For a city that has turned 375, Chennai looks unmistakably young. Especially its streets look no older than 175 years.
Hah, this is just some good-natured mild leg-pulling at the city which has a keen sense of heritage as this everyday happening will establish: The founding father of Chennai/Madras is said to be the Englishman Francis Day, and Chennaiites to this day are fondly perpetuating his historical legacy by calling every other male: ‘Day’ (preferred local spelling ‘dei’).
But Chennai, as a city, is not just about history. It’s about, er, geography, too. Here we pick three different neighbourhoods of this city through a calculated scientific process called random choice and write a brief summary about its history, as represented by stuff we cooked up, and geography as brought out by its traffic and general rules.
Mylapore: The sage-poet Thiruvalluvar is said to have lived in the area that we know today as Mylapore way back in 1st century CE, a period about which we can say nothing certain except the fact that many interior parts of the area had no drainage connection then just as it is today. Thiruvalluvar, of course, is the visionary writer of those succinct lines that carry many pithy messages, including the all-important one that the budget speech had ended whenever P Chidamabaram was presenting it.
Near Mylapore, is the iconic Marina beach that is generally deemed to be the: 1) the longest 2) the second longest 3) one of the longest beaches in the world. The answer, going by the unlimited information and knowledge that the internet offers, is all of the above. Indeed nobody knows what its real status is.
The Brits may have left the shores of this enigmatic city, but their unmistakable contributions are still evident in the many historic buildings in Mylapore that carry the stamp of that Indo-Saracenic style of architecture —- an effective but opulent style that is truly conceivable only when you loot the public.
One of the important events in the calendar of Mylapore is the famed Arupathimoovar Utsavam, when people from far and across the globe come in droves to the Mada Streets and have a first-hand look at one thing that the place is legendarily famous for: Traffic snarls.
There is a small clock tower here which stands as a historical testimony to the fact that the civic authorities whoever they are, can be trusted to come up with some structure that will one day be detrimental to smooth flow of traffic.
Saidapet: Here temples, churches and mosques exist cheek-by-jowl, which has also thrown up a unique culture where most people, in a spirit of complete homogeneity, have gone tone-deaf, forced as they are to listen to loud-speakers blaring out non-stop songs or sermons of one religious denomination or the other.
When a person passes away in Saidapet, it is not common to find his/her family grieve the death by the socially sensitive way of placing the body in the middle of the street and practically preventing anybody else from using the road for any other purpose. It is natural for Saidapetians to call in their office and inform that they wouldn’t be able to attend work that day due to the death in the family of a neighbour living seven blocks away.
On the streets of Saidapet, the vehicle to own is the bicycle, so named as on it you can by-pass all rules of the road that the rest of the humanity are supposed to follow. The only rule applicable to cyclists is: I don’t care. A cyclist may come on the wrong side and ram into your brand-new shining car. But by owning a bigger vehicle, you automatically forfeit the right to complain. Traffic laws in these parts can be summed up thus: The bigger vehicle is always wrong. A cyclist crashing into a stationary roadroller parked inside a building can seek adequate compensation from whoever is available nearby.
Royapuram: It is a place neither for the soft-hearted, but more importantly, nor for the soft-nosed, as the city’s famed fishing harbour is located here. Knowledge of this fact is very important, otherwise you will suspect whoever is accompanying you to this place to be suffering from a terminal case of extreme flatulence.
As a harbour, Royapuram is justly famous for its railway Station. It is oldest operational one in the country, and over the years the authorities, with their diligent approach, have ensured that the station building has grown from being a small rundown construction to being an extremely dilapidated structure. The only way to salvage this station may be by not running any trains here.
There is an unmistakable old-world charm to Royapuram, which has been mainly possible by the simple expedience of — historians approve of this technique whole-heartedly — keeping all kinds of development at bay. No seriously, in a few streets of this quaint area the time forever seems, er,1958. And the number of people at any given moment in a street corner here is also pretty close to 1958.
When you talk of Royapuram you cannot but talk of its important traffic rule, and the right of way here is always for: Cattle.