It was a cozy start to the evening at Gallery Sri Parvati, with about ten of us seated around Shreekumar Varma, listening to him talk about Madras and Chennai.
Incidentally, for those who might not know him too well, Shreekumar Varma is an Indian author, newspaper columnist and poet, known for the novels Lament of Mohini (Penguin, 2000), Devil's Garden: Tales Of Pappudom (Puffin, 2006) and the historical book for children, The Royal Rebel (Macmillan, 1997). He is the great grandson of the artist Raja Ravi Varma and grandson of Regent Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the last ruling Maharani of Travancore. He was born at the Satelmond Palace, Poojapura, Thiruvananthapuram. His parents left Kerala and settled down in Madras when he was four. He studied in the Good Shepherd Convent, the Madras Christian College, from where he completed his M.A. and M. Phil in English Literature. Later, he taught briefly at the college. He also did a course in Journalism from the Bhavan's College of Journalism and Mass Communication. The British Council and The Madras Players staged Shreekumar’s two award-winning plays, The Dark Lord and Bow Of Rama, and also Platform. He has written columns for The New Indian Express, The Economic Times Madras Plus, Ritz, Fiji Times and Deccan Herald. He was awarded the Charles Wallace Fellowship for the year 2004, and was Writer-in-Residence at Stirling University, Scotland. Shreekumar’s new novel Maria's Room is on the Long List for the Man Asia Literary Prize. He is a full-time writer and a visiting lecturer at the Chennai Mathematical Institute.
Shreekumar began by describing how Nungambakkam High Road was in the 1960s and 70s – full of trees and open spaces, large garden houses, and eeriness at night. It was so silent at night that his dog’s bark could be heard near the Gemini flyover! It was Shreekumar’s father who established Hotel Ganpat, and that probably changed Nungambakkam forever. The Taj Coromandel came and things were never the same again. Shreekumar read out portions of his writings and others’ as well, including Colin Todhunter’s. All so varied and rich in prose that together they weaved a tapestry of the city that was. For Shreekumar, Madras is nostalgia, while Chennai is a happening city; both names, he says, conjures different images. They are to him not one and the same city.
Ten more people trooped in mid-way through his talk. There was a lot of interaction, and it was almost like a storyteller sitting by the fireside and engaging children with stories of yore. Lakshmy Venkataraman, who owns Gallery Sri Parvati (it was her childhood home), chipped in with a lot of interesting tidbits. On the whole, a worthwhile evening.