This is Chennai Central station - one of India's biggest, with seventeen long distance and five suburban platforms. Tens of thousands - by some accounts hundreds of thousands - of travellers pass through here every day.
And it's almost unique among rail stations in being the subject of a well regarded poem, 'Madras Central' (the city changed it name in 1996) by the late Vijay Nambisan. Take a listen:
CLICK TO LISTEN TO A READING OF 'MADRAS CENTRAL'
The station is a prominent landmark - though I'd say its design is distinctive rather than impressive. It was built in 1873 and touched up a bit in 1900. The architect, George Harding, was influenced by both Gothic Revival and Romanesque styles. And the building is notable for its stand-out maroon colour and even more stand-out clock tower.
For such a huge station, it's fairly well ordered. A little chaotic, yes, but much less frenetic than say Howrah in Calcutta or Delhi's main stations.
Some of the journeys are truly heroic. I was at Chennai Central when the Thiruvananthapuram to Silchar express was on the platform ...
That's a journey of almost 4,000 kilometres with 55 stops and scheduled to take 75 hours - yes, three days and then some!
By the time this train reaches Chennai Central, it has already travelled almost a thousand kilometres. No wonder the passengers seem a little listless.
The express starts from the state capital of Kerala at 16:55 of Day 1 ... reaches Chennai at 09:30 on day 2 ... pulls in to Howrah in Calcutta at 13:55 on Day 3 ... arrives at Guwahati, the state capital of Assam, at 08:10 on Day 4 ... and ends up in Silchar, if it's on time (ha, ha), at 19:00 on day 4.
One of the stranger rituals was the rubbish clearing - with an assortment of objects thrown out of the train windows direct on to the tracks, where a battalion of uniformed women sweepers tidy the debris away.
And the sweepers were still at work, still on the tracks, as the train trundled out of Chennai Central on its long haul north, just half-an-hour late.
It's unloved, unnoticed and its future as it best uncertain. It's stuck on one of the most forlorn stretches of Anna Salai, Chennai's main drag (once known as Mount Road). And it's in peril of being consumed by the construction work on the Metro. But this plaque is an important part of the city's history. Let's hope it gets a little tender loving care.
The plaque marks the spot where the Marmalong bridge, the first bridge across the Adyar river (and long ago replaced), was built almost 300 years ago. Of course, it would help if any of the three languages in which it is inscribed was still spoken in the city. I haven't heard a lot of Persian, or Latin, or Armenian. But with a vestigial memory of schoolboy declensions and conjugations, I can just about decipher the meaning.
Coja Petrus Uscan was one of a band of Armenian traders who were important in the early commercial development of the city. (There's still an Armenian church in Chennai - though not an Armenian community).
Uscan was reputed to have been the wealthiest trader in the city, and as a believer in the St Thomas legend he also built the steps leading up to St Thomas Mount, the hill just outside the city where the apostle is reputed to have been martyred.
The stone has been left stranded by the work on the Metro, which seems likely to change the contours of Anna Salai as it approaches the current bridge across the Adyar. Some of the plaquw's Armenian script is no longer legible. Conservationists have raised the alarm about the need to save the monument - but it's not clear whether anyone in authority is listening.
Special thanks to one of the students in my journalism class, Riti, whose news assignment alerted me to the existence of the stone and the concern about its future.
I wonder what the story is behind this 'Happy Hour!' mural, glimpsed amid the dereliction of an old college in Saidapet. Was this on the wall of a common room or canteen? Or was it art work undertaken by a student? Or perhaps even street art painted once the college had closed? Or simply an old-style advertising hoarding that's been stored here?
There is something sweetly sad about these chance encounters with mementos of the past, spilled out into public view by the ravages of time. It's like looking through soiled and torn lace curtains and into someone's forsaken living room. And then there's all the questions that can't be answered about the wall paiinting. Why a western couple? Why "Happy Hour"? Why the hint of intimacy?
I sometimes see the ruined tower of this building as I drive past on Anna Salai - Mount Road as was - after crossing the Adyar towards the city centre. I thought it was a church. When I went to snoop around, a cyclist passing by corrected me. It was a college, he said. Indeed, it dates from 1856 and was the first teacher training college in India, though it moved to this site only in the 1880s.
For a government college, the design is curious, The tower is reminiscent of southern European church design, and there's a porch and a profusion of arches. Distinctive rather than stylish.
The building of the Chennai Metro has hit this part of Saidapet for six. The training college (more recently known as the Institute of Advanced Study in Education and devoted largely to research) has, since 1995, been absorbed into the neighbouring Mother Teresa Women's University. "We used it for about five years; after that the buildings began to crumble", an official was quoted as saying.
A few years back, the Metro project claimed two elegant curved buildings which were part of the college campus. Historian and conservationist Sriram V blogged about that act of destruction and you can see before and after pictures of the site here.
It's difficult to see any fate in prospect for this historic building other than demolition. For those concerned with Chennai's heritage, this is anything but a "happy hour"!
Another term in Chennai: Jaya @ 70
Jayalalithaa would have been seventy today. She dominated the politics of Tamil Nadu ever since she first became chief minister of the state in 1991. And today, fifteen months after her death, she dominates it still.
Chennai this evening is awash with wall posters in which just about every political faction - bar her sworn enemies (she had quite a few) - seeks to bask in her reflected glory.
She was a populist, but politically very shrewd and instinctively progressive. Alongside the carefully composed and party commissioned posters are simple street-side memorials, shrines almost, which are testament to the reverence in which she is widely held.
She presided over a monstrous cult of personality; she expected deference, slavish obedience indeed, from her supporters, acolytes and allies; she may have been right in saying that the corruption charges against her were politically motivated, but that doesn't mean that the jail sentences imposed were unjust. But many in Tamil Nadu continue to say that Jayalalithaa was a good leader, and it was those who surrounded her who tarnished her record and reputation.
The political tradition she represented is led today by chief minister EPS and his deputy OPS - I'm tempted to describe them as the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of Tamil politics. They don't have the popularity, the authority or the political guile of their prececessor.
There is a vacuum in Tamil politics. Jayalalithaa's AIADMK lacks charismatic leaders. The patriarch of the rival party, M. Karunanidhi of the DMK, is in his nineties and no longer an aspirant to political office, and his son and heir Stalin (born in 1953 just as the Soviet leader was on his deathbed - hence the at first sight startling name) remains politically unproven.
Sensing the absence of commanding political figures, and well aware of the tradition exemplified by Jayalalithaa and her mentor MGR of film stars turning to politics, two of the biggest figures in Tamil cinema - Kamal Haasan and Rajnikanth - have, respectively, just launched or are about to launch their own parties.
Tamil politics is beginning to feel a little crowded.
And who should turn up in Chennai today but India's prime minister, Narendra Modi. He came to launch a scheme for scooters for women to mark Jayalalithaa's seventieth birth anniversary - not a giveaway but a 50% subsidy for poorer women buying low-powered scooters.
But the most politically astute of India's prime ministers will also be eyeing up options. Tamil Nadu is a big state with a population of 70 million. The AIADMK is the third biggest party in the Lok Sabha, the directly elected chamber of India's Parliament. And the trend in Tamil Nadu of the lead party winning emphatically means the choice of ally here is important.
The Hindu nationalist BJP is not strong in the Tamil heartland, though it's slowly gaining ground. Who should it look to as an election partner? The AIADMK? Or Rajnikanth's prospective party - he's talked of spirituality in politics in a manner which suggests a saffron hue? Or perhaps a broad alliance?
India's next general election is probably a little over a year away. It's Narendra Modi's to lose - but the volatility evident in some recent state election results will remind the BJP leader not to take anything for granted.
Just what India needs most - another political party!
Kamal Haasan, one of the biggest stars of Tamil cinema, has this evening lived up to his pledge to launch his own party. The inaugural rally in Madurai - the Tamil spiritual and cultural heartland - has been broadcast live on the TV news channels.
The name of the new party was only unveiled an hour or two before the launch. It is, of course, in Tamil: Makkal Needhi Maiam - which translates as Centre for People's Justice.
The new party's logo is six hands forming a circle around a hexagon - (that central symbol is what many would regard as the Star of David though in India it is widely used and isn't generally seen as a Jewish symbol).
Kamal Haasan's name might suggest that he's a Muslim. Not so! He was born into a Tamil Brahmin (so high-caste Hindu) family. He's seen as progressive in politics, and has been critical of India's ruling party, the BJP. Though he insists he's centre (hence its inclusion in the name), not left or right.
Haasan is 63, His breakthrough role came in 'Apoorva Raagangal' in 1975, in which he played a rebellious young man who falls in love with an older woman. That movie also saw the debut of Rajnikanth, the only Tamil actor with a bigger following than Haasan.
Rajnikanth too is about to launch, yes, his own political party. The verbal punch-up that is likely to follow could make 'Gunfight at the OK Corral' look like an elegy to friendship.
Some of the posters promoting the launch show a young Kamal Haasan being garlanded by MGR (M.G. Ramachandran), by far the most commanding figure in Tamil movies who also gave birth to the peculiarly South Indian tradition of the star-turned-top-politician. The slogan translates as: Tomorrow is Ours - the name of one of MGR's most successful movies.
This is a touch cheeky. The late MGR was the leader of the AIADMK, which remains the ruling party. Haasan says he's going into politics because the AIADMK is so inept and corrupt,
Will Kamal Haasan make his mark in politics? Well, Tamil Nadu became a state under that name in 1969. Since then MGR, his widow Janaki and his lover Jayalalithaa have all become chief ministers - and all were actors. In the rival DMK, M. Karunanidhi came to prominence as a screenwriter in Tamil cinema.
In the past half century, the periods (such as now) when someone not connected with movies has served as chief minister have been brief. So, put it this way - either Haasan will get to the top, or his friend and nemesis Rajnikanth will.
Tamil politics can't be without star quality for long.
I went back to the tiny Jewish cemetery in Chennai the other day to lay flowers on the grave of Victoria 'Toyah' Sofaer. She was from Baghdad, and died here, in what was then Madras, in 1943 a few weeks short of her twenty-third birthday.
I chanced upon her grave exactly a year ago, and so stumbled across a powerful and affecting story which has become something of a preoccupation.
I expect that this will be my last blog about Toyah. It's time to let her rest.
I managed last year to make contact with Toyah's family in Canada, including her half-brother Abraham, just two years younger to her. (I'm happy to say Abraham is still going strong). They didn't know Toyah had a grave. But the story that Abraham related to his family - and through his daughter, Lydia, to me - is deeply tragic.
Toyah was born into a wealthy Jewish trading family in Baghdad, and when aged about twenty fell in love with an Armenian man. To break the romance, her father and step-mother whisked Toyah away to Bombay (where Abraham happened to be living at the time, evading service in the Iraqi army) and then, very suddenly, on to another Indian city - Madras as it turns out - where she died. Under quite what circumstances she lost her life remains unclear.
A piece I broadcast on BBC radio about Toyah's story was posted on the BBC website. It was viewed more than a million times. New information came to light: Toyah's death certificate (though with no cause of death) was located; and so too, for the first time, was a confirmed likeness of her. I blogged as each new detail came to light.
Toyah's family were pleased to know she had a resting place, and to feel that the wrong done to her had been acknowledged. I found this tale of transgressive love across lines of faith and identity deeply moving.
Davvid Levi and his mother Sarah say they heard that Toyah, before being taken away from Baghdad, was able to let her Armenian lover know her destination. He turned up in Bombay. That's when she was moved on, hurriedly and quietly, to Madras. Somehow the Armenian man (no-one knows his name) discovered where Toyah had been moved to and again travelled in her pursuit.
And the story the Levis recount is that, once in Madras, the Armenian disappeared. It seems that not only Toyah, but her lover too, probably died here. Just how, and in what sequence of events, will probably never be known.
I shared this information with Toyah's niece, Lydia Saleh. This is her response: 'The details you are revealing now make the story even more desperate and tragic. I hope the Armenian lover is being thought of with as much compassion as Toyah is right now. May they both rest in peace.'
Davvid Levi has a marvellous family archive of photos and documents - linking Amsterdam, France, Romania, Israel, India, Malaya, Burma and Hong Kong. His ancestors went by the name of Cohen, Halevi, Rosenberg and Henriques de Castro. One commercial document, from 1932, signed in Madras, includes as a witness Menashi Sofaer ... Toyah's father.
Menashi, acting in desperation, brought his daughter to Madras because it was a city with which he was familiar. In 1932, Menashi gave his local address as 18 Coral Merchant Street. The Levi family lived at 15 Coral Merchant Street, above what had been the city's first synagogue. They were neighbours.
In 1943, Menashi chose not to live in this Jewish locale but - perhaps because of the taint of scandal - to let a property, Otti Castle, overlooking the sea on San Thome High Street.
And there's more ... Lisette Shashoua, who is related to the Sofaers and has helped to piece together the history of the extended family, has just come across another photo of Toyah.
It was taken at a family wedding in Iraq in about 1935 - the bride was Mouzli Shashoua (nee Haim), Toyah's first cousin. Toyah would have been about fourteen at the time - (other photos from this wedding were posted some months ago). As we look at this photo, Toyah is immediately to the left of the bride.
Lisette has also tracked down a photo of Toyah's father, Menashi, and step-mother, Naima (who was also Toyah's aunt - Toyah's mother, Dina, died giving birth to her daughter and Menashi later married Dina's younger sister). There is no date on the photograph, but it was probably taken a few years either side of 1940. Menashi was born in 1881 and Naima in 1904.
This must have been much as Menashi and Naima Sofaer looked at the time of Toyah's death.
Strolling along a side street in Juhu (I should explain, I'm spending the term teaching in Chennai but this was on my mid-term break in Mumbai), I chanced upon a step well or baoli.
And there sunning themselves, or swimming in the pea green water, were ... turtles. Dozens of them! I have always had a soft spot for these creatures, and it's so rare to see them in the wild in quite this profusion. ...
This is Brahma Kund on Gandhigram Road, a minute away from the world famous Iskcon 'Hare Krishna' temple and close by where many Bollywood stars live (I was on my way to visit one such star, I'll have you know, when I spotted the turtles). The step well seems once to have had a religious function, but no longer.
Locals are concerned that the stagnant water is a breeding place for mosquitos. But I guess people must be feeding the turtles, as I can't see there's enough food in this tiny pond to support them otherwise - so they do have some Juhu allies. Long live turtle power!
Lots of beaches have seagulls or wading birds - Juhu beach just has crows (oh, and a few pigeons, and one or two wheeling "cheels", the scavenger kites). Juhu is marvellous, full of life and energy, just like the city that it adorns, Mumbai. But my, bits of it are really filthy.
I took myself off to Mumbai at the weekend for a mid-term break and stayed at a small hotel which wasn't so much fronting the beach as embedded in it. I love getting my feet wet but in Juhu you need to keep a sharp eye out for what you are stepping on.
What surprised me most was the amount of devotional objects - Hindu deities, eathernware pots for pujas, garlands of flowers - that were brought in on the tide.
Someone suggested to me that these were leftovers from Durga Puja, a Hindu festival (celebrated particularly in Bengal) in which devotional objects are ritually immersed. But that's back in October. Some of these items were plastic and could have been around a while, but the pots and flowers looked fairly fresh.
So how did all this stuff end up littering Mumbai's (otherwise) most magical beach?
This is Mythila. She threads and sells garlands outside a Hindu temple close to where I am staying. There's a row of half-a-dozen or so stalls, and these spots close to places of worship seem to be the best for garland makers. It's one of the most conspicuous of those women's crafts practised on the streets.
The garlands Mythila makes are priced from Rs 30/- (about £0.35) to Rs 350/-.and more. There's a skill to preparing the flowers and then threading them. And a still greater skill when a range of different blooms have to be assembled to provide vivid bands of colour.
These are bought for the deities of the temple - and some flowers are ready sorted with a coconut in little baskets as a form of 'prasad', a religious offering which is at least in part edible.
The sexual division of labour is fairly stark in Chennai - there are women's jobs and then there are men's jobs. But garland making is not an exclusively female line of work. One of the stalls nearby is run by a man - I wish I knew the full story ...
As I understand it, the top end of the trade - making the really heavy garlands which adorn VVIPs and are placed on the deities on special occasions - is largely the preserve of men. They can make Rs 2,000/- a day, and considerably more at times of religious festivals.
Mankiya has her perch a few hundred meters away, outside a small roadside shrine - her flowers are much more modest, as befits the setting - and I suspect some are bought by women who like to wear flowers in their hair, still a vibrant tradition in South India. But even here, the link between garland making and Hindu observance is unmistakable
The big challenge for garland makers is that their stock doesn't last - the flowers wilt quickly in the sun, even at this time of year. So what you thread, you need to sell fairly promptly.
Prema has a slightly different sort of business - she was the only garland maker I could see in a mixed market on Lloyds Road, in a poorer part of town.
She sold cheap bangles as well as flowers - but there's clearly demand here for flower chains to decorate hair and blooms for religious observance, as well as the grander garlands.
I bought one of these glorious multicoloured garlands for what I considered to be a very reasonable Rs 200/- ... and I'll tell you in another blog what I did with it -
If ever there was a book mausoleum, this is it. More than 50,000 volumes, all in the half-life, the 'bardo' - no longer living but not yet reborn.
The Madras Literary Society claims to be India's oldest lending library. It dates back to 1812. And a band of committed volunteers is trying to breath new life into this venerable institution.
On Saturdays, they gather to catalogue the holdings - some on shelves which stretch up twenty-five feet or so - and create a digital record of the library's books. There's a Facebook page to stimulate more interest and awareness.
Membership, at 450, is steadily increasing - and older members can have the titles they request delivered to their home. An adopt-a-book scheme, seeking donations of up to Rs 15,000/- (that's about £175), will pay for one of the rarer volumes to be fully restored. I was told that the library's oldest title, in Latin, dates from 1619,
But the library has the unmistakable air of benign decay. It is woefully underused. I turned up at 10:30 this morning, and I was the only person there apart from the hugely helpful and well-informed librarian.
Uma Maheshwari told me something of the history of the institution and the steps being taken to ensure its survival. The Literary Society hopes to become 'a leading resource centre for studies on the colonial period'. It's a worthy aspiration.
The library was initially in Fort St George, the nerve centre of colonial Madras. In the 1890s a splendid new public library, the Connemara, was built in Egmore - it's still there alongside the museum and gets (or should get) a copy of every book published in India. This is reputed to have a marvellous manuscript collection in many languages. The Literary Society shared that Egmore site, but in 1905 or thereabouts moved into the purpose-built premises it now occupies as part of a campus on the appropriately named College Road.
The Literary Society, as far as I can gather, has always been more a lending than a research library. Many of the volumes on display are potboilers and popular fiction. It has a section of children's literature and of books in Tamil.
The building is remarkable - basically single storey though with height at its centre for the stacks of books which are reached by fairly precarious metal stairs. It seems to have the same red brick, Indo-Saracenic style frontage on all four sides.
The building was restored a few years ago, but still comes across as dilapidated - not helped by the adjoining wasteland and derelict campus 'television studios'. The main entrance is not a door but a drape of heavy transparent plastic - a long way from ideal!
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