Humans of Chennai: a hopeful Deepavali in the city after a tough year

On Deepavali, the city wakes up hopeful for a better, safer and happier year. Team MetroPlus speaks to people who have worked through the uncertainties of the pandemic, on what the festival means to them now

A relaxed cup of tea

Biju VG came to Madras in 1992 to work as an operation theatre helper, a job promised to him through a letter from a distant uncle. The year he finished school, he took the train from his native Pattanamthitta and landed here clad in a veshti, his shirt sleeves rolled up to his forearms in characteristic Malayalee fashion.

Much has happened in the 29 years he has worked at Padma Clinic and Nursing Home, Kilpauk; he is now a trained emergency paramedic, radiographer and technician overseeing the maintenance of all hospital equipment and an OT assistant for neuro- and ortho-surgeries, studying while working full-time.

But for the last year or so, 47-year-old Biju did long hours of pandemic-related duty, when the clinic was a designated COVID-19 centre. He spent nearly six months in a PPE suit, during India’s second wave this summer, his shirt sleeves still rolled up under it.

Biju VG, emergency paramedic, radiographer and technician | Photo Credit: Ravindran_R

“My family lives three kilometres from the clinic, in Aminjikarai. But I never went home for four months, when COVID was at its peak,” he says, with a gentle laugh. “Even otherwise, hours are long as technicians are needed to run the preliminary tests, EEG, X-rays, ECG… sometimes CPR. In the mornings I leave home after a hurried cup of tea. I haven’t celebrated a whole day for Onam or Diwali with my family for nearly three years now. Since staff here is mostly from Kerala, we take turns to head home for festivals. At least, my family lives here,” says the father of two teenagers.

Biju says holidays are strictly for marriages and funerals and hardly for festivals; it hasn’t gone down well sometimes. “I try to make my family understand that patients’ relatives come in looking for reassurance, to put in a word with a doctor, point someone in the direction of the right specialist. That gives me immense satisfaction.”

“This Deepavali I will be working, as always, but hope to squeeze in time for bursting firecrackers with the children, treat them to their favourite food and enjoy a relaxed cup of tea with my wife.”

And, maybe exchange his PPE suit for a festive veshti.

Deepa Alexander

Like father, like son

Satish Kumar is busy giving final touches to a pair of slippers he has just finished designing. This footwear will be worn by popular actor-comedian Yogi Babu in one of his upcoming films.

Last month, he worked on special footwear to be worn by actor Karthi in an upcoming movie. He also supplied leather material to be worn by Andrea in her next production.

It has been a hectic last couple of months for the 32-year-old leather designer. And he is most relieved, for it is far different from last year, when the pandemic broke out.

“I had absolutely no projects last year,” says Satish, who quit a lucrative IT job in 2015, to assist his father DJS Kumar, one of the most popular cobblers in the film industry, who subsequently passed away.

Satish Kumar, a leather designer | Photo Credit: special arrangement

The years that flew by were a blur for Satish, who was confused about what to do with life. “Thanks to my father’s reputation and my enthusiasm, I got a few orders from film production houses. I was learning the tricks of the trade, when the pandemic broke out. Most projects were stalled.”

Satish’s recollection of 2020 primarily revolves around the time he went through, questioning career choices and staring at a bleak future. “Last year’s Deepavali was a washout. There was no motivation or money to even think of a celebration.”

But he did do something useful during that phase: strengthen his skills. “With a lot of time in hand, I went through all the older material my appa worked on,” reveals Satish, referring to the work his father put in iconic Tamil films like Aayirathil Oruvan, Karnan, Baasha and Aboorva Sagodarangal. “I brushed my skill sets and taught myself how to design armour and cuffs.”

All this came in handy when earlier this year, the makers of a Prabhu Deva fantasy subject, Abhishek Films, approached him to work on a special costume for the star. “I was thrilled when he (Prabhu Deva) put it on, and said, ‘Nalla pannirka pa.’ (You’ve done a good job). This Deepavali, there’s atleast enough inclination to celebrate.”

Srinivasa Ramanujam

One for the team

Last Deepavali, U Premkumar was in Beawar, his hometown in Rajasthan for a humble ceremony: his daughter’s much-awaited marriage. On coming back to Chennai, little did the owner of Ramdev Hot Chappatis, a tiffin centre in Adambakkam, know that he would be shuttling between hospitals, railway stations and streets serving free meals to first responders, patients and the homeless, in the thick of a brutal second wave. But it was not new to him: funded by volunteers and city residents, he had been on the field since the first wave of the pandemic, serving food to stranded migrant workers waiting for Shramik trains.

U Premkumar | Photo Credit: special arrangement

“During the first lockdown, since the business was bad, we were planning to go to Rajasthan to be with family, but we felt that there were more important things to take care of here. Thanks to the help we got, we were able to help those in need,” he recalls.

This voluntary work walked the family through the first bout of lockdowns. And with the second wave, as more orders were placed by volunteers, it kept him busy.

Now, Premkumar runs a second branch of the restaurant under the name Kesava Bhavan near his first. And so, this Deepavali is very special. Perhaps the most special, since his father first moved to Chennai in 1982 in search of a livelihood.

“In the beginning, it was just me, my wife and kids. We have 19 employees now. We have become ‘steady’,” he adds with a smile. This time, he plans to celebrate the festival in the city, along with his restaurant crew and their families.

Ramdev Chappatis at Adambakkam | Photo Credit: VELANKANNI RAJ B

“For us, Deepavali is the beginning of the new year and so we will do Lakshmi puja in both of our shops. We will start afresh, whitewash the walls and clean the spaces. We will eat together, maybe burst some firecrackers as one, big family. We will also get new clothes and distribute sweets,” he says, adding “It’s important that they are happy too, not just us.”

Gowri S

End with a fish-heavy meal

The boom of a firecracker set off by an enthusiastic early-riser is the first thing Pulicat fisherman A Mugan will wake up to this Deepavali. “For us, Deepavali begins after we come back home at 8am with a good catch,” says the 29-year-old, who is the leader of Pulicat Youth Federation.

“Things are looking up,” says Mugan. Last year this time they could not even set out to sea. “We had a quiet Deepavali,” he recalls. “Most of us remained indoors.” But this year is different. “There is so much demand that we are working hard to keep up,” he adds.

The past few months have been eventful: fishermen have invested in new nets, several weddings have happened at Pulicat… “A lot of celebrations are in store,” he says.“We will head straight to the market to sell it,” he explains, adding that he expects every bit of the catch to sell out.

A Mugan, leader of Pulicat Youth Federation | Photo Credit: special arrangement

“A meat feast for lunch is mandatory that day,” points out Mugan. “But people living along the coast prefer fish.”

Today, after a hard day’s work, which begins at 3am, the Pulicat fisherman will go home to celebrate Deepavali his style. New clothes, firecrackers, and the festival’s star: a fish-heavy meal.

Mugan says that families with the capacity to spend whip up every fish dish one can think of. “There will be a kozhambu (curry), a thick thokku made of squid or prawns, crab fry…” he lists. They will follow this up with sound sleep, the kind you experience when you are at peace with the world.

Akila Kannadasan

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