MEMORIES OF MADRAS
Saroja Ramamrutham talks about life during World War II, cycling down the Marina and the Mylapore of yore
Photo: Private Collection
Slice of the past Saroja cycling down the Marina as a child
Acting started as fun play. My uncle K. Subramanyam realised I could repeat the dialogues he taught me and the songs that my mom did. He asked my dad if ‘Saroj’ could act, and I was in. I was never pampered on the sets since all the older actors knew me. We lived in Santhome and my school, St. Thomas Convent, was a five-minute walk away; my father believed that schools should be near home. It was a beautiful convent, and we imbibed good qualities from the Irish nuns. By 1939-1940, I stopped acting.
Then, World War II happened. Many people living in vital locations were asked to vacate their homes. We lived near the beach, and so, moved to our native Papanasam and stayed there for two years.
Trenches were dug in our garden and the ARP Centre and the First Aid Centre were established there. When we returned in 1943, mom was upset on seeing her garden destroyed. She replanted everything — malli, jaadhipoo… — they flourished. We would pluck a basin full of flowers, string them using vazhai naar and adorn our tresses. I will always remember the manvasanai that rose up when the plants were watered. I missed it when I moved to Calcutta.
Life was so simple. The chinna beach near Santhome had white sand and beautiful shells. Families would head there with a picnic basket. We used to be so proud of the Marina, and take our foreign guests there. The so-called third gate on the beach was prestigious. Eminent lawyers dressed in veshti-jibbas would discuss issues, while their wives, clad in pattu pudavais, would sit on the sands. My mom would join them once in a while.
Occasionally, a boy would sell thengai mangai pattani sundal or verkadalai. There used to be a mobile canteen too. The van would come every evening with chairs and tables. The workers would sprinkle water on the sands, set the tables and serve hot tiffin. I used to love their Mangalore bonda. Once they ran out of goodies, they would pack up, without leaving any litter behind.
There was also horse-riding and cycling on the beach. We were also taken on pleasure rides to the Iron Bridge or Napier Bridge. Later, my friends and I would cycle upto the bridge, especially when there was a fine drizzle.
Our life was mostly Mylapore-centric. Very rarely did we go to Egmore or Kilpauk. We would go on joyrides in the tram from Santhome to Luz; it cost half an anna, and I used to love the wooden seats. Even now, I feel trams would have made a better transport system.
During Christmas, some theatres would show children’s films — Shirley Temple films, cartoons and the like. School children would be taken to Elphinstone theatre for special shows, and we would get small gifts, such as Nestle chocolates with pictures of actresses inside the wrapper.
For shopping, there was Chellarams (dress materials); Moore Market (variety of goods and toys); Pasumarthy in China Bazaar (jewellery), Dabba Chetty kadai (herbs, turmeric, vermillion and incense); Shivaraman and Co on East Mada Street (Kanjivarams) and Sampoorana Shastri on North Mada Street (specially-woven nine and 10-yard saris). Luz used to be my favourite place. Travelling in Spain, I once found a Luz Center there and was delighted.
Trains from the South stopped at Egmore railway station and the car could come up to the platform. Individual compartments had leather upholstery and bathrooms.
The bajjis at Ramakrishna Lunch Home opposite the High Court were very famous. And, idlis for my father’s breakfast would come from Rayar’s Café on Kutchery Road. From the canal on Kutchery Road, you could see the barges come in bearing firewood and charcoal.
Navarathri used to be an important occasion on our calendar. We would display a big kolu, and go visiting friends. And, even then, we would visit Mambalam only after 8 p.m. because it was very crowded.
I studied in the Central College of Carnatic Music, housed in Bridge House, a bungalow with pillars and a wooden floor. Musiri Subramania Iyer was our principal, and we had an elite bunch of lecturers.
We visited Kabali kovil and would watch the Arubathimoovar Utsavam from our friend, K.S. Jayaram Iyer’s house. Now, it houses the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
Change is inevitable, but I felt very sad when Moore Market went up in flames and when the heritage post office at Santhome was demolished. However, the Kutchery Road police station has been preserved well.
When I visited Madras after marriage, I would want to go to Mount Road. My mom would chide me for wanting to go so ‘far away’. Looking at Chennai today, she must be turning in her grave.
Saroja Ramamrutham Born in 1931 in Madras, Saroja acted in three films — “Balayogini”, “Thyagabhoomi” and “Kamadhenu”. She was called the “Shirley Temple of India”. Marriage took her to Calcutta, Bangkok and Bombay. Even while there, she inculcated a deep love for Madras in her children. She returned in 1993, and is fiercely proud of her city and its past, shedding a tear for every heritage building brought down.
When the new Adyar bridge was being built, many old trees were cut. I was very upset. Once, I got down from the car and requested them to not fell a tree. No one paid heed. I waited and brought home a piece of that tree trunk. It now stands in my garden as a reminder of a Madras lush with greenery.
(As told to SUBHA J RAO)
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