Tag Archives: poverty

The Venus Flytrap: Winter

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For one month every year, the city becomes “elsewhere”, which is to say, anywhere but here.

Its famously sweltering conditions become chilly enough to bring out the cashmere shawls, the ponchos, all the warmer selections of one’s collection of clothes for eventual migration (am I the only one who makes no secret of mine?). The fans are voluntarily turned off all day, and particularly at night. Wooden doors swell with rain, refuse to shut, and compromise one’s privacy in a place in which one has very little already. Cyclonic winds waltz with treetops, twirling and twirling, raising goosebumps as if they were fingertips circling on skin. The sun, when we see it, we greet like family.

We put on our sturdiest rubber chappals and pay the monsoon price for autorickshaws, because for once Chennai is too exciting to miss, its excess of activity dismantling every stereotype we know of its lassitude. Once a year, there is everything to do, and too few days to do it in. It’s the season of being spoilt for choice, of shows and showing off, of cultural pursuit becoming a matter of daily routine. You can almost hear the crackle of newspapers dating to February being removed from those sarees, starched and saved for the season. Time compresses: we who are so used to a city that never wakes up find that there aren’t enough hours in the day to rest. It expands too: we drink our fill of lectures and performances, the classic, the avant-garde, the homegrown and the foreign – like students who only crack their textbooks open just before a final exam, we absorb in weeks what could have been spread over a year. And most elegantly, time stands still – every sabha in the city thronging with that generation of women who wear a floret of diamonds in each nostril, and a pavé of roses coiled into white hair.

All this romance, sprung entirely from this decidedly tender climate. “Baby-making weather,” a friend winks. It must be true. One of the sharpest images this city has seared in my mind is of the man and the woman I saw one night as I walked a bridge across the Cooum. They were under a piece of cloth, which he was gently tucking over her with one hand, stroking her cheek with the other.

Chennai in the winter becomes a city whose exits shift into sight: its weather and its bustle both insinuate other places, windows into other worlds. But there are those who have neither doors nor windows, whose city it is much more than yours or mine, and for whom its year-end guise is not the same one we experience. I’ve spent a lot of time this winter wondering and worrying about them, those who make their homes on the pavements and the beach. My bad throat and muddy shoes are bourgeois trifles beside their concerns. So this year, some items of that pile of clothing for eventual migration have found their use. As have curtains and blankets in surplus in my household. In giving them away to assuage the coldness in someone else’s bones, I’ve found that, in my comforters and comforts, the thing that lets me sleep soundest is the sense of having done something useful. It keeps me as warm as a hug.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Book Review: The Story That Must Not Be Told by Kavery Nambisan

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When Simon Jesukumar misses his train back to Madras from Delhi, among his lost possessions are his deceased wife’s thick manuscript, which he has lugged from publisher to publisher over the years out of a sense of guilt and duty. Aging, curmudgeonly, and living alone in an apartment complex beside the city’s vast and thriving slum, Sitara, he is returning from a stay with his son – whose mother-in-law he has struck a slightly dubious friendship with. His only companion at home is his cat Thangu; when his formerly-estranged daughter Sandhya visits, he tolerates her with a mix of parental affection and genuine dismay. Kavery Nambisan’s The Story That Must Not Be Told opens with tremendous promise, introducing to the reader this complicated old man, one of the most interesting protagonists seen in recent Indian fiction.

Throughout the novel, similarly adroitly-sculpted characters make their appearances, only to fade in importance. Each of them – from the noble butcher Gaffur to the quack doctor Prince to the envious and dastardly Ponnu – come with a compelling backstory. The slum itself is drawn with a strong sense of the overbearing spirit pervasive through locations as complex and gritty as Sitara (or even Madras itself). The trouble is, cast and setting both arrive fully-formed and precisely executed in a novel that loses track of its own plot.

The Story That Must Not Be Told is essentially a story about the human condition as it plays out in urban India today, dichotomized by privilege and its lack, and juxtaposed by sheer proximity. Simon decides to buy a water cooler for the school in Sitara, and thus begins his involvement with the slum and its people. This is at odds with his neighbours at Vaibhav Apartments, who want to see to it that the slum is cleared. Questions of crime and hygiene have become issues; nonetheless, manual labour – from schoolboys running errands for the elderly to construction workers, and most especially, cleaners of toilets – comes directly from Sitara.

It’s a familiar scenario to any Indian: one may have people from lower classes cleaning their houses, may work for people of higher classes, or may take a conscientious approach and attempt or claim to eschew this system altogether, but ultimately all of us exist within it. This means that realistically, we already know how the story ends, and the onus on the element of surprise and originality rests with the author.

Still, Nambisan’s finesse at etching her characters is hugely admirable. Despite his cantankerousness and stubbornness, one finds it impossible not to side with Simon entirely. In a perfect echo of his sentiments, the slum dwellers are notably more nuanced than his own family and apartment neighbours – all of whom irritate the reader just as much as they do Simon. One roots for Simon and Sitara, and reads the book through in order to find out what happens.

That the book devolves into unresolved loose ends, a pat finish, and a bit of political commentary is thus all the more disappointing. There is a sense that the horse and the cart were switched at some point during the narrative; instead of being led by the natural pathos of its characters, the thematic and didactic aspects of the story gain precedence. Much is lost: the truth behind the misplaced manuscript is never resolved, the burgeoning friendship between Simon and his son’s mother-in-law is unexplored, and the eventual fate of Sitara is given an almost cursory conclusion. A much stronger and more stunning novel could have emerged if the focus had remained on the details, and not the pursuit of a bigger picture.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

The Venus Flytrap: Mourning the Marina

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That night, the oppari singer didn’t just stop singing when she was asked to. She wept as she stopped.

We were in a home with a small baby and no death in sight, only poetry. And still, she wept. Somebody took her in their arms and kissed her cheeks. Someone else brought her fruit.

Her work is the lament. She could not sing lullabies; her voice was too oriented in the work of grief, of allowing the bereaved to mourn.

This was months ago, at the home of a noted folkloric preservationist, and the singer was a professional mourner from Chennai’s Marina Beach. 7000 people live in the kuppams between the lighthouse and Broken Bridge. Many depend on fishing for their livelihoods. They bear every stigma that the marginalized suffer, and were Chennai’s most devastated community in the 2004 tsunami.

Last week, in conversation with someone deeply involved in the community, I came to know of what some fear is the second tsunami: eviction, dislocation, clearance.

I am told that what we are about to witness is disaster capitalism – in this case, using the tsunami excuse as a means of changing the entire face of the beach. The actual plans have not been released – but beachfront luxury properties and corporate buildings are expected to take precedence over human rehabilitation.

I went to the kuppams, just to get a feel for this change. “Of course there is sadness,” one man told me. “But the government has promised that fishing people can stay. Only ‘guests’ will be moved elsewhere.” I asked if he trusted the government. He said he did, adding, “We don’t want what happened in MGR’s period. We’ll adjust.” The incident he referred to were riots that took place during an attempted clearance of Nochikuppam and surrounding areas.

One woman saw us looking over a bare plot of land. “Fishermen’s houses will we built here,” she said, broadly smiling. But I knew, for a fact, that this is not absolute. Other intentions – some good, most not – have different designs.

I came away knowing I had only begun to scratch the surface of something enormous.

When I think of the oppari singer, I wonder if the death she was serenading that night was as much oracular as it was body-memory. A way of life is dying out, and there will be people who suffer with it as it does. It can be argued that it’s dying anyway, and it is – but to be evicted 20km from the beach means it could die even within the lifetimes of those engaged in it today.

It is more than armchair anthropology that leaves me heartsick. The battle for the kuppams along the Marina, if there is to be one, is the battle for the soul of Chennai. This cannot be overestimated. Imagine the beach overrun with high-rises, hotels, corporate monoliths, and maybe, a few discreet low-cost buildings. We may be on par with any first-world city. But we will no longer be Chennai.

Before Chennai, before Madras, were the little pre-colonial fishing hamlets along the Coromandel Coast.

This is where it all began. To lose this is to lose the origins of the city itself. Take any side you want – rationalist, sentimentalist, spiritualist, socialist, traditionalist, artist. Take the capitalist side if you must, but acknowledge what we are about to lose in this gentrification of this coast (as if a wild geographical feature can ever be gentrified – did the tsunami teach nothing?).

Perhaps nothing can be done but mourn. Then, let this be mourned the way it deserves to be. Like the oppari singer did that night. Like nothing but the song exists – because soon, nothing will.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.