Loitering Further . . .

Days got wrapped up early, my father said, when he was eight years old.  A day began at sun up and got over at sundown, the span of the day was defined by the light hours.  Supper was cooked as early as 4 o’clock in the evening and the kitchen was cleaned as the western skies put up a scarlet show before the inky blue blurred into dark grey. The most important job for the evening was lighting the lanterns. About five lanterns called the Hurricane lamps were lit and placed at various rooms, other than these there were kerosene lamps that were placed at soot filled corners and triangular crevices on the wall in strategic places to cast a glow on the passages. Pazhani, the school peon who caried home in the evenings my grandfather’s files and books, would find my grandmother with the lanterns. He offered help.  

Pazhani took the glass lanterns out to the thinnai. He cleaned the soot from the glass that settled like a thick cloud, trimmed the wick, filled kerosene in the lanterns, lit the wicks  and kept the flame low. He then took the lanterns to various rooms and left them there. It was my father’s job at sunset to gently turn the knob to push the wick out and the flame burnt brighter. My father ran from room to room bringing light into the house. 

Just then my grandmother called Pazhani to the spare room to give her a hand in pulling the rolls of beddings stacked over the large iron trunk. My grandmother who was frail and smallbuilt appeared dwarfed before the stack of bedding. Pazhani, naturally, being a kind hearted man, offered help again. He dusted the bed and the sheets in the courtyard, lay the reed mats on the floor, placed the beds on them, spread the sheets and tucked them in neatly. My grandmother was anxious that he finish this fast and leave early as her husband did not know that Pazhani was delayed here after his duty in school. She knew that there was still time before her husband returned from school, he came close to sunset, his long shadow falling on the cobbled stones outside the door way.

As soon as my grandfather returned he washed his feet, hands and face with the water stored in a brass gangalam at the mitham. He then went up changed into a fresh veshti, and with angavastram thrown over his bare torso, he came down. My father who was playing on the streets with his group of friends was summoned for dinner. My grandmother served dinner for my grandfather and father and then ate hers. She collected the left-overs in a banana leaf and placed them on the thinnai outside, after covering it with another leaf. The ra-pichaikaran who went from house to house collecting food, would come much later, pull the leaf into his large aluminum thooku to share the food with his family who waited at the street corner under the lamp post.

My grandmother heaped the empty dishes in the mitham for Thayee to scrub the next morning. With the next chore in mind she went to the kitchen. She sat on her haunches facing the kumiti that had burning coal embers. She fanned the embers that turned a bright orange at the edges but remained cool blue at the core. She carefully padded her hands with rags and carried the hot kumiti to the room just outside the kitchen. She kept the kumiti below the oil lamp that was placed in a triangular recess in the wall. She brought the vengala pannai that contained milk, placed it on the kumiti and covered  the pot  with a plate. She then dimmed the lamps in the kitchen worrying about having them turned over by rats. Like all days she prayed that there shouldn’t be any accidents in the night. She closed the door, reached for the iron chain that hung from the top of the door and fastened it on the loop that was set on the wall above the threshold. She slid a ladle into the loop to keep the chain in place and protect her kitchen from the prowling black cat that wanted to break in to feast on her curd and the rats that ran freely all over the kitchen . She dimmed the lanterns in all the rooms and went outside and sat on the thinnai to catch up the day’s gossip with Brogijatha Ammal , a middle aged widow who lived next door  with her son Ambi.

On certain days Brogijatha Ammal took her time to keep the nocturnal rendezvous with my grand mother because her son Ambi who worked in the office of the Karyakartha of Govindaraja Perumal Kovil came home late. On those days my grandmother kept a watch on her son who played on the streets with his group of friends. She called out to him – Mali ,don’t hide in the dark corners. There might be insects there. Mali, don’t jump from the wall, you have just eaten a full stomach. My father had no ears for any thing, he concentrated on dodging the wiry framed Vasan who was determined to catch him.

My grandfather retired upstairs to his room to look through his files and read books.  Cool breeze blew from the open windows, the starless night hung outside like a dark blanket, flowing into the room to spill into the corners where the light from the lantern could not reach. An eesal bearing the tidings of rain bombarded desperately the lantern, losing its butter- paper wings. The heat of the glass singed the insect and it curled and fell on the wooded table. There were more of them, offering themselves as sacrifices on the altar of fire. My grandfather dimmed the light and waited as the insects were eaten by the fat lizard that had made its home behind his deceased cousin’s large photograph that was hung on the eastern wall.

It was after ten minutes that my grandfather resumed his work. His eyes were sore with long hours of work through the day. He waited for the cues that would end his day. Sharp at eight o’clock ra-pichaikaran came rattling a spoon on his plate. That was when the people retired for the day, closing their doors, relegating the ownership of the quiet street to the pichaikaran and his family. 

My grandfather heard his wife calling his son back home for the day. He heard the heavy  door being closed, he heard the patter of his young son’s feet on the floor as he ran about the house unable to stall the energy that coursed through his small body. In a brief while, his son would come up carefully bearing a shombu of hot milk spooned liberally with sugar, a layer of cream trembling on the surface. Mali would wait for his father to finish the milk, searching on the walls and the ceiling for the lizard that frightened him so much and kept him away from his father’s room.

Loitering With Intent

My father said that during his early years in Kumbakonam there was no electricity. His father woke him up as early as five o’clock and sent him packing to the banks of the river Kaveri before the crack of dawn. My grandfather followed a little later carrying a brass pot and a spare dhoti and angavastram. While my father croggily picked his way through the darkness, the hair in his arms standing out in the chillness of the morning, a few of his friends joined him en route. The group of boys headed to their haunt behind the temple that sat close to the water. They climbed up the gopuram and dived into the river splashing water and breaking the silence of the morning. They swam along the river to a distance carefully keeping clear of the currents and whirlpools. 

My grandfather washed his clothes and had bath. Just at dawn when the sky broke into a riot of purple, standing in knee deep water, he faced east and performed his prayers that ended with the japam of the Gayatri. He collected water in the small brass pot to perform abhishekam to the vigrahams in his private temple at home. As he walked back home he recited slokas, pausing near the temple to call out to his son to hurry back home to get ready for the school. Just the way my father was reluctant to go to the river in the early hours of the day, he was reluctant to leave the river and go back home. 

The sun fell on the pearls of water on the bare skin of my father, he had stripped and had a quick bath after perfunctorily washing his clothes. He wore the wet shorts and slung the wrung shirt on his shoulder. His hair stood out in spikes and he ran back home leaving a wet trail on the road. 

My grandfather who was the Headmaster of Banadurai High School, was an voracious reader. He had an enviable collection of books in his room on the first floor. My grandmother and my father did not disturb him when he retired to his room. After his shombu of coffee in the morning, he spent two hours in his room reading. Bright rays of the morning sun slanted through the eastern windows in his room and the two hours that he spent reading was important for him because he came back from school close to sunset and could not read for long hours in the jaundiced light of the lantern that my grandmother lit for him.

Sharp at nine o’clock in the morning, my grandfather wearing a clean veshti and a sparkling white shirt, an angavastaram slung on his shoulder, descended from his room. He had hot rice kanji, he then wore his turban, took his bag and walked up to his school. His students from the Mutt street walked at a distance behind him. After my grandfather left, my father took his time to get ready. He would suddenly realize that he is late, he will shout to his mother to get him the kanji, gulp the scalding liquid and run to school just in time to join his friends for the morning prayers.

Degrees Of Deception


Chennai experienced incessant rains a fortnight ago. Even as my life was limping back to a semblance of normalcy, the meteorological  department a week later predicted another cyclone. A  depression brooded about 1000 kms off the coast of Tamilnadu, we followed as it moved as close as 750kms. I took to praying, an activity that I engage in with a lot of self irony whenever I do it during times of crisis.  When the  depression  weakened we  sighed with relief and we speculated jocularly what the metereological  department would have named the cyclone. The earlier one that paralyzed our lives carried a household name – Nisha.

I was marooned in my flat for four days without electricity, I could not step out because there was five feet water in our apartment complex  the first day after the rains. The water had entered into the   chambers where electricity connection from the TNEB are sourced to the flats , the TNEB technicians were called in to disconnect electricity supply coming  to our building. We were without electricity for four days, there was no power to run water pumps , so there was restricted water supply  all the four days. We had to wade through four feet of water to get our supplies of milk and drinking water.

This is nothing new in most parts of India, we are desensitized to images of people  afflicted  by floods. Every year while reeling under oppressive heat in Chennai, we read in the papers of the progress of southwest monsoon over the states of Kerala, Maharashtra, the plains of Northern India, the spate of Brahmaputra in the north east.  When the south west monsoon has spent itself the northern plains cool off. Cold wind blows towards the Indian Ocean and it picks moisture in the Bay of Bengal giving rain to Tamil Nadu, coastal Andhra Pradesh. Spells of low pressure develops over the Bay of Bengal, sometimes developing into cyclone giving heavy rains along the coast.

All the major cities, towns, and villages in India reel under rains, south west or north east;  crops are destroyed, thousands of people are rendered  homeless, properties get damaged.  The patterns of monsoon repeat year after year and news of the scars that rains leave repeat every year. We are never ready to manage the floods. Cities and towns are crowded, infrastructures like storm water drains and drainages are poorly maintained, drainage basins have been eaten away by illegal and unauthorized encroachments.

Those are larger issues that I cannot address, and those who should, do not care.  But I want to look at my peculiar situation because no municipal corporation or government has cheated me the way the builder and developer of our apartment has. I live in a locality called Virugambakkam, in a particular apartment  called Jain Ashraya Phase 2 built by the Jain Housing Society. It is located in  Vembuliamman street, a lane off the arterial Arcot road. Once considered a suburb, Virugambakkam has become a sought  after residential locality due to its proximity to Vadapalani and Kodambakkam. The lane where our apartment complex is located is the place where KK Nagar ends and Virugambakkam begins. Located in this limnal place has its advantage as we can move into the city via KK Nagar faster without getting into the traffic choked Arcot road. We moved into the apartment in 2005.  

There are multiple versions circulated about what this plot was before it was acquired by the Jains. Ours is in fact the third property that the Jains developed in the same neighbourhood, the first two are next to ours, developed sometime the end of 1990s and early 2000. Did all the three plots belong to an individual, sold away in parts at different time? Were all the three plots similar, farm lands and groves as many say? While remembering this suburb of Chennai, many people recollect that this was farmlands, groves and swamplands.  It is difficult to believe that all the three plots were similar, looking at them now. The first two plots are at the level of the road, while ours is a good four feet below the level of the road. Were all the three plots the same level, did the developer raise the levels of the earlier two plots? Why did the Jains not raise the level of our land before the apartments were built? Or was our plot not at the same level as the others, many say that our plot was a pond before it was drained for farmland. Two possibilities can be summarized – the other two plots had been raised to the level as road while ours was not by the builder; or the other two were  already at a raised level and Jains did not want to spend in raising the level of our plot as that would involve costs that they did not incur on their earlier two projects.

Jains had by the time our project was launched, won a considerable amount of credibility in the market among the middle class Chennaites.  Jain Housing Society was one of the builders along with Alacrity and Ceebros who was  involved in promoting  building projects in the suburbs – a flat in the suburbs was  more affordable for people like us than buying a flat in downtown.

Many of us during our visit to the site during construction ( we had already made our first payment towards the flat  ) enquired the Jains about the level of the apartment complex. We were asked not to worry about the level as it was intentional, part of the design of the architect. The drainage of water had been taken care of, they assured.  As the flat was built, the view from the car park of the tastefully landscaped garden gave a subterranean feel and we thought the creative architect had designed at this level for aesthetics. Little did we realize that the building was severely flawed.

Were we so naïve that we did not see this structural flaw that is so blatantly visible to anyone now? We were heady about our investment for several reasons and we so much wanted to believe that we were buying our dreams at a rate that was affordable for us, of course with fat loans from banks that would take us many years to repay.  My husband and I had never been astute about our savings and investments, but we wanted to think that nothing much had been lost and buying a flat with a large terrace would affirm that we were not too bad at all despite our lackadaisical attitude to matters serious like planning for the future. We look at our flat as a life time property, a place where my husband and I will grow old, from where my son will leave to carve his own life.  So it hurts very deep down that the Jains had deceived us in our faith that we kept in ourselves and a part of faith that we invested in them as a conduit of our dreams.  We were so naïve that we did not see that they were only doing business with us.

We are pained to see that all the residents of the 120 flats are naïve like us, they too have just this one home, not in a position to chuck this and move elsewhere. Value of property has sky rocketed, they can’t think of buying property in this locality which has long ago ceased to be a suburb, the city is pushing its boundaries farther and farther. Yes, the value of our flat has multiplied, but it is of no importance to people like us who will never sell our flats. Our flat is not an investment but the only home that we had ever wanted to build. Jains has not taken cognizance of these values that my family seems to be sharing with most of the families in our apartment complex.

The year we occupied the flat, 2005, we experienced heavy rains, unprecedented and the rains caught us in a spell of surprise i
nitially, and then in shock and outrage. Our apartment complex was flooded, the building was steeped in three feet water, the car park was inundated, the garden area was all submerged, the lobby area was filled with water. The electrical connections from the Main terminals to the flats were under water , for safety TNEB suspended electrical connection to our flat. The water pumps were submerged and anyway we did not have electrical power to run the pumps. So we went without water. Many of the families moved out, makeshift rafts with tyres and wooden plank transported old people to the gate. We were not prepared for anything of this magnitude. It took five days to pump the water out and nearly a week for normalcy to reign.

At that time, we had been on a one year contract for maintenance with Promags, an organization that is a subsidiary of Jain Housing Society.  Their officers worked day and night to bale out water and restore normalcy.  Soon after, we went and met up the Chairman/ Director of the Jains. We expressed our anger, there was more helplessness than anger, and a deep sense of outrage.

Jains undertook to redress the situation in certain ways. They promised to fill all the water bodies that they had created in the landscaped garden. These water bodies were non operative and had turned as breeding ground for mosquitoes. They then raised the height of the water pumps, they helped in setting motor pumps and pipes at various locations to pump out water during rains. An important outlet with a powerful pump was placed on the northern side of the building. This powerful motor would drain the rain water into the storm water drain on the Arcot road, an arterial road that is about 100 metres from our building. This underground pipe ran through a plot that had just then been bought by the Jains to develop into an apartment complex. The Jains completed these tasks, spent a few lakhs on these jobs and left the scene. Again, we trusted the Jains and believed that everything was in place. Thankfully we did not receive a rain that was as extreme as the year 2005.

2008 and Nisha proved to be something else. Within three days Chennai received rains that were six times more than the average rainfall that Chennai receives. Chembaramkkam lake was overflowing and so was Porur lake. Porur lake has been encroached by illegal settlements , so have all the canals in the nearby localities. Hence there is no channel for the rain water to course through to join the Adyar River. Whenever Chembarambakkam  lake is full, excess water is discharged and diverted into the Adyar river. The river swells beyond its capacity and floods the low lying regions.

Water level rose steadily in our apartment complex, principally because the inflow from the road was more than what we were pumping out. We learnt that the water was not getting drained from the northern side into the storm water drain in Arcot road.  Ironically the pump was in good working condition, the water that was pumped out was flowing back into the building. We suspected the drain, we dug to see where the problem lay. We observed that the stone drain that ran along the driveway of the new Jains complex was only few inches as against the two feet depth that the Jains promised us.  The movement of cars and vehicles had caused the drain to cave in.

The water  was first ankle deep when all of us moved our cars out , we parked them in drier areas – that was an effort by itself because no apartments in the neighborhood had enough parking place to accommodate our cars, so we drove about to various locations, homes of friends and relatives. Water then lapped into our lobby, we watched with consternation as the chamber where the electrical  connection for the flats are drawn from was getting filled up with water. It kept rising to a dangerous level and we called the TNEB to disconnect the connection coming to our building. It rained incessantly and we retired for the night our building plunged in darkness and our taps dry. What pained us and left us with a feeling of being cheated was that the other three Jains flats (two developed before ours and the one after ours) were safe and dry. And we knew that that was only the beginning because there was the forecast of a cyclone passing close to the coast of Pondicherry and Cuddalore.

We got up the next morning to see four feet of water in our lobby and five feet in the car park. The garden and the walkway were covered with sheets of water. We knew that we were reliving the 2005 floods. We will revisit the situation many more times as long as we live here and whenever the rains are intense because nobody can quarrel with the fundamental structural error that makes our plot a large bowl where excess water collect. We cannot put our building on stilts. So until then ….  And no contingency plan is fool proof, for various reasons that involve us as well as the Jains. We expected   the Jains to execute their promise with sincerity. We did not check when the pipes were laid, whether they ran deep. We trusted the Jains, as we had always done and also because we started feeling that Jains was doing a favour. Actually we have, now more than before, started believing that we are unfortunate to have bought this flat and that we had acted foolishly. So the Jains have been exonerated, they were and are doing what they are good at – doing business . They are not morally responsible if we lacked foresight.

We have gone to the Jains again asking for help. The negotiation will be a long drawn out, what will evolve this time is a matter of speculation. We have become like old people who learn to live with pains and cracks, smiling through decayed gums and rheumy eyes. We will noisily celebrate New Year Party in our car park area, forgetting (again like old people who have memory lapse) that the same space was lapping with rain and sewer water, that ghostly echoes ran through the emptiness of dark nights, just a month ago. And we will also invite to our apartment complex the Director/  Chairman of the Jain Housing Society, to hoist our country’s flag on the Independence Day. We need the Jains in the future years, don’t we? We have forged a relationship with the Jains.