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Corona scare

Don’t be scared when they ask you to be

Don’t stay at home if you don’t want to,

After all, it’s your home.

The tea-shops in my neighbourhood are open,

So are millions of others in the country.

You never brought this on to yourself

They did, they are responsible.

My heart breaks to see people die in their millions all around me;

It breaks me into half when my autowallah can’t hit the roads

But how is all of this my fault? Why should I be the one to bear the cross?

Rains: A short story!

It was 5am thereabouts. It began to drizzle as I made my way back home from the tea stall after my morning cuppa. Though I was wearing a jacket over my sweater and shirt, I was cold. A chilling gust of wind blew against me. With the upper half of my body leaned towards the rain, I pulled my jacket together and walked faster. And then I remembered.

It was raining hard early in the morning and even the inside of our home was freezing. Amma was boiling milk for my morning drink. I went and sat next to the stove.

“What is milk, ma? Where do you get it from?” I asked.

“The milkman delivers it to our home, kanna,” she said.

“Where does he get if from?”

“Oh, we get milk from the cow.”

“Through its mouth?”

“No, from its udder. Next time we see a cow, I will show you.”

I didn’t quite understand, but I left it at that.

It was pouring. But luckily, the servant had brought an umbrella. From under its safety, I could hear the rain go pitter-patter. After a while, it became hard for both us to be together and so the servant held it for me, as I walked home. By the time I reached, I was able to see my chest under my wet shirt. Our servant was in a worse shape. She was shivering and her old bones creaked. I had hated her until then, but now I felt bad. I went in and told my grandma: “You know Patti, our servant is not really a bad person.”

It was the reopening day of school and, again, it rained, just like it had on the first calendar day last year. Appa made me promise I would not ride the bicycle, but walk with it next to me if riding got too hard. My friend and I did that for a couple of blocks from home. Then, when we knew we could flout the rule safely, we began riding. Soon it became a race. We rode very fast, skidding on the wet road. Everything was a blur, but we never stopped. When we neared school, there was a large, restless crowd gathered at the gate. A bus was standing, its windshield broken. A boy had slipped from the footboard of the bus and slipped under it just as the vehicle started moving. He wasn’t crying and didn’t seem to be in pain. The bottom half of his body was crushed under the wheels. He died 20 minutes later.

It was coming down in sheets. My brother and I were cycling home after school. I was doing the pedalling and he was sitting in front of me on the bar. It was a new cycle that Appa had got for me. It was heavy work as I hardly could see five feet in front of me.

“Anna, do you smoke?” he asked me, twisting his neck and looking up at me.

It must have been a hard question for him to ask. And he rarely if ever calls me Anna.

“Yes, I do,” I said. “Thatha says it is bad for you and that you should give it up before you get addicted,” he said.

“I will try,” I promised, but I never did.

The thatched roof began leaking barely minutes after it started raining. It was Tamil class and I was in no mood to sit in. It was the second month of college. My friend and I had an unspoken arrangement. If one of us walked out, the other would accompany him. So as I left the class before the professor came in, he quickly caught up with me. I knew the library was lousy, but there was nowhere else to go. So we went there.

“You know, the princi doesn’t like us going to the girls’ quarters,” my friend said.

“Well, they have the stupid library there,” I retorted.

So we went and looked at the books. We could not touch them as they were sure to fall apart. The pages of every book was like withered autumn leaves. The next day, the third-years announced a strike. By this time, I was tired of finding out the reason why the seniors bothered. It just seemed like an excuse to bunk class. I walked out along with the entire college. I heard the princi scream my name. I whirled around and looked at him shocked, trying hard to understand. He ran up to me and slapped my face hard. I yelped in pain, but did not return to class.

Once outside, my friend told me: “You know, he must hate you going to the girls’ section.”

“Is he jealous or something,” I queried.

I had been fighting with Appa almost every day. But after that one, I walked out. The sky was overcast. But I was determined to walk to Thatha’s home, 40 km away. A kilometre or two into the walk, just as my legs were aching hard, it began to pour with a vengeance. Mother Nature seemed to be tuning into my internal fuming. After about 10 km, my legs were swollen and numb. I could hardly feel my feet. I sat down on a short wall and massaged my foot. I was determined to reach my destination. I tried to flag down passing vehicles, but none stopped to give me a lift. A few kilometres later, the rain became a storm and I was frightened by the lightning and thunder. I felt as if the skies had literally opened. For a second, I believed I was god.

The entire hostel could hear the howling wind. The climate was just right for a serial killer movie to be shot outside our doors. I pulled up the blanket till my ears and curled up with a book. Suddenly, there was a loud knock on my door. I was paralysed for a minute. Then I jumped out of bed and opened the door. She was standing there, all wet and furious. I looked out the room. There was no one. I pulled her in. For a minute, I didn’t know what to do. This was the first time she had come up to my room. Then I signalled her to sit. “You know, I think I am in love with him,” she said.

“Oh, make up your goddamn mind. Who really are you in love with? Is any of this even love?”

She put her head down and bit her lip. I could see that this was not the reaction she expected. Suddenly, she jerked out of the chair and walked away without another word. I never told her that entire year that I had a crush on her.

We were sitting on the staircase leading to the terrace. There were about four or five girls, who had occupied the upper flight, and a couple of guys including me sitting closer to the bottom. It had just stopped raining and the steps were still wet. We were eating the rubbish canteen food. Suddenly the girls began giggling. I turned around and looked at them.

“You know, you are cute,” a girl told me.

She had never spoken to me before. I turned a bit red. I didn’t understand, not fully. But the back of my mind told me I was caught. It had been a professional job.

“Did you know who you were chatting with last night on the internet room?” the girl asked.

I positively blushed. “Well, at least, it is safe sex,” I said in defence.

I was making some calls from the landline of my office when she walked up to me. She had been drinking in the conference room with her friends. “I want to go home,” she whined. One of my eyebrows went up at that. “Be a gentleman and get me an auto,” she said. We both walked out into the rain. Her entire top got drenched and I could see her cleavage and much beyond that. She didn’t seem to care. After about 10 minutes, an auto-wallah took pity on us and stopped. I told the driver where to go and she got in. As he started, she beckoned me closer. When I leaned in, she kissed me. It was a big, open-mouthed, floppy kiss. I recoiled with shock and pulled out. The auto drove away.

My cousin and I were driving. It was way past midnight. We both had had a couple of beers. I think he may have had more than a few. We were driving around the city taking gulps out of the bottle. For some reason, he was trying his best not to use the wipers of the car. But soon, the rain forced his hand. We were going very fast, when we saw a dog in the headlights. Almost involuntarily, my cousin swerved hard and drove over the median, crashing into a car coming from the opposite side. After the initial shock, I tried to open the door. It seemed jammed, but opened after a hard push. I stepped outside, when the pain ripped through my body. I screamed and began crying helplessly. Within minutes, a crowd had gathered. Soon, an ambulance arrived and took me to the nearest hospital. I had to go through a surgery to rectify my broken right pelvic bone. It was three days later that I learned that a girl in the other car had crashed into the windshield and died. Strangely, I couldn’t care less. In all these years, I have never spared a thought for her. That is, until now.

It was in the middle of the night in the winter. The cold drops of rain hit my face painfully, making me wince. I slowed down the bike. Water was flowing freely across the road. I stopped at a tea shop and ordered a cup of milk. “Look at the baby drinking milk,” a curly haired guy mocked. He hardly seemed the kind of guy who would understand that imbibing caffeine at that hour would deprive me of my precious sleep. Besides he was smashed. I clenched my teeth, fighting the anger arising inside me. Out of the blue, the loud sound of a police siren pierced the air. The curly haired guy looked at me in panic. The vehicle stopped and two cops stepped out. They began questioning the curly haired guy. I stepped in between. “He is with me,” I said firmly, showing my press ID card to them. The cops backed away and soon left. Without looking at the guy, I kickstarted my bike and drove away.

It was my first long distance bike trip. My friend, an excellent rider with a bullet, and I rode away from the city to a fort that predated the British era. We were sitting next to a stream drinking cranberry-flavoured Bacardi Breezers, when it began drizzling. We continued sipping, opening up another two bottles. We stayed back till the stream began rising. Realising it was late, we resumed our ride. It was quite late when we reached the fort, which turned out to be shut. We checked into the local hotel, which really was not a part of the plan. The next morning, my friend woke me up early to catch the sunrise. We went down to the beach, where a crowd had gathered.

A small girl, dressed in a red frock, was frolicking in the water with mirth. I was watching her. My friend was looking at the sun. Soon, she gathered courage and went in deeper. Without any warning, a huge wave pulled her in. I was shocked. The girl’s father ran into the waters. I nudged my friend. By the time, the crowd pulled the girl out, she was unconscious. They all tried their best to revive her, but failed. Soon, a man, who had the air of someone who knew what he was doing, pushed the crowd aside and gave the girl mouth-to-mouth. It was the first time I had seen somebody do that. Without warning, the girl coughed violently and woke up. Her father hugged her close to his chest sobbing in relief.

My wife and I were returning from the mall when the skies opened. Not wanting to pay a fortune for parking, I had stopped our car a couple of streets away. By the time we reached it, both of us were drenched. As we began our customary long drive in the night, my wife told me that she was hungry. We stopped at a roadside shop, which seemed to be the only one open at that hour. She ordered two half boiled eggs, and wolfed them down. This happened about two years after our marriage, and during all this time my wife always had her eggs scrambled. So, I was watching with interest. During the drive that lasted for a good couple of hours, I began talking. I don’t think I ever spoke to my wife so much ever.

As I entered my house today, my jacket wet from the rain, I remembered all of this. I changed and began typing. That was the last I remember of the rains.

Another side of journalism

Here’s some links you should read if you are interested in what I write. Most of the stories are on film.

The News Minute

First Post

Times of India

Open Magazine

CNBC TV18

Outlook Magazine

THread

A continuing collaboration

‘Open’ magazine has published three of my articles so far.

On the afternoon of June 7, 2018, I received a call from an editor at the mag asking me to do an essay on the Rajinikanth-starrer Kaala. Lucky for me, I was already outside the theatre with a ticket in my pocket. I tremendously enjoyed writing this article because the Superstar, no matter what you think of him, is always fun for me to watch. Here’s the link to the article.

Here’s the review of AR Rahman’s latest biography.

Talking on the phone with the erudite Rajiv Menon was at first a bit scary. Just as I was getting warmed up to him, the 45-minute-long interview came to an end. I will always have fond memories of his courteousness, generosity and kindness. Transcribing this interview was the hardest part. The man spoke quite a lot and I ended up chopping quite a bit of what he said to keep the article to a certain length. Here’s that story.

A little about me

My name is Nandhu. I am 42.

This is to let friends and family know that I have moved to Arumanai in Kanyakumari district. I now have the pleasure of living two hours from my hometown of Nagercoil.

Let me now tell you how I started this blog. I began blogging a few weeks after the untimely death of my grandfather, the prominent Tamil writer Sundara Ramaswamy, in 2005. One of my first posts was a tribute to him. I was working in the Chennai edition of The New Indian Express back then. Most of the stories I handled in my early months came from the interior districts of Tamil Nadu. They were often poorly-written and I had to spent hours cleaning copy.

This blog was born out of that frustration. I wanted an outlet to tell my own stories. Luckily, blogs were happening in India at the time. This was to be my window to the world. How far I have succeeded is for all to see.

I started out on Blogspot and later moved to WordPress. All my blogs are available in this URL. I recently crossed 79,000 hits on WordPress alone.

I have also written extensively for Chennai Metroblogs.

I have also worked in the editorial departments of Sun TV, The Times of India and Deccan Chronicle. I have now worked in the media for nearly 20 years.

I continue to spent all my waking hours on the Internet — oh wait a minute — not on social media or Netflix, but reading the news.

If you have any questions, please do leave a comment.

The ‘behindwoods.com’ columns

My first was on Ajith Kumar, the Tamil actor. Cynically this write-up was meant as bait for fans of the actor, who were visiting the website in droves. The column was written ahead of the release of Vedalam in 2015.

Post Sethu every actor in Tamil cinema took it upon himself to grow a beard. Here’s a short examination of why.

The Force Awakens was the first of the sequels. ‘Behindwoods’ gave me the column as I was fanatical about the series.

My first tutor of James Bond films was my Dad. He is no more. But every new Bond movie will remind me of him. I am grateful for the opportunity to write about Bond. This write-up was timed to be published ahead of Spectre.

The last one was about the rise of anti-heroes, starting with Nayakan. This subject could, in fact, take up an entire book.

It all began from…insomnia

Times have changed since I was 14. At that time, my school, probably with good intentions, began preparing us for the all-important SSLC (Class 10), a public examination held for students throughout the country. Just like me, many must have felt it is a make or break deal. Our school system was a throwback to the industrial age, with the onus on producing results. It is drilled to the bone of every student that failure to score well spells disaster for your entire career. So the pressure is up there as I strongly suspect it still is.

The awareness over the stress that students routinely face was less in 1990-91 than it is today. I was profoundly ill-equipped to navigate the landmine that was my up-and-coming academic career. Like a lot of my classmates, I crammed, only to forget most of what I learned during the exam. A part of me was never convinced that school, as I experienced it, was the only route to a successful career. I never felt I belonged in school. This, despite the fact that my father was a sociology major.

There are valid reasons why I harboured such an unorthodox belief system at such a young age. I wasn’t simply raised like that. My father ended his role in my studies with enrolling me in a school for which I already had the marks to qualify. He was absent in all the parent-teacher meetings, a crime that my school never did forgive him or me for. At home, as long as I stayed out of sight in my upstairs refuge, I never go into any trouble.

When I came of age, school became a dreaded affair. I only attended because I didn’t have the nerve to bunk. I was busy discovering new facets to my hometown Nagercoil, all for the first time, now that I could go out unaccompanied. I would often stop at stores to buy candy or gum. The excitement over my aimless wanderings across town was not to be exchanged for the droll confines of my class.

It is in this situation that insomnia began its cruel attack on me. My parents never openly asked me to study, but it was clear that it was expected of me. There was nothing more than the sound of the alarm clock set to ring early in the morning that I was scared of. I would wake up hours ahead of the bone-chilling sound, my heart pounding so hard that I could hear it. My shirt would be drenched with my own sweat and nightmares plagued me all year long that I had flunked. I now know that what I was facing extraordinary levels of crippling anxiety and palpitation, but back then I was more frightened because I did not know what I had. My father’s hands-off approach, frankly, did not help at all.

My mother had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system that prevented her from running the house the way she would have wanted to. My father too had lately developed alcohol dependence.

My teachers, even the ones who were good with their subjects, were unsympathetic. With the appallingly poor student-to-teacher ratio in my class, personalised attention was impossible. We were 65 students each in two different sections (more were trying to qualify) in a school that didn’t care for anything except your marks. The way they assessed character was even more bizarre. I remember being pulled up for whispering in class more than once. It turned out that I had a rather loud whisper which all present could hear anyway.

The problems of mathematics, trigonometry, in particular, haunted me. Ill-informed about the applications of this branch of maths, I found the subject obscure and trivial. And, in a way, I was right. Never in my life after those years, did I find a need to apply the elusive equations of Sin, Cos and Tan.

Maths and sociology classes were ruined by the raucousness of my classmates. They got busy making fun of the teacher as they could always make up for it in their tuitions. I had made the bold and ‘wise’ decision of not going to tuitions for Class 9. That was probably the best thing to happen to me all year. I had a very good teacher for Biology. It was he who made me realise that I did not have a head for cutting up frogs. But options are limited for students who are neither good in maths nor science.

My father, indulging in a moment of sympathy towards my brother and me, bought us a VCR on which one could play VHS tapes. Thus began my raiding of local video stores for movies. I wasn’t very particular about what I watched. My education in movies had started truly. I was a big relief to watch movies instead of watching the clock tick by every night.

I found comfort in playing cricket and escaping to the darkness of movie theatres. I must have bicycled to most parts of Nagercoil and a good many villages which strictly were not part of town. I had graduated to Agatha Christie and Perry Mason from Enid Blyton and I sought solace in these pages I found hard to get elsewhere. Not that your average murder mystery solved all the weighty philosophical problems of life.

Deep inside my heart, I was wracked with guilt and this in a most troubling way fuelled my anxiety about the future. Most people who exhibit depressive behaviour or have mental disorder usually trace their problems to this bout of insomnia they had when they were still young. I still didn’t know what fate awaited me. The trait carried well into my adulthood. When I was a reporter, I could not sleep if I had to travel for a story the next day.

In India, insomnia is prevalent in 9% of the population. As many as 30% have sleeping disorders one time or the other. At least 28% have trouble initiating and staying asleep, reports the Neurological Society of India. All of us hear stories from friends and family about how they just couldn’t sleep the other night. Most of us experience nights in which we toss and turn and can’t just switch off. But when you are 14, all of this is terrifying.

It seemed that in school there were two kinds of students: the ones who got the grades and were good at that, and the ones who flunked and cared little about it. Even among my closest friends, there was absolutely no conversation about how strenuous the process of not scoring was. Between all this, there was the odd student who was there because he was athletically inclined. Amid this group, I was isolated, alienated and alone, despite having a couple of very close, trustworthy friends.

In an all-male school, there is, as you may guess, a lot of talk about sex. We didn’t really talk about girls. I remember lunch hour whiling away in what now seems an absurd obsession about what was between our legs. Between shared omelettes and juicy titbits, my friends endlessly regaled each other about the pleasures they hadn’t known before. None of us even entertained the idea of having a girlfriend.

This is really not a healthy atmosphere to grow up in and I didn’t make the connection between my sleeplessness and the simple need to express myself. I did not know this problem was not unique to me. It constantly felt like a huge part of me was locked inside myself, aching to go out and be free. I was plainly worried about a whole of lot of things I couldn’t figure out and taking them with me to bed definitely did not help.

And, so unbeknown to my family, I began smoking. It made me, at least for a few minutes, feel like an adult, who could take on the challenges of the world. There are many harmful effects of smoking especially at a young age, one of them being that it affects your sleep pattern.

From yoga to breathing techniques, there are many ways an insomniac can combat his condition. You can stop drinking caffeine after 6pm. You can take out your frustrations in a gym. But it seems the most important thing is to not be scared when you can’t sleep and believe in yourself. There are many websites which tell you how to alleviate your problem so I will not go there. But, if you think there is a root cause to why you are not sleeping well, you should aggressively address the issue.

And oh, by the way, if you are wondering how much I scored in Class 10, it was 382/500, which got me a seat in the maths-computer science group of the Sethu Lakshmi Bai Higher Secondary School in Nagercoil.

Ooty…A while ago

The Train Of Thoughts

For people in Ooty, this winter has been really cold. In other words, this is the most biting cold the locals have faced in a while. At least since last November. Last year, the rains made life more comfortable for people in Nilgiris district. In sharp contrast, in many places temperature is expected to drop to sub zero this year. Even as people complain about the discomfort, it is rather clear that they love the cold. Nilgrites are classy dressers. You cannot see too many people without shoes in my locality, Greenfields, which is very close to the centre of town, Charing Cross. Even the most poverty stricken dress up in mufflers, sweaters, and jackets to ward off the cold. Any small change in climate brings a flood of visitors. Once they get to town, they tour touristy places like Botanical Garden and Doddabetta, the highest peak in South India. My personal favourite is the Bhavanisagar Dam. I suppose tourists return disappointed without exploring the district.

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The movie scene in Ooty sucks most of the time. People just don’t go to theatres. After having lived in places like Coimbatore, Chennai and Hyderabad, I found this trend strange. Ooty is not really an arts and culture hub. However, I am thankful to the fledgling short film festival.

On the other hand, it is quite bizarre that the most modern of arts (the movies) doesn’t really appeal to people. But DVD piracy is rampant and is a sure sign that people are not entirely immune to the charms of the silver screen. You wouldn’t be wholly wrong to assume that it’s the content of the movies that drive people away from the theatre in hordes. But the marketing of these movies is also a big problem. I am certain that people have not even heard of some of the movies that hit this town’s theatres, especially those that in languages other than Tamil. Or perhaps, people don’t really need to unwind as much as those in the big cities as they already live a calm, serene life.

But what is really depressing is the lack of a reading culture in Ooty. Apart from the Nilgiris Library and Higginbothams, there are no other places that provide people with good reading material. Even newspapers and magazines cannot be commonly bought.

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Nilgiris district is the tea capital of India, as you know very well. But in tea shops, the potent drink is as bad as say, Chennai. I have always wondered why. The answer is pretty simple: In tea shops it’s a business. But you would be lucky, as I have been, to have tea at Ooty’s homes. This tea made with care at home is really how tea should be and not the faintly sweet, lukewarm excuse you get in the shops. Ooty is also home to the most flavours of tea you can ever obtain. From Chocolate to Masala to Organic, tea is available in every taste you can possibly imagine. When people hit town, they would do good to buy a pack or two. It’s an ideal gift when you visit your relatives and friends in the plains.

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When I was still a kid, my parents and especially my grandparents, guessing quite wrongly that I was precocious, decided to amuse themselves by entertaining thoughts that I could be sent to Lovedale, where presumably I would bunk in the hostel and become one of the brightest in the family. Thankfully, they never decided to act on their thoughts. But it cannot be denied that Ooty is one of greatest places for education in South India. Parents here often shape their careers around the performance of their children in Ooty’s prestigious schools. Even the hostel life in these schools is an experience to be valued and treasured. Children from well-to-do families land up in Ooty not just to excel in studies, but also develop an array of skills that serve them well in their careers. Even the government school in Ooty is much better than any of those in the so-called plains.

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During this Pongal holidays, my wife and I decided to leave the cold mountainside and head for Vellakoil in Erode district, where the weather was much more warm and pleasant. My friend, a famous Tamil writer, hosted us for the good part of almost three days. I was nowhere close to guessing the rush of passengers who had caught the buses, including special vehicles for Pongal. Our travel then became an adventure and we reached my friend’s home in early hours of January 14. As you know, Pongal is the harvest festival of Tamil Nadu. January 15th, the date of Mattu Pongal, a festival in honour of cows, was spent in the company of a rich landlord from the Gounder community in Vellakoil. The ‘Chakkara Pongal’ (a delicious combination of rice and jaggery), made with special ghee, was probably the best yours truly ever had. We also invited ourselves to the continuing festivities for the next day. The landlord, is a well-read, but extremely eccentric man, who was continuously under the influence the whole time he hosted us.

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Shoppers at Uzhavar Sandhai (farmers’ market) and Ooty Municipality Vegetable Market usually have a whale of a time. The greens bought here are both fresh and nutritious. You also get a much wider range of veggies than those that can be bought anywhere in Tamil Nadu. Vegetables like brussels sprouts, leek,lettuce and broccoli, which are unavailable in the plains, can be bought here through the year.Ooty is also home to homemade chocolates, varieties of oils and, of course, the varkey. The bakeries are also a great haunt for tourists.All of this makes Ooty an ideal destination for honeymooners especially in the summer months of April and May. Darjeeling Momos are the food-on-the-go choice for tourists.