Saturday, September 24, 2011

Madras Chronicles — Summer of '79

Every kid grows up with a song that keeps repeating in his head. For me it was என்னடி மீனாட்சி, சொன்னது என்னாச்சு from the movie இளமை ஊஞ்சல் ஆடுகிறது directed by ஸ்ரீதர் that had memorable performances by Kamal Hasan, Rajnikanth, Sripriya and Jayachitra. The song performed by S.P. Balasubramaniam was quite popular in '78-'79 and whenever All India Radio played the song, I used to run towards the radio and start dancing. It was a favorite entertainment for all the aunts and uncles in the household. The fact that my maternal grandmother was named Meenakshi must have had something to do with it.

Anyone who is a native of Madras would attest to the fact that summer heat can be gruesome, especially during the period known as அக்னிநட்சத்திரம். It also generally coincided with the time when schools were closed for the annual holidays. I spent the summer of '79, my first in Madras, at my grandfather's place.

The house was paradise for a kid like me because there were seven other tenants in that compound and their families had children of my age who were my friends. I spent the best part of my childhood there. One such family had two brothers—Viji (short for Vijayabhaskar) was a few months younger than me and Balaji was about a few years older than me. When we played street cricket, Viji transformed into this mean bowler and Balaji was always hitting sixers and fours. I usually sucked at both.

But this story isn't about cricket. It is about a uniquely summer sport enjoyed by kids of that bygone era in all areas of Madras. It is about kite-flying. A colorful kite bought from a kite seller would have cost us 50 paise those days. We weren't the types that would part with 50 paise. We had Balaji who was the expert kite-maker. He taught me how to make kites. The kites you bought would invariably use bamboo sticks for the frame. Balaji used தென்னங்குச்சி. We used old newspapers instead of the colored ones. Balaji preferred தினமணி that my grandfather subscribed to. Of course we used leftover Idlies or rice as the glue. He made fantastic kites and was a perfectionist.

The general provision stores (நாடார் கடை) would pack rice, lentils and other provisions using newspapers and tie them up using jute thread. If you walked around the streets you could pick up enough thread fragments that could be linked together to make a ball of jute thread the size of a tennis ball. That’s exactly what we did for my first kite and I was hooked.

The big news item that year was that Skylab—an American satellite that had fallen off its orbit—was expected to re-enter the earth's atmosphere and fall somewhere on land. Newspapers were running campaigns running into tens of thousands of dollars for anyone who finds a piece of the space junk. The favorite warning of mothers who did not want their children playing in the hot summer sun was, believe it or not—'The Skylab is falling… You don't want it on your head!'

I am not the one to be deterred by such threats as I was supremely confident of my abilities in dodging falling objects from the sky. Viji, Balaji and I made our own மாஞ்சா நூல் from stock thread and மாஞ்சா which was made from a concoction of rice broth (கஞ்சி), Fevicol® glue, turmeric powder, ground glass (from a GoldSpot® bottle) and a secret ingredient known to everyone as dog poop, boiled together to a uniform consistency. We applied the மாஞ்சா on the thread and let it air dry during an afternoon.

All that effort paid off. We were the reigning champs that summer. Rival groups had their kites orphaned in mid-air. Our மாஞ்சா made the day.

The Skylab landed somewhere in Australia. That was the Summer of '79.

End notes:

  1. இளமை ஊஞ்சல் ஆடுகிறது directed by ஸ்ரீதர் (Sridhar)
  2. அக்னிநட்சத்திரம்: Literally, fiery star. The hottest period during summer when the earth is closest to the sun.
  3. தென்னங்குச்சி: Traditional brooms were made from the stiff mid-ribs of coconut leaves (which are compound leaves). These mid-ribs or sticks are flexible and light and make fantastic kite frames.
  4. தினமணி: A Tamil Daily newspaper.
  5. நாடார் கடை: The gentleman who ran the provision store in our neighborhood was a Nadar, a merchant community
  6. மாஞ்சா: Unfortunately, this is a uniquely Tamil colloquial word for which I am unable to find a translation. Pronounced Maa-n-jaa
Postscript: The NASA UARS satellite is falling towards the earth as I make this blog post. Clearly, the falling satellite evoked a sense of nostalgia in me.


  1. For me the songs are: Raja kaia vatcha. I was born in the autumn of 79, Giri. I can only talk of songs that played in summer of 89 as it was at that time we came to Chennai from Bombay.

    But still, I can relate to all those things you've said.

    Joy always,

  2. Nice post! It was interesting to hear a little bit about the indian culture.
    check out my creative writing blog,
    "the write way" at:


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