(image credit : www.indiarailinfo.com)
The man inside the house is dressed only in a dhoti and is sitting facing his bare back to the busy main road either oblivious to the surroundings or perhaps ingrained in the fact that life has to continue despite the contraints that the world outside has to offer. He is either watching TV or just medidating in the midst of all the hustle and bustle barely a few feet away from the floor where he sits on. His palatial house of yesteryears perhaps offers the solace to him that the outer world can’t.
The pavements are decorated with navaratri dolls and vegetable and fruit vendors lined up for many a kilometer that the eye can see. With not even an inch left on the road, the traffic is everywhere. A loud sustained honk generated when you press the squeezy green ball shaped invention is umistakable as it announces that a vehicle perhaps 100,000 times larger than the horn is arriving at breakneck speed at rubbing distance from you. The driver seems least bothered whether there are humans walking on the road, or other vehicles either merging from the alleyways or from the opposite side. Frankly its upto one’s destiny to heed that honk and move away. Else the bark of pure unadulterated tamil is worse than its bite in Chennai.
There are both fast and slow paced worlds coexisting here. The traffic is maddeningly fast. Someone exits the main road to join a by lane, while someone appears suddenly and merges into the main road. Another guy does the unpredictable act of darting from the opposite lane aiming his squeaky two wheeler straight into one empty parking slot on your side. Driving straight on your face that is without any feeling of an error. He got that most coveted parking for the next half an hour that no one managed to notice.
As I approach an intersection there is a large corner plot which has been demolished. The compound wall now has large structures standing tall made of thatched coconut leaves. Every now and then I can notice the moon playing hide and seek as I walk by this large empty land. Its only a matter of time before a swanky new commercial complex or some apartment comes up here. As I near the corner, I am only able to notice very bright rays of a couple of sharp yellow bulbs and can smell something large which will unmistakably squash me if I dont pause.
A large vehicle followed by a few pesky two wheelers dart from one by lane to another putting to a complete halt every vehicle on the main road (the bus included). This precision system works without a signal or a cop and its merely based on an understanding of the teams working at right angles to each other. The traffic is self managed. Almost twenty five years ago, when I came shopping here, a series of petromax lights on vegetable stall quadricycles welcomed be in the cacophony shouting at top pitch – thakkali, urulaikazhungu, keerai, vengaayam.
There was no way you could get along without buying any one of that after a heightened marketing pitch. The very same fruit and vegetable stalls still dot the busy main road even today – petromaxes replaced with swanky chinese CFL lamps running on solar charge – minus the marketing. The old charm still remains but no one calls you to buy unless you stop by anymore.
Along the corner is a temple with people stopping by paying a visit to the diety, wishing that their lives become better than what it is while vendors are busy selling puja items to help the cause. Somewhere along two guys dressed in lungies are sitting besides lots of unsold navaratri dolls lamenting on low sales this year and how people are losing the traditional touch. Opposite the temple is a small but clear board in tamil that reads white font on blue background – “Saloon” – hair in chennai will quadruple the amount of sweat your body can generate, so you do need someone who can “take care” of that for good.
As I walk along, I notice a rather burly man, about three times my size (just to let you know my wife feels I am a pot bellied ‘fother’ to my kids already). He wears a neat full sleeved shirt rolled to 3/4th of the arms. His veshti can give an inferiority complex to Mamooty in the “salute Ramrajkku salute” ad. The folds of his veshti expose his rather large thighs, knees and strong hairy legs ending in a sandal. His gaze is fixed on me, and his large eyeballs look threatening and menacing. As I walk forward, I realize he is looking at something behind me. Some distance further the street gets dark due to lack of shops for a brief period.
This is place where dimly lit locked up houses are present, and I notice two friends are chatting up sitting on the pavement. One of them explains his injured fingers to another while showing the bandage. They share a laugh or two as I walk past. As I go further, a share auto screeches to a halt in front of me blocking my path and a man in a hurry jumps right onto my face from the auto. The share auto revolution has now managed to make the normal auto drivers by storm and they think again and they now “put meter” which is equivalent to the 8th wonder of the world.
Strong smells of agarbathi, degree kaapi fill the air as I walk further past. At a corner of Brindavan street, a huge shop screams of Krishna Sweets with the traditional mysorepa kept all over the place. I continue walking past in search of a certain Jockey showroom when I notice how dark the street has gotten suddenly. There are vehicles constantly whizzing past you reminding you to take care of your mortal remains assuming they have scared the rest of the shit within you while brushing past. “Anney, Seenu anney” screams a guy across the street from his garage. I continue to be amazed how some people live their daily life in a garage in an atmosphere dominated by sweat. Seenu anney does not respond and I walk on.
A bunch of auto drivers are loudly discussing something and it seems like anytime they would break into a fight. Whether they would hurt someone is anyone’s guess but most probably not. A woman screams something from an apartment on top to someone on the road at a time when mobile phones are the thing of the day even to talk from one room to another within the same house.
A bit further I notice a rather neat and well built small apartment on my left with huge entry gates and some builders name glorified on it. I fail to notice on my right something dark, black and almost non existent to the naked eye unless noticed carefully. Its nothing short of about fifty years old and the moss and algae all over without any light around makes it an apartment in complete contrast to the one I just otherwise noticed. Not to forget to mention two big multi utility vehicles squeezed into an already small lane.
Finally I reach a junction from where one cannot miss noticing the all encompassing Pothi’s store glittering away in lights that could perhaps light up a locality of frustrated voters in some other village outside the city. I find the Jockey store finally and quickly get into the comfort of the airconditioned lifestyle inside the shop. As my sweat from walking during the evening dries up almost instantaneously a rather confused store attender wonders which undergarment to show me.
He looks at me like I have come from Mars. He gives me a stare like I am not going to make a successful purchase and the whole atmosphere is now beginning to turn a futile shopping experience. When I ask for something that he does not have he says – “two shops later there is Fashionberg, you must check there you will surely get it”. I sign out of the store and stand in disbelief two shops later. “Fashionberg” is a 10×10 store with 100 customers already standing inside and I am sure the Germans would be feeling the heat seeing someone use their naming style for a shop this small.
I decide to walk away almost instantaneously and walk past the Venkateshwara Boli stall. I must say that all Boli stalls have something to do with the name Venkat (venkateshwara, venkataramana) to be successful. A father asks his young daughter – “Bonda saapadrayaa?” as he points to the shelf full of Bondas lined up. As I ask the store owner whether he accepts card and get a negative reply some others are jostling behind me uncontrollably with their urge to eat that “soodanna bajji rendu” just ordered before me. As I walk further past back to my home I notice a few more stalls ahead after a dark patch. A whizzing two wheeler driven by a lady and her young daughter on pillion abruptly stop at the dark side of the street.
After witnessing what seemed as a never ending chaos of overflowing traffic I assumed that there is a traffic jam ahead only to understand later that the woman stopped just behind a huge DUSTBIN which has been intentionally left at the middle of the busy street. When I was just feeling good for the woman who stopped on time avoiding crashing into the dustbin I was dumbfounded when she picked up a cover full of garbage, threw it into the dustbin in “rajini style” and vanished from the place all in one go. I was left imagining what kind of person would come all the way with her daughter in tow on a two wheeler to a designated dustbin to just throw some trash?
Finally as I walk past the last stretch towards my home I notice a clothes showroom which is brightly lit with a board saying – ‘all credit and debit cards accepted with no service charge’ prominently displayed in front of the shop. In today’s world its a matter of being customer oriented and service oriented. In a world where shark eats shark, you need to woo people to stay in business. And its so much more the case in an area like west mambalam where the crowd is humongous, the hunger has to be fed at the earliest and a missed opportunity means that you would be out of business on a sustained failure.
I cannot help noticing the temporary shed blocking 50% of a street as I reach my home. It seems the lady who owns this shed has single handedly fought with everyone in the locality who tried evicting her saying the government alloted her the land years ago and she will see how anyone will try getting her to vacate her hut. She speaks of political contact at government circles who she will go to if people disturb her existence.
Welcome to west mambalam, Chennai.