Chennai âthat was Madras about 35 years ago â is still a dream to cherish.
Despite an Anglican sounding name, Chennapattanam that became Madras, courtesy a Christian priest, never fell short of parading its rich culture and heritage. But now, despite regaining its original Tamil name now looks more like a transvestite. Chennai has lost its identity, submerged in Western culture.
I hail from a Tamil family that has its roots in the town of Tirunelveli. Ours has been a family of litterateurs and journalists. We migrated to Chennai very early, during the days of my grandfather to be precise.
Among all of Madrasâ landmarks, Triplicane is an area of unique significance â for it saw the harmonious confluence of Hindu and Muslim communities since days of yore. Though I belonged to a Vaishnavite Hindu family, my White House, Janpath or 10 Downing Street, was located in a Jani Jhan Khan Street, bang opposite Zambazaar police station, an area populated by Muslims, with the Prince of Arcot residing next door.
We were the only Hindu family in our street. But, I never felt the difference between a church, mosque and a temple, until I entered college. I happily loitered in churches with the Scot family (our opposite neighbour) and I have also been to the Meersahibpet mosque with our Muslim neighbours. It still puzzles me how my grandma, clad in a typical madisar sari with no knowledge of English or any other language other than Tamil, used to converse happily with the Anglo-Indian families in our street. Whenever, any Muslim girl in the neighbourhood underwent a maternity operation, specially cooked food for the new mother used to go from my house. It was a time when people spoke through their hearts and humanity reigned supreme.
The first man to introduce me to Tamil literary works of Kamban or Bharathi was my grandpaâs friend and our area councilor, Beejapuri. Till class V, I studied in Everest school â the building is still there though now in the form of a hospital. I studied class VI through SSLC in a very prestigious institution, the Hindu Higher Secondary School in Triplicane, a school that is set to celebrate its 156th birthday in September 2008.
Childhood instills wonderful memories in every individual, which they carry till their deathbed. So is mine. Madras takes the credit of bestowing me with most firsts. My first LKG teacher, Mrs Shillong, my first friend, Sudhakar (son of erstwhile photojournalist Raghavendra Rao), the first drama that I watched on stage (Ramayan at Parthasarathy Swamy Sabha, now just a deck of apartments), the first movie I watched (Parasakthi), the first magazine I read (Kalkandu), the first novel that enchanted me (Thillana Mohanambal), the first public speech that I heard in 1967 by the late Chief Minister Anna Durai in the Thousand lights areaâŠ and a few more firsts, which I avoid mentioning fearing the editorâs axe. In a nutshell, Triplicane was nothing short of a Bodhi tree that enlightened me.
The erstwhile Madras preserved the human health with much care. In those days, we had no LPG stoves. Only logs of woods were used for cooking. I still remember the place, Kattaithotti â a Nadar shop, where I used to fetch firewood for my grandma. Tirunelveli Nadars, who now flourish as grocers and hoteliers, were established firewood sellers during those good old days. But not many are aware of this bit of history though.
Another scent of Triplicane, that instantly thrills my nostrils (and about which todayâs Chennaiites have no cluel about), is the smell of pure groundnut oil wafting from the local oil-making units powered by bulls. Thanks to my Grandma once again for this.
Triplicane also had many ânative doctorsâ (both Hindus and Muslims) who used to line up the streets with neem leaves in their hands. More than the allopathic doctors, these âmagiciansâ â who had an instant cure for any illness â were the most sought after ones. I can still not forget the imperceptible words of that Muslim monks who âcuredâ me of an evil eye that was troubling me.
Triplicane was also home of a plethora of natural mathematical geniuses about whom I had always been awe-struck. Yes, I am referring to those âserversâ in the messes that dotted the area, who could calculate the bill in no time even if a dozen clients barged at the same time.
Another memory of Triplicane is the single row houses â Ondikudithanam, as they were called â was a classic example of humanity at play. Though Madras was not wealthy, it was rich in love and affection. The Kasturibhai Gandhi Maternity hospital, fondly called as Gosha hospital, was a landmark by itself.
Triplicane was and still is a bachelorâs haven, with its row of lodges and a host of messes. Brahmin hotels in the area were very famous and Murali CafÃ©, opposite Bells Road, was the best of the lot. Being âDescendants of Aryansâ, the owners of Murali CafÃ©, had even adopted a technique of pouring hot oil mixed with water over some protesting DMK functionaries who created some trouble in the hotel.
Triplicane served as the central access point to reach a host of cinema theatres that dotted the cityâs geography. Those were the days of MGRâs action movies and the ones of Sivaji that were replete with theories of communism, socialism, culture, common sense and humanity.
Forget about TVs, there were not even radios in many of houses. Those roadside tea shops which had their radios in full blare for the benefit of all, those little angels from Lady Willington and National Girls High school with whom we used to exchange just looks and talks devoid of any vulgarity, those green trees that lined the road sides, those single row houses filled with love and humanity â memories of Madras still linger within me with warmth.
Though Chennai is now an economically better off city, has the influx of the Western money robbed the life, culture and heritage of Madras? Honestly, I donât know.
The author is a journalist, columnist and anchor and has been functioning in the Tamil media sphere for the past three decades.