As I spend yet another week in lock down in Chennai, my mind goes back to my early childhood years spent in the city, which used to be called 'Madras'. I am put up in T Nagar, aka. 'Mambalam' - a large commercial area today, with not much to differentiate it from 'West Mambalam'. In the 1980s, both my paternal and maternal grandparents lived in the same locality, within walking distance from each other's homes. My dad worked in the nearby DAE township of Kalpakkam, and almost every weekend or summer holidays, we kids were brought to the City.
What I remember most about this bustling area are its shops, the healthy buzz of traffic and business even in those days, and the various temples and parks that lay dotted around. If Iâd been good for a week, my maternal grandmother would reluctantly agree to take me with her to Universal Stores, which sat at the corner of the junction of Duraiswamy Road and Usman Road, bang opposite Gem & Co., where we used to get beautiful pens and other stationery items. Universal Stores was renowned for its baked bread loaves as well as an assortment of pastries, and freshly churned white butter! This butter used to be spread generously on the "Special Bun, Butter & Jam" that we children used to absolutely love bingeing on during hot summers!
Summers also meant extended and overnight stays by our Delhi cousins and second cousins. I recall one relative, a rather portly aunt, who used to travel by train all the way from Nayi Dilli every year without fail. She used to buy Kanjeevaram silk sarees in wholesale from the Nalli Chinnaswamy Chetty store, whose facade has not changed in all these years! My grandmother used to often take me along to the store, and I can remember many a summer afternoon gazing at those gorgeous silks. As a small treat, I would be taken to nearby eatery, Nic Nac, run by brothers Lakshmanswamy-Ramaswamy, and given a vegetable puff to keep me from grumbling about the longish walk home. But, heave-ho! When this aunt returned to Madras Central Station with her wares (one of the black-and-yellow cabs would be called from their stand outside Universal Stores), she would hire the station trolley to take her luggage to her compartment. And year after year, she would return with the same happy smile that said, "Business is going Great". Summer holidays also meant the customary weekend outings to Marina Beach for playing in the sand, building sand castles, getting wet in the water and eating pattani sundal. Given the huge numbers in the family, it took enormous planning on the part of elders to round up all the children before and after the trip!
Talking of T Nagar, we cannot help but mention its temples and parks. As children, we were only rarely allowed to go to the parks. We were encouraged to play near our grandparents' homes and not wander too far out. My paternal grandfather used to enjoy getting all suited up for his legendary evening walks to Jeeva Park, along leafy G N Chetty Road, his walking stick clicking on the roads. This main road is, today, unrecognisable as so many trees have been felled in the name of development. In the 1980s, the entire stretch from near the start of the old flyover to Panagal Park used to boast huge trees on both sides.
Panagal Park is one place I will simply not forget my entire life, for it was here that I had my first Great Fall in Public! I was in Grade 4, and my youngest aunt decided to take me and my sister along to shop for vegetables in Panagal Park. There used to be two high platforms on both sides of a narrow pathway, strewn with rotting banana leaves and all sorts of greens that had been discarded by the vendors. My two companions, being older, walked really fast, and I got suddenly scared that I would get lost in the mayhem. I'd barely started running towards them when my foot gave way suddenly, and whoosh! Down I fell. Luckily, it hadn't been too bad as I was able to break my fall with one hand resting on the floor. My companions' immediate reaction was to laugh at me, then to pretend they weren't related to this fool! Till date, the family reminds me of the Great Fall. Never again would I ever hurry up in a marketplace. Thankfully, my family members never thought it was a sensible idea to take me to busy Ranganathan Street for vegetable and fruit shopping.
Special days meant visits to the rather crowded Shiva Vishnu Kovil and to the less-frequented Mupathi Amman Kovil. My maternal grandparents resided in the same street as the one where Mupathi Amman Kovil was. It used to be called Griffith Road then, at right angle to Mambalam High Road. And their home used to be so close to the railway lines that one could hear the trains speeding by. Those days, it would be common to see groups of boys from the neighbourhood playing cricket on the road during summers, and us girls playing "I Spy". Life was at its simplest best. The one time I remember a massive crowd in that area was when a certain late political leader came by in a jeep for canvassing. Some weekends saw crowds gathered at Krishna Gana Sabha, where concerts would be held.
Years later, during this COVID-19-induced lock down, I once again see the streets of T Nagar near empty, almost the way it used to be years ago, during my childhood. However, we have come a long way since then. Maybe it's the Universe's way of reminding us to retain what is priceless and good, and do away with what is superfluous and unnecessary. The Chennai of today cannot become the Madras of the 1980s, for sure â but let us unite to celebrate the city's exquisite beauty and essence!
About the Author:
Dr. Gita Mohan is a freelance Language Consultant who was born in Madras and has lived here for a few years. Currently based in Goa, she travels to Chennai frequently and is interested in our rich History, Culture and Heritage.