WITHIN 10 MINUTES OF OUR MEETING, TN Dava Prabhu, who insisted I call him David, was rolling up his pants to show me his legs. Given our location, this seemed appropriate. We were in front of a modest restaurant in the small city of Sriperumbudur, an hour’s drive from Chennai, where, 20 years earlier, on 21 May 1991, Thenmozhi ‘Gayatri’ Rajaratnam, who went by the nom de guerre Dhanu, bent to touch former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s feet—and detonated a denim suicide belt that contained six grenades.
Rajiv Gandhi died instantly. And David was one of more than 30 people injured. His rehabilitation has stretched over two decades. Scars from several surgeries run the length of his legs, which are shaky, their muscles atrophied. He walks with a cane and looks far older than his 47 years. The blast, however, has done little to diminish David’s role as a neighbourhood maven. And there are likely few people more qualified to expound on the area’s transition. While Indians identify this city of about 100,000 as the site of a prime minister’s assassination, Sriperumbudur connotes something completely different abroad. Since the turn of the millennium, the city has attracted car and mobile phone manufacturing, and is frequently referred to as either India’s Detroit or India’s Shenzhen.
For oldtimers like David, this transition has been turbulent. He resents that multinational companies in Special Economic Zones (SEZs) get unlimited water and power, a luxury folks in the surrounding villages lack. David’s English is limited and his major contentions come across in Morse code-like bursts: “Climate change. Breathing the air. It is completely spoilt. And the water spoiled.”
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