Several More Things

When did they tear down the old Madras Club on the Indian Express estate?? I didn't even know, just read a reference to it in Madras Musings. Which said that the city government had ground it into dust.

When it still existed, S. Muthiah wrote about it:
Senior British bureaucrats, members of the judiciary and military officers founded the Chennai Club in 1832....The first home of the Madras Club was at the end of Clubhouse Road and is now the property of The New Indian Express, a splendid Georgian building, handsomely pedimented, pillared and verandahed which is still an impressive sight. It had started out as a Mr. White’s residence and was developed into the building it is now over a period of fifty years. A guide should be able to show you where the racquet courts were, the Roman baths-type swimming pool, the Octagon that was the smoking room, the handsome billiards room and library, and the ‘hen-cote’ where wives and daughters had to wait for husbands and fathers. The Madras Club was, for over a hundred years, very much a “men’s only” institution, with women being permitted only on the very occasional special dinners (any meal in the Club in those days was said to be memorable. It apparently served the finest food in India!). With membership decreasing after World War II, such a vast property was too much to manage and was thus sold to the Indian Express Newspaper group....

How can the government care so little about the city's history? It's true that the building had been standing empty for years, but there was talk about how to preserve and re-purpose it. I was only there once, but I remember standing on the sprung floor of what had been the ballroom, and feeling that it still had some spring in it. And its impressiveness, and its beauty.

And what about what used to be wetland, choked with water lilies, next to the ugly red planetarium-shaped Ambedkar Memorial on Greenways Road? - which I don't think anyone visits, and which was itself built on landfill, enroaching on the wetland. The area was already dry - I think that its access to the rest of Adyar Creek had been cut off by construction. Then they stripped off the scrubby growth which had come up on it. Now it's hideous, a scar. There's a peculiar little building which apparently belongs to the fisheries department, and an upside-down rowboat, surrealistic on the dry ground. Someone told me it was to be revived as wetland, but I wonder - can the government resist the greed for land?

Recently the Chief Minister made a statement, saying that if it were not for her foresight in reviving the Veeranam Water Project, the only recourse for the city in the current water shortage would have been mass evacuation. I assume that was political rhetoric, but it struck me, because for years I've thought of this place as a future Fatehpur Sikri - the city built by Emperor Akbar near Agra, which had to be abandoned when its water supply dried up.

On the other hand, we're on the coast, so we could just be flooded when the oceans rise because of global warming. Yikes! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

As I was thinking these gloomy thoughts I had a sharp memory, a propos of nothing: after college, I spent two years here, studying Bharata natyam (a classical dance style) at Kalakshetra. I stayed in the hostel, and ate at the hostel dining room. (I was one of the oldest students -- most of them were in their teens or younger.) Students had to provide their own steel thalis (big round plates with a rim) and steel tumblers. When the dining room bell rang, you grabbed your thali and your tumbler and took it along with you. We sat cross-legged on the floor in long lines, boys on one side, girls on the other...

We were given sweets twice a week: Friday nights, after the bhajana (hymn-singing) at the Thiruvanmiyur temple; and Sunday afternoons, at tiffin. The Sunday sweets were dry, the kind that are cut into squares -- Mysore pak and barfi and such. On Friday nights, it was always payasam: one week pal payasam, one week paruppu payasam. I worked hard - a 1 1/2 hour dance class in the morning, and usually another class, or individual practise, in the afternoon, in addition to (in my case) Carnatic singing and dance theory. In the closed world of the hostel, food was an important diversion. I loved pal payasam, which is sweetened milk, with vermicelli and raisins and bits of cashew in it. I didn't love paruppu payasam, made from dal and sweetened with jaggery, which is like brown sugar but with a different, stronger taste. Sometimes the cooks got confused and served it two weeks in a row, which was a sharp disappointment.

This is distorted by memory, of course: holding out my steel tumbler, child-like, for one of the Iyer cooks to fill it with warm payasam. The pleasure of pal payasam, the disappointment of paruppu payasam. It is precisely when the sky is falling that my mind ducks into these bylines, and comforts itself with these very small, tender things.

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