Friday, April 6, 2012

Vadapalani, the neighborhood I hated to love

'Dispatches', the CBC radio show, brings the world to my Winnipeg kitchen every Sunday evening, while I try to cook and get somewhat ready for the coming week. Two weeks ago, they brought nothing less than my old neighbourhood, Vadapalani, to me. The last time I saw this west Chennai neighborhood and its inhabitants so clearly and vividly, even across the miles, was in Kiev, while watching a Kamalahaasan movie (dubbed in Russian). Several extras in the movie were faces I recognized from my neighbourhood streets -- some I had known slightly better than others; some would have known me right back as 'the engineer's daughter' or as 'the girl with the white dogs.' It was surreal -- then in Kiev, and that Sunday here in Winnipeg, to realize how every cell in your body is attuned to every sound, every background detail, every bit of news about the multi-layered neighbourhood you once walked about fearlessly, despite, and because of, your privileged position.

While it was my father who made the aggravating decision to live in Vadapalani, away from the "upwardly-mobile" middle-class folks, it was my mother, despite her displeasure and unhappiness at having to make it her home, who made friends effortlessly, without judgement, with people the Madras middle-class wouldn't even look straight in the eye. I can't honestly say that we knew any sex workers for sure but the early polyandrous women and polyamorists I knew were neither economically-independent, socially-liberated, highly-educated white (black or brown) women in Europe or North America nor the Draupadis of Hindu Mythology. They were cheerful characters like Omana, the partner of the dance-teacher/choreographer Paulose, and the Malayalee Catholic woman whom I simply knew as Annama's mother and who always had a smile for my mother and me, even as she was arguing with her second-and-kinder husband, a stunt man.

The last time I was in my parents' home in Vadapalani, I couldn't tell if all these people, interesting enough to populate a Vikram Chandra novel, had moved out of the neighbourhood or had moved into the new middle-class apartments that have sprouted all around. But I hope they haven't been forced out to make way for those who assume they are too good to live among the people who made Vadapalani/Kodambakkam their home in the '70s and '80s.

From Dispatches:

"Help for Kids of India's Sex Workers"

Audio can be found here:

The lure of stardom has been the downfall of more than a few actors drawn to the bright lights of Hollywood. For every one star that emerges, dozens fall. Some, right to the bottom. You don't hear their story very often. India's huge film industry has a similar allure, and similar casualties, with a cultural twist. And we can tell you their story. And how some are trying to catch them when they fall. This one begins with the CBC's Priya Sankaran in one of India's key film production centres."

Photo from Arcot Road Times.

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