Spare time pursuits

30 May

Sujatha Pelletier

Continuing our series of guest writers, Sujatha Pelletier, whose parents Manohar and Mahema Devadoss have been part of Chennai’s literary and cultural scene for the last several decades, and whose life as a mother and wife of a representative of the US government in different corners of the world has been richly rewarding, writes…

Amongst the many things that keep my family coming back to Chennai every year is the fact that my native city does not always yield its sweaty charms to those who prefer the convenience of franchised and branded cultural experiences. The exertions of the hunt may be tiresome to some, but they merely whet the appetite for one who, having lived in 8 countries in the past 17 years, has found that things are not always what they seem.

Don’t get me wrong. I could not be more thrilled that chic and tranquil oases of civilised verandah cuisine have sprouted in Gopalapuram and Raja Annamalaipuram. The fabulous post-modern merchandise available in today’s Chennai is at once exotic and contemporary, paying modern homage to the craft of the traditional artisans who still ply their trades around the streets of Mylapore, for eg., or old Triplicane.

Seeing a re-worked “Pambadam” ( these are the cubist asymmetrical gold earrings that used to hang from the ear-lobes of orthodox women deep in the South of the Indian sub- continent) in the elegant rosewood-and-halogen setting of Sundar Mahal produces in me a delighted frisson of recognition. This is both because the last time I saw a ‘pambadam’ was in the ear-lobes of an elderly rural lady years ago and because their display and sale to the elite clientele of Amethyst means that old Tamil ‘pambadams’ are being appreciated for their muscular artistry outside of their ancient milieu.

Like most old cities though, Chennai will reward and enrich the visitor in direct proportion to the effort put in. My car-plane-rocket obsessed 4-year old has a new-born sibling, summer-time on his hands and a mother with a mission. Outdoor playgrounds, expensive indoor play areas, Snake park, the planetarium, the Egmore museum, the Mylapore temple, Santhome Church, roller-skating at the beach, feeding the fish at the Parthasarathy temple tank, “Amma been there, done that”. It was time to pull out my secret weapon and although it had been years since I’d been there, I had faith that globalisation had not yet spread its eerie homogeneity over this unique place.

Pudupettai!! Aniketan was riveted, so to speak, the moment he heard the hammering. Cross a bridge over one of Chennai’s stinky water-ways and you’re in a special zone of automobile spare-part dealerships where seemingly any part of any vehicle large or small can be had. Industrious men squat in front of greasy store-fronts, hammering, splitting or tinkering with small hillocks of metal pieces, all indecipherable to the untrained eye but laden with meaning and potential to those whose livelihoods depend on them. Beyond their business sense, the wheeler-dealers of Pudupettai display a talent for installation art. Shiny new hub caps, horns and headlights are fetchingly draped in artistic compositions that frame every entrance way. As always, colours, shapes and textures jostled with pleasing randomness while cannibalised suspensions, propeller shafts, radiators and bumpers excited my son’s book- fed curiosity.

With the visual IQ of a mature graphic artist recognising arcane fonts or architectural minutiae, Aniketan spontaneously showed off his vast knowledge of automobiles, parsing car make and model by looking at the brake lights strung up. “Ford Ikon Flair!” he’d say, jabbing at the air, “Fiat Padmini, Ambassador, Santro, Maruti Zen” etc. “How does he know all this”? the astonished dealers would demand. “Photographic memory for hundreds of car- brake- light formats,” I’d explain casually, desperately hoping inside that he’d parlay his talent quickly into something beyond job offers from the dealers of Pudupettai.

I offered to buy him an old steering wheel since he enjoys driving his cot so much. Exhibiting the good taste that has frequently pushed his mother to over-spend at Chamiers and at Amethyst, Aniketan zeroed in on the ONLY wooden steering wheel in the entire zone, no doubt from a luxury car like a Ferrari GTO or an Aston Martin of yore. Being a reasonable sort of child, he yielded on the bank breaking burnished beechwood number and settled for a greasy old plastic Maruti steering wheel, carefully ensuring that the horn switches were intact. At Rs.50/-, I thought it was a wonderful memento of an afternoon well spent in one of Chennai’s more tourism -challenged zones.

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