A tale of two cities
After 38 years, a visitor arrives to see how much of Madras has crept into Chennai.
MADRAS and Chennai; these are two different places in my mind now and I have no desire to merge them. Madras, where I lived in the first half of the 1960s. And Chennai, which is what had become when I visited it again after a gap of 38 years. But how much of my old Madras sneaked into Chennai that was something I was keen to find out...
And faintly, like lights coming on dimly albeit places began to fall into place as we drove down from the airport into town. The first "hit" being the shady green belt, of which the Guindy National Park was a part, and which in the old days, seemed to be at the other end of the world. I wonder if the mini-train still chugs around the park, with its complement of screaming children.
But then once past this my memory is blank again and nothing seems familiar until we hit Adyar, near where I used to live. There used to be a river somewhere here, I muttered with a bridge of arches across it, and then a palace (the Chettinad palace, if I remember right) on its banks. As children we used to play in the neat gardens of the palace, and roam its grounds, and once even entered its cavernous interiors.
We pass over a bridge all right, but it's not the bridge I remember. This is a modern bridge, completely without character. And then I spot it, just alongside, the old bridge with its arches, forlorn and long abandoned, with weeds and creepers and wild grass growing over it. The road is unbelievably cluttered with traffic zipping up and down, and I look hard for anything I might recognise. And then, to the right, are the graceful palace gates, just the way they used to be, deep in shade and laid back from the main road. But beyond that, in the grounds I get a fleeting glimpse of what appears to be a parking lot for buses.
Apparently the palace in Chennai is not the same as the palace in Madras, the grounds have been fragmented and divided up, I'm told.
But we were hot on the scent now, for the place I lived in was walking distance from the palace... Look for a long driveway, with (oleander?) foliage on either side, an elbow bend at the far end, where the watchman's hut used to stand near a big mirror to assist traffic.
A horrible tinny-looking blue and white board gave the game away, as it were. "Firhaven Estate" it proclaimed. The long now-walled-in driveway, up and down which I used to cycle madly, looked dark and narrow and hemmed in as a gully leading into a ghetto. At the crook of the elbow, a solid iron gate barred the way into the estate, you couldn't even peep into it!
So my Madras memory of the place remains unsullied and untouched by what it might have become in Chennai (the horror stories abound though, and were part of the reason I didn't really press to enter).
Route to Marina
I remember it as a place with huge gardens, a lantana-wreathed well (good for fishing with bent pins and flour balls, with which you never caught anything but spent a lot of happy hours), a pond, a casuarina `"forest" haunted by cobras and plenty of trees to climb, and tamarinds to suck.
From here however, I could follow the route to the Marina easily even now, anticipating old landmarks on the way the Oceanic Hotel where I used to have my hair (and occasionally ears) cut, the Santhome Church, with its cloud-reaching steeple, and then, out on the Marina, the long white Police Commissioner's building, with its white Ambassadors still parked in front of it.
Some things, like white Ambassadors, never change! But beyond this, and turning inland into the city, Chennai took over, and the city was completely alien.
Mount Road in Madras seemed wide and pleasant; in Chennai, narrow and again dreadfully cluttered. The only structure I recognised was the LIC building. There had been, of course, the lovely old Spencer's building, where you could buy great bulls' eyes and copies of Animal Life (I think it was the ancestor of BBC Wildlife).
That building burned down, and now there's a rather awful-looking shopping plaza in its place. But thankfully the railway station building remains much as it was when we took the train out for the final time way back in 1965.
And where Madras had been open and airy with a feeling of spaciousness (between cluttered, crowded areas, which you could escape from quickly), Chennai is narrow-shouldered and cluttered.
In Madras, you could whiz down most of the roads without a care in the world, the next vehicle (a dumpy black Standard 10) was invariably a shimmering dot on the horizon.
In Chennai, you could barely get into fourth gear. Hardly any of the old Madras houses, with their red-mud driveways and yellow plaster walls (colonial! colonial!) survive; at least I spotted perhaps just one or two of what might have been them.
Probably every city in India has suffered a similar fate. But yes, happily Chennai still has the great copper-pod trees, which I remembered so well as an integral part of Madras. And the people still have that swashbuckling, straight-backed style as they zip around on their two wheelers, helmets be damned!
Even at the end of the day, they manage to look as though they have emerged fresh from a bath! Their smiles are ever ready and brilliant, which is such a pleasure when what you have become used to up north are scowls and frowns from dawn to dusk.
And the breakers crashing in from the Bay of Bengal still retain their thumping power, and cream in as strongly as they ever did.
And finally one small detail... Back then in Madras, nearly all the bicycles used to have those tiny flickering kerosene "headlamps" that used to be lit at dusk, not so much to show you the way, as to let oncoming traffic know of your existence. I didn't see a single such cycle lamp in Chennai in fact none of the cycles had lamps of any kind; another sign of the times?
It seems that they're keen to pull down even whatever remains of the grand old Madras buildings. That would be an extraordinarily foolish thing to do, for these are the only places in the city where you can still stand and stare.
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