Subha J Rao and K. Jeshi have been there from the early days. The other members are Pankaja Srinivasan, Akila Kannadasan, Esther Elias and Parshathy. J. Nath. (Before we are accused of gender bias, the fact that we are an all-women team is accidental rather than intentional!) Rayan Rozario deserves special mention for the sports stories he filed for us. He wrote the lead story on Narain Karthikeyan for our first issue of the Weekend MetroPlus.
Each of us has a distinctive writing style, we are often told. But all of us have written about everything with some of us being a little better at certain subjects than the others. Food, cinema, people, fashion, health, theatre, literature, art, music, technology, heritage, history…there is little we have not touched upon. In the process, we have met men and women who lead simple, sometimes difficult, but often exemplary lives. They reaffirm our faith in humankind.
We have enjoyed writing about five-star lifestyles as much as we have the stories of the not-so-glamorous — the potter, the jow mittai man, the street food vendor, the auto driver, transgenders, the tree savers…We have derived special satisfaction when we have featured our beloved city.
Ah, the tanks of Coimbatore! The Noyyal river, the heritage buildings. Nooks and corners where history was made, marketplaces, places of worship, old roads, old trees…Writing for MetroPlus has been a huge learning curve for us and we are better human beings for it.
Spell bound in an auto
One moment, I was in a pitch-dark alley in a nameless village in Andhra Pradesh and the next, I was in a 10x10 lock-up that reeked of urine. From the backseat of an auto parked in a by-lane in Peelamedu, ‘Auto’ Chandran took me to places I only saw in nightmares. Seated inside his auto that doubled as his office, the auto driver who is also a writer narrated his story to me. In my two years as a journalist, Chandran’s is one of the stories I immensely enjoyed writing. He kept me spell-bound for almost three hours. He told me stories of his prison mates from Guntur. ‘Murder-case' Pullaiyan, the Naxalite who loved to sing… he brought the characters alive for me. With his long hair in a pony tail, white beard, booming voice, piercing eyes and impeccable Tamil, Chandran was a character straight out of a writer’s imagination.
It was my first month in Coimbatore, MetroPlus. I remember one of my early assignments. The article I wrote about was called "From here and there". It was about similarities between Kerala and Coimbatore cuisine. I did not have a single contact or acquaintance. But the story helped me take my first baby steps as a jopurnalist. I barged into unknown hotels if I caught a waft of puttu or biriyani. I still remember the look of amusement on the faces of the old hotel owners. Banana slice and A1 chips became my regular stopovers. I have pestered the shop owners with my questions. Even today, as I pass these shops, I walk a little slower, just to see if my first interviewees remember me, and I wait for a warm smile.
Lady with the dogs
It was a warm afternoon and I was on my way to Periamadhampalayam. Google Maps didn’t acknowledge it as a place, but the lady I was to meet said she lived in a run-down school room there, with a legion of dogs. Bus no 102A also said the place existed. I got off at the last stop, amid trees, tall grass and no sign of civilisation but a mud road with recent footprints. A lone automan took me down a lane and a half hour later, I was at ‘naya parambu’. I had no connectivity to call the lady and dogs circled me from everywhere. A moment before I bawled from fear, the lady appeared waving, with puppies in her arms. She held my hand and introduced me to her 176 dogs. Over the next three hours, she told me, an absolute stranger, her life history. It was a story of abuse, love from unexpected quarters and terrible struggle. Between the words, poured out laughter, tears and silence. I sat stunned into wordless awe, with a gnawing ache somewhere inside. By the time we were done, the stars were out and I had a two-hour journey home before me. I left knowing that I’d met someone precious, someone more human that I could ever be.
A day at the hospice
Raksha, the hospice run by the GKNM Hospital, had just been inaugurated and photographer Ananthan and I were there to meet its inmates. Veeramani, 43, knew he was going to die any minute, but had made peace with the fact that his wife would have to raise their two children alone. Then, there was Narayanan, a retired postman, with end-stage throat cancer. The doctors had told us his end was very near. Though he could not speak, Narayanan communicated using pen and paper. When told we were from The Hindu, his eyes welled up. “I’m a regular reader,” he wrote. Then he asked, “When will this article appear?” Ananthan turned away to hide his tears. I held Narayanan’s hand. Words failed me.
The brave news world
It is not easy, I assure you, being part of a team where every one else is decades younger. At least fifty per cent of my colleagues are younger than my own kids. While that is not very nice for them, they put up with me, because I pretend to understand everything they say. I am constantly amazed at their dexterity, energy, innovation and enthusiasm besides their burning love affair with the internet. I got a tattoo to keep pace with them, but that did not help too much.
When technology fails me, have taken refuge in nostalgia, food and travel to contribute my bit to the paper. MetroPlus has kept me grounded. I have met people whose commitment and dedication to causes has left me open-mouthed. Meeting individuals and institutions and writing about them has been a huge learning curve. I am still thrilled after all these years when my articles are praised. Of course, I have been put in my place too by those who say all that they enjoy in the paper are the comic strips and crossword!
When SPB sang for me …
Singer S.P. Balasubhramanyam was in town. And, I am hoping for an exclusive interview. I make it to the venue 20 minutes ahead of the show, find myself a seat in the front row and keep my fingers crossed. He appears with his trademark smile. Sangeetha megham, kadhalin deepam onru, tere mere beech mein, kaeladi kanmani, unakenna maela ullaai… I sit there mesmerised by his singing.
Now the interview. The organisers turned down my request. But, I was not about to up so easily. After all, he is my favourite singer. I hang around backstage. After a few minutes SPB turns and makes eye contact! I grab the opportunity, clamber up on the stage and whisper my request to him. "I will meet you at the hotel after the concert," he promises.
He arrives. Despite his team urging him to have dinner and rest, he smiles at me and starts talking in what turns out to be one of my all-time memorable interviews. He signs a note on my notebook. It says, "Nice knowing you Jeshi" I ask him if he will sing and he does, "Nilaavey Vaa…" I record it on my Dictaphone and float home.