This could well be the story of an adventure. After all, walking through Chennai's busiest stretch during the festival-shopping season comes with its own set of challenges, writes Bishwanath Ghosh
“Once upon a time,” says Mohammad Shafi, a member of the staff at Gem & Co., the 60-year-old pen shop in T. Nagar, “you could only see dogs running around on this road on Sundays.” He is pointing at South Usman Road, which, even at 3.30 in the afternoon, resembles a Mumbai local train during peak hour.
Shafi, who has been working at the shop for 25 years, has been a front-seat witness to the drastic transformation that T. Nagar has undergone in just two-and-a-half decades, because Gem & Co. sits right on the T-junction where the mad rush of North Usman Road ends and the madness of South Usman Road begins.
“Now it is crazy. Just look at the crowds,” says Shafi, “It's going to get crazier as Deepavali draws closer.” I don't need him to tell me that. For over 10 years now, I've been living at a stone's throw, on a quiet street off North Usman Road, and during the first couple of years, I would occasionally stroll over to the South. But today, like a novice swimmer, I treat South Usman Road like the deep end of the pool — best avoided.
But this Sunday afternoon, I've returned, with a notebook in hand. I begin my walk from under the thoughtlessly constructed flyover, which was built with the intention of easing the flow of traffic between the two Usman Roads, but which effectively ended up running like a broad median on South Usman Road, leaving very little space on either side for people to walk. The crowd looks far more swollen than before.
As soon as I join the masses, I walk into an air pocket filled with the buzzing of bees — it's the collective droning made by the multitudes. I walk in small careful steps, just the way you do when walking on slippery surfaces: longer, carefree strides are impossible. Until now, I had only heard of people rubbing shoulders; now I know what it means.
Come to think of it, T. Nagar did not even exist until about 80 years ago — not even the soil on which it stands. If you look at the 1909 map of Madras, you will find a lake, the Long Tank, in its place. It was built in the 1920s when the Justice Party was in power in Madras Presidency. A number of its roads are named after Justice Party leaders — Sir Mohammad Usman was a minister in the Justice Party government and also, for a short while, the acting governor of the Presidency.
Today, Usman Road has new rulers towering over it — Saravana Stores, Pothys, Sri Kumaran, Jeyachandran Textiles, GRT, Rathna Stores, to name some of them. They are big names: go anywhere in Tamil Nadu, and you will find people clutching carry bags that bear their logos. The stores are decked up like wedding halls — which they are throughout the year, but during the festival season even more because that's when they unveil their new designs and collections.
Announcements such as “91.6 Hallmark Gold Rate + Lowest Wastage” may sound like Greek to someone who has never bought gold, but it surely does make sense to a lot of people. They are cascading down the steps of these one-stop stores like a waterfall, while an equal number resembles a waterfall flowing backwards.
I am, meanwhile, part of a slow-moving human river. A young woman, walking right ahead of me, tells her female companion: “This man deserves a tight slap!” The man supposedly deserving of the slap is a tall, well-built young fellow: very difficult to say whether he is helpless or is actually taking advantage of the proximity provided by the near-stampede. The two women are suddenly distracted by a hawker who is waving false hair at them; by then the slap-deserving man has been swept away by the human river. Another hawker is selling toy guitars; yet another is peddling fake branded watches.
I am now passing by Ranganathan Street. I have half a mind to enter it but instantly give up the idea when I see another river gushing out of it with such ferocity that any attempt to fight the current would either crush your toes or make you deserving of several tight slaps.
I end my walk near the T. Nagar bus stand and stand for a while and reflect: why do people come here to shop when this place is so stiflingly crowded, that too when they can buy whatever they've come to buy anywhere else in the city? Or is it that people like to go where the crowds are — and thus be a part of it? I have two bottles of soft drinks, shake hands with a candidate for the Chennai Corporation elections who is out canvassing, and join the downstream river headed back towards my home. I speak to a hawker stationed on the pavement outside The Chennai Silks. “Being positioned outside a big shop has its advantages,” says Ramesh, who sells hairclips, hair bands and other knick-knacks a woman might require. “On normal days, I make about Rs. 1,000 a day, but during the festival season I make nearly double that amount.” Which means Rs. 2,000 a day, which works out to Rs. 60,000 a month?
Clearly, South Usman Road is another Mumbai not just in terms of the crowd but also opportunities. If you have an idea, this is the place to execute it. One day, you could be rich.