Thursday, June 7, 2012

Madras, the once-city

Close your eyes; it’ll disappear.
            As a child, even though we used to live close to the beach, my mother would not let me swim in the sea often. Only when my cousins visited us in the hot summers were we allowed to waddle and splash about in the waves. We were pretty far from the Madras harbor and rarely saw ships, but we could always make them out in the distance. One evening, my cousin and I watched a motorized catamaran bounce on the choppy waves and speed away along the coast. With each blink of the eye, the boat grew smaller, and smaller, until it was just a little full-stop on a large green paper.
            “Close your eyes,” Amit, told me. “And count to ten.”
            We clenched our eyes and loudly counted to ten. When I opened them, the catamaran was gone. For that little boy, standing amidst the swirling sea, it was like magic. Then the bells at the Temple of Eight Lakshmis began to peal urgently. My mother got up, dusted the sand off her sari and indicated to us that it was time to go home. She enticed us to leave by offering to buy us few cuts of unripe mangoes from the hawkers. But I remember holding her hand and walking homewards, stopping every few steps to turn and search the sea. The waves hissed in the dark and bid me a frothy goodbye, but the catamaran was nowhere to be seen.
I closed my eyes and it had disappeared.

It’s getting dark now. I’m standing on the shore, probably very close to where I once stood with Amit. I see a white blob pulsing towards me. There was a time when the sight of sea creatures – mollusks, clams, fish – would set my heart racing. Can it really be a jellyfish? In Madras? Another wave pushes the creature towards me and it tries to embrace me with its plastic tentacles. It’s only a cover from Grand Sweets. As much as the sea fascinates me, my city tugs at my heart stronger. I turn towards her. This is not the Madras I once knew. This is not the Madras I left behind.
Where once I used to sprint and win running races with my friends, the beach is filled with so many people that it resembles a colony of seals that have come to shore to birth their calves. The cool evening breeze that was once filled with temple bells and the occasional sounds of someone guffawing is now punctured by the incessant metallic noise of motorcycles and cellphone ringtones. The silence of the noisy crows, Madras’ roosters, caws louder than anything else to my ears. Ungainly flats have erupted like toadstools after a rain shower in the past few years since I left home. I walk away from the shore and onto the mud, carefully dodging a bleached Bisleri bottle and a blue Reynolds pen cap. I walk towards the pavement where, once, my friends and I frequented every evening after a satisfying game of beach cricket and Frisbee hockey.
            Right there, on that little mound in the middle of the beach, where currently people are huddled together, my friends and I would set up the pitch each day and play. The bowler ran down the incline and bowled at the batsman who tried to hit boundaries towards the sea. The mercurial sea breeze had to be taken into account before each shot, for even the best batsman’s lobbed shots can boomerang back to the bowler if the breeze was strong enough. On most evenings, a band of elderly gentlemen sat on the pavement and cheered us if the game got really interesting. And if there was an interesting cricket game being played elsewhere, we grouped with the old men around an old Grundig transistor radio and cheered Sachin’s boundaries and Kumble’s wicket taking. When the game was over, we sat on the wall bordering the pavement, our legs dangling, eating boiled peanuts or spiced chickpeas, and discussed everything from IIT classes to that new girl someone spotted walking her yipping Pomeranian dog.

My life’s mission was to get out of Madras. I managed to do more than that and got out of the country. But right after that, I was plagued by periodic bouts of homesickness for which there was no Western medicine. No amount of online videos or chatting with friends can allay the chronic nostalgia that simmers in every uprooted Madrasi. Madrasi? Madras-vasi? Madras-people? This always used to be a hot topic for debates on the beach, but those are dead names for dead people of a dead city. Chennai is the chintzy phoenix that has risen from the golden ashes of the once-city, Madras, and I hate it.
Now, I walk up to the cricket pitch on which I once smacked legendary boundaries in the direction of Bay of Bengal. Romancing young couples stare at me, some with suspicion, others with indifference. Most of their faces are illuminated by the halo of their cellphones. I want to shake them by their shoulders and yell, ‘This used to be my playground for more than five years, you know? Now you sit here like discarded cardboard boxes, wasting in the sea breeze.’
I squint at the traffic jam on the road. Horns are blaring and tempers are flaring. Aunties in tennis shoes, joggers and the random health nut used to exercise on that road early mornings and late evenings. I remember the awe with which my friends and I stared at a boy on rollerblades as he zipped across the road and smoothly jumped over the speed-breakers near Cozee Café and disappeared down the road. He would be hard pressed to find the room just to stand on the road now.

How did it come to this? Time improves dosa batter, smoothens sandstones and forges a great Stradivarius, but Madras, it appears, has aged like a packet of Aavin milk forgotten on the verandah for a few days. Young ones, be it humans or animals, are always cute. Madras was alluring and fascinating when I was younger. And now the city has grown up with me. I see its scabs and smell its body odor. It stinks.
And then I remembered what Amit once told me. I tightly close my eyes and take a lungful of the comforting saline air. I try to tune out all the ambient noise. When I open my eyes, all this will disappear. It’ll be the way it once used to be. My close friends will all live within walking distance and they’ll be young, lithe and limber, somersaulting on the sands and tossing tennis balls high up in the air. The road will be empty enough for me to bicycle down it without holding onto the handlebars and let the sea breeze tousle my hair. Airplanes will hold the same mystery again as they fly over the sea. There will be large swathes of empty spaces for us to play football and cricket every evening. I will look forward to going to Ramkumar’s Lending Library on Saturdays to see if a newer Asterix, Tintin or Three Investigators book was out. The streets and alleys will be filled with the smells of incense and the sounds of Carnatic lessons and pressure cookers whistling up hot food.
            I stand there with my eyelids glued shut. And then the Temple of Eight Lakshmis begins to peal its bells. It’s time to catch my flight out of the city.
It’s time to leave home.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Band of Brothers


How did it happen? What do you mean how did it happen? Do these things need precedence or logic for them to happen? How did Ramar Pillai manage to convert a soup of herbs into petrol? How did, all of a sudden, without any warning, every single Vinayaka idol start slurping Aavin milk around the city? How did the current chief minister lose popularity (again) and the ex-CM get reelected (again)? How? Do we even need explanation in this country, in this city, where horoscopes are matched so perfectly that even a bucktoothed, thin and rapidly balding groom can land himself a svelte, fair-skinned doe of a Madras girl and beam as he clutches her tightly through the infinite rolls of silk? How? These things just have a way of happening around here. It just so happened that thirteen years ago, across the country, a bunch of women, their bellies distended due to the grade-A stock of the Indian Y chromosome, gave birth to a pride of healthy boys and while the new parents, still unsteady about how to hold their newborns, figured out what to do with the new additions to their lives, decided, unanimously, to name their boys, Ashwin.

The band consisted of four Ashwins and one non-Ashwin. Let us meet the cast.

Ashvin Matthews (that is spelt with a V, not a W, as he would like it to be known) was the Mallu guy. He was the tallest of the group and the one with connections at Sishya School. He was the one who, only a month ago during lunch time, breathlessly broached the fact to his friends that Sishya School was having a Western Music competition and that they should compete. He was the one. Ashvin Matthews considered himself to be a singer, given his Kerala roots and by logical extension, a definite connection to any of the umpteen singers in the film industry whose name was Unni-something.

Then, there was Ashwin Ganapathy. He was the mellow one, always lost in his reveries or spaced out in some non-sweaty, non-Madrasic paradise. His hands and mind apparently had no connection and he had the superpower to stare at the ceiling or outside the window and still manage to hold a rhythm on his guitar. Ashwin Ganapathy was perhaps the most gifted of the group. It was he who doled his sagacious guidance when chords were getting too gnarly or bass lines too ornate. His early terrifying childhood scars of learning to play the violin in the Carnatic school of music had bestowed upon him a keen ear and a perspicacious sense of melody.

Then there was Ashwin Mandana, the Marwadi fellow, whose presence at school was as rare as spotting a black-and-yellow zebra in the Gobi desert. Ever the sly one, he always found ways and means of sneaking out of class and wiggling his way through exams by hiding chits in his underwear. If he ever did show up to a class, he was promptly sent out within the first five minutes due to any one of the infinite misdemeanors that were not tolerated at St. John’s English School. These ranged from not wearing a banian inside one’s shirt to using a rubber band, chewing gum and one’s fingers to launch sticky projectiles into the blue ribboned and well-oiled hair of the opposite sex. But Ashwin Mandana was also a resourceful guy and he would be the chosen one to bribe Linus into getting the band an O.D. form. He played the lead guitar.

Then there was M. Ashwin, an enigmatic asshole of a guy, who, according to Ashvin, spoke the crazy African pygmy language of Goltese. Nobody knew what the M in his name stood for and years of wear and tear had abraded his name to Yemashwin. M. Ashwin considered that to be an homage to the god of death, Yama, and considering his recent discovery of the sub-genre called Death Metal, he found this nickname fitting. Yemashwin wore a gold ring on every finger of his right arm and his neck was festooned with a nest of golden chains that sonorously rang with every movement of his as if he were a cow. This breed of Ashwin, however, suffered from a strange hypersexuality due to the fact that his testicles descended and were engorged with sperm at the tender age of three months. If there was one thing fair about Yemashwin, it was that his lecherous Golt eyes mentally undressed every female – from the nubile and developing girls in his class, to the beggar lady squatting outside the temple, wearing nothing but a decomposing rag. Having been the last one to cadge and grovel at Ashvin’s feet (it was Ashvin’s idea to start a rock band), Yemashwin was given the unsavory and most boring aspect of playing in a rock band – the bass.

And finally, the last member of the young band, the percussionist who glued it all together, the eternally caffeinated one, the rich bugger, the one whose father worked in the Gulf and whose mother was an airhostess or a model or something so fancy that he refused to disclose the details to anyone, the one that the others wished they were instead of being themselves, what with the freedom to come and go whenever and eat wherever, with pocket money scaling in the hundreds of rupees, finally, we are introduced to the non-Ashwin – Shyam Sundar. Shyam was the shortest of the group and this was accentuated by the fact that he had to sit on a stool to play his drums (his father had purchased it for him from that paradise of duty-free – Dubai), rendering him virtually invisible. Having no one to slap or chide him, he had taken to himself to brew a quite excellent decoction every morning, which he used to make stretched filter coffee during the day. This, he consumed like medicine, many times a day. When his caffeine twitches reached a crescendo, he invoked the ire of Ashvin as stray cymbals and completely cacophonous drum rolls would be rendered absolutely out of turn. But credit is due where credit is due and it was Shyam who dreamt up of the name for the band, a name that was as incongruous and out of place as four Ashwins and one non-Ashwin in a rock band, a paradoxical riddle of a name, considering the fact that only one of the five even technically qualified to be a part of it. And that name was – The Rock Brahmins. (Ashwin Ganapathy was the only Brahmin in the group, if that wasn’t evident).


‘Practice at Shyam’s house,’ Ashvin had said to the boys as he unlocked his Hero Ranger. ‘Six sharp,’ he added for extra clarity. The others nodded and sped away, eager to nominate songs and begin practice. It was a no-brainer that the practice was to be held at Shyam’s. No other household could have tolerated the squeals of the electric guitars, the terrifying rumble of the bass, the spastic vocals and, worse of all, the dup-dish-dup-dish-dup-dish rhythm of the drums.

No one.

Chappals would have been hurled, doors knocked and angry neighbors would have demanded an explanation for the sound pollution this close to the first term exams. No, Sir. It had to be in that third floor island that was surrounded by three empty flats, that eternally dark-unlit-house-after-sunset flat that women returning from the temple avoided looking at as if it were a bad omen, that dungeon of vice where the Gulf father returned with a non-mother and, sometimes, even the airhostess or model mother returned home with a non-father, where tipsy laughter could be heard after midnight, that was the place, Shyam’s ‘pad’, as he liked to refer to it as, where the weekly practice was slated to be.

However, sadly, things were not meant to go according to plan.

On the first week, while deciding what songs to perform, Yemashwin suddenly snapped his fingers in the muggy air and said, “Yov! I got an idea. Shyam, you have powder-aa?” Of course, Shyam had powder. He had powders that these silly Madras buffoons had never heard of – Yardley, Nivea, and even the very masculine American powder – Arm & Hammer. He superciliously coughed a laugh and pointed to his parents’ room. Yemashwin ran in and ran out with the Yardley powder box, stopping once to briefly glance at the photo of Shyam’s mother atop the fridge. He tore a sheet of paper from the Femina magazine that was lying on the coffee table, sprinkled at least a kilo of powder into it, assiduously rolled the paper, stuck it in his mouth and said, “Yov! Guys! Check it out. I’m smoking.” He blew into his ‘cigarette’ and instantly transformed all the remaining Ashwins into white ghosts with a heavenly Yardley Rose smell.

Pthu!’ Ashwin Mandana spat and accidentally let some spittle land on his knees. He absently wiped it and said. “This? Smoking? Dei, Shyam. You have any agarbathi?” Shyam rolled his eyes and pointed to the fridge. The Marwadi nimbly ran to the fridge while wiping his face free of the Yardley, expertly extracted a single incense stick, lit it and returned to the group.

“Watch this,” he said and stuck the burning incense into his mouth. He puffed his cheeks out and sat there silently for a few seconds, bobbling his head and perching his eyebrows above his scalp. He rapidly retrieved the still burning stick and turned to his friends and slowly opened his mouth, letting out a puff of sandalwood flavored smoke. He leaned back in contentment and stuck the incense out to the others as if it were a communal cigarette that had to be passed around. Ashwin Ganapathy took possession of it and stared at it in wonderment. His entire thirteen years of Brahminical upbringing had failed to reveal to him this wondrous quality of the humble agarbathi. Here he was, having brainwashed into believing that this was only an offering to the gods, a means to sanctify the shrine. He smiled at its glowing tip and contemplated its magnificence.

“You fuckers,” Shyam said in his characteristic nonchalance. “This shit amuses you or what? Check this out.” He slid his hands into the chasm in the sofa where the seat met the backrest and fished out a pack of cigarettes.

“Why fake it when you can do the real deal. Dei, Ashvin. Pass me the matchbox.”

Ashvin, who had been trying to tune his guitar to no avail, sighed, and did his host’s bidding. “We must begin practicing, da. It’s already late.”

“Ya ya!” Shyam said, lighting the cigarette and taking a drag. The Ashwins watched in wonder as the real cigarette burned red and authentic smoke filled the room. They coughed and then all stuck their hands out at the same time.

And like this, they lost the first week.

During their second practice session, after everyone had parked and locked their bicycles and had assembled on the sofa, Ashvin got up and using his immense height said, “Listen, we have only three weeks, okay? You guys are not being serious. We have to start practice today. Now, what song should we do?”

Ashwin Ganapathy was stroking a cactus plant. Ashwin Mandana sat splayed on the sofa, his finger scratching his nether regions. Shyam was listening to a Michael Jackson cassette on his Dubai-imported Walkman and the Golt was squatting on the floor, ruffling through a stack of old newspapers that he had found near the chappal stand.

“Guys,” Ashvin said, putting his hands on his hips and towering over them. “You are not serious. What should we play? Hmm? MLTR?”

“That’s a homo band,” Ashwin Mandana flatly replied, still scratching his groin.

“What’s homo about it?” Ashvin demanded furiously. “And why are you scratching so much? Got ringworm or what?”

“AIDS,” Shyam said, having turned down the volume now.

“AIDS doesn’t make your balls scratchy, okay,” Ashwin Mandana said, a bit uncertainly. “Does it?”

It did not. Every man, boy, uncle and grandfather who grew up in Madras had itchy balls. That was a fact. It was as certain as the fact that the sun rose in the east and the P.T.C. buses didn’t have A/C. No one doubted it. Some sprinkled Shower To Shower, others Yardley, still others abstained from undergarments and many others invented creative solutions that involved a pair of scissors, a Reynolds pen cap and a hole in their pocket. But the important answer to the question of whether or not itchy testicles were a symptom of Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome was momentarily dwarfed by Yemashwin’s sudden launch into the air with a Goltese war cry.

Ammababoi!’ he cried. ‘Is this Playboy-aa?’ he asked, opening a magazine that clearly said Playboy on the front cover. The centerfold came tumbling out and the well endowed foreign goddess was now clasping her hair and lustily staring at Yemashwin. He flipped her around for the benefit of the others and any residual conversation died a tragic death.

‘Yeah,’ Shyam said, removing his headphones and letting it dangle on his neck. “It’s from U.S.”

The Ashwins clamored to obtain possession of this new drug and in the process many pages came unhinged from the sacrosanct Bible. Shyam laughed at this boorish behavior of his friends. What village bums, he thought. Never seen any boobs in their lives! Cha!

“Have any of you shagged?” Shyam asked, running his fingers through his hair. He remarkably looked like Rajinikanth when he did this and, of course, having been told this, he spent an inordinate amount of time trying to flick a cigarette in the air and trying to catch it in his mouth. But the abject Tamizh movie industry or cigarettes were the last thing on the Ashwins’ minds.

“Shagged?” Ashvin asked. “Means?”

“Rubbed your dicks?”

Everyone laughed a healthy laugh as if this was a knock-knock joke told right. Then there was an uncomfortable silence. A silence of illiteracy.

“Mandana is doing it now,” Yemashwin wanly offered, but it wasn’t very funny, especially to the rubber, who glowered in his place.

“Really? None of you? Pff! Try it. It’s very…exciting.”

“What should I do?” Mandana asked, his distant blue-blooded Marwadi Kshatriya genes weakly asserting their presence. “How does one shag?”

“Just hold your dick and move it back and forth.”

“Then?” Yemashwin asked, puzzled. Why would anyone do that?

“I’m not going to tell everything. Try it. You will know.”

This enigmatic reply threw the nascent band that had yet to pluck a single note, nay, tune a single guitar, into a pandemonium, the intensity of which was only rivaled by the Vanandurai Fish Market. Facts were hurled and they were countered with more hearsays. Suddenly, everyone knew someone - some elder cousin, some friend — who had explained how to perform this fancy act called ‘shagging’. Gestures were demonstrated in air with fists and careful tips were given that supposedly increased the pleasure of the experience. But alas, with this much theory circulating in the room, it appeared that no one soldier, besides Shyam, had been brave enough to venture into this mysterious Battle of Shagging. There had been rumors, supposedly, of blindness and a guaranteed passage to hell to all those who try it. Shyam smiled at this naïve confusion floundering around him and offered a solution.

“Go try it now. Take the Playboy to the bathroom. Just try it once. I promise you won’t go blind or to hell. I’m still here and I can see.”

No one ventured. Each looked at the other and grinned. Shyam upped the reward. “If you shag, you become a man.”

Not once did the Ashwins question Shyam about his knowledge of shagging. One does not question Shyam about such non-academic topics. Shyam knew everything outside of the pages of the textbook and exam question papers. He had flown alone in an airplane and that alone gave him bragging rights. He drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. That sealed the Shyamness in Shyam. He was an adult trapped in a thirteen year body. He belonged to the world outside the school where people drove motor vehicles to work and paid the bills at hotels. Shyam was just going through a temporary phase of childhood and his friends happened to know him. No. You don’t question Shyam’s G.K.

“Okay,” the Iyer boy said. “I’ll try it.”

The others looked at him as if he were a sacrificial maiden about to have her head chopped off by a drunk Mayan high priest. They bowed instinctively in deference. It must be his temple going, Ashvin reasoned. They say the temples hold great powers. The Golt looked at Ganapathy with tears in his eyes as if he had just lost a best friend to AIDS and they were about to cremate him. He wiped away the tear before it embarrassed him. Mandana was shaking his head side to side in awe, still unable to believe that someone was now shagging in the toilet as he existed on this planet. Shyam put his headphones back on and fast-forwarded to the next song.

Barely three minutes later, the toilet door opened and Ashwin Ganapathy walked outside, sporting a giant stain on his shorts that vaguely resembled the map of Australia. The boys looked at him like devotees of a famous saint, and it was apt because Ashwin Ganapathy had a beatific smile plastered on his face. In fact, if one squinted and cocked their heads to the side, he was a spitting image of the deity, Murugan, who was very popular on Tamizh calendars. All it required was for him to hold a vel and to wear a crown.

“Guys,” he said softly. “I’m a man.”

And like this they lost the second week.


By the time they got to the penultimate week, panic had set in, amongst other things such as manhood. Four of the boys (Mandana and Ashvin being the newer ones) were now bona fide men as ordained by their cult leader - Swami Shyamsundarananda. Their gaits were charged with a swollen sense of pride and accomplishment and they felt as if they had just come in possession of a bazooka. They were walking guns now, loaded with bullets. Bullets that were begging to be spent and spend they did. When they met at Shyam’s place, each of the freshly minted ‘man’ had stories to tell and only the Golt, Yemashwin, sat aloof in this group, feeling hurt and stabbed in the back, for was it not he who had precipitated this…this emancipation with his discovery? Then why did fate spare his blossoming? Was he cursed to languish his entire life in a cracking voice that sounded like he had eaten a donkey, but had quite not managed to swallow it whole? Were people going to continue hesitantly addressing him as ‘madam’ on the phone when he answered? Was he going to be this same height, this un-manly midget-like five-foot-chillar inches high from the ground? Did he try shagging? Of course he had tried to shag. He had tried to shag like he was cramming for his maths final exam, but his tap opened dry and hours of this fruitless endeavor over the week had only resulted in burns. He sighed at his misfortune, consoling himself that at least if he was an Early Man, he would have positively been the first guy to discover fire, given his persistent and powerful rubbing techniques.

Meanwhile, the man who went by the name Ashvin took control of the group and then panicked hard. “What the fuck are we doing, guys? Shagging and smoking? The competition is barely in two weeks. We still don’t know what song to play.”

Mandana grunted. “How about Walk Like an Egyptian?”

Shyam thought about it. “We need a piano for that.” He meant a synthesizer, but these things were interchangeable, considering their nonexistence. “How about Winds of Change? Scorpions?”

“That song with the whistling?” Ashvin asked, drawing from his encyclopedic knowledge of Western Pop music.

“Yeah, that.”

“That’s a good song. We need one more. We have ten minutes on stage.”

And then Yemashwin, in his wallowing self-loathing and pity, intending to fling excrement at these pompous shaggers, decided to suggest an impossible song. “How about Sweet Child Of Mine? GNR?”

There was a palpable sense of something heavy sitting in the room. Everyone looked at each other. Guns N Roses? Could they pull it off? Didn’t it require a Slash in the group to destroy the lead? They automatically looked at Mandana who shrugged and plucked the opening notes in bits and pieces. But surely the song had to be supported with a solid rhythm, a set of chords on which this behemoth of a song could tower above. Staring at the chilli plant’s white blossoms, Ashwin Ganapathy twanged the required chords, albeit at a much slower tempo. Of course, what was Sweet Child O’ Mine without that bold, lighthouse-like bass line that erupted right at the beginning of the song and demanded its attention? Yemashwin stared at his pathetic acoustic guitar with its Karuna brand strings and plucked off the notes on the sixth string as close as he could to the original bass line. It was passable. “I’ll give you the notes,” Ganapathy said, without looking up. That left the percussion and Shyam leapt to his drums and thrashed some beats and swirled around his seat and destroyed the cymbals with a powerful crash. Of course Ashvin didn’t care to sing the first few lines of the song. He knew he was good and everyone else knew no one cared about the vocals. The girls always went for the boys with guitars and that’s why there were so many guitarists in the Rock Brahmins.

“Gentlemen,” Ashvin said solemnly. “I think the Rock Brahmins are going to kick ass. Be prepared for swooning girls and tours. We might have to go to Fishermen’s Cove and god knows where all to play. This is the start of a new beginning. It’s a man’s world and we are going to conquer it.”

There! That man business again, thought Yemashwin, as he tuned his Karuna brand sixth string endlessly. He sighed, perked up and resolved to ask Shyam if he could borrow a page from the Playboy to take home. Maybe some boobage will precipitate this ‘Newton’s Fourth Law’ as Mandana had expertly put – “To and fro motion produces white lotion.” In the worst case, he told himself, he could just spill some of his sister’s Lakmé Fairness Milk and claim victory. With that problem resolved, he set about learning the bass line from Ganapathy and soon the Rock Brahmins were finally rehearsing for their big performance.


There were two types of schools in Madras. One followed your time-tested pantheon of education — the Central Board of Secondary Education a.k.a. CBSE. The CBSE was the ecosystem where young bookworms munched on the pages of the Gulmohar Reader and learned to count on their fingers, then morphed into pupae, spinning an irrelevant and confusing silk filled with unnecessary information about Civics and History and Sanskrit, before breaking free and emerging as serious butterflies during their last two years, with their minds trained only in the hardest forms of science or accounting known to mankind. Here, you would find the usual suspects – Vidya Mandir, PSBB, PS and, of course, the mighty and luminous St. John’s English School.

And then you have the…okay, there are three types of schools, actually. Then you have the schools that followed the State Board syllabus, who had collectively showed their butts to the CBSE and decided to impart their own fair and balanced education to the children. It was rumored that in these schools the speaking of the English language was strictly optional, in fact, forbidden, even during English periods. Such kids could be easily found loitering on the streets who counted in Tamizh and were such experts in that confounded system of rote learning (a remnant of the British legacy) that entire passages would have been memorized from their silly textbooks, ready for regurgitation and prompt erasure on exam days. That said, these State Board-based kids still were formidable opponents in the annual mental slaughter known as the university entrance exams. In this allotment, you will find some stalwarts like Vanavani, Don Bosco and various irrelevant ones such as Chintradripet Higher Secondary School.

And finally…well, actually there might be four types of schools, not three. It is very easy to gloss over the Corporation schools that existed as an underclass of schools. Here, education was free and also totally absent. Classrooms resembled stables and the students were wild animals. It is said that the animals of Guindy Zoo made annual excursions to these schools for pure enjoyment. So horrible were the conditions in this type of school. One would be hard pressed to name schools (Olcott Matriculation comes to mind), but no one really knew anyone who went to these schools or if anyone went there at all. They existed like streetlights and dustbins - silent, decomposed and defaced edifices.

Which brings us finally to the fourth variety, of which only two existed – ICSE. Ask any school kid in Madras what ICSE stood for and he would shrug and go back to memorizing whatever it was he was memorizing on that given day. It actually stood for I Cannot Study Everything. Precisely two schools in Madras subscribed to the ICSE syllabus – Sishya and the very philosophical sounding and as much confusing, The School. The The School was a big pain due to its pretentiousness and also because of the article, The, as the name of the school, which caused lot of confusion in conversation.

“What school is your daughter studying in?”

The school.”

“Yes, which school?”

“That’s what. The school.”

“The school what? It’s not even a sentence. Are you educated?”

Many believed that the real name of the school was silent, like the p in psychology and only was revealed to the students after they had paid the atrociously high fees. Regardless, the crème de la crème of Madras merrily sent their pampered offspring to The School or Sishya and considering their relative proximity, it was a common sight to see a traffic jam of Mercedes, Contessas and Cielos in the Adayar region every morning and afternoon as the spoilt brats were chauffeured to and from school.

Sishya School. So rich were the students who attended it and, conversely, so few of them existed that most children in Madras had never met anyone who studied there. To be invited into Sishya felt like being called into the private antechamber of a Mughal king. The immaculate paint on the school’s walls, the infinite expanse of football and cricket grounds, the crop of shady trees dotting the campus and the conspicuous absence of a battalion of school buses arrested the boys’ minds as they made their way to the auditorium. Only Ashvin, an ex-Sishyaite, appeared nonchalant, displaying the weary and detached look of a autorickshaw driver who had spent his entire life shuttling tourists to the Taj Mahal, as if all this splendor and opulence meant nothing to him.

It was competition day and also hot and muggy. A cool sea breeze wafted inside the heads of everyone present. Outside the auditorium, a carnival atmosphere was trying to secularly coexist with the heat. A few open tents had been pitched and vendors were selling everything from ice cold drinks to samosas. Speakers had been mounted strategically such that one could not escape the din on stage at any place within a few kilometers of the school. The Rock Brahmins had coolly arrived on the scene and were seated amongst the audience, waiting for the horrendous Light Music competition to get over before the Western Music could begin.

Shyam was drumming with his drumsticks on the headrest of the seat in front, much to the consternation of a wizened teacher. Mandana had already befriended the Chemistry laboratory attender and was cheerfully enquiring about the laxity in the school during exam days. Ashvin Matthews, with Shyam’s borrowed Walkman shrouding his ears, clenched his eyes and was studiously singing along with Axl Rose. Yemashwin, trying to appear cool and casual, had sunk into the metal chair and was observing the local female wildlife. Only Ganapathy was lost in a soft rapture with the goings-on of the Light Music competition and was unconsciously slapping a rhythm on his thigh with his palm.

The Light Music came to a finish as a spectacled nerd finished whispering Kuch Na Kaho and was booed off the stage. There was polite and scattered applause from the teachers in the audience, however.

In their rigorous two weeks of practice, the Ashwins and Shyam had overlooked one simple thing that was fundamental to any competition – competition. Not once had they considered that there would be other teams, perhaps more competent than they were. Now they were being forced to consider.

There was a handful of bands in the chairs around them. Their uniforms were a giveaway. The boys spotted Vidya Mandir in their vomit green pants. Then there was PSBB dressed in shirts and pants that had vertical green stripes as if someone dunked them in glue and rolled them in a vat of vermicelli. A bit further, there were a few students in the costume of Chettinad Vidyashram - miserable checked shirts on pansy blue pants. Yes, there was competition. But, four students with slanted eyes, broad shoulders and straight hair were seated next to the Rock Brahmins and Ashvin Matthews recognized this breed instantly.

“Chinkys,” he whispered.

“Fucking north-eastern Chinkys,” Mandana qualified and a shiver ran across the group. It was said that the “Fucking North Eastern Chinkys” were legends with the guitar. They could play Hotel California backwards if they so chose to. They were also very competent at playing it forwards, it was said. These north-easterners, these cuckoo hatchlings, clearly Chinese or Burmese masquerading as Indians, were a force to reckon with and so, just as a group of chimpanzees meeting another group in the wild would each send their emissaries to first scope out each other, Ashvin struck a conversation with the Chinky who he perceived to be the vocalist.

“Hey! Which school, man?” Ashvin asked nonchalantly.

“St. John’s,” replied the non-Ashwin, smiling. He stuck his hand out.

Ashvin’s eyes ballooned. Was this a coup? Hadn’t Mandana carefully bribed Linus, the Principal’s attender, to get them a signed On Duty form? Weren’t they going to submit the form to their class teacher in order to explain their absence? Weren’t they the only set of five students who could technically be excused from school as of now? It was certain death to anyone who didn’t possess the OD form. In St. John’s English school, not wearing a banian or being absent from class without valid reason was tangoing with torture. Then who were these chink-fucks, what were they doing here and, more importantly, how come no one had seen them before in school?

Of course, it was Ganapathy who cleared the issue. “International School?” he asked and the Chinky vigorously nodded. Oh! So they were the music warriors from a sister tribe – the St. John’s International Residential School, a godforsaken Gulag that existed in an alternate universe in some armpit of Madras with a name that ended in -bakam. This wasn’t the posh and regal St. John’s Besant Nagar, that temple of learning and beautiful developing girls, which sat on the edge of the city and offered a panoramic view of the Bay of Bengal from its terrace. No, this was the “other” St. John’s.

Matter closed.

By now the Chinky had informed his other friends of the Rock Brahmins and chairs were moved to form a loose circle. Everyone appraised the other’s instruments and considering the glut of Karuna brand strings, everyone considered themselves equal.

“John,” the first Chink said, shaking hands with everyone.

“Peter,” the next one said.

“Paul,” followed the next.

Jesus! Ashvin Matthews thought. I’m meeting a bunch of saints.

“Paul,” said the last one and added with a smile and a smattering of English, “we both same name.”

“Big deal!” Yemashwin said. “Yov! We are all Ashwins and he is Shyam.”

Shyam waved his drum sticks. “I’m the drummist,” he said, just to make sure it was clear what his role was. “Where’s your drummist?”

The first Paul replied, “We don’t have one. We are doing only acoustic songs.”

“Oh!” said Mandana, a bit arrogantly. “Only acoustic? Like what?”

“Just…Hotel California. What about you guys?”

“We…” Ashvin nervously started, “…we are doing Sweet Child O’ Mine,” he said and suddenly felt like a Coke employee who had just divulged the recipe to a Pepsi salesperson. The Rock Brahmins glared at Ashvin for this treachery. What the fuck, man? Why is he telling them this? Surprise was always the best weapon in war. Didn’t Feng Shui or some famous Chinese baba state that? Now their surprise was gone. Shyam was sure that one of the Pauls would surreptitiously waltz to the judges and smugly tell them to expect a GNR song.

Yemashwin smacked his forehead and cupped his face.


For, in the noise of the distracted crowd that was getting more animated at the impending Western Music event, came the smooth notes of the bass lines of Sweet Child O’ Mine. The saint named Peter had casually slung his guitar and was easily plucking off the notes as if they were low hanging custard apples. While his fingers spidered all over the frets, he laughed and talked to the others, displaying no effort whatsoever. Yemashwin scrambled to watch his fingers, eager to copy as many notes as he could. But before he could remember them, there was applause and the emcee announced that it was time for Western Music and the crowd erupted in cheers.


“It’s cool, man,” Mandana said, looking very serious and holding his palms out. “It’s alright. No one wants to listen to Hotel California. That’s what everyone plays. You get points for originality. And no one performs that song acoustic, okay. No one. It needs two lead guitars. Both electric. You know that last bit where they stand on stage and talk to each other and play? Imagine doing that with an acoustic guitar. Impossible lead, man. Impossible.”

The pep talk worked and Ashvin smiled a bit. Shyam relaxed. Yemashwin resumed “bird watching” where he last left. But seconds later, Paul and Peter were on stage with their two acoustic guitars, facing each other and talking, as they played the impossible lead. It was as if the Eagles had died and reincarnated into these four Chinky saints. When the other St. John’s group was done, the crowd went berserk. Lunch boxes were thrown in the air, along with shoes, paper rockets and ribbons.

The emcee, a fresh young thing in a short skirt and a tight translucent shirt that revealed a stringy bra, sauntered onto the stage and warbled, “We seem to be having some problems with the amplifier. Can the…” she consulted her notes here, “…Rock...Brahmins come backstage, please?”

It was show time!

The Rock Brahmins made a slow and languorous walk to the backstage as if they were coming to accept the Grammy’s. No one clapped, but there were giggles and coy whispers passing around. Ashvin Matthews had moved from Sishya to St. John’s and a few Sishyaites had recognized him.

Ashvin lead the band, as any decent vocalist would. Ganapathy, his face displaying a rare sense of excitement and anticipation, was whistling softly. Mandana and Shyam were talking in whispers, with Shyam drumming the air in front of him, compensating for his height with an animal ferocity. He had already drunk three cups of coffee before arriving and had managed to find a Nescafé vending machine in the school’s cafeteria, from which he had purchased three more.

Yemashwin trailed the band. He fought his shyness and turned his head a bit to take a glance. He almost swooned at the sartorial chutzpah of the Sishyaites. It was as if the girls’ skirts were a mile above their knees. In the mangrove forest of cream skinned, waxed and glistening legs, Yemashwin felt like a lost Bengal tiger, searching for an escape. He nervously smiled and a couple of girls giggled and waved at him. Sweet child o’mine, he thought, staring at their chests. He wondered if his poor father’s government salary could afford to send him to Sishya.

They reached backstage and were immediately confronted by Vandana, the emcee.

“Sorry, guys,” she said animatedly. She was chewing gum and speaking fast. She had more lipstick than anyone else the boys had ever seen (discounting the photo of Shyam’s mom atop the fridge) and she was standing up on her toes every few moments. This caused her skirt to go up and down as if invisible goblins were furiously working pulleys and ropes under her skirt. Her neck swanned out from her starched white shirt and terminated in a glossy mop that was alluringly free of drying jasmine bunches, coconut oil or cheap blue ribbons that formed an unofficial part of the average St. Johnian girl’s uniform. Her dangly earrings and pearly white smile convinced Yemashwin that she was the girl on the Sunsilk shampoo sachets. “Wire broke or something. They are almost done.” She casually placed a hand on Yemashwin and said, “So! Rock Brahmins, huh? Cool name! Fuck! Only band with a name actually.”

The men smiled and nodded. Words had frozen in their heads and hung like centuries old stalactites. Their primal need to fight or flight had been turned on and adrenalin and testosterone was coursing through their body. On the one hand was their imminent stage performance, exacerbated by the delay, and on the other hand was this nymph, coolly flirting with them. Good Lord! Look at her boobs! Did she stuff a pair of channa baturas inside her shirt or what?

Vandana moved closer.

Intentionally, Yemashwin surmised. He felt her soft breast collapse into his biceps.


“So,” she said, pulling out some chewing gum from her mouth and twirling it as if it were a lock of her Sunsilk smelling hair. “What are you guys playing?”

Shyam found his voice. “It’s a surprise. You won’t believe it.”

“I hope it’s not Hotel California again,” she said, rolling her eyes in mock frustration and then giggled. “Three bands have already performed that!” She moved a bit and Yemashwin compensated, refusing to let the softness in his life vaporize so easily. She didn’t seem to mind. In his trilingual mind, however, he realized that vanda meant a thousand in Telugu and somewhere in the deep recess of his brain folds he tried to connect the fact that uttering her name once was akin to reciting the sloka containing the thousand names of god – the Vishnu Sahasranamam. But he never got that far. The amplifier was fixed and the Rock Brahmins were on next.

Vandana introduced them and sashayed out of the stage, winking at Yemashwin and showing him a thumbs-up sign on her way out.

The band members took their positions and waited for Shyam to climb into his seat behind the drums. He looked like a tank commander going to war as he disappeared behind the drums.

Ashvin Matthews took the mike and cleared his throat. With the deepest baritone he could summon, he said, “Friends! We are from St. John’s English School. Today, we would like to play a song.” Shyam rolled his eyes and said (a bit loudly, perhaps), “What the fuck is he doing man? Is he going to sing Papa Kehthen Hain or what?”

But Shyam was vindicated when a hooligan in the crowd yelled, “Play the fucking music.” Ashvin blushed and nodded towards Shyam.

There were oohs and aahs as he struck the sticks against each other, setting the rhythm. From the audience’s point of view, it must have appeared as if the drums were playing by themselves. When Mandana turned on his distortion unit and began plucking the first few notes of Sweet Child O’ Mine, there was absolute and complete pandemonium in the auditorium. More lunchboxes were thrown in the air. Some were flung out of the auditorium to display prodigious lunchbox throwing skills of a few. The boys and girls loosened the knots in their neckties and jumped on top of the chairs. All this happened in the first ten seconds when the song lay bare in its virginal state with nothing but the universe and a lead guitar.

Then it was time for the bass. The song was so well known, it should have been a nursery rhyme or a national anthem of some country. At the appropriate moment, the listener’s mind anticipates the onset of the bass, the rhythm, the percussion and so on. However, two weeks of practice does not a rock band make and what the Rock Brahmins had failed to master was volume. In their spermatozoan fueled need to stand out in the crowd, each of the Ashwins had set his amplifier’s volume to maximum and so when it was Yemashwin’s turn to slip into the song, all that the crowd heard was Mandana’s incessant opening notes, grating on their ears. The God of Death lived up to his name and killed every eardrum in the auditorium and began reaping their souls with his jejune bass notes. The bass was so loud, it caused glass to shatter on a window that already had a cracked pane. The first pair of hands in the crowd went up to shield its owner’s ears from the pillaging noise. But the Rock Brahmins had been set loose and the next instrumental Ashwin joined in, headbanging magnificently with his NCC-style haircut, along with the caffeinated and invisible drummist who now launched a nuclear missile of hatred on his drums. He beat them so hard, one of his sticks cracked and a piece flew into the audience. Unable to take this pheromone outburst, Ashvin Matthews, the last one to enter this musical dramedy, slid onto the floor on his knees, clutching the mike, singing, “She’s got a smile that it seems to me…” without realizing that the mike had come unplugged from its amplifier as he glided towards the audience. There was only the cacophony of untuned guitars and a spastic drummer who was banging away on the cymbals like they were dragons emerging from a hole and had to be beaten back. The only respite to the song came when the entire obnoxious performance reached the middle of the song (Ashvin had managed to plug his mike back after everyone on and off stage had yelled at him to do so) when the words, “Where do we go? Where do we go now?” were sung. The audience, half in shock, the other half in pain, mumbled the chorus in unison, perhaps, in a desperate plea to end this torture. It was a rhetorical question. Where would they go now? No place was safe.

The rest of the song then continued anyway.

History has seen its share of butchers. The Jallianwallah Bagh massacre. The Nazi concentration camps. Et cetera. And now, to that list, perhaps, in some CBSE textbook some day in the future, this miserable performance by the Rock Brahmins would be added. It could be under the Battle of the Chinks. Or, The War on Eardrums at Sishya Battleground (circa 1994). Or, perhaps, under the Treaty of St. John’s To Never Play “Rock” Again.

There were other bands that had performed before and after the Rock Brahmins. None were as good as the Chinkys, but none were as bad as the Rock Brahmins either. They had gone with a healthy quiver of average songs – an MLTR here, a Tracy Chapman solo there, one even managed a Beatles song (Yesterday). After the two extremes, the tamed and shell-shocked audience gingerly clapped along or sang in their minds with the other teams or went to get lunch, now that their lunches were all over the floor.

Soon it was all over. The judges tallied their points and decided that the Chinkys were indeed the best on that day.

The Rock Brahmins assembled outside the school, waiting for Mandana’s father to pick them up in his Maruti van. They aimlessly stared at the festive crowd that was milling about. The excited girls walking about with their loosened ties and bouncing breasts didn’t entice them any more. Some passed by them and snickered. That hurt and Ashvin managed to hold a brave smile. He looked around at his fellow warriors and gave a nod. It was a nod of survival. It was the nod of a virgin’s submission. This was their first time and it could only get better from here on.

“If we practice, we can come back next year and defeat those Chinks,” he said with certainty.

“There is Vidya Mandir culturals happening next month,” Ganapathy said. “If we rehearse more, we can do better.”

“I need new sticks,” Shyam said, drumming his fingers on the concrete. And then he contritely added, “I’ll practice more. I fucked up in the middle.” Of course he had also fucked up the start and the end and everything in the middle, just as everyone else had, but a sympathetic pat on his back was delivered by Mandana.

“Where’s Yemashwin? Where did that Golti fucker go?”

“I saw him when we were packing up the instruments,” Ganapathy said.

“It shouldn’t be too hard to find him. You can hear him from a mile with all those bells around his neck,” Mandana said, mockingly.

Everyone shrugged. Wasn’t he with them all this time? They looked around, craning their heads to search the crowd. Was he buying a drink, that asshole? A Frooti to gulp to forget his sorrows? They didn’t spot him, but they did find Vandana walking across the school yard, her magnificent bosom undulating, as if two tennis balls slammed into the air in the slowest of motions with the largest of kinetic energies. Her friends were equally meretricious and the boys’ hearts beat in quick syncopated rhythms, quite unlike Shyam’s drumming.

It was in this suspended state of animation when Yemashwin approached them from behind and clasped their shoulders in a display of camaraderie. He gave them quick pats and sighed.

Yov! Guys! You know what?” he said.

“What?” Shyam asked absently, his eyes unblinking.

“I’m a man now,” he said, staring at the goddess who had transformed him.

June 20, 2011