concert or unexpectedly getting to hear an old favourite film song on Rangoli or Chitrahaar. As someone who grew up before the advent of email and phone messages, I rejoice in how it has revolutionised communication in work and life. Open conversations on social media have made the whole world kin, bringing people closer like never before. However, writing and receiving a letter on notepaper was not only a delightful experience but also a mode of communication on a totally different plane. Practically, I am all for the technological conveniences of the present day but the simpler life as it used to be until perhaps the mid-nineties had a whole lot more of old world charm. Perhaps I will never be sure which is better.
As I write this, a random memory of the early nineties comes to me – a song from an afternoon television program called Palash ke Phool broadcast on the Doordarshan’s national network that I sometimes used to catch on returning from school. It was a Tagoresque story of a village schoolteacher’s daughter waiting for her childhood sweetheart to return from the city. Not only the story but the presentation too was subtle and subdued, like in most other television programs of the eighties and early nineties. The actors were dressed very simply and in accordance with the story’s rustic setting and background. I especially remember the heroine’s austere cotton saris that complemented her serene countenance and gentle demeanour. Everyone including the hero’s friend whose proposal is rejected by the heroine spoke in calm voices and behaved with quiet dignity. I was too young to empathise with the romantic aspect of the story, what stands out in my memory is the soulful melody of the title song that the heroine sang to her beloved asking him to bring her Palash flowers whenever he visited her.
Neither Doordarshan nor any of the hundreds of television channels that abound today are likely to make such sensitive shows anymore. But then, it seems that such characters and such stories have also become rare, and can be found only in such random memories.