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On Being a Tambaram Boy

I like to think of myself as a Tambaram boy. To those unfamiliar with Chennai or Madras, as we long-time residents like to call it, Tambaram is a southern suburb of the city, prominent because of the verdant campus of the Madras Christian College, an air-force station and a sprawling railway colony.

Growing up in this suburb in the 1970s was bliss for a school-going kid. In those days, the area was semi-urban; there were very few cars, and the common mode of transport was either cycles or cycle-rickshaws, which you could hop onto at the railway station. If neither, then, of course, it was 'nadaraja service' only.

We lived in a gracious, large railway bungalow with a tiled-roof and verandahs with wooden trellises. The house had lovely cool floors, laid with deep green tiles, the same kind that many a station master's room in the older suburban railway stations had. It was built in the 1930s or 1940s, and was first the railway hospital, with the Doctor's house adjoining. The Railways later built a new hospital and this became our home. It was a huge property, with dozens of trees, such as neem, peepul and tamarind, and with a majestic banyan dominating the compound, its vines reaching to the ground and creating a picturesque setting for the house. As it was open all around with the trellises, lizards, rats and other bugs were frequent visitors to our home!

Just across from our compound was a huge playground, the size of two cricket fields. It was the venue of regular, and often boisterous, hockey and cricket matches, and was also a space for regular joggers and exercise buffs. The open field ensured a powerful breeze for us right through the year, and even on hot summer evenings. Just beyond was a road that led to the main road, the Velachery road, and the MCC campus.

Behind our house was a huge marshalling yard for the railway freight trains and often, through the night, we could hear the shunting of the trains as they segregated the bogies for different destinations. Some of the long 'rakes' had steam engines as well. And, then, of course, was the clickety-clack of the suburban trains and the express trains down to southern Tamil Nadu. It was such a constant in our lives that if there was no reassuring sound of trains we couldn't sleep at nights!

School was the Kendriya Vidyalaya, deep inside the air force station. Both the air force base and MCC were part of the same contiguous forest, and our school was in unused barracks, surrounded by a thickly wooded area. Adventure for us was hopping out of the large windows of the classroom before the teacher arrived and slipping into the forest to hunt for 'jungle' berries and 'arrows', sharp-pointed end of a weed which could be painful if they penetrated your shirt and got stuck in it. 'Arrow' fights were quite common, especially when we waited for the school bus to drop us off near the railway station. If we missed the bus, then it was a long walk through the shrub jungle of the air force base and then we could take a short-cut through MCC's Selaiyur gate, exit at the main gate and head home.

On long summer evenings we would cycle around the vast MCC campus, heading beyond the academic halls and through mud roads with thick forest on either side to visit friends in the residences. Since several of the professors' sons were in school with us, we would play football with them in the picturesque sports fields of the campus. These thirsty sessions invariably wound up with lime juice at Sundaram's stall, just opposite the main gate, or paneer soda at the numerous pottikadais around. The ice never gave us any infections either. Unfortunately, all these stalls, including the Durga restaurant, opposite the MCC gate, are all gone, having made way for a bus stop, while the road itself was widened for a flyover across the railway crossing from West Tambaram.

A bigger adventure for us Tambaramites was boarding the electric train and travelling into the 'city', either to Saidapet or Egmore station, and board a PTC (Pallavan Transport Corporation, before it was renamed MTC) bus to take us to a movie at either Devi theatre, Casino, Satyam, or Pilot theatre, which has since wound up. Or, it could be a visit to the British Council library, where we could spend hours reading. Returning, a big treat was indulging in cutlets at Buharis near the Park suburban railway station and relishing its famous Peach Melba ice-cream. Thus satiated we boarded the train back to Tambaram. With the cool breeze of the late evening, a full belly and knowing you had to get off only at the terminus, some of us nodded off for a quick nap. The train was our lifeline to the city and we knew all the stations and exactly how much time it took to get us to Saidapet or Egmore, unless of course, it slowed down due to a red signal.

By the time I got to college, we left Tambaram, after a decade's stay there, and moved to the Egmore Railway Colony. In earlier years we had left Tambaram on my father's transferrable job, but returned to the same house, fortunately, on a re-posting, so we must have spent over 15 years in the suburb. In Egmore, our home was another large bungalow, located beside the Egmore Bridge which joined the Poonamallee High Road and diagonally opposite the Wesleyan chapel.

Later, we were to move to the railway colony in Perambur into quite a majestic bungalow, set deep inside its huge grounds, with a long drive-way too. It was on a road with the very Brit name of Pilkington Road It was a rambling British-built mansion with a wooden staircase and at the top, in the well of the staircase was an arrangement for a pulley as well, perhaps to pull up the evening tea for the memsahib in colonial times! In fact, a young British couple turned up one day at our doorstep. The lady's great-grandfather was in the Railways in Madras and from old records they had found out that this was the house her mother grew up in. They were happy with the tea served and the conversation. Sadly, none of the railway bungalows we lived in exist today. In Tambaram, the old house was demolished for an office, and even the banyan tree has been chopped down. The Egmore bungalow made way for an apartment complex for railway officers and in Perambur, it was razed down for a hospital annexe.

I had joined Vivekananda College in Mylapore for a Bachelor's degree in Economics and it was in my second year, that my interest in a writing career was sparked. I was a voracious reader and enjoyed reading the now defunct The Illustrated Weekly of India, of which a great-uncle of mine, the seasoned journalist MV Kamath, was Editor. Inspired by his writings, I wrote to him seeking his advice. He actually wrote back dissuading me from a career in journalism saying it was an arduous job with little monetary rewards. But, stay the course I did.

Fired up as I was to write, I was fortunate that a few avenues presented themselves during my college days at Viveka. I did a few interviews and wrote a couple of articles for Aside, a city magazine published by Abraham Eraly, that city old-timers will remember. The biggest break came in YouThink, a weekly page that Indian Express published, especially meant for youngsters and students to express their views. Anchored and edited by Sandhya Rao first, and later by Aditi De, the page published an eclectic collection of articles, from city news, interviews of young talent, to poetry and short stories sent by college students.

It was a great way to connect and interact with young readers and sustain their interest in newspaper reading. The newspaper also paid Rs 50 to Rs 100 per article, a royal sum for a college student in the mid 1980s! What a delight it was to receive a cheque in the mail! I felt rich. YouThink was to launch many a career in journalism and it was wonderful that the newspaper gave so much freedom to young writers and to Sandhya and Aditi, both in their early twenties then, to edit and plan YouThink on their own. In the early days, many of the young writers from college would also turn up to help design and make the page. The editorial hall would be buzzing with the energy of youth.

With each piece that was published, and cheque received, I was motivated to write more. I did several interviews, I recall, including a friend of mine, Karthik, a young flautist and disciple of 'Flute' Ramani. Of course, it was no easy task to get a photo; cell phones and apps wouldn't happen for another 25 years! So, I had to drag him to a studio in Luz Corner and pay a princely sum to get his photo with flute clicked. I even wrote a short story about a sweetmeat vendor which was headlined, rather ambitiously, The Vendor of Sweets, after RK Narayan's famous book.

Years later, the meticulous Sandhya, then a colleague at the BusinessLine newspaper, showed me a thick file of YouThink pages and my short story was filed as well! Later, Sandhya, after she retired, would also be the book editor for a book I wrote, titled Titan: Inside India's most Successful Consumer Brand.

Sreekumar Varma, the city's well-known playwright, had also started a city magazine called Trident, to which also I contributed short interviews of city personalities and features. My crowning glory was a full back-page article on the SOS Children's Village in Tambaram. I didn't have a camera and to click pictures, I requested my school friend Rajiv Menon (from KV IIT, to where I had moved after my Tenth class in KV Tambaram) to come along and take the pics. Rajiv, of course, would later gain fame as a celebrated cinematographer and film-maker. Rajiv and I spent most of a day at the SOS Village interacting with the children, their foster mothers and the then director, Mr TUK Menon.

I was always looking for avenues to write and after a wonderful 10-day trek as part of the National Himalayan Trekking programme organised by the Youth Hostels Association of India in the Kulu-Manali valleys, I wrote a four-page article on our trek in a travel magazine, Traveloid.

Of course, I didn' know it then, but all the writing I did in my college days was to help me later secure an admission, first to the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in New Delhi and later I moved to the Times School of Journalism, an institute established by The Times of India group in Delhi to train journalists, thus cementing my career-to-be as a journalist. I have been one since 1986 and my career as a journalist has been shaped by many influences in this much-loved city that is an emotion to all of us.

About the Author:

The writer is a Senior Associate Editor with The Hindu BusinessLine.

Picture Credits:

  1. Simply CVR, Flickr

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