On the day of Jawaharlal Nehru's death, the only way to get somewhere was to walk. Every bus in the city had stopped running. Almost all the shops pulled down their shutters as a mark of mourning. The city ground to a complete halt, but there was not a single untoward incident of violence. And since most of the restaurants unusually remained shut, it was also the first time that several men in the city resorted to cooking!
Recollections of life in Madras in the 1940s and 1950s would be incomplete without remembering the different people who came together to compose life as we knew it. The poor from the villages that bordered Madras used to migrate to the city in search of work. They came with nothing from their homes - they bathed, ate and slept on the railway platforms, some on the pavements. A few of them built houses near the Cooum. They usually worked as headload workers or rickshaw and handcart pullers in Kotwal Chavadi, where the wholesale market used to be, before it moved to Koyambedu.
It was a heart-rending sight - bare-bodied men straining with heavily-laden carts, two pulling from the front, and two pushing from behind, trying to push it up the steps of the bridges in front of the Central Station and near Stanley Hospital, in the scorching mid-day heat. Some of the handcart pullers would tie a sack-cloth around their feet.
The lower middle-classes, usually employed in the government offices or private firms, had their own stories to tell. Several of them were involved in heavy debts, because their expenditures on social functions were high even by the standards in those days. Back then, government and departmental co-operative societies would offer long and short-term loans to the employees. The queues were long.
The long-term loans were recovered in 24 months, and the short-term ones from the subsequent month's pay. But every month, as soon as the statement of recovery reached the societies, the employees rushed to the co-operative offices for another short-term loan. And in case this wasn't enough, there was always the moneylender.
In the 1950s and well into the 1960s, only the very rich had telephones.
The rest had to go to the telegraph office, book a trunk call and then settle down for a wait that could last for more than two hours. There were two post-offices then, one opposite the Beach Station, and the other on G.N. Chetty Road in T. Nagar - anytime you walked by these streets, you could hear the incessant clicks and taps of the telegraph machine.
The first theatre in the city was actually inside the Post Office on Mount Road. They would screen silent pictures there. It closed down only after theatres such as Elphinstone came up, several years later. Back then, the matinee shows in theatres were monopolised by women. They would rush to buy the tickets, which cost about five annas, pawning brass or copper tumblers. They would hurry back afterwards; they had to make it home before their husbands returned from work.
Everyone wrote letters in those days, and a letter from Kashmir to Kerala would take about seven days to be delivered, snaking its way down slowly on a train; though in a lot of ways, the postal system was much better than it is now. The letters that were not delivered were returned to what used to be called the Dead Letter Office.
Between them, the staff of this department knew almost every Indian language, because they had to decipher illegible addresses scrawled in strange scripts. But nobody liked the name of the department - after a lot of negotiation, it was changed to the Returned Letter Office.
The post-boxes would be cleared at six in the evening, the letters placed in sacks, and loaded into the trains for the Railway Mail Service. All the sorting was done in the train compartments, by the dim lights that flickered half-heartedly from the ceiling. To read the addresses in this light was a terrible thing, and in the shadows, you could see people hunched over the letters, trying to fathom where each letter must go. As told to CHITHIRA VIJAYKUMAR