A city should be remembered by both its ‘sights and sounds’. But these days, shuttled around as we are in air-conditioned cars, there is only restricted sights and little sound. So, is it that a modern visitor does not get to really know the city? I should not be unfamiliar with Chennai as members of my family have lived here ever since I can remember, including my mother since the mid-1990s. But do I know it? I would say, not at all!!
On my recent visit, I thought I could rectify this some what by walking in the city. I started out early morning from Nungambakkam, where I was staying towards Mylapore, with the Kapaleeswar temple as my destination. There is unfortunately little choice in the time to walk in cities, because once the day starts, life of a pedestrian could be as hazardous as that of a soldier in the battlefield. So, it was clear that I would not get the ‘sights and sounds’ of Chennai – rather just get a glimpse of the city from the pavement, instead of from the car! At this time of the morning, Chennai streets do have pavements, and the streets were clean – with the garbage all collected into the bins. The cleaning women in blue sarees were visible and at work at 6.30 am. I only wondered that if it was full at this time, what happens for the rest of the day.
Pedestrians are not the sole claimants to our pavements and in fact, generally play second fiddle to the many vendors who lay claim to these spaces. At this time of the morning the fires were getting lit, large quantities of potatoes and onions awere being cut and large pots were going on for the idlis and other tiffin for the morning commuters. There was milk packet distribution being organized, the chai-biscuit stalls were already doing brisk business and the many covered and secured stands were awaiting their owners and would cater to everything from a variety of street foods to services such as cell phone recharge, 2-wheeler repair and so on. In more residential areas, the bright colors of the plastic containers announced the water lines. And of course, after a busy, long day trying to sell ice creams, there is also the need to catch up on sleep.
The other major claimant to the pavement is religion – various Hindu shrines, sometimes Christian crosses and Muslim graves depending on the area. Along Nungambakkam High Road, there was a fairly well established temple. The Christian shrine to “Our Lady of Vailankkani’ has been noticeable as you drove past this stretch of road, and it has grown over the last couple of decades. However it is not on the pavement and when I crossed the road to have a better look, I realized that it was on the outer border of a fairly large church with an ornate St.Paul’s cathedral look-alike dome. I had never noticed the church in all these years we have been going on this road.
I then dodged my way across and under the fly over at Gemini crossing (now called Anna fly over), there being no provision of any kind for those who walk. From here on the route had many memories, as this was the area that was a frequent beat during my visits during college days. I walked past the Semmozhi Poonga Gates, which most of us remember better for the Woodlands drive in resturant, that was there for many decades. It was a favorite destination during those early visits – a, crisp masala dosa for Rs 3/. Walking past Stella Maris college, I turned right to enter Poes Garden which is famous as the residence of Tamilnadu’s ‘Amma’. For us in the family, it was more familiar for the home of my father’s sister, long before Jayalalitha’s days.
The last bit, through Poes Gardens, and along the Luz Church Road to Luz corner I had done many, many times. Very little remains from those times (not even the street names) , an occasional decrepit bungalow, the older buildings of Vivekananda College and of Mylapore club. It was nice to see one house, looking much like one my Uncle used to live in the early 60s. And finally, I reached the Kapaleeswar temple, which fortunately stands unchanged!!
And then I treated myself to a wonderful plate of pongal with hot filter coffee. I was served by Mr Selvan and when my coffee splashed, young, smart Pinky, with her kundalam and bright smile came to clean the table. She is class 10 pass and earns Rs 6,500, and is happy doing the 8 hour shift. I had to struggle to get a 3-wheeler to take me home, as it was school dropping time. Finally Mr Jagdish from Perur agreed to do so – he drives the vehicle from 6am to 8-9pm (>12 hrs) to make Rs 300-400 per day. He has 3 daughters, one in Nursing college, one working and the youngest in class 10. These are the stories and people that brighten up my day.
And there is no doubt that the view from then pavement is worth a worthwhile one!!