‘Experiences that define a city for someone are not just from the built and unbuilt spaces but also as a result of interactions with people’ I recently read this somewhere, and this led to a series of thoughts and introspection. Today, with technology dictating our life and connecting people through a couple of touches on a screen, I have begun to wonder if it is in the memories of a neighbourhood that we previously resided that we live in. Because nobody taught us that the city grows as we grow.
Having travelled to Chennai for vacations for 9 consecutive years, I hated that every time as we neared the ‘Basin Bridge’ station, the train takes a small halt and breaks for 15-30 minutes. I also used to not understand why the train didn't stop at our neighbourhood and pestered my mom with the same question, "Inga train ah nirutha matangala?’" I used to ask Amma this question as a kid multiple times, every single time we came back from Mumbai and the train passed through Ambattur, the neighbourhood we used to live in, along the railway track. This neighbourhood, the road along the railway track, the houses and people here were what my childhood in Chennai constituted of. Along what I would today probably call an edge of the neighbourhood, was my childhood home; nearby was my relative’s home. This street and these two houses are what I had known of the city when I was a kid. It was along these railway tracks that, I am told today, I had thrown tantrums to watch the train pass as I ate my food. It was here that I had many of my first experiences of life as well as of the city.
Almost every time we came to Madras for vacation, we tried to visit our relatives at Ambattur. This was always a special part of the trip, as I had the opportunity to meet the people who defined my childhood and have a glance at the first-ever house that I called home. A house at the junction of two streets, I had the chance to look around the neighbourhood and the activities happening on both these streets. Today, when I visit, all I get to see are the new and modern structures that have replaced the old houses but fail to replace the old memories.
The streets in Ambattur have evolved and changed beyond recognition.
I have mixed feelings when I slowly realise that Ambattur has evolved from being a suburb to a part of this ever-evolving organism called Chennai city. Had I known when I was young that the city grows with you and this might not be the same place in the future, I would have perceived it differently and experienced its warmth better. When I look back today, I thought that Chennai was majorly made up of Ambattur, Mylapore, Marina Beach, KK Nagar, T Nagar and Besant Nagar. I do remember hearing names of other different areas but these were the only neighbourhoods I had visited. After many years of visiting Chennai only for vacations, we shifted back to Chennai and relocated from Ambattur, which was our base, to Virugambakkam.
The shift has made me realise that the city is much more than just a couple of neighbourhoods; it is more than Marina beach and Sathyam. It's made up of so many different elements that have shaped it in so many different ways. Now, it is in the hidden gems that I look more keenly, to understand what the city was a couple of years ago, and how it has evolved itself to the way it is today. Studying architecture has been an eye-opener in comprehending that the city is complex and can continue to throw surprises around. To hear from people who have lived and grown up in the city and know from them that an area in the city was once a part of a forest, or a building on a road was a residence before, or looking at a multistorey building and wondering what this structure has replaced, is the best possible way to understand a city and its journey.
Today, as I go around the city, I learn a lot more about it, its culture, history and numerous hidden aspects. I read and look at many different aspects of a city to come to a conclusion, and wonder if I had known things would get this advanced, would I have loved the cities that I spent my childhood in the same way? With age, my perception of the city has changed and is still evolving. From living in a metropolitan city that never slept to moving to a city that has its unique slow lifestyle, I learnt that each city has its own perks and evolves at its own pace.
As I ask myself today ‘What does the city mean to me?’, ‘What are my aspirations for the city?’ I come to realise that I have a different answer every time I learn more about it. Few years down the line, the city would have evolved a little more and I hope it continues to be a bag of surprises as I will continue with my exploration.