Chennai days – Part 1

The Pycroft’s road of Madras stretches from the Marina beach to Royapetta high road. On one end is situated the Presidency college with its hallowed walls damaged by the shell shot by the German ship Emden, the college where my dad had studied. On the other end is, well sort of to the end, is the Amir mahal – the palace of the Nawab of Arcot. Just off the corner through Gen Patter’s road is the Mount road. Opposite the huge gates of Amir Mahal is the Zambazar police station – Jambajar as Tamilian’s call it. The road is jam (maybe that is how the bazar got its name) packed usually where cattle, cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, cars, buses, cycles (motorized and pedaled) and pedestrians compete to find space to nudge through.

The wheezy old bullock is there because nobody wants it. How it reached this market is a matter not worthy of thought, but suffice to say it did. It had (so far) luckily escaped the people who chop such defenseless animals up to make beef fry’s and serve it at places like the Tajmahal Malayalathan hotel down the road. The bullock is busy chomping on the tasty banana leaves and various other leaves left behind by the vegetable market merchants in Zam Bazar. It looks around contently, though somewhat confused with all the hurry exhibited by the teeming public. Sometimes, it glances tiredly at the wailing dog, wondering what the critter is howling for. What it probably did not figure out yet is that the dog has nothing much to munch in a vegetable bazaar. Of course it would have been happy to munch the meat of a deceased bullock, but the bullock did not know that and the dogs wailing language is (sometimes) only understood by its best friend the man, who of course had thrown it out of his house many a moon ago. In the old days it could wail and get some grub, but in the market, who listens? Soon enough, a tramp kid looking for stuff to eat chucked a stone at it and found the mark, only to elicit yet another high pitched whine from the depressed dog, possibly cursing its stars (if it could do that) and meaningless existence..

The police man in full khakhi pants and shirt was another of that depressed lot; he cursed the department for making him wear these clothes in the torrid Madras weather. Large dark patches accentuated his armpits. He thought fondly of his Malayali brethren, the KP or Kerala police at that time wore starched shorts. He smiled thinking of the time when they refused to stand on traffic islands with those huge loose starched shorts and only boxers or hanuman’s underneath, but well, it was at least comfortable and air conditioned. His lathi, shining and swinging around was waiting to lay itself on the back of the hapless tramp kid, but he had run away minutes ago, after seeing the police on beat at the end of the street. The Police man had still not found somebody to give him his ‘something’…The traders were playing truant and other delay tactics. The goons were also on the walkabout but they were more successful with their collections thus showing the policeman who is boss these days, the law and order or the fledgling underworld.

I was at a vantage point, the 4th floor of Ambika nivas, next to my room, perched on the balcony overlooking the busy Pycroft’s road and taking in the activities of that Saturday. A group of girls passed by, all heavily clad in Burkah and possibly Salwar kameez’s underneath, for they had come out of the Amir Mahal palace next door. I wondered what they looked like as I peered left to look into the Amir Mahal itself, it had always captivated me, with its mysterious high walls and try as I did I could not see anything. Again, I muttered, I will go inside Amir Mahal one day, but the prospect of getting across the watchman was daunting.

Krishna Iyer came by with his towel and soap box, enroute the bathrooms and said – kayyilirippu kolam, you are looking at those Burkah clad girls eh? Be careful, if they catch you, they will cut off your – you know what. I told him about my plan to infiltrate Amir mahal, if only to find out what is going on behind those high walls. You see, those were days when I did not know about Nawab’s and palaces and all that stuff, or what lies beneath a burkha.

Mani came by, humming or rather bawling ‘ponal pogattum poda’ in his sonorous voice, jolting me out of my thoughts and stated grandly – ‘saar – your tea and bun’. He was from the Malayali tea shop downstairs and a godsend for us lodge nivasis. Nobody knew where he was from, nether did he. All he remembered was that from his childhood days he had been with the tea shop owner. No memories of his mother or father remain. His life revolved around the lodge and the shops and the police station at Zambazar. But his longstanding desire in life was to marry a woman he had once met in the police station, a lady of low standing brought in during a nocturnal raid.

That Saturday morning was pretty out of the ordinary, actually. It was a bedlam of noise that aroused me, and I was sleeping with open windows to get some breeze into the room. Being the top floor made the room unbearably hot some nights, and the disadvantage of opening the windows was that all the street noise wafted through and into your senses as you drifted into wakefulness, together with the stale smells of rotting vegetables. On a weekend it was worse since the municipality guys never cleaned up till Monday. ‘Rotting cabbage can be pretty miserable, I say’, as Tamilians put it with an ‘I say’ at the end…Today was different. It was not the incessant chatter of the traders or the bawling of the police constables or the vehicular noises, it was the shrill notes of many women that rudely brought me to the world of the living. Looking out of the window and into the Zambajar police station I found that the cops had brought in many prostitutes after a raid and a stiff argument was brewing. Now I won’t get into the details, but the arguments were pretty interesting as they wafted through the pungent market air to the fourth floor where I was stationed.

As I smiled and lit my WD & HO Wills Navycut cigarette, munching the bun and drinking the lovely tea, I thought - Only Rs 50 left of the pittance they called a salary and two weeks still to go. I spent a futile hour thinking how I would get through the month; will I have to take a loan? Maybe ask Iyer or somebody else? Drifting away again, I thought, going into another lazy weekend tangent, why is this tea so good? Do they put traces of opium that I had read Parsi tea stall owners did in the tea shops of Bombay?

Ah, the idle mind is indeed dangerous. See what all I did, while doing nothing, I went to Bombay, tried to get inside the Amir mahal, into the minds of those Burkha clad ladies, into the police station and those whores, into the dogs and bullock’s mind. I sighed, adjusted my Lungi, hoisted my legs on the railings and pushed the chair back…It was time to get back to the final chapters of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ by Ayn Rand. A fascinating book that had been interesting reading for days, reaching its close and I have to try and finish it before lunch. I had a quick wash myself and got dressed for the day.

Iyer came by after his bath and prayers and said, Madhu – let’s go for lunch, why not the Nair mess today? I looked up at him, to make sure he was serious, the idea was brilliant, of course, but lunch there cost over five or six rupees including an omelet, was it a good idea with my depleted savings? I decided wearily to go for it, and we trudged down, through the dark stairwell, meeting Kingston and Joseph on the way. Krishna Iyer’s cheery suggestion was met with enthusiasm by all others and soon we were a foursome headed for the Nair mess. A short 2 mile walk through the Pycroft’s road in Triplicane, to the Wallajah road end of the Chepauk stadium in Madras brought us to Abdullah road. Somewhere in that vicinity is located the famous Nair mess, which we bachelors swore by, those days.

No cooking comes close to that, I tell you, says Jospeh. Even my ammachi cannot make such good dishes, but adds that she makes the best beef fry knowing that you can’t get beef at the Nair mess. Kingston is in another world already, he by the way, is a bank employee, and pretty well to do. Stylish chap who listens to Grand funk rail road and all kinds of rock like Deep purple and Pink Floyd. He had a great amplifier and matching speakers. Some evenings I would spend hours listening to the music in that dimly lit room, where Kingston would be flying away after a few tokes of the weed…Jospeh always warned me, be friendly but don’t get too close to that chap, he is addicted to the weed, you see…I took that seriously, of course, though such things were commonplace in my experiences at the engineering college.

Joseph is an entrepreneur, running an AC repair business, perennially short of orders and resources, always grumbling about the ways of the world. But he is a helpful chap, if you can see what I mean, but that only if he likes you. Now that was the tricky part in my own induction to the lodge and the group.

Coming to Madras after my engineering meant living on my own, though I had umpteen relatives. After staying with my aunt and another ‘cousin ungle’ for a few weeks, and after futile dreams figuring the Anglo Indian girl next door (see my blog covering some of that story), I was soon out hitting the streets trying to find suitable ‘lodge accommodation’.

It was a rather tiring experience, checking out the bachelor sites in Purusuwalkam and Triplicane, the two main centers. Parry’s corner and Royapettah were discarded, they were too expensive. In my endeavors, I found that the Ambika Nivas was rated the highest, the four star place with mosaic floor, single rooms, running water (twice a day that is) and with decent people and non filmi. You may wonder why I said that – for across the road, in the many gullies of Triplicane are the lodges where great director’s like Balachandra Menon and other movie guys lived, places where life was in another zone entirely…an intoxicating environment which I was again strongly advised to avoid.

Ok, so I walked into Ambika nivas (I think this was the lodge pictured in the recent Tamil movie Arai enn 305 il Kadavul), only to see a tough looking Mallu middle aged man at the counter. When I asked him if there was a vacancy, he rudely turned me away stating that the waiting list was many months long. But there was a solution at hand, connections and influence, as they only work, in India. My ‘ungil’s’ deputy knew Joseph. Joseph was the senior most inmate at the lodge and had a ‘voice’ with the lodge owner. Also he had got the mallu manager his job. So a connection was established and I met Jospeh, who fortunately thought I was OK enough. But he warned me, he said jokingly ‘ok, you are an engineer and all that but don’t spoil yourself in this hellhole like all of us, get out after you have established yourself’.

Iyer was a different sort though – serious, god fearing and from Kottayam, he was a decent usman, as we say in Calicut. He was soon to become my close friend. He worked for a big company in Parry’s corner, where I worked as well and we would set out by bus daily, an experience in itself. We would be decently dressed for the office, white shirt and all (I was working for an Iyer company where white shirts were the norm) and struggling to find space in the bus amidst screaming and shouting men and women taking their wares and goods to Pookada flower market near Parrys. The flowers smelt good, but the women did not and their habit of applying oil after their bath meant that our shirts had blotches of brown on them by the time we got to the destination.

As they say fortune favors the brave, in ‘papoka’ (pallavan pokkuvarathu kazhakam) buses, the left side is allocated for women and this side always had one or two empty aisle seats. Sometimes, I would sit half assed on one of those empty seats, usually choosing a young or middle aged female (the older ones were tough they would scream some abuse just as Iyer himself had to hear after he chose to follow my example). I have always got away with it, must be my ‘pleasant – cheery’ face, I suppose. The still standing Iyer would give me warning looks after that experience and always argued with me after getting down stating that he had to hear filthy abuse from a low-caste only once in his life and that too after trying to follow my example.

And then, Iyer and I would trudge into to Hari Nivas in Thambuchetty Street for breakfast, soon to chomp on a delightful dosa and vada and topped off with filter coffee. What a place it was, thinking back today, the traders and their streets, so connected with the right& left handed castes, the Armenians of Armenian street. All that is gone today and the street names had been changed. And then we would be going our separate ways to the office to meet again after office at the lodge for dinner. Burma bazaar (read my blog on that) was a place to spend at lunch time.
Later at night, I would switch on my Keltron transistor and listen to the budding music director Ilayaraja, and his songs from movies like Moodpani and ‘nejathai killathe’. Some evenings were even more interesting, my neighbor knew a popular singer, who would visit and spend a few hours with us regaling all with his lovely voice. Not everybody had a permit (yes, you needed a permit in Madras those days to buy booze – a doctors permit allowing you two bottles of beer or something like that for a month) and those who did would fork in with a bottle of beer and potato chips which we gleefully consumed on the terrace, probably the very same one you see in the ‘kadavul’ movie which I had mentioned earlier, looking at the Madras skyline.The one phone down in the lobby would ring at times and a shout would waft up with the name of the person for whom the call was, we would be rushing down to take it, before it got cut…

Sometimes I think of Theppatti (vatthu petti or matches to Tamilians) Nayar who worked for a match company, and who finally salvaged himself after marrying the owner’s or MD’s daughter…sometimes I think of Krishnan Nair (I am not really sure of his name, my memory is failing a bit) from Ottapalam. What a man that was, an ex railway chap, clerk in a paint company off Mount road, who would bet heavily on horse races and who had four wives ( one in each south Indian state and children from them), believe me I am not bluffing. Some other day, I will tell you more about him. He was probably 55 plus when I knew him and I assure you he would beat tiger (from the woods) at his game, in his prime. Four to Five was his par field and he could go much higher, only he could not afford it and these were real china veedu’s, supported monetarily, not just flings.

As I sit back & think, I marvel at those nostalgic days at Pycroft’s road which is called Bharati Salai these days, of the clean beaches of Marina which were rather nefarious locations on balmy nights, of Royapettah Woodlands hotel which has been razed down and replaced with multiplex theaters, it was also home to many bachelors who lived in the many ‘mansions’ and guest houses, in the middle of these markets, temples, beach and so on…Some days I would go for dinner to the koya place, the mallu tea shop cum hotel Taj mahal where they even had a juke box. I would put in 8 annas and play hindi songs for dinner, and eat ‘porotta with bullseye’ or a biryani…some days when I did not have enough money the eggs would be replaced by sliced tomato and onions. Sometimes it was Ratna café which served the best traditional ‘meals’ with appalams..

It was late in the evening, my reveries are winding down, the bullock wandered away, seeing a shopkeeper throwing away a plantain stem, how easy life is for that animal, eat, sleep, a very rhythmic existence. The dog was curled up in a corner sleeping off the dusk, as only it can, sometimes opening one eye and peering at the teeming public, the boy had run away somewhere, the policeman was back in the station gleefully negotiating a tryst with one of the captured characters.

My thoughts continue to drift, am I going to write about Nair and did I ever go to Amir Mahal? Did I ever meet anybody interesting in my bus travels to Parrys? How about the kid who provided an interesting proposition? What about the midnight event ‘on’ (yes, I did not misspell it) Pycroft’s road? The trip to the smugglers den was written about some years ago (the Burma bazaar story), what about the story connecting Ambika Nivas and Ambika applam? Well, I will get to all or most of them eventually, another day, as the memories surface, one by one.

Some of it is sad, for Kingston died, he fell off a bus one morning on the way to the bank and Joseph died, I do not know how, maybe a broken heart, I lost touch with Iyer and Theepatti nair. The singer still sings, we see him often on TV. But I came across one of those old friends purely by chance, he surfaced in the US, and I think I should check up with him too on some of the characters I talked about.

I do not know if the police station is as it was, or if the market was as it was, for I have not ventured to those places since my days there in the early 80’s. The Wallajah road and stadium names have changed (remember the guy who mentioned them so often in cricket radio commentaries, Anand Satalwad?). My Keltron radio disappeared. I think the Nair mess in Abdullah Street is still there and as popular as it was for people even twitter about it today, they talk about vajram (king fish) fry in Nair mess today.

Triplicane is still the hot spot for footloose bachelors though I doubt if Thomas Pycroft who probably owned many places in Madras once upon a time, ever dreamed that people would remember him to this day, when more illustrious chaps like Thomas Wellesley, who defeated Napoleon and who spent some years in Malabar are not even remembered..

Madras became Chennai, Pycroft gave way to Bharati, Marina became Kamarajar, Mount road became Anna Salai, Royapetta high road I believe is still there, but General patter’s still holds fort, with all the Punjabi run auto spare parts shops. The woodlands hotel became a movie multiplex.

For the historically inclined

Sir Thomas Pycroft, civil servant reached Madras in 1829 and retired after working many years in madras, in 1867, as a distinguished city council member. Strange is the way life goes, Thomas Pycroft was educated in Bath UK, and much later my elder son studied there!! Pycroft later purchased the Anderson gardens and created the Pycrofts garden there. Ambika Nivas and lodge still remains a landmark in the street. The Presidential college still exhibits the place damaged by the Emden shell.

Amir Mahal - In the heart of Chennai is a mahal which is home to a princely family that traces its lineage from the Second Caliph of Islam, Hazrath Omar Bin-Khattab. Not many residents or visitors to the city, as they hurry through the crowded streets of Royapettah, would be aware that beyond the high crimson walls that enclose the wrought iron gates, lie centuries of history. Enter them and you pass through a driveway, flanked by sheds and outhouses, to a huge building in Indo-Saracenic style. This is Amir Mahal, the 14-acre residence of His Highness Nawab Mohammed Abdul Ali Azim Jah, the eighth Prince of Arcot. More than 300 years ago, his ancestor Zulfikar Ali Khan was summoned from Mecca by Emperor Aurangazeb in order to fight against the Marathas. Read more about them in this Hindu article..

Jambazar or Zambazar
Sruthi Sagar explains it pretty well in his blog
It is most famous for its naatu Marundhu kadais (Local medicine shops) and garland shops. It also used to be the haven of dangerous criminals. Adding to this is the Gangai Kondan market for fresh vegetables and the electronic bazar of Richie street which is very very close to Triplicane. This zam bazar is also dotted with shops famous for Biryani. Triplicane is also called the 'Paradise of Bachelors' due to the presence of hundreds of mansions where young men coming from out of the city reside and work.

At one end is the police station, a nice article with a picture

About the mansions of triplicane, check this article out.

Pics – thanks to Hindu


Ashvin said…
Mads, you somehow seem to have been pre-occupied when you wrote this ? Maybe my imagination...

My parents, also Presidency Honours graduates, used to tell me that even in the 50s when passing by Amir Mahal at certain times of the day used to hear the shehnai music from the gatehouse....

His Highness the Prince of Arcot is the only Royal in India who is allowed to officially use his titles and the term 'Highness' since the title Prince of Arcot was created in 1867, with the honours and privileges attached to the title in perpetuity...

Check out
Praveen G K said…
Fantastic post, Mr. Maddy!!

Saying that it is exhaustive or too good will be a way big understatement.

I have no idea of Madras except for the fact that I visited the city less than ten times. When is the time frame? Was it in the eighties?
Maddy said…
Hi Ashvin - This is another style I use at times, had done another one some days ago...

Yup - I read about Amir mahal some time ago and was planning to cover it briefly in Part 2(studied it when I was doing the Kattabomman blog , but did not want to mess this one up with a lot of dense history, for a change..
Maddy said…
Thanks Praveen - the answer was hidden in the blog - early 80's is the answer and if you have followed Ilayaraja's music you'd have known right away
Praveen G K said…
listen to the budding music director Ilayaraja & he was pretty prominent in the 70s. So, I wasn't sure :-)

Of course, being a Tamilian, listening to Ilayaraja music is like Dosas & Chutney :-)
Happy Kitten said…
Well, I will get to all or most of them eventually, another day, as the memories surface, one by one.

Hope we get to know if you ever got into the Amir Mahal....

Have been to Madras only thrice... hope to go there again one day...
harimohan said…
great post and nostalgic for me
was in presidency doing bsc zoology for 3 months before i got onto medicine
all the alleys and eating places are like the back of my hand
it was madras then my homely madras
Kamini said…
Oh, this was such a charming read! You know, I thought it was Jam Bazar for the longest time!!
And please, don't make us wait too long to find out how all the loose ends got tied up...somehow, I feel that you did make it into Amir Mahal.
Anonymous said…
Hi Maddy....
Your blog was really nostalgic.... I had a stay of 3 years in the same 4th floor of Ambika Nivas and I could relate all what u said abt the 'Nivas'...some places have changed though but still Aamir Mahal remains a mystery for all the inmates...
You can join the Ambika Nivas community in orkut...
kallu said…
Maddy, that was a real thick slice of life in Madras in them days. Its kind if like the movie - Nizhalgal- those bachelor days .
But you know, however much they change the names of roads, some people dont' move on. Does anyone ever say Anna salai? Mount road it is.
Polite Paul said…
very nice post..
Maddy said…
Thanks Kamini - the part two has been posted..

thanks srijit.. what a place it was...

Kallu - thanks as well...part 2 will tell you that we madrasis have given away chennai to the Americans...
madhugr said…

(Royapettah) Woodlands Hotel still exists. The theatre is built next to it.

Narayanan said…

experience the charm of triplicane. yr right, having kived very close to amirmahal , as ayoungboy the mahal used to be very near yet very far from
our mind and it also used to arouse a strnage feeling which i till tdy can not express.i always used to think it was unaccessible for commonman. yr perception abt pycroftsroad, i find almost simlar to my fathers narration abt this unique place in chnnai. wish u all the best mady
Maddy said…
thanks narayanan..

appreciate your comments
Anil Nair said…
Maddy, after a long break re-started reading your blogs.. Feels good to be back in your loved company!

Happened to hit this one that mentions about the Nair Mess in chennai; and it took me back to the first day in 2004/5 when i accidentally 'ran into' it, on a delirious night by chepauk. Great place. The taste remains..

It was vsop that was thinning within that day; its cognac when i stumbled upon your blog today.

Cheers, and Keep Walking!

Maddy said…
thanks Anil..
we had to survive on shared units in our time at Madras - medical permit was i think 6units per month, i.e. 6 bottles of beer or 2 off 1/2 pints.

no VSOP and the such..

thanks boss- hope you read part 2