Sunday, 31 October 2010


Muthamma has worked as our maid for thirty years. She’s around seventy now. She lives in a small apartment put up by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board not too far from my house. She also does for two other households in my street.

Everyday, twice a day, she comes to our house to sweep and mop the floors, wash clothes and take out the trash . She started off in the 1979 at a princely salary of 50 Rupees a month. She would bring her daughter Panchali to give her a hand once in a while. At the time, she was saving up to get her daughter into a garment factory – which she did. The daughter started working there and making more money than Muthamma had made in her life. She and her husband were able to get Panchali married and soon became grandparents of a bright little boy called Venkatesan.

The family admitted Venkatesan to Venkatasubbarao school – a major expense for them, but one that they thought worthwhile, because they all agreed that the corporation schools were not good enough. Muthamma started working at three more houses to make enough money to pay for a portion of the boy’s fees and book costs. She would ask us for notebooks, pens, old textbooks – anything the kid could use. She would bring him home, so that he could study in our backyard undisturbed, while she did her chores.

Venkatesan was a hard worker. He was very systematic and structured and while he did not top his class, his marks were in the high eighties and low nineties. You could see Muthamma’s pride in the boy. He was going to become an engineer and get a good job – maybe even go abroad. He would talk to my mother about school and his classes – and you got the feeling that this was someone to whom education was special – it wasn’t something taken for granted. My mother used to drive my niece crazy by telling her about how good Venkatesan – they were of the same age.

Muthamma venerated MGR. Before she bought a TV, she would watch the Sunday movie at our place. If it was an MGR movie, she would be there an hour early. She would attend every MGR speech and rally, and loved to talk about how good a person MGR was

Things were looking up for her. She upgraded her slum hut for a housing board apartment, courtesy the TNSCB. My mother helped her set up a bank account at Canara Bank, down the street.  Muthamma would put away two hundred rupees ever month. She was even able to afford a pilgrimage every year. Catholic in her devotion, she  alternated between Melmaruvathur and Vailankanni.

In the late 80s and early nineties, I was away from home. College and postgrad meant that I came home twice a year. Attempts at a Bohemian lifestyle meant that cigarettes and other items would be found in my pockets. And then would be discovered by Muthamma when she came to do the washing. God, I used to hate her snooping.

Late in 2002, I returned to Madras, maybe for good. Muthamma was still around. She was greyer and frailer, but still managed to zoom around the house, doing her chores.  My cigarette smoking had ceased being scandalous, but Muthamma found fresh ways to embarrass me – one of them being her occasional harangues on my bachelorhood – made painful when done before younger relatives – and made much worse when they included questions about my “manliness” and how I was failing to behave like an “ambalai”.

Things were not going well for her, I learnt. Her husband had been unemployed a while and had gone down the booze  route. The daughter and son in law had become openly abusive, and were treating her like a servant in her own house. Amma told me that Muthamma had broken down one day because her daughter had tried to get her to sign over her housing board flat – saying that it was her duty to provide for her grandson and that turning over half her life’s savings was not enough.

Her grandson had done very well in the 12th public exam and had made around 78% overall. He had been admitted into Anna University. The boy had big plans, Muthamma said, he wanted to go abroad for higher studies – maybe even to the US. But the pride was fading from her voice.

Later the story came out.

It wasn’t as good as it seemed. The boy was running with a bad gang, she wailed to my mother one day. He had fought with his mother until she agreed to buy him a bike – half of which Muthamma paid for – Twenty five thousand rupees was a lot of  money. And now he was asking for a computer – an expensive one that he could carry around with him.  She was afraid he had started drinking. He seemed to resent his family, especially the fact that they couldn’t afford what seemed to be basic stuff for his peers.

Her husband had not so much fallen off the wagon as leapt of it, and was managing to put away a quart very day. If he didn’t stumble home to collapse into drunken slumber, he would threaten and plead and cajole her for the money to get drunk. Sometimes he would beat her.

One day, a couple of years ago, she came in very late to work. Her eyes were red and there were marks on her face. Amma asked if what had happened. She started weeping uncontrollably then. Her husband had hit her. Then her daughter and her son in law got into a fight. She had tried to intercede on her daughters behalf, and her son in law turned on her and hit her and kept hitting her for interfering. And her daughter wasn’t exactly thrilled with Muthamma’s intervention either, cursing her and calling her the root of all the troubles in the family.  She spent the night outside the stairs of her own apartment.

Things slowly limped back to a kind of normal in the next few weeks, but her husband still was a drunk, and she caught hell from her daughter for anything that happened.  She wished that she had stayed in her hut in the slum, instead of moving to the apartment which was causing so much grief, an apartment where she was an alien.

Nowadays, she spends most of the day tying flowers, sitting under a makeshift shelter of wooden boards and crates – for a sum of ten rupees per yard.

Thursday, 14 October 2010


Yep. Navarathri season again. Back when I lived in a joint family, setting up the kolu was a big operation.  The hall had to be cleared out – meaning three heavy rosewood sofas had to be lugged into bedrooms and storerooms. The floor would be swept and mopped until the red-oxide gleamed. My cousins, my sister and I would go to the attic and get back the wooden planks that made  up the display shelves.  There were two saw toothed boards – roughly about 11 feet long, that formed the shelf sides. These would be fastened to nails on the wall – eight feet apart and then planks would be placed on each of the teeth. The result was an arrangement of 9 stair like shelves, that took up most of one side of our hall. The steps would be covered with old veshtis, and we would bring the dolls out from the cupboard they stayed the remaining three hundred fifty six days every year.

These dolls were clay, and some of them very old – some so old that even my father thinks they were around before he was born, 80 years ago. These were usually the bigger dolls – around 2 feet tall, Shiva and Parvathi, Murugan, Avvaiyar in her white sari, A beautiful bust of Krishna,  with a shining peacock feather tucked in his crown and Swami Vivekananda. There were dolls of Gypsy couples (Kuravan & Kurathi), a Gudu Gudu Paandi rattling his udukku, boom boom maattu karans  and other street people of another era. There even was a figurine of a pink faced Winston Churchill chewing a clay cigar.

The smaller dolls had the usual staples of the Indian Pantheon and myth. The Dasa Avatharam, 10 dolls arranged in chrono order; the four Shaivite saints -Appar, Sundarar, Thirugnanasambandar, Manikkavachagar; Lakshman, Ram, Sita and Hanuman, Kannappa Nayanar – poised forever with an arrow at his eye, balanced on one leg with the other leg pressed against a bleeding stone lingam and a Krishna dancing on the hood of Kalinga. There was a porcelain rendering of the last supper of Christ and a Santa Claus with  a cotton wool beard.

The last stair -  a set of wooden planks (manais) had the Chetty and the his wife the Chettichi, presiding over their grocery stall of wax fruits and real grain and spices. The Chetty  is a fat man, wearing a veshti and a towel around his shoulders. He’s got this huge smile on his face, as if he is glad to see you. His naamam shines on his forehead. His wife is much smaller and quieter, sitting at his side,  She’s smiling, and it seems its as much a smile at her husband’s flamboyance as a smile of quiet welcome. They know they are the stars of the kolu.

Every night of Navarathri, my cousin and I would accompany my mother to see the kolus at our neighbours’. Sometimes we would be asked to sing, so we would recite one of our school’s prayers - “I giri nandini” usually did the trick. In return we would get handfuls of sundal and sometimes, if we were lucky, Rasna.

I used to feel smug, because our kolu was usually bigger and better than most of our neighbours’ kolus.  Two kolus jolted this smugness, though. One was in the house on the main road with a sign that said “Balachandra Printers”. I don’t remember the family who lived there – and the house itself is long gone, replaced by a shopping complex that itself looks on the verge of demolition. Their kolu was smaller, around seven steps, but they built a forest, complete with cardboard trees, paper undergrowth and Binaca Toy fauna. It took up most of the floor and was amazing.

The other was a kolu at one of my grandfather’s friends’ house. The friend was a Malayali gentleman we knew as Kaimal Mama. Their house was huge, practically a mansion, and their kolu was an amazing 14 steps or so – larger, taller wider, more dolls, better dolls, more expensive dolls etc. If I remember right, Mrs Kaimal actually served bottled cool drinks – two tumblers of Gold Spot.

That was then. Now, the steps are gone, the planks converted to bookshelves. The kolu has shrunk – from nine steps to four.  The steps are bookcases, coffee tables, books (my Stephen King hardbacks do well here). We display  around a hundred dolls, down from the seven hundred plus, twenty five years ago. Most of the old families in the neighbourhood have long gone – to Nanganallore or Thiruvanmayur or the US. Most of our new neighbours are Gulf returnees, living in spanking new granite and marble wedding cakes, behind forbidding sheet iron gates.

Where once we would get three or four families visiting the kolu each day, we now get one in every two or three days.

My sister was on the phone this morning. Bitterly disappointed with the way her kids were behaving. Navaratri was her favourite festival. She was the one who drive all of us into getting the stairs and setting up the kolu. Now, neither of her kids showed any enthusiasm for it.  It was a chore, to be done as quickly as possible, so that they could go back to their iPods and PSPs. They have stubbornly refused to go visiting, and have just stopped short of heaping scorn on the entire exercise.

Times are changing. And while this piece may sound like the usual longing for “the good old days”, I can’t lose sight of the fact that those days were often anything but good. It’s not hard to figure out that your younger self was usually quite a dick. So I wonder.  I would like to see my nieces making my sister proud wearing their pattu pavadais and singing for neighbours and relatives. But I also get how it would be crashingly boring compared to mall hopping with your friends or attending an online party at stardoll or playing Jak and Daxter and Civilization V. Hell, given a chance, I would choose Civ V over relatives any day.

I know that the kolu at home will stop soon – when I am the last one standing, the dolls will just gather dust behind the dirty glass front of the almirah. My sister may grieve a little, but that’s about it.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

My Eighties

Every time I see my niece I end up talking about the 80s to her. It’s usually about music, but it’s the decade of my teens – and the eighties begin with the ending of the "International Year of the Child” – 1979. .

I also remember sitting cross legged on the floor of the kitchen, with my chitappa’s radio playing the “Gopal Palpodi” advertisement, our dinner call at 7:00 pm. Chitappa and Appa were discussing Psycho – which they had both seen. This was unusual, as my father seldom saw any films. It was after much badgering that he had consented to take me to “Superman the Movie”. They were talking about somebody’s eye being very scary – and I understood that it was a film made by somebody who had died that day.

“Geoffrey” – I was either “Geoffrey” after Geoff Boycott – because of the way I played cricket – or “Thenga” for the shape of my head- he warned.  “You should never see that movie. It will scare you into hysterics”. Given that my cowardice was well known within the family - I’m still mocked because I hid under the seat whenever Gabbar Singh appeared in Sholay – and given that this was a movie that scared adults, I thought it was sound advice.

The next day I found out that the person who had died – the director of Psycho, was a somebody I had heard of. After all, I had been heavily into “The Three Investigators” – Jupiter Jones, Peter Crenshaw and Bob Andrews, of Rocky Beach, California. These books were published as “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators” at that time. Hitchcock was a character in those books – and we knew that he was famous, loved mysteries and was English. Oh and he was fat.

That was back in 1980 – I had just gone to class 6. My sister had just started going to Women’s Christian College. My grandfather had an old ambassador that he swapped for a Fiat 1100 – MSL 7072. We had started writing our notes using fountain pens that year, and felt grown up.

We had this period called General Assembly, GA – once at the end of each week.  It used to be the last period on Thursdays, then changed over to the last period of Fridays.

It was usually fun. We would watch dumb charades, quizzes, speeches, debates and skits. Some of these were very entertaining, others Godawful. There was one particular Wednesday, June 83 – where we had a GA on a Wednesday. Our principal had invited Swami Chinmayananda to address the “children”. Since India was playing England in the Prudential Cup semis at that time, he faced a bunch of impatient students dying to get to their TV sets or the radio. He acknowledged this, and when the teachers welcomed him with a fruit basket, he opened it up and started chucking the fruit at the audience saying that they needed to practice their fielding – this, though it did not go over well with the staff, caught our attention enough to forget about the match for a while. When the lecture ended, I ran to my  cousin’s place – they lived right next to the school. Allan Lamb and Mike Gatting were batting, England three wickets down. I watched until Lamb fell and then cycled home furiously, just in time to see Botham get out. It looked as though India would have a chance to go on to the finals.

And we did. Sandeep Patil and Yashpal Sharma – remember them? They came through. And all we could talk about in the next two days was cricket. And how the fact that we had come through to the finals was just sheer blind luck and of course we wouldn’t win the finals – no one got lucky twice against the West Indies – especially a West Indies team that had Roberts, Holding, Garner and Marshall leading the bowling and Richards, Lloyd, Greenidge, Haynes, Gomes and Dujon in their batting lineup. But still, it was nice to dream and we prayed that India would make a good match out of it and not be bowled out in 10 overs without reaching a triple digit total.

Friday afternoon saw the entire family – barring the mothers around our TV. We watched Srikkanth’s innings with our hearts in our mouths, cheering as he hit a six and cringing immediately after as he missed and edged his way to a patchy 38. Through most of the Indian innings, it looked as though it was a question of how much humiliation the Windies would heap on us. A total of 184 to get in 60 overs was pitiful enough, but when it was against the strongest batting lineup in the world – the only variable was the number of  overs would they take to win.

I remember sitting in the hall after dinner, watching the first over. It felt like watching an execution. Then Sandhu bowled Greenidge out, shouldering arms to one that came back in. Still, it just meant a 9 wicket victory for the men in the maroon caps. The next few overs confirmed this, as Haynes and Richards seemed to settle in. After a point, I decided I did not want to watch and went to bed.

I was woken up by my sister, telling me that the West Indies were 7 down for 120. I didn’t dare to believe her, but I went up to the TV where the family was watching in rapt silence. There were no comments, no discussions – no fundae or predictions. Just a silent group of people devouring the TV.

Marshall and Roberts fell. The sounds of cheering swept through the streets. There was a brief period of quiet as Joel Garner and Michael Holding hung on, but we knew that the unthinkable was going to happen.

And it did, when Holding missed a delivery from Amarnath and was adjudged LBW. It was Deepavali in June.

Kapils Devils. Mohinder Amarnath. Kirmani’s Nataraja shot.  An Indian world cup win. The perfect year.

Cricket was possibly the only thing I watched on TV in those days. Doordarshan specialized in gray studies of hopeless misery – the occasional Tamil play and the weekly half hour of film music providing relief from the regular stream of programmes for farmers and adult education shows – perasiriar Ma Nannan, anyone?

This was changing now. In 1984, Hum Log started, followed by Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, a show that was popular even in Hindiphobic Madras. Shafi Inamdar and Swaroop Sampath appeared in every home. Khandaan, the desi version of Dynasty, started around this time.  The Pathak sisters appeared in a sitcom called Idhar Udhar – or was it Paying Guest?  House husbands were on display with Jayant Kripalani and Archana Puran Singh in Mr & Mrs.

DD also started playing the occasional English serial – usually Britcoms. Notable ones were “Father, Dear Father”, “The Goodies”, “Yes Minister”, “Wodehouse Playhouse” and “Are you being served”, the serial that introduced OTT camp gaydom to India.

The movies were ruled by Rajni and Kamal in Madras and by Amitabh in the North.  Madras in the 1980s meant that you knew the lyrics to “My name is Billa”, Rajni’s breakthrough hero role.

Tiger Mask and Flares

You watched Kamalahasan and Sridevi star as a Tambram couple in Meendum Kokila, a Retard, his twin and their lover in Kalyanaraman, as a vigilante and his girl in Guru, as a Dying man and his lover in “Vaazhvey Maayam”, a mentally ill girl and her caretaker in “Moondram Pirai” and many others. Kamal also had his first Hindi film megahit “Ek Duuje Ke Liye”. His next movie in Tamil “Sakalakalavallavan” had him sing, modestly “Ek Duje Ke Liye, Aendi nee paakirey?…Naalthorum thaan Aal Maruvane, Naan thaan Sakalakalavallavan” (“Why do you watch “EkDuuje Ke Liye, girl…I change personalities all day, I am the master of all arts”).

Caalage Teenage Penngal

I would go to my aunt’s house in summer weekends. They were never well off, but they looked after me and fussed over me like I was a VIP whenever I came over.  The whole street was full of  guys in their early 20s – just out of college and into their first jobs. Every evening was a party – there would be badminton games, kite flying, carroms and chess games, long discussions about movies and girls – it was like living in a youth club or something.

I adored my cousins, especially the eldest. He was infinitely patient , and genuinely liked me. He would take me out to the Duraiswami road subway everyday at 2:00 pm to see the Vaigai Express because I was train mad.  He would take me to my first Bond file (The Spy Who Loved Me) and pass his passion for the series on. He would take me to watch “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”, one of the longest running foreign language films in Chennai – it ran for over a year in the Safire theatre complex.

There were rules – theatres like Casino, Devi, Satyam and once in a while Pilot would play English films. Blue Diamond, on the top floor of the Safire complex played continuous shows from 9 am. If you had 20 rupees, you could stay in an air conditioned hall  all day.

Another place that was excellent for escaping the Madras sun was the British council. Open from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm, Tuesdays to Sunday, it was everything a guy who liked to read wanted. The air conditioning was powerful, conversations muted, the sofas comfortable and books and magazines plentiful.  I used to hang out  in the Encyclopedia section with Halliwell’s Film Guide (5th Edition) a paper and pencil, making a list of movies that I would see when I was older.

You could also see some excellent documentaries – David Attenborough’s The Living Planet was always in demand.

Once in a while, I would visit the American Center. It was nowhere near as good as the British Council. Library membership was free, and they had good titles, but with pages torn or scribbled over.   But they had a collection of Bosley Crowther’s movie reviews, which made was great way to pass the time.

Of course, the heat did not feel as bad as it does today. Whether that’s because of nostalgia or because there were more trees and less concrete in the city at that time, I don’t know. But come on, summer hols meant you were out of the house all day, playing cricket in the open area where the Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium now stands or table tennis in what is now the corporation office.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

How Did I Miss This

While looking up David Attenborough, I came across this entry from Wikipedia.

Attenborough also launched ARKive in May 2003,[41] a global project which had been instigated by Christopher Parsons to gather together natural history media into a digital library, an online Noah's Ark.

And is spectacular.

'>Sea Horses – and the thylacine

ARKive requires Flash to show its video content; click here to install the plugin

Need to examine their APIs for deep embedding

On a similar note, the WWF has released its 2010 Living Planet Report

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Mass Effect 2 – contd.

Just completed the game – veteran mode, Infiltrator class. The final boss- the human reaper embryo wasn’t tough. If you took cover before his devastating beam attack – which is very clearly telegraphed, you can finish him off without getting injured. The Widow Sniper Rifle is terrific here – as is the Particle Beam weapon.

Now I’m trying the Vanguard class, and its much tougher. Beginning to realize how much I had relied on the Infiltrator’s cloak.

Update: Just completed Vanguard. The toughest part of the game was the Heat Exchanger run in the Collector Base. The Biotic charge works here, but its not as effective as the cloak.  Anyway, managed to bring the whole team back alive.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Surfing History

I have been wondering how easy or difficult it would be to examine ones browsing history – say the number of times you’ve visited one site over another – social media vs email vs blogs etc.

It wasn’t as straightforward as I hoped. I fired up the Visual Studio Express after years of Excel documents and mind raping Power Points.

The first thing was to find out what .NET namespaces dealt with browsing history. And the first thing was a failure – as I couldn’t find ANY .

After much tedious googling, I found a sample at It laid out everything quite clearly.

The main item here is the INTERNET_CACHE_ENTRY_INFOW structure.

public uint dwStructSize;
public string lpszSourceUrlName;
public string lpszLocalFileName;
public uint CacheEntryType;
public uint dwUseCount;
public uint dwHitRate;
public uint dwSizeLow;
public uint dwSizeHigh;
public System.Runtime.InteropServices.ComTypes.FILETIME LastModifiedTime;
public System.Runtime.InteropServices.ComTypes.FILETIME ExpireTime;
public System.Runtime.InteropServices.ComTypes.FILETIME LastAccessTime;
public System.Runtime.InteropServices.ComTypes.FILETIME LastSyncTime;
public IntPtr lpHeaderInfo;
public uint dwHeaderInfoSize;
public string lpszFileExtension;
public uint dwReserved;

In addition, the STATURL structure gives you information about the site itelf

    struct STATURL
public static uint SIZEOF_STATURL =

public uint cbSize;
public string pwcsUrl;
public string pwcsTitle;
public System.Runtime.InteropServices.ComTypes.FILETIME ftLastVisited,
public uint dwFlags;

Once you have these, its just a question of looping through the History folder, like so

IUrlHistoryStg2 theHistory = (IUrlHistoryStg2)new UrlHistory();
IEnumSTATURL vEnumSTATURL = theHistory.EnumUrls();
uint isFetched;
while (vEnumSTATURL.Next(1, out vSTATURL, out isFetched) == 0){
Console.WriteLine(string.Format("{0}:{1}\r\n",vSTATURL.pwcsTitle, vSTATURL.pwcsUrl));

The next thing would be to see how this can be worked into an Excel template that charts the number of pages you visit in each site.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Odds and Ends

Some lovely photographs here, taken by the census for marine life. Their video gallery is good, too.

There was also this obituary about a guy who – well lived a normal life – living within his means (even on minimum wage) – and was killed by a hit and run. Good for the Petersburg Times for responding to a troll in the most graceful manner possible.