Stina Vasu on Moore Market, gracious residences and evenings of quite socialising

The first time I visited Madras, it was as a tourist headed to Ceylon. The year was 1961, and I got but a fleeting glimpse of the city after I arrived here by a propeller plane, before a train whisked me off to Rameswaram. I found a tourist brochure which told me that I could travel by boat to Mahabalipuram — I still regret that I didn’t try it. It would have been wonderful; gliding slowly down the then-clean waters, flanked by green paddy fields.

During that visit, I stayed at the Oceanic Hotel in Santhome, one of only three hotels in the city that had air-conditioned rooms; the other two were Connemara and Queens. Where the Oceanic once was, now stands the Harrisons building. Very few restaurants offered Continental cuisine; you had to go to these large dining halls that dotted the city, spartan spaces with ceiling fans and simple wooden furniture. These halls also had bars; but there was prohibition, which meant that while foreigners were permitted to drink, Indians needed a doctor’s prescription — a licence to drink! But a popular restaurant near Higginbothams on Mount Road found a way out of this — they served their beer chilled in teapots! And, no one suspected a thing.

My next visit to Madras was in 1963, as a newly-wed ‘firang’ bride. We lived in Wallace Gardens, which was a quiet, residential area, for five years. There was absolutely no traffic, and mothers and ayahs could push their prams along the middle of the road.

There were so few women who drove in those days, that, for the longest time I believed I was the only one. As I drove down the Nungambakkam high road in my Standard Herald, I would encounter a handful of Ambassadors and Fiats. These were the only three cars made in India. There were no autorickshaws — so, most people walked, cycled or hired a cycle-rickshaw.

One hardly ever heard of crime in those days. In fact, we routinely used to leave our doors and gates unlocked; something unthinkable right now.

Moore Market was the City Centre of those days, built like a square with an open area in the middle, where you could find absolutely anything you wanted — from vegetables to meat, toys, jewellery, books, army uniforms and underclothes!

But, strangely, you could never find ladies undergarments. In fact, there were no readymade clothes at all. Every week, we would buy fabric, and stitch dresses for ourselves as well as the children. If you were lucky, you could find a tailor — one of them was called ‘The Dior of Madras’.

To buy meat and vegetables was another adventure, since we couldn’t communicate with the vendors; I found a way out, though. At the beef market in Moore market, I would take out a picture book on how to cut the meat, and point at the piece I wanted. It worked splendidly.

For pork, we would go to unlikeliest of all places — the Veterinary College in Vepery, because the doctors would inspect the meat, and so it was safe to buy from them. While beef cost us Rs. 2 a kg, an enormous basket of vegetables, enough to last a family for more than a week, would come for Rs.10.

The open market outside Moore Market was just as interesting. You could find fish tanks with exotic fish and birdcages with colourful birds. Once, I bought a cage with these lovely pink, yellow and blue-coloured birds, only to realise, after the first rain, that they were grey! None of the women I knew worked outside their homes. Girls weren’t allowed to go out at all, and they married young. Once, when I suggested a dance party for my niece’s 18th birthday, people said I was being rebellious. What did we do for entertainment? Well, we socialised. Friends and relatives dropped by frequently, and you went ‘visiting’ in the evenings, and on holidays. You read a lot.

Cinema houses such as Midlands, Casino, Sun Theatre, Minerva and New Globe would show American movies. After the show, we would stand up for the National Anthem. Sometimes, we would end up at Elphinstone for an ice cream with fruits and nuts, in thick glass cups. On full moon nights, we would take our children to the Marina. It was beautiful watching the glowing silver ball rising out of the sea. There would only be a handful of vendors, and no one would disturb our little picnic of chola-bhatura there.

I REMEMBER

In the 1970s, the Swedish Ambassador and his wife came on a visit. We took them to Gaylord, where we were amazed to see a striptease in progress! The woman danced, as all of us watched in complete disbelief. It was only at the very end that we realised something very important — it was a man!

STINA VASU

Born in Stockholm in 1938, she worked at the Swedish Embassy in New Delhi, before moving to Madras in 1963. She pioneered fitness and health classes in the city in 1968, with her Arogya Fitness Centre, spawning a culture of exercise and aerobics. She served as the Honorary-Consul for Sweden till 2008, and is presently Director, T. T. Enterprises.