G.D. Gopal on chariot rides to school, near-empty roads and a time when the city's welfare took precedence over personal gain

Can you imagine a city with no fences between houses? Where foxes and snakes were common on a tree-filled Avanashi Road? Where people shared their cars with others? That was my city.

There was so much vegetation that we children would not be allowed outside the house alone. Somebody would accompany us, carrying a stick. Between G.K. Devarajulu's Shell House and President Hall, there were just three houses. President Hall used to be President House, where the district collector lived. I would go to GKD's House, a hop, skip and jump away, to see his son, my friend D. Jayavarthanavelu (DJ). Then, there were the houses belonging to Lingam Chetty and my classmate Jagadish Chandran.

Only three or four families owned cars and it was common to see people borrowing them for occasions. Once, Premier of the Soviet Union Nikolai Alexandrovich Bulganin, who was visiting, was brought home by our driver.

While I was growing up, I saw many important visitors at home. Periyar, Ambedkar, Ma Po Si, Bharathidasan, Annadurai, General Cariappa… In fact, whenever people wanted to hold personal meetings, they would assemble at our home!

Those days, I would walk to school (Stanes) from home. I particularly remember the school canteen. It would stock barfi, chocolate toffees made by Anglo Indians, bread butter jam…and more. We would get six to eight toffees for an anna.

In the morning, I would cycle on my Raleigh to R.S. Puram (next to the present Corporation Kalaiarangam) for English tuitions with Krishnan (the Communist leader). He was Oxford-educated, and my father wanted someone to discipline me without being influenced by my family background. Krishnan would not open the gate even if I was a minute early, and would shut it if I were late by a minute or two!

We spent our days on near-vacant roads. And, during the petrol rationing, five of us would travel on a horse-drawn chariot to school — Jagadish, Krishnaraj, the son of the Uthukuli Zamin, DJ, B.R. Shantaram (Central Studios) and myself — on an Avanashi Road lush with navapazham trees.

Bullock carts were the preferred mode of transport. We would travel to Anupatti (my mother's village) and Peedampalli by cart, leaving early in the morning and reaching sometime in the afternoon. Sometimes, we would get caught between two streams and wait (occasionally overnight) till the water subsided. En route, we would pluck guavas from farms nearby and feast on them.

The British were present in great numbers, especially around Race Course, ATT Colony, and Podanur. I remember how a special train would run from Podanur to Vincent Theatre for the British ladies to watch a film on Sunday mornings.

Thanks to the British influence, we had good bakeries too. There was Marratts, run by Mr. and Mrs. Marratt. He worked in Stanes Motors and she was a teacher in Stanes School. Their buns and cakes were excellent. Only, they baked for a passion, and you had to give them enough notice to get your order ready! Then, there were Davey Bakery (attached to the hotel — most foreigners stayed there) and JM and Sons.

My father would travel to Podanur every day to visit our farm and I would also accompany him. Sometimes, we could not cross Aathupalam (we did not have a bridge then!) if it had rained. We would wait till the water level dropped before continuing.

And when Vaalankulam flooded, water would cross over and flow on the road near Nirmala College.

When buses were introduced in the city, they were a huge novelty. Only, they did not come covered. So, by the time we travelled a short distance, we would be caked with dust! And, there were no routes. Groups of people would ask the driver to take them to Pollachi or the local market, and make their own route!

Can you imagine fields of corn or sugarcane within the city? Red Fields was famous for corn, and we raised brinjal, corn and sugarcane in the land around President Hall. These invited visitors too — wild boars, foxes, bears, and snakes.

As a child, I remember going with my father G.D. Naidu, Rathnasabapathy Mudaliar and India's first finance minister R.K. Shanmugam Chettiar for a survey on how to bring Siruvani water to the city. We travelled with about 20 people, walking from the present Covai Courtallam, and battled leeches to reach our destination. The threat of wild animals loomed large and so we travelled with drummers. The people involved in this mission only had the city's welfare at heart. They derived little personal gain from it. But, that was the mettle Coimbatore's pioneers were made of! How I wish we can emulate them as we develop as a city!

G.D. GOPAL Born in August 1939, he is the trustee of G.D. Naidu Charities. He is passionate about science and is known for his hands-on approach to work. He is also fond of photography. He has been awarded the Das Verdienstkreuz Am Bande (Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany) in recognition of his initiatives to strengthen Indo-German relationship and his contribution to Indian society.

I REMEMBER

Poverty used to be rampant in our city. Famished people would sit by the underpass near Lanka Corner, arms outstretched. So many would wait outside factories demanding work. I'm happy we don't see that kind of poverty today.