This morning the paper shifted to the western suburb of Ambattur -- to a swank, state-of-the-art office spread across five acres. A chapter was over, not only in the life of the paper, but also the hundreds who work there -- especially those who have spent their lifetime working at the historical Express Estates office.
Change is inevitable, but hope always keeps fighting a losing battle with the inevitability. Express Estates was my third home -- the second home being the Landmark bookshop in Spencer Plaza right across the road. Whenever I got bored in the office, I would hop across to Spencer Plaza and either browse books or window-shop. I would even buy my grocery from there. And when I had to meet a girlfriend, I would simply tell her: "Come to Spencer Plaza."
If Spencer Plaza was a five-minute walk from Express Estates, everything else that really mattered in Chennai was also either a five-minute drive away or barely five kilometres away. Everything! And for five whole years I enjoyed the cosiness and the quickness of the digit 'five'. And then hope lost the battle.
By the time I okayed the front page on Saturday, which was at about one in the night, the engineers were preparing to take away the last of the computers. From the pin-up board behind my chair, I pulled down papers that were hanging there for almost five years -- a caricature of Somerset Maugham (the printer had recorded the date as 21 March 2001); a scanned picture of Satyajit Ray and Kishore Kumar recording a song for Charulata; principles of writing extracted from George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English language; the Christian Science Monitor's guidelines on how to write a story; and a set of caricatures depicting the drunkard side of Hemingway.
I did not say goodbye to anyone because everyone had a goodbye to say. But on the way out, I did say bye to Senthil, the 60-something dark, bald, short man who sold tea just outside the Express Estates. If you went by convention, Senthil was ugliness personified; but if you went by principles, Senthil was an angel. He never compromised on two things -- the quality of his tea and his time. Sharp at five in the evening, he would shut off his kerosene stove. After which he would pick up a broom and go about cleaning his place. Finally, he would clear his table of the stove and the various jars containing biscuits and toffees. By eight or so, he would be fast asleep on the bare table, bare-bodied.
Senthil was fast asleep when I woke him up to say bye. He rubbed his eyes, gave a sad and silent smile, and shook my hand. A chapter in his life was also over.
I must have resembled last night's Senthil this morning when a colleague woke me up to remind about the inauguration of the new office. "I'll be there in an hour to pick you up. Be ready by then. I don't want to be there when everything is over."
The new office is posh: it is straight out of Hollywood movies. Leaning back on my new chair, I almost felt like Michael Douglas. And then the celebratory lunch. But all the while, Mount Road beckoned us. So soon after lunch, the colleague and I found ourselves driving back to Mount Road.
Express Estates was now out of bounds, but not Spencer Plaza. At the Landmark bookshop there, I picked up Frank McCourt's Teacher Man. Just for Rs 190, under a special offer. I had bought his Angela's Ashes but never finished it because I found the book grim. On the other hand, I had devoured every word of its sequel, 'Tis. The latest book, Teacher Man, seems to be completing his autobiographical trilogy: it is about McCourt's transformation from a teacher into a writer -- at the age of 66!
For a 35-year-old still seeking to be a writer, nothing else could have come in more handy. The Sunday was sad. But, thanks to McCourt, the day was made.