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October 17, 2012 / Andy Adamson

Chetan Bhagat: 5 Novels

I had never heard of Chetan Bhagat before I came to India, but he is the highest selling Indian writer working in English.  Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Aravind Adiga or Amitav Ghosh are all highly acclaimed in the west, but essentially write literary fiction for a literary market. Bhagat writes for the IT generation: the millions of recently educated people in their twenties and thirties who straddle the traditional world of India and the beckoning influence of the outside world. His first novel was published in 2004 and since then 4 more have followed along with a book of essays and journalism.  Rupa his publishers recently produced a box set of the novels, so I thought it might be fun to work my way through them all in sequence.

He is seen as the “Voice of young India”, a title he plays up to, but as a 38-year-old ex investment banker he’s clearly part of the upper strata of modern Indian society.  His background is not a literary one and that has its strengths and weaknesses.  A dedication to Bill Gates and Microsoft for producing “Word” is something I have never experienced from a writer before and hope never to again. He writes in a very structured way (each book is almost exactly the same length of around 260 pages). His writing is unpolished (at least in the early books) and his viewpoint is clearly that of a young Indian male. He can’t write sex scenes, he’s a Maths geek and when he tries to be imaginative and fantastical it’s an embarrassment.  Also, his main protagonist (at least in the first 4 novels) is clearly a version of himself with little difference between each book. However, he captures the voice of a type of young Indian male well. He’s also very good at displaying the phobias and cultural restrictions people labour under, from the difficulty in talking to women, to the pressure to succeed and the way Indian society is so heavily stratified.  Many of his readers never read novels before he arrived and since his success he has inspired an industry of Indian Writing that ranges from chic lit style to stories of making it in business all available for around 140 INR (£2) each or less. He’s probably also responsible for putting some fun back into Indian literature which does have a dour, worthy image of stories about grinding poverty and abuse.

I’m just over halfway through my quest, having read his first three novels and part way through the fourth, so I will have to update as I go along, but let’s start at the beginning with Five Point Someone.

It’s set at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi in the early 90’s and centres on the story of 3 students (Hari, the narrator, Ryan & Alok)who struggle with the intensely competitive, rote learning culture and rebel. Matters are complicated by the narrator falling for the daughter of one of the senior lecturers.  It’s humorous with some dark moments (think Tom Brown’s Schooldays with added pop culture). I enjoyed it, but I have to say the film 3 Idiots, which is loosely based on it, is much better and if you want to start somewhere, that is the place to go.  Score 5/10.

Next, we have One Night At The Call Centre

This is a real curate’s egg of a book. Set in a Call Centre at the start of the outsourcing boom, the first half of the book is a cracking read with the sexual politics and relationship dynamics of the 5 main staff in one team well-developed.  The description of the resentment felt by Indian call centre workers at the way they are treated by American (in this case) customers and their own superiors rang true.  Bringing class into the writing perks up his writing. And then… he introduces a plot device that is so awful and hackneyed I was actually saying “No, no, you aren’t really going to do that are you?” out loud. It totally spoiled the book for me. Score 3/10

In 2008, came The 3 Mistakes of My Life,set in Ahmedabad in Gujarat.

Another story of 3 friends, this plays out against the massacres of 2001 and is his first foray into Politics. This is by far the best of the novels.  It portrays the impending crisis in a realistic manner and deals sympathetically and even-handedly  with Moslem and Hindi characters.  Familiar plot devices (the usual  idealised girlfriend to be wooed,  the 3 sided male relationship, flashbacks) are better embedded into the narrative and this one moves at a great pace.  The seriousness of the issues works to undercut his normal sentimentality and apart from a fight scene which is a little too Bollywood, there’s much to praise and his writing has clearly moved on. If you want to start with one of his books, I’d go for this one. Score 8/10

in 2009, Chetan’s 4th novel was 2 States: The Story of My Marriage (Have I told you he likes numbers?) and is the partly autobiographical story of the difficult love affair between two graduate students: a Punjabi  male and a Tamil female. As part of the novel is set in Chennai, I’m particularly keen to see how he handles the south, As I’m only 50 pages in, I’ll reserve my review for when I finish the book, but so far so good: it captures the sulky petulance and chauvinistic behaviour of young men well. To be continued.

October 9, 2012 / Andy Adamson

Sights of Chennai 13: A Tale of Two Malls

You can chart the history of the last 50 years by looking at shopping centres.  Anywhere you go in the world, there will be one somewhere and the manner of its creation, its positioning, its customers and retail make-up tell us so much about the society it’s situated in.

Every large city in India has a sprawl of Malls thrown up over the last 20 years in a mad scramble to ride the perceived zeitgeist of a consumer boom unleashed by the economic reforms of the early 90’s. The main ones in Chennai are Ampa Mall (a mall that looks like it will fall down as quickly as it was built),

A view of Ampa Skywalk just before road works commenced that make it even more difficult to access

Citicenter (decently built and when it was first constructed, considered state of the art with its vaguely Moorish styling  Great views from the Food Court on the roof by the way),

Citi Centre Mall

Spencer Plaza and Express Avenue. As the fulcrum of the city continues to pivot south, the new Phoenix Mall down the ECR will be the first one south of the Adyar River. Finally, there are minor malls like Abirami Megamall (desperately advertised as “First Mall of India”) and Alsa Mall which have long been declining and are only ever half occupied due to their misguided attempts at cramming shops into every crevice and forgetting about the rest of the built environment. They look like Bladerunner film sets without the neon.

The two iconic shopping centres in Chennai which straddle the 100 year history of malls in Chennai are Express Avenue and Spencer Plaza. The modern one is Express Avenue which is a modern aircraft hanger built on the site of the Madras Club, known at its peak as the “Ace of Clubs” on Whites Road. Originally founded in 1832, it was reputed to be the best gentlemen’s club in India at its peak when it had 3,000 members and it hosted balls for at 4 different members of the British Royal family between 1870 and 1922. It represented everything you would expect of imperial rule at the time: a membership that was male only and which excluded Indians until 1960.  The modern Madras Club, moved to Adyar in 1963 and while undoubtedly exclusive is a much more meritocratic and democratic institution.  The building was apparently a work of some beauty but as it fell into decay became a film set for numerous Tamil movies. Then the developers moved in and  Express Avenue was born.

Express Avenue

Express Avenue is everything Spencer Plaza isn’t. It is chock-a-block with international brands, it’s bright, relatively clean and has pleasant open spaces.

Inside Express Avenue

It’s also rather soulless as a shopping experience.  International brands are pretty much the same price the world over these days, so most of the shops are expensive in Indian terms.  There are far more people wandering around, but I think a lot are window shopping.   Rentals are also steep, so EA has assumed the profile of shopping centres in the UK: high on clothing, homeware, jewellery and accessory  brands, low on anything else. There is no bookstore and Odyssey, the entertainment retailer has closed due to lack of demand.  It’s got a great cinema and a bustling foodcourt, but I could be in Bromley Glades or Bluewater.

800 metres away, Spencer Plaza also has a long lineage. Spencer’s are still one of the oldest retail chains in India and their roots are in Chennai, starting out in Georgetown in the 1860’s where they had the first department store in India. They moved to their current site on Anna Salai (or Mount Road as it was and occasionally still is, known) in 1895. In time it became the largest department store in Asia. This building was considered a masterpiece of Indian Gothic, with a unique teak and glass ceiling in the Spencer Hall.

Unfortunately, it burnt down in 1981 and was demolished in 1985 and replaced with a modern red sandstone construction which looks more like a Croydon office block of the 1960’s a few years later. When it was finished in 1990, it was the only mall in India. By 1999 there were still only 3 of this scale.

If you can track it down, there is a nice recreation of the original building (plus a few other Chennai landmarks) in Madrasapattinam, which is a Tamil movie from 2010 and features the acting debut of Liverpool born Miss Teen World Amy Jackson, now a rising star in Indian cinema.

The Mall has fallen into some disrepair in recent years and seems to suffer from more than its fair share of power outages which can make shopping a dehydrating and debilitating experience.

Age adds charm however and it’s the atmosphere inside that makes it so special. This is where you’ll find all of the Kashmiri traders.

Kashmiri traders at Spencer Plaza

There are hundreds of stores, some now no longer trading, but around every corner of this warren is something interesting.  So why do I like it? Well, almost everything is Indian: there are few western brand retailers; the atmosphere is that of a souk as friendly Kashmiri’s try to entice you into their stores.

I’ve found so many interesting and useful stores here: from Tiffany’s the antique dealer,

to Suraya Travels, who are a great travel agent and Muthuvel at Sri Krishna Mobile, Camera and Laptop service centre, who I nervously left my Samsung S3 with to repair its cracked glass after an unfortunate one-sided encounter with a marble floor. He replaced the screen and returned the phone as promised within the day.

But one thing is clear, Spencer plaza is dying.  Visitor numbers used to be 60,000 a week and are now under half that.  Express Avenue is definitely where the young go to mill around and much of Spencers looks tired and forgotten.  This is a shame as it’s mix of retailers is unique.  The owners of the mall seem to have given up as well, with frequent power cuts and shall we say “heritage” toilets de rigueur. And yet, and yet, I still urge you to visit.  This is part of Chennai’s history in a way that EA never can be.  Too many of Chennai’s links with its past are being bulldozed or left to rot, but the future is not preordained (sorry my Hindu friends).  All that Spencers needs is some leadership, proper power supply and a clean. To quote Field of Dreams ” if we build it they will come “

October 1, 2012 / Andy Adamson

How to Give Directions in Tanglish. 10 Rules

Tanglish, is a slang term used by some to describe the style of pidgin English used by rickshaw & cab drivers, security guards, market stall holders and most of the people you’ll meet in the streets of Chennai.  Getting around in Chennai can be difficult if you don’t know the destination, particularly as everyone will tell you they know where it is and then try to guess their way there or ask some other innocent along the way.

Here are the rules

1. Less is more. Reduce sentences to as few words as possible. I live near Loyola College, so will just say “Loyola” to a rickshaw driver. Every direction I have tried to give longer than 1 word has been met with incomprehension, except when we get there and then the driver repeats it back to me as “Aaaye Spencer Plaza” and I think: that’s exactly how I said it.

2. Aim for the nearest landmark and sort out the fine detail when you get there: preferably when you can point. Hands are essential accoutrements to finding your way as you will have to indicate direction and of course specify the price. The driver never uses his hands, especially if a hand signal is required.

3. Most rickshaw or cab drivers speak in a highly guttural argot which to my ears sounds like a slightly excited toothless old man.  Yes is usually expressed as “Aaaye”. I’ve found that I have started to copy this. I probably sound like Kenneth Williams doing his sea shanties when I do, but it seems to be accepted.

4. Everywhere is left then right, except when its right then left or straight then left. (remember rule 1)

5. The first objective is to get moving in the right direction (see rule 4)

6. The other side of the road is “U Turn”

7. To go behind somewhere or beyond it you are going “backside”

8. Never change your mind about where you are going or appear confused. There’s already one person lost and he’s driving.

9. Rickshaw Drivers are often inquisitive and will engage you in conversation. This will often mean turning round and chatting to you. This is usually fine while you are moving as all other drivers know that the last person you want to have an accident with is a rickshaw driver. If your driver stops chatting on his mobile while he talks to you as well, even better.  You’ll probably be totally confused by the conversation as Tamil and Telugu syntax is  (I assume) totally different to English, but just refer to rule 3.

10. In theory every street in Chennai has a name (the only city in India where this is the case). It’s a great theory and liked so much that many roads have several names, just often not displayed.

But don’t worry, I’ve never heard of anyone having an accident in an auto rickshaw.

September 15, 2012 / Andy Adamson

Riot in Chennai

There was a disturbance in town last night as the agitation that has resulted from the anti Muslim film  produced by some extremist nutter spread to the US Consulate here.

There isn’t much in the Hindu and little online, but it would appear that a large organised group descended on the Consulate in the late afternoon and caused some damage. Fortunately the staff seem to have been warned and nobody appears to have been hurt, though there have been a large number of arrests.

It’s quite a surprise for this top occur in Chennai as the Muslim community lives easily alongside all of the other groups and this is not a city with inter faith tension. Indeed, the more worrying threats have been related to some sabre rattling by the Chief Minister against non Tamil Sri Lankans.

Without wishing to underplay the seriousness of the fact that a riot took place, there is something rather odd about it. The Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam claim to have informed the police that they would be marching on the embassy, yet only 10 police were outside when they arrived (about the normal detail size). Stones were thrown, US flags burnt and some windows smashed, but the violence was very controlled. We drove past the Embassy twice today and apart from one cracked window there was no sign of any activity the previous night. I was actually running a course in a building 300 yards from the incident yesterday and was completely oblivious of anything happening until I picked up the paper this morning.

The US Consulate is a pretty forbidding building with high spiked walls and razor wire. However  several thousand people had wanted to storm it, they probably could have done so.  Next door to the US Embassy is St George’s Cathedral and there is a Christian shrine on the main road with a plate-glass front.  There’s not a scratch on it.  I have just the smallest feeling that this was a token effort that got a bit out of hand.  It almost feels like the organisers feel they have ticked the right boxes and that’s it.

I do hope I’m right.

September 11, 2012 / Andy Adamson

100 Sights of Chennai 12: St. Andrews Kirk, Egmore

It’s a little bit of the tourist map, but is as good a church as you’ll find in Chennai and a fine example of Georgian architecture. In honour of Andy Murray’s US Open win, here’s a brief piece on a part of Chennai that will always be Scottish.

Consecrated in 1821 by members of the Church of Scotland resident in Madras, as then was, who would have been employees of the East India Company.

It’s an almost  circular building and was apparently modelled on St Martins in the Field in London and designed by a Major de Havilland and a Colonel Caldwell of the Madras Engineers, it stands on 150 “wells” and 16 columns. The former was a traditional Indian style of foundation, sinking shafts in moist soil up to 23 feet in depth.  It is regarded by architectural historians as the finest designed church in Chennai, if not Asia and there’s some good historical detail on the Kirk’s own website here

http://www.thekirk.in/roots.asp

It was empty when we visited apart from a lone organist playing an approximation of “We Plough The Fields And Scatter” and someone who I assume was the church warden. Quite amazing it doesn’t get many visitors as there’s a lot to see, including the beautiful pews forming a semi-circle towards the altar and a blue starred dome, said to represent the Scottish sky. The steeple is 170 feet tall, so it’s clearly visible from the bustling Poonamallee High Road on which it is situated in reasonably well maintained grounds. The pews are made from teak and rattan and are well-preserved.

As you can see, the decoration is fabulous.

There are strong military connections here as can be seen from these two ornate marble dedications to fallen military figures.

In fact the military dedications outnumber those of the elders and ministers of the church (similar to the St George’s Cathedral in the Fort). In this example a sepoy (Indian soldier) is appropriated as a mourner for his lost commander, even though he seems to have died outside the field of battle. I find the iconography of death and Empire from the 19th Century absolutely fascinating and a forgotten corner of British Art well worth exploring as it weaves a romanticised vision of death and service together, but the insecurity of the colonial venture is all too clear in the need to incorporate images like that of the sepoy. Anyone interested in this stuff should visit the Watts Gallery (www.wattsgallery.org.uk) in Compton Surrey where you can see the form at its fullest expression.

File:Assistants and George Frederic Watts - Hope - Google Art Project.jpg

Above: “Hope” by George Frederic Watts.

There are also two wonderful stained glass panels near the organ (itself rather impressive) of St Andrew and St Peter.

Stainglass -St. AndrewStainglass - St.Peter

Go and have a look if live in Chennai.

September 5, 2012 / Andy Adamson

Death by Curd

I have found the perfect dessert to die for. I mean to die for. Not swoon a little. No, seriously, you have to wrestle me away from the bowl before I eat myself to death. Shrikhand is a thickened sweet yoghurt preparation originally from Maharashtra. The curd is strained through a cotton cloth for several hours to create Chakka. Sugar and cardamon or saffron are added and it’s left to chill. In some parts of the country Mango are used. The taste is sweet (more like pistachio than cardoman) and creamy. Very, very creamy.

It cleaves to the spoon in the way all great puddings do, so take a large spoonful and run it over your tongue. There’s always more left on the spoon. What a way to go. You need this dessert in your country. Chakka, Chakka Khan (old 80’s music joke).

 

August 30, 2012 / Andy Adamson

Pinterest

I’ve eventually got round to investigating Pinterest in more depth and have created a board to capture some more of my Indian fascination in a more visual, impressionistic way.

It’s ideal way for me to show all of the images that don’t necessarily warrant a blog or which maybe sit better in the collage style that Pinterest do so well.  It’s early days yet and I’ll post a lot more up there, but let me have your views

 

http://pinterest.com/andyadamson/a-dosa-chennai/

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