Going to school in a maatu vandi, selling nine-yard saris for Rs.18 and listening to M.S. from outside his store… Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti revisits the T. Nagar that was

I was born when all of T. Nagar was within Bazullah Road and the Siva Vishnu Temple, with rice fields and palm groves (where toddy was sold). Except for Tirumalai Pillai Road, no lane or alley forked out of Habibullah Road, all the way to Kodambakkam.

On his first visit to ‘Madras pattinam', a young friend of mine from Mannargudi stood on G.N. Chetty Road for half-an-hour to count cars, but saw none!

But such ‘traffic' was enough to frighten the father of Ramamurti (later to become a famous neurosurgeon) into buying a baby Austin for his son rather than the motorbike he craved.

My grandfather was happy to buy a 10-anna train ticket to Kanchipuram for purchases. He told T.S. Mahalingam that he would buy the car that this first automobile consultant of Madras was trying to sell him, if it took him to Kanchipuram at the same cost. We filled up one gallon of fuel for 10 annas. The car shuddered to a halt in front of our house in Chinna Kanchipuram. Grandfather bought the car for Rs. 1,500!

I went to Ramakrishna Mission School in our maattu vandi. I was a first ranker in every class. One day the Maths teacher put up five sums on the blackboard, and was astonished that I had done them all correctly, before he put the chalk down. A few years ago, I went back to the same classroom and sat on the same spot to re-live the joy of his smile, his special pat on the back...

After school, I finished my homework, and rushed to the shop. My father always treated me to ice-cream when daily sales reached Rs. 100. Not so easy at a time when saris of nine yards were sold at Rs.18, and six yards for Rs.12! Some families paid even those sums in instalments. Father made monthly collection rounds on his cycle. He indulged me, his only son, in buying Deepavali pattaasu for Rs. 900 when a ground in T. Nagar cost Rs. 2,000!

I was lucky to have publisher-writer Chinna Annamalai for a neighbour. His Tamil Pannai publishing house also sold its own children's magazine Jingli, with writer Saavi for editor. (Saavi once had a restaurant called Sudarsana Vilas) I have seen Rajaji, Periyasami Thooran and Trojan Annamalai Chettiar chatting on the tinnai outside Tamil Pannai, with young Vikatan Krishnamurti (who later married musician M.L. Vasanthakumari) supplying coffee to them at intervals. The group often strolled together to Ashramam — scholar Ve. Saminatha Sarma's home — to continue discussions.

My memories of the Hindi Prachar Sabha are of Krishna Gana Sabha concerts there. Before it shifted to Griffiths Road, the Sabha had its programmes where Kumaran Silks stands now. I became entranced by Carnatic music only because, from Nalli's threshold, I could clearly hear every note of Ariyakudi's or M.S. Subbulakshmi's performance.

Green silk

My community had no music lovers except Muthu Chettiar, esteemed for the silks he supplied to aristocratic families in Mylapore and Mambalam, and, of course, to M.S. amma. In those days, green saris had the label — ‘No colour guarantee'. With his Madras quarters on Warren Road, Chettiar talked to foreign dye-makers and personally supervised the long drawn out local process of dyeing. He became the first man in India to produce colourfast green silks. His jarigai too was unique in quality!

T. Nagar and Mambalam had their share of film celebrities such as yesteryear star T.R. Rajakumari. An employee from the local sub-registrar's office played hero in former onion retailer B. Nagi Reddy's blockbuster “Paathaala Bhairavi”, and became a cult figure — N.T. Rama Rao! Until the 1950s, T. Nagar had hotels where you got two meals, tiffin, a mat and a pillow — all for a few annas. But, the low cost of living did not preclude poverty. My classmate Sadagopan found himself unable to pay the school fee of Rs. 7. My friend Krishnan, a nephew of Jayarama Iyer who ran the famous TSC canteen, suggested that I pay the fees. He bought the textbooks. I thought Krishnan influenced my charitable impulses.

But, there was another source. Writer Asokamitran wrote in a magazine about how my father, learning about his family's financial difficulties in conducting his sister's wedding, lent him the necessary sum unasked. Reading this account, a prisoner from Vellore jail wrote to me asking for help with his daughter's education at Anna University. Years later, the moment he was released, the man made a trip to Nalli in Pondy Bazaar, even before going home.

BIO: Born in 1940, Kuppuswami Chetti inherited the family business trademarked Nalli Silks, the main outlet, a landmark in T. Nagar. He not only transformed it into a multi-crore empire, but also devised marketing strategies to nurture employee and customer. Silk woven by his grandfather was gifted to King George V in 1911. A generous patron of various institutions, this voracious reader has authored books on wide-ranging subjects from Who is Bharati to The Commercial World. His interest in heritage is reflected in Thiagaraya Nagar — Then and Now. A doctorate has been conferred upon him by Arizona's World University Round Table.

I Remember One day Prema Srinivasan of the TVS family came to Nalli Silks with a well-dressed foreigner. Nobody gave the woman a second look as we were used to such tourists. After making their purchases the two women left their car here and sauntered across to the market around Panagal Park. The visitor had a wonderful time looking at everything and buying whatever she fancied. Only later did we learn that she was Jacqueline Kennedy!