My mother always used to recall the day I was born. It rained heavily, and Madras was flooded.
A lot like today I guess.
She would always recollect two specific incidents that happened. The rains that enveloped the maternity ward in Kasturba Hospital where I was born.
The other incident was how our home in Perambur was submerged in water, and how they had to keep the newborn in a cradle lot closer to the loft (‘Paran’ in Tamil) for the first few days, safe from all the waters. (My grandfather and father both were employed by the Southern Railways and they had a living quarters allotted in Perambur Railway Colony).
Every time, my grandmother used to narrate stories of Krishna, especially the birth of the God, she would narrate how there were massive floods in Mathura and how Vasudeva heroically saved His life from the villainous Kamsa by taking him across the Yamuna River that was in spate. She would immediately add: “You too were born in similar rains. We did not have any electricity for the first ten days that we brought you home as a baby. Yet many came to see you.”
This might sound weird but I have always felt a certain connection with rains.
It has always rained on the important days of my life. If not a torrential downpour at least a slight drizzle.
So much so that every time something seems important enough in my life, I look skywards for some sort of confirmation that it is. If it rains, then something important is happening in my life.
I was an introvert as a kid. I used to struggle to speak, to make a point or even make my presence felt. This would be a surprise for you if you meet me today. But the first half of my life at least was very different. I have for long wondered why I was that way, until I think I found the definitive answer. I grew up in a household, where circumstantially I was constantly told to “shut up” or “behave”.
This is tough to explain, but in all honesty this is not such an unusual way of disciplining children back then.
So I would not talk to others much as a kid. Instead, I had imaginary friends, who I used to chalk all across the walls of our home. I used to immerse myself in the stories that my grandmother would narrate. We got our first television quite late in our home. I do not think I watched any amount of television till I was 10 or 12 years old. In hindsight, this was such a blessing.
I moved to Anna Nagar when I was fairly young, I guess even before I was two or three years old and have stayed here from then on.
Growing up in Anna Nagar through the 1980s was fun. It used to be a great neighbourhood for walking and cycling, and probably still has the best avenue trees in the city. Those were the days when kids could play either street cricket or “seven stones” on the streets without having to worry one bit about approaching cars.
I did not move out of Anna Nagar for most of my growing up years. In fact, till I finished schooling, barring the visits to cinema theatres during my high school days, there was hardly any necessity to leave Anna Nagar.
The neighbourhood had it all: Velmurugan and Book Nook libraries, where I got my dose of Asterix, Tintin, Famous Five and Secret Seven; Shankar Chat Bandar, who continue to make the yummiest samosas and channa masala; the erstwhile Grand Theatre, where I remember watching the James Cameron-directed Aliens some four times in a week; Anna Nagar Tower Park, where we used to play ‘legside-only’ cricket.
I was fairly good at academics up until Primary School, and specifically till Calculus and Organic Chemistry was introduced into the syllabus. I was quite proficient in English right through school, and that was partly because of my love for English comic books – especially Indrajal comics – and mostly because of my grandfather.
My grandpa – thatha – was tall, well-built and an extremely scary man. A very strict discplinarian, he would at times bring to a balance the excessive affection I would receive from my grandmother (paati).
But he was not all bad. He would buy me English books to read, and often take me to Book fairs. He also formed a part of a weekly ritual. Every weekend, he would take me to the Flower Bazaar market in Parrys Corner by bus, and take me through the maze of stores that sold many varieties of flowers.
If I close my eyes even today, I can go right back in time and recollect even the minutest details. The slushy roads, the haphazardly parked vehicles en route to the market, the many rickshaw wallahs who would yell at you to give way, the seemingly endless rows of stores selling flowers by the kilos … it used to be both awe-inspiring and scary at the same time. I would hold my thatha’s hand real tight because I was scared that I would get lost in the crowds. There have been times when he would be standing right beside me, but I would suddenly feel a jolt down my spine as if I am lost in a sea of humanity.
Thatha also imbided a certain habit towards newspapers. Every week, he would collect paper clips and sit beside me to create a scrapbook. I remember collecting ‘Know Your English’ column and looking forward to political humourist Art Buchwald, who had such a wonderful turn of phrase.
My academics took a tumble when thatha passed away. Suddenly, what seemed effortless seemed dreary and difficult. I still have the award for general proficiency I received in my class Six, because I consistently got good ranks until then. (The prize was the comic book version of William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”).
I just went from the guy who would consistently get ranks 1 through 3 to suddenly failing to get the minimum required 40 marks in Maths. Organic Chemistry then sealed the deal. Where others would see chemical equations, I would only see endless, meaningless circles.
I can say I went through a difficult phase for three to four years, where my academics dipped and the lack of accomplishments started bothering me. It did not also help that I had biggest buck tooth around, and was bullied in my neighbourhood by a much older guy who would mock my appearance endlessly.
I managed to claw my way out of this phase when I finally discovered how empowering extra-curriculars would be. We organised a school drama inspired by the ‘Back to the Future’ movie. I also started participating in debates and other competitions, most specifically Dumb Charades. I would recall two incidents that would completely change my outlook.
There are quite a few memorable incidents I can think of when it comes to extra-curriculars at school. But two stand out: being a part of Rotary Youth Leadership Award camp at the Theosophical Society grounds in Besant Nagar, where we organised a quick play; and competing at the Le Park culturals organised by the Lions Club of Madras at the Anna Auditorium near the Marina Beach. In both instances, I remember casting aside my fears and facing a big audience of strangers.
Schooling ended on a mixed note. I did not have the best of grades, but I still enjoyed being a part of Jaigopal Garodia Vivekananda Vidyalaya. This is the only school I attended from kindergarten through High School. I cannot thank enough all my teachers there, including the ones that I feel maybe could have been better, and I will always nurture the friends I made there.
You can always make new friends as you go along, but the ones that know who you really are are probably the ones that you made earliest in your life.
I moved away from Chennai, where I was born and did all my schooling, for the first time ever when I went to college. In fact, this was the first time I moved out of Anna Nagar.
Sri Sankara Arts and Science College is in a small village Enathur, that is still a good seven kilometers away from the temple town of Kanchipuram.
Moving to Enathur was frustrating initially. If Anna Nagar was the ideal city neighbourhood that had every thing, Enathur felt like the village that had nothing to offer.
My three years in Enathur in hindsight feels like a penance. No television, no girls to chase, no fancy restaurants to eat at, no places to hangout, … It was quite aggravating when it panned out.
I used to cry, quite literally, during the first few weeks of my stay at the hostel in Enathur. It was not a nice picture.
But those years also taught me something very important. It was one thing to long for what I did not have, but instead of drowning in that, it can be quite empowering if used right. I used to sit on the mile-marker stone on the Enathur village road and imagine my own future. When I did that, I always imagined being happy. That magically would change my mood.
After Enathur, I came back to Anna Nagar as a graduate with a second class degree but decided to not look forward to others helping me. I tried to create my own opportunities.
I studied post-graduate diploma in mass communication and journalism at the Madras Christian College’s Continuing Education Department. It was a poor cousin to other post-graduate degree programmes but it served an important function in my life: I gave myself a year to get back into city life, maybe catch up on a bit of fun that I had missed out while being in Enathur the previous three years, and redirect some focus on how to do well.
Though I was aspiring to enter the world of advertising as a copywriter, it was by sheer chance that I applied for the job of a sub-editor at News Today, an evening daily in Chennai.
I took the job more as a whim, but it then impacted my life for the next 15 and half years. There was no turning back thereon.
I would be lying if I say all my journalism thereafter was driven by lofty goals of idealism and in the pursuit of being a government watchdog. During the initial years, it was purely to impress one person.
But journalism teaches you life lessons worth taking. It is a profession where you will come across a lot of idealistic people. It involves a lot of hardwork, long hours at office, frustrating mistakes and, of in recent years, endless targeting by people who do not even have a clue how much of diligence goes into it.
I do not consider my career so far as remarkable but I have had a few successes. I have edited a tabloid for the publishers of The Hindu, where I have also enjoyed a long stint as a reporter as well. Whatever one might think about the paper’s left-leaning editorial stance, I would still rate it the best newspaper to work for. I am sure most journalists would agree.
This March, I took a sabbatical to give myself a year to regain my health, spend time with the family that I have for nearly 16 years completely ignored and also to re-establish my own goals going forward.
This might sound a bit presumptuous. But from my own experiences thus far – from being an introvert to an extrovert of sorts, from going from Enathur to The Hindu, from going from a reporter to an Editor, from my friends from all over the world who face and survive in far more difficult circumstances – I back myself to come back from any situation I find myself in.
Drawing on those thoughts, I would back anyone else too to do well too. No one can set our limits of what can be achieved.
I have also had wonderful role models. Senior journalists that I have observed from close quarters, my friends from Germany and all over the world who were part of the workshops I attended in Berlin and of late a lot of enterprising youngsters and entrepreneurs, who have shown no fear in passionately pursuing their dreams.
During my break from a job, I have tried to recapture the essence of my years growing up. I think this is quite important for all of us to do, if we are to make the second half of our lives meaningful.
My feeling now is that sometimes we attach too much importance to things that are sure to pass by, sooner or later. More than the articles I have written or the tabloid I have edited or other such accomplishments, I think my real success has been in backing some good people and being a good friend.
I am pretty old school when it comes to the word ‘friendship’. I think friends do a lot more than just RT your message or favourite your profile photo.
We all know that a true friend is someone who is actually there at times of need.
So, on my birthday today, I want to thank my friends.
I sure hope I have been a good friend to a some people.
And yes, if you want it, we could be friends too.
Oh, by the way, my friends call me Kat.