Thursday, January 3, 2013

Chennai Diary

(Cholamandal Artists' Village, Chennai)


I remember two analogies with Delhi’s cold. A coconut fell on someone’s head. He did not realize anything. He did not feel any pain either. But he felt something fell on his head. He took it up and looked at it. It was a coconut. Seeing it, he fainted. The other story is about a guy with less knowledge of English language. He read some pornographic story. Nothing happened to him. He went home. Pulled out a dictionary from the bookshelf. He flipped through the pages and he had a huge erection.

I did not know about Delhi’s cold while heading towards the Indira Gandhi International Airport. In the flight, I flipped through the newspaper and found that it was the coldest day in Delhi since last forty four years. I started shivering. But the shiver did not last long. Two seasoned Air India airhostesses who came from Lucknow and were heading towards Chennai, warmed the atmosphere around me with their deep sleep waves. They were just sitting next to me. The other hostesses on duty were extremely nice to them. They were literally respecting their age and experience. Old is gold. In front of Air India hostesses, passengers including the most mischievous kids behave. So did my kids. So the flight to Chennai was rather eventless.

(The Cholamandal guest house)

Airports attract me in a different way. In airport everyone is special, except for the parents who take their kids for a vacation. They are miserable in similar ways. I see kids howling at an invisible god sitting inside the vending machines and demanding packets of wafers and packaged juices, and their parents gloriously ignoring them by vacantly looking into space or peering into their laptop screens or even rolling eyes at the screaming kids. I look at one parent and he turns into a mirror. I see myself there and he seems himself in me. And we smile at each other as if we knew well in our previous life. I was a pig and he too was one. It is our human phase. This too shall pass, I tell myself.

I digressed, I know. Digressions are inevitable habit of story-telling human beings. If there are no digressions most of the stories could be finished in three lines. He was born, he loved, lived and died. The in between things could be sufficed in two or three lines again. He fell in love with a woman. He married her or lost her. Invariably he married to some woman thanks to the unavoidable hormonal drive which is often dubbed as familial responsibilities, suffered, fell in love with another woman and died. I remember O.V.Vijayan explaining how Bhagavat Gita was written. In Haryana, there lived two families. They were blood related. They had some issues related some farm land. One day they gathered a placed called Kurukshetra. They were supposed to fight it out. There was this guy called Arjun on the one side. He looked at his relatives and felt bad. His friend Krishan was exhorting him to fight. Arjun did not relent. Krishan got really irritated. He said, ‘Bhen...od..Maaro saalon ko’ (Sister fucker beat them). Some poets were around. They listened the whole abuse and they sang it in poetic meters. This was the birth story of Bhagavat Gita, according to late O.V.Vijayan.

(Interior of the guest house)

So, airports are nowhere places. They are sort of no man’s lands. You may have a passport and a ticket. However, unless and until you get into a flight and reach your destination you are in transit. Airports are transit places. You may try to show off. But if your flight is delayed then you are a screwed up refugee in a no man’s land. There was a time when the former USSR was rapidly disintegrating into smaller countries. Some people from the former Soviet Union were travelling. When they were in some transit lounge at some airport, their country had become something else. Their passports were no longer valid. They were refugees without a land all of a sudden. Fortunately, we Indians have learnt to live with our Indian-ness. Despite the reformation of new states carved out of earlier states, we still remain Indians. If we have any problem, we will be dubbed as Maoists and could become the guests of state very soon. So we remain polite citizens in the transit lounges.

I had my tryst with state once. I was about to be called a Maoist. Stars were in my favour. It was in 2008. Art market boom was in full swing. The party was on. It was the day of the annual display of Baroda’s fine arts faculty. A friend of mine booked a ticket for me from Delhi to Baroda. I was travelling like a mad person in those days. I was supposed to go in the morning and come back at night. Next evening I was supposed to fly to Seoul. Kingfisher was my flight to Baroda (today both Boom and Kingfisher are in bad shape). I got my boarding pass and got into the flight. As I was coming back in the same evening I had not taken any bag with me. I was wearing a black jeans and black T-shirt. To add value to my presence I was holding one book in my hand.

When I entered the flight, I had a sense of uneasiness. The people who were going to Baroda were not looking like the seasoned Gujaratis. They were all looking like people from North East. I shirked off my doubt and tightened my seat belt. The doors were closed. The airhostess announced. The flight would take three hours. I jumped up. Where was it going? I asked loudly. Someone rushed to me. Sir, she muttered. I wanted to go to Baroda. How come a Baroda flight took this much time? I asked furiously. She said the flight was going to Bagdogra in Assam. I looked at my boarding pass. Yes it was a boarding pass to Bagdogra. My friend had booked for Baroda and the agent had booked it for Bagdogra. We were all drunk by the market boom so we did not even care to check the ticket once. I raised alarm. My Seoul trip was going to be screwed up. The flight had already started moving. I insisted I wanted to get out.

 (Kids playing on an installation)

Airhostesses ran. People shouted at me. Suddenly there was a situation. An ordinary Indian citizen appeared in front of them as a potential terrorist. Was I looking like one in my black attire? The plane came to a halt. Something was happening outside. In five minutes commandoes entered the flight. They got me. They checked me thoroughly. Their suspicion increased when they came to know that I was travelling without any luggage. Finally with a lot of commando security I was led out of the flight. I was taken to a destination which I never thought existed in an airport. They made me sit there. Many officials interrogated me. They told me I could go free but the flight should land at Bagdogra Airport safe. If not... For the first time in my life I prayed for the safe landing of a flight in which I was not travelling.

Two year ago I had written about the airport bookstalls. They display a very eclectic collection of books. May be you chance upon a good book perhaps you never intend to read but by accident you see them, pick them up and then fall in love with them. Today too when I am at the airport I check three different bookstalls full with the latest hot books. But none attracts me. My son says he is attracted to many books. I buy a couple of books for him. I pick up Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra. I have read it so I keep it back. Then I pick up Khushwant Singh’s latest work on spiritual sayings. I keep it back too. I look for something very light to read. But when I touch each book they tell me I know the content. Or I feel that I don’t have time to read them all. I go through the Narcopolis by Jeet Tayyil. I flip through the pages of Guru Charan Das’ latest work India Develops at Night (or something like that). Then I go through Manu Josheph’s new novel. I keep it in its place thinking that I would read it later. I open the Open Magazine. The lead story speaks of how the new urban couples lead an underground life. I feel some kind of agitation in me and I throw it back. Somehow today I found the airport bookstalls not attracting me.

So I think of writing something that I would like to read. It is not about my arrogance or ego. Sometimes it is always good to write in order to read. In another bookstall I feel like stalling my ego by touching a travelogue written by R.K.Narayan. Also I chance upon the latest work of Umberto Eco’s eclectic collection of essays written on different contemporary issues. I read a few lines and I feel that I know the content. But then I also know that I don’t know the content. But I don’t feel like reading. I should have read them all for polishing my style of writing. I postpone the reading. Then I flip through the pages of an Osho book. But I can hear each word printed in there in Rajneesh’s voice. So I decide to write what I want to read. All what I have written so far is what I want to read today.



(The guest house campus)

In Chennai airport the people who alight from the flight look like the people from an alien land. They all rush to reach the lavatories to remove their woollens and jackets. They are now in a land where the temperature is thirty degree Celsius. I too remove my layers of clothes only to reveal my slimmer self to the world. At the pre-paid taxi counter they tell me that they don’t know Cholamandalam Artists’ Village. They ask me for a correct address or a phone number. But I am adamant. I tell them that it is their duty to find out the place otherwise why they are running a pre-paid taxi service. Finally the man at the counter makes a couple of phone calls and finds out where it is. It costs me Rs.800/- And we get into the old rickety ambassador car and drive towards Cholamandalam Artists Village.

At Cholamandalam we are received by Mr.Nagayya, a black complexioned man with white facial hairs that give him the appearance of a negative that has yet to be printed positive. He does the rituals of a receptionist and allots us the pre-booked guest house. It is a studio apartment with an attic for a bedroom. Spacious, roomy and properly lit (that unfortunately sheds no light on my face when I am video chatting with friends) the guest house accommodation is quite cosy. The canteen attached to it is so inexpensive that you tend to tell the owner of it that he should charge a bit more for food. Mr.Nagayya had personally introduced me to Mr.Augustine who runs the canteen. The food is good and the humble price of it make you think about all kinds of food that you have eaten from different restaurants at different places and times.

Cholamandalam is frozen view in the history. Started in 1960s by the illustrious painter, theoretician and the former principal of the Madras College of Arts, K.C.S.Panicker, Cholamandalam was started off as an artists’ co-operative at Injambakkam, a sea shore village thirty kilometres away from the historical site of Mahabalipuram. The artists and the disciples of K.C.S live here. K.C.S’ son and noted sculptor, Nandagopal is the head of the institution who manages the running of the K.C.S Museum here. The campus has a huge old banyan tree and around which there strewn are the sculptures of noted artists from India and elsewhere. It was one of the most happening places in Indian art some point but by end of 1980s, the charm of this place started waning. Today also people come here to visit the museum and live here and work for a while. But somehow the ghetto attitude of the artists who live here has pushed it out of the mainstream art activities of India. Or is it because of the apathy of the mainstream art historical discourse of India? One needs to probe.

(Maitreya under the grand old Banyan tree at cholamandal)

In the evening, I walk towards the beach with my family. My children are excited at the prospectus of playing in water, a rare experience in Delhi. But we are disappointed. The beach, half a kilometre away from our guest house and the Cholamandalam estate is a desolated area though resorts have come up along the sea shore. The private resorts have colonized the sea shore. In the competition, the Cholamandalam sea shore is seem to be lost out. In Chennai, while we were coming towards Cholamandalam I had seen such losing out villages to suburban activities. New townships are in the making. The horizon line once there was only the vast expanse of space and heat, today has defined architectural structures coming up as in any other satellite cities in the world. For a moment I felt like I was travelling from Kolkata airport to Kolkata city. There too a new Kolkata is in the making. May be it is already made. It is one year since I visited Kolkata last.

(JohnyML)

When I write this, my son sits with me with his head leaning over my right shoulder. He keeps reading the words that I type out as if he were a word prompter. When a word is refused to be accepted by the Microsoft word he asks me why it happens so. You may wonder why I am writing about him. I don’t find writing this particular aspect about my son a bit show off why because it is what most of the artists do when they paint the portraits of their sons. It must be out of sheer joy of painting it. I find the same joy when I write about it. Interestingly, one hour before he too was writing about his arrival in Chennai in his note book. Perhaps, it is a part of his class assignment: what have you done during your vacation? He writes both in Hindi and English. Who knows one day he too would write something like this and his son would lean his head on his right shoulder and read what he writes. Wouldn’t it be like a reflection in the parallel mirrors, never ending and immense?






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