July 08, 2014

Pop Quiz with Uncle Matthew

        I finally found a little breathing space from my hectic final year course work to write this blog post. All of us at Architecture School would have at some point had to do a survey to collect data to support theories and claims part of a project. So this particular magazine article required one such survey. The survey required participants to answer a questionnaire on reuse of buildings and preservation of historic buildings in the city. 
        Going door to door, to all the houses in my neighborhood, I finally dropped by Uncle Matthew's. His 42 year old house was two doors away from home. A retired Southern Railway employee, Uncle Matthew was known for his miserly existence and his extremely cranky moods. Yet everyone had to agree the man was a walking encyclopedia. There was nothing this man didn't have an idea about. My mother had talked me into making Uncle Matthew take the questionnaire. 
        Now, having lived in the neighborhood for 21 years, Uncle Matthew and Aunty Alice had practically watched me grow up. I spent considerable amounts of time playing with their granddaughter in my childhood. 
        When I did go across to their house I realized I hadn't been to their house in over two years. I noticed how frail they had become and how oblivious I was to the neighborhood and its people changing around me. Stepping into their dimly lit home was like rewinding my life at least 10 years. The house hadn't changed much and I made myself comfortable in one of the chairs in their living room almost by habit. After pleasantries were exchanged I came down to business. It was time for Uncle Matthew to answer the questionnaire. 
        My first question was if historic buildings were relevant to a city and if they needed to be preserved. Uncle Matthew, smiled, smirked more like, adjusted his dhoti, and continued slicing bits of green mango into a plate. He asked me if I knew what the first Colonial building to be erected in Madras was. Now here I was a final year student of architecture planning to make a living out of Architectural Conservation and writing, talking about neighborhood revitalization, the question caught me completely off guard. I had a reputation of being one of the smart kids of the colony and really couldn't afford to let that image slide from the minds of these old folks so I made a good guess and answered "Fort Saint George". 
        I had just initiated my a Pop Quiz. Uncle Matthew didn't seem to want to give up so easy. He quizzed me about the history of the neighborhood to national economy to current affairs. At the end of it I had learnt about the first railway line in India from Mumbai to Thane, the old city limits and how many roads in Chennai got their names from important British figures. Question after question I felt stupider and stupider and my wiz kid image was hanging in the balance. Finally I managed to steer the conversation back to the survey and asked Uncle if he would ever feel the need to move out of the colony. 
        Uncle Matthew offered me the plate of mango slices which I was in no position to refuse. So as I munched on the little bits of mango which uncle had so carefully cut for me, he enthusiastically began a history lesson on the neighborhood and the Integral Coach Factory in Chennai. 
         One and a half hours later, Mr. Matthew had convinced me to go around the neighborhood and look at it with a different perspective this time and I did. Soon after I left, I went up to Loco Works Bridge to catch the sunset. Now THAT was another surreal experience altogether. 

Well, the purpose I initially went for was left half done but I did go home that evening a little wiser and with a brand new perspective for my project. It's amazing how much one can learn from just talking to people and keeping our eyes and ears open to all that's around us. 
Loco Works Station- To infinity and beyond