Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Hunger Strike at Kasi Vinayaga Mess

When I was in Chennai, the Kasi Vinayaga Mess, a bachelors paradise in Triplicane, hiked their meal prices. Some regulars approached me to ask whether I will participate in a hunger strike in protest. We skipped lunch on a Sunday and spent the whole afternoon in the tea shop in front of the mess. The guy lost his revenue, but didnt give up and went on a return fast. Soon the mess-runners association joined him and cancelled dinner. His wife, annoyed that he didnt bring home that day's collections, went on a hunger strike. Her mahila sangam joined treating it as a twin offence of violation of human rights and economic harassment.

As you naturally expect in argumentative hero-worshipping democracies anywhere in the world, more restaurants and mahila sangams joined and there was food (or lack thereof) crisis in Triplicane. Food prices plummeted and was offered free along with the second-hand books sold on Triplicane platforms, but people would only satisfy their intellectual hunger and use it to hold on to their protest with determination. The Parthasarathy Swamy, overlooking the Bay of Bengal, suddenly discovered to His helplessness, that the Madapalli (temple kitchen) was closed without prior notice and his daily dose of Chakkey Pongey and Iyengar Puliyodharai had been withdrawn. The priests, who ran many Braahmanaal Messes as part-time, treated the Divine Temple Kitchen as an extension of their mess, and for all their namams built up with devotion, put a bigger one to the Lord that day. The Madisar Maamis quickly used the opportunity to declare 'mess-closed' for their agrharam kitchens too and happily settled down to watch the Malini Iyer serial, starring Sri Devi as a Tambram bride in a hindi-speaking household, so that they can take a dig at their Mylapore counterparts. As if a Manjula Iyengar would have made a better bride and a better serial. Being without a mess, people realised, became a big mess.

And then hunger struck. I mean, it STRUCK us. In chronological order. First, it struck me, actually. That is real hunger strike, when hunger strikes you. How long can you stand in front of a mess and not have food, particularly, food being a primary component of happiness index for Brahmacharis, what other earthly pleasure did they seek in life, after all ? Are we not the ones who treat the payasam given by the neighbourhood aunty after Satynarayana Pooja with maximum reverence and effortlessly devour it as if it was a glass of buttermilk ? We gave up all the principles that we held dear to our heart since the afternoon and stomached a cardinal teaching that was right in front of our dangling eyes in broad daylight waiting to be acknowledged.

That was this: Right there, somewhere near the Ice House Bus Stand, Swami Vivekananda had declared, after the Darshan of Lord Parthasarathy, Vedanta was definitely not for empty stomachs. No, not for you Madrasees, in particular. I think, he might have actually insisted you have atleast one sambar idly in Ratna Cafe before you picked up Ashtavakra Gita. A session of Ashtavakra Gita can be so strenuous, it can consume a lot more idlies. This part must have been edited by his translators to avoid the ethnic reference to a regional cuisine and to avoid sounding as if he was promoting a particular brand of Idlis. So much intensity there was in the speech to his disciple Azhasinga Perumal that they named the bus stand as Vivekananda House. Not knowing a Kannaki Statue will come up nearby on the beach and there will be nomenclature clashes about Kannaki and Vivekananda. (But why do they still call it Ice House ? I mean neither of them stand to benefit).

'I like Vedanta', I thought, 'I don't want to give up Vedanta', but that would also mean, I shouldn't remain with an empty stomach. Isn't Vedanta the crowning jewel of all the principles in the world, before which all other principles fade into oblivion, my mind and stomach justified, in partnership. That knowledge, when known, you dont need to know anything else. That sambar idli, when eaten, you don't need to eat anything else. Clearly, I was beginning to see the similarities between the ephemeral and the eternal and how to put Vedanta into daily life, sincerely taught by Ashtavakra and sumptuously sponsored by Rathna Cafe. It's amazing, if you deter the metabolism and deny oxygen to the brain for a few hours, how it constructs an equally beautiful, alternate logical structure mixing up gods, swamijis and their disciples, treating letters as speeches and quoting the right sentence from the wrong source, dotting all 'i's in the idlis and dashing all the 't's in Vedanta. And justifies with a simple conclusion, whatever needs to be done, just do it. I was a new man, with new logic, new metabolism and a newly washed old tumbler in my hand.

I entered the mess and force fed the owner first with a 'single tea' and pleaded with him to force feed all of us at the tables.

You know what, the snowballing effect of what would have turned into a public movement led by a Naishtika brahmachari, surpassing the ahimsa movement led by a not-so-naisthika brahmachari, was averted and the cascading reversed. He force fed his wife, who in turn, force fed him back in reciprocation of affection. Ooooooo, it was a sight for all the hungry Gods of Triplicane to see. Both of them started force feeding the mess owners and mahila sangams on either side of the gender divide. They also force fed the second hand book sellers, who were already fed, since they had not yet joined, but were fed up to see the spoilt food causing the books to smell. Though the books had their worn-out paper smell that resembled the fragrance that emanates from the beach sands after a mild shower, the additional ingredient to the odour had sent wrong signals to the intellectually hungry elite and their book sales had been suffering. The F & B industry and the Publishing Industry in India, both got the lesson in a single session: 'Dont mess up with a bachelors mess, they are already a pre-fabricated mess by design, otherwise it will take a messrs of all messes and their mrs-es to clear up the mess'.

The KVM owner still calls me up every Saturday night to assure me the prices are the same. When he called today, however, he sounded worried. It seems the PMK party in Tamil Nadu wants the state to be divided. 'Thambeeee ,', he said, 'will they go on a hunger strike like your folks in Teloongana ?' he enquired with his eye brows already drawn like the borders of bifurcation. He didnt know that I no more lived in such a nice place called Samaikhya Andhra Pradesh, which Bharathiar praised as Sundara Telunginil Paatisaithu, but in a newly carved state called Greater Rayalaseema. The greater name sounds a bit like Navi Mumbai or Burj Dubai. Why don't they just call it Royal Seema or something rhyming and poetic like Rathnalaseema. Why don't I go on a hunger strike on this issue and feel off as if I am some Prakasam Panthulu ?

He insisted that I intervene, lest the Pandya Kingdom south of Dindigul is split off as a separate state. Now that really touched me, it immediately transported me on Rani Mangammal Transport Corporation to the rock fort and 'Aranmanai Kulam' (Palace Pond) of that sleepy tobacco town. If you touch such a sentimental, emotional, territorial chord, how can I refuse ? Further, he extended his imagination richly to surmise that, if I allowed the split to happen, the new territory upto Rameswaram, may, in due course, quit India and float off on Sethu Samudram, to become a state under Sri Lankan sovereignty. Given their recent modus operandi of establishing sovereignty, the word wont mean much anyway, I told him, they might just send them all back as refugees to Triplicane and you would have a roaring business. May be you should start a Kandi Kadhirgaamak Kandhaa Mess.

However, to allay his secession fears, I asked him if there was any tea shop in front of the PMK office. 'Alone-aaa Thambeee ?', he asked, thinking I might borrow a few volunteers from KCR and use it for a similar cause. 'Don't worry Anney', I told him, 'there will be surely some college nearby, that will do for additional troops'. Just provoke some students, and show them how their entire green pastures and futures lie in just foregoing a lunch and crowding at the tea shop and drooling at the girls. Nay, first provoke the teachers, our students respectfully follow the illustrious teachers on all the wrong things precisely, and then they will all do a repeat performance of Kasi Vinayaga Mess. What more do bachelors want to start a hunger strike ? And for what else do you want to use all the youth and passion and intensity ? After all, were we not told, they are clay and they can be moulded. Just use the clay part in their heads. Any volunteers ? I promise you, we'll be back for dinner, we've dunnit before.


  1. kudos to your metaphorical presentation of the seemingly provincial issues......
    Now Amritavalli mess knows who creates mess in the mess!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Anna-Nama-Acharya !!

    One of your best light-hearted takes...

    Was stunned by the time menitioned in "POSTED BY NAMAJI AT 10:41 PM", but was okay when mail sent by you had the time stamp "Sun 13/12/2009 1:17 AM"

  3. Was tickled pink to see the reference to Ratna Cafe and Parthasarathy Temple. The temple pulihora is simply awesome. Used to love every morsel of it. Ice House was always called Ice House because I believe that there was the Ice Storage House there right from the times of the British. Even before the statues came up apparently.
    Though you do have to suspend your disbelief to the very extreme, the heart of the post after all lies in the right place.

  4. For the first half of the article,

    I feel embarrassed and undeserved that i should be among the few hundreds to read this article. THIS SHOULD BE PUBLISHED IN SUNDAY MAGAZINE OF "THE HINDU". Please send it to them. I know that many more deserve to read that.

    For the second half, I just remembered a quote I read in some paper supplement recently,

    “Man is ready to die for an idea, provided that idea is not quite clear to him” - Paul Eldridge

    So make sure that when you start this hunger strike, you don't make the objective unequivocal.

    If you do are sending the article to THE HINDU, please send only the first half as I don't want it to be rejected because they find the second half controversial.

  5. I am sure you must have had a discussion with PG Wodehouse while you were strolling along the riverside with this thought in your head and hunger in your stomach!

    You MAY have forgotten to mention that you had a video conference with the KVM owner every sat night... That led moongazer to turn orange at the thought of SEEING "..the eye brows drawn..." over a phone call!
    Apart from very many vernacular lingo, even gazer could dwell deep into the amazing solution that the world is groping for!!

  6. Namaji!!!! I like the messy line about the messrs very much. :). Nice creativity and terrific thinking.


Thank you for your comments....

THANK YOU: These reflections draw sometimes from readers and friends who initiate ideas, build up discussions, post comments and mention interesting links, some online and some over a cup of coffee or during a riverside walk. Thank you.

Disclaimer: Views expressed in this blog are the blogger's personal opinions and made in his individual capacity, sometimes have a story-type approach, mixing facts with imagination and should not be construed as arising from a professional position or a counselling intention.