Category Archives: Personal

A little about me

My name is Nandhu. I am 42. I live in Ooty and am a freelancer. These days, I write mostly about film. (Ooty is a hill town in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu in south India).

I started this blog a few weeks after the untimely death of my grandfather, the prominent Tamil writer Sundara Ramaswamy, in 2005. One of my first blogs 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.

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.

20 on 40

40

I turned 40 on April 17. It’s customary for people to look back on their lives when they reach this milestone. To this end, I will contribute my two bits.

1. I have a paunch. I have had it for a couple of years, but turning 40 has made me relaxed about it. I can rid of it in a month with an exercise schedule suggested by Pinterest that doesn’t even require you to leave the house. So what if I am hefty, I can become lean again, can’t I?

2. My wardrobe is better. Looking back at my 20s, I realise that I used to dress flamboyantly and often made wrong choices in picking up clothes. Today, I am soberer and I know how to impress. I have become better at deciding what to wear when. So what if finding a store that stocks my sizes is becoming increasingly difficult? I am better turned out for a little extra effort. And, what’s more, I have nice shoes and am good at picking out the right socks.

3. I have a daughter. This one was a nightmare as I was determined to have a child before reaching 40. My daughter is five already. That’s five more than the age difference between my dad and I, but I happy about this aspect of my life. There are so many responsibilities that come with being a father and I think I have not fared so badly till now.

4. I think things through before I act. I am not as impulsive as I was in my teens. That may seem obvious, but taking the spur of the moment decisions and going along with the flow are qualities that I no longer have. I am a lot calmer and sit and decide on pros and cons of an issue before going ahead. I may be more of a disrupter and thinker than I ever was.

5. I get less angry. During my early 20s, I went through a phase when I was angry at everyone and everything. I rarely get angry with anyone, including my wife, these days. That helpless rage doesn’t attack me as often as it used to.

6. I am normal on social media. About a decade ago, when I first opened my account on Facebook, I was so over-enthusiastic about it, that I often made comments that embarrassed my friends. I even got into a fight my ex-girlfriend over a comment I left on her wall. Now, I am much, much more circumspect.

7. I am more sociable. I now know how to do small talk. I can flirt without offending the fairer sex. I can ask good questions and am adept at listening and responding warmly. I didn’t have all these qualities before but having had many years to become good at it, I can finally say these skills are now part of my repository.

8. I am careful about what I eat. I just don’t hog anything is that is available. I don’t risk eating in roadside shops that look like an invitation to cholera. I am not that broke anymore.

9. I drink less. Back in college, I used to imbibe on a regular basis. Now, drinking is for special and social occasions. I don’t ever wake up with a hangover anymore. And, I remember everything that happened the previous night.

10. I am saving money. I have a lot more to achieve, but I am slowly getting there. Getting a house of my own seems a more achievable thing than it ever was. I have learnt from making bad financial decisions in the past and am not likely to repeat them in the future.

11. My birthday is not a big deal anymore. I celebrated turning 40 by having a quiet dinner with my wife and sharing sweets with people I knew. I don’t think I want to blow candles anymore and that is alright by me. I am now used to wishing my daughter for her birthday. It is still a big deal for her.

12. Many in the earlier generations are dying. Just a month ago, my wife lost her grandmother. We are now in a phase where we are attending as many funerals as weddings. The funerals are almost a social gathering of the people who died have led full lives.

13. I have cholesterol. A regular check-up showed that my cholesterol was off the charts. But happily, I can now have fish, something I have always craved for. Given that my friends are going through many health problems, serious ones, I am grateful my issues are limited.

14. I know many divorcees. Many friends of mine have divorced, with a few of them even going on to remarry. I sincerely hope they have, at least now, found everlasting happiness in their partners. I guess I married late, but it sure looks like I am in a steady boat.

15. A bald head is forecast. I have already lost much hair. My forehead line is inching upwards surely and slowly. But that is just a ‘different’ look these days. I no longer worry about it. I know some people even find this attractive.

16. I am better informed. I am a journalist and that dreadful feeling you get when you have woken up late to a serious issue is not there as often as it used to be. I get most of my news on the go as do a lot of people. I can also talk about most issues in an informed way.

17. I have to acknowledge that I really can’t learn any new skills. Chances of that happening are slim. While I can play chess (I learned young), my ambition to be good at crosswords and quizzes will probably remain unfulfilled. So I have learned to be happy even if my learning curve has plateaued.

18. I don’t have to act wisely anymore. It can be reasonably assumed that I have acquired some wisdom and when young people look up to you, they may not be entirely wrong all the time.

19. Turning 40 need not bring about a midlife crisis. There is also a slim chance you might have already passed it. On the contrary, it may be years before you get one. Don’t get depressed thinking that 40 is a bad number for you.

20. There are limits to which you can push your body. For instance, I have had a neck ache for the last one week as I am sitting in front of the comp for far too long. I realise I should have had enough rest and you should be sure you do.

Strong and shaping me

A few years ago, I met a girl in my office. She was interning and I was heading the desk. She was smart, good with language, had a terrific sense of humour, and was pretty. She was in her early twenties. Because she was proficient and had a degree in journalism, my boss asked her to join the desk as a trainee. I used to talk to her a lot and not always about work.

Soon, I learned that she had a boyfriend. When I teased her about that, she would say that they were “on a break” like in the series, Friends, in which Ross and Rachel go on a break from their romantic relationship to preserve their friendship.

In the months that followed, we kept in touch and I would often ask her about her boyfriend. I realised it was an on-again-off again relationship that my friend didn’t want to take forward even though they had been intimate.

During the time she was there, she even started an affair with a married man not knowing he was married. Somehow, the winds had shifted around her foundation.

Why do I tell you this story? This is the template on which women often base their relationships. They may not marry men with whom they once were in love with . Or were intimate with. The modern woman craves for more.

Parents have little choice other than marrying their daughter to the man of her choice. My friend married a guy of her choice in a way they wanted to. The parents had no other option other than to bless the couple.

The latest trend is that women look all things their parents traditionally looked in a prospective groom and much more. My friend chose a guy who was close to her in age, dark and handsome, and was attuned to her temperament. Like the movie, O Kadhal Kanmani, my friend moved in with her boyfriend much before marriage. That she was bold enough to do that is a testimonial to her courage and others like her. She also waited, like many others like her, for her to be mature enough to live with her partner forever. But she made the choice to tie the knot mostly on her own.

The modern woman especially in cities doesn’t vote lest the government take over her duties..

There are 497 million women in India, which is 48% of the total population, according to the latest Census data. At least a few million must be calling the shots despite making bad decisions. This only makes them stronger.

My friend married and was divorced within a few months, much to my shock and dismay. From being an example to girls her age, she had, in a way, become a fallen angel.

I had a close friend in college while doing my bachelor’s degree in Nagercoil. She was romantically interested in me and I was not particularly keen. My friends used to tease me about her for hours together even as I tried to keep a straight face. I think I did underestimate her quite a bit. Recently, I saw her on social media and she was in the US happily married. She had made it in life in way I never would have imagined. She was sweet the same way she was in college. We were polite with each other and moved on.

Again, that is an example of a woman putting the pedal down on what she wanted. Even while coming from an ordinary family in Nagercoil, my friend had landed a life she most craved for. Well, time to say, congrats.

Nowadays, I shamelessly watch Romedy Now. I can’t say I hate all the movies. Some are particularly good and soul satisfying. I wish they served more of that fare.

I think of these friends while watching TV or taking a bath. They creep into my thoughts unbidden and stay there for an uncomfortable time. As much as I admire their roller-coaster of lives, it feels unseemly to be thinking about them, now that I am a husband and father. I mean for this post to be a tribute for all the strong women I have met in my life.

My mother was one. Soon after the birth of my brother, my mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease difficult to diagnose and nearly impossible to cure. My mom didn’t have much to hang on to. Her relationship with my dad, especially in the last few years of her life, was hard on her and him. Yet, she remained tough till her last breath. She died when she was 39. I don’t want to end this post without a mention of her. She was probably the strongest woman I know. She made sure that my brother and I turned out alright. My early childhood is strewn with happy incidents, which she stage managed. I do wish she was still around. She would have guided me in all my relationships with women, who were just like her. RIP, mom.

Ooty- Part IV

Coldness and its various forms. It is different in Ooty compared to Chennai. Even when it’s raining, Chennai is humid this time of the year. Chennaites like the rain. People in Ooty don’t. When they say that the weather is pleasant, they mean one thing in Ooty and another in Chennai.

Chennaites yearn for freedomooty from humidity and here in Ooty we yearn for the sun.

I had the occasion to be in Chennai recently. It’s raining out there. But still it is quite humid. Ooty is cold and I need a sweater, which is unthinkable in Chennai. May be in Decemeber I will need one especially if it is late in the night, when I like riding my bike.

But people can be cold in Chennai. They are all warm in Ooty.

It’s a nice place to live in and I am having fun.

Ooty – Part III

There is a stream at the back of our house in Ooty. The backdoor opens to it. A stream, which not long before, was made of clear water. It is now a drain. Thankfully it doesn’t smell too bad though it looks like it has things floating on it.

When I light up my first cigarette of the day, I open the backdoor, watch the stream and the buildings looking on to it. It is cold and I am thankful of what I am smoking; though it is killing me slowly.

I wake up late and make my way to the Internet café. After a cup of coffee, I am refreshed and soon begin to read, and with some difficulty, write. I am so grateful that the café is so close to my home though I spend a fortune on it. We haven’t hooked up the computer or the TV.

Our house is close to Ooty’s nerve centre, Charing Cross. We went shopping yesterday. We picked a sweater, a woolen cloth cap and a pair of gloves.

My wife is into pizzas. So we went to Dominos two days ago. We have also been to Subway. We are slowly ticking restaurants off our list. The good thing about chains is that you get what you expect.

I am thinking of looking around Ooty on Sunday. May be I will have more to write.