City3sixty The livelihood of people residing along the Vaigai embankments.
Driving at peak hour through Kamarajar Salai, one of the busiest stretches in the city, is a pain. The street bursts at the seams and vehicles clog it at many points. Two-wheelers fill every possible gap. Caught in the middle, I look around for a possibility of escape. As I move forward, I find a lane that turns to my left. With absolutely no idea where it leads, I turn and end up on the Vaigai river bank road.
Suddenly, I feel the fresh air. Men on their bicycles, oblivious of the chaotic traffic on the parallel road, move at their own pace on the bank road and bullock carts inch along with loads of used wooden window and door frames. Now I must explore why this area is immune to the cacophony of city traffic.
The river, which runs dry for most of the year, is flanked by the blacktopped roads stretching from Anna Nagar (behind Thiagarajar College) to Fatima College bridge on the southern side and from Kuruvikaran Salai bridge to Fatima College bridge on the northern side.
Expecting plenty of activity, I take the one on the southern side early in the morning. A tea shop with thatched roof brings cheer to my eye. It is a small space, just enough for a person to stand in. I take a minute to gauge the place and Muthiah, the owner, asks me what I would like to have. By that time two more men have arrived.
They are blacksmiths. “Sipping tea at this shop is our daily routine before we start work. We have made this a habit,” says A. Nizam. “My morning is not complete without this tea,” he adds.
By that time the whole area reverberates with the clang of heavy metal as men cut and shape iron plates with cutters and hammers.
“I am doing this right from eight years old,” says 35-year-old N. Abbas. “It is our life. I have no regrets. Of course, there are several occupational hazards, as I have hearing problems and have broken my fingers several times. Still, I am happy with work.”
“My grandfather told me King Tirumalai Naick patronised us,” says Nizam. “Initially, we made weapons for kings, later we also made axles for the bullock carts. Slowly, we moved away from that work to make utensils made of iron,” he says.
M. Abul Hassan, 71, has also worked at Yusuf Workshop since he was a child. They make frying pans made of iron. “This place is convenient for us,” says Abul Hassan. “We are at the heart of the town yet without traffic snarl normally associated with the busy city. Besides, it is easy for us to transport goods from here.”
The river bank road is an efficient escape road, running parallel to the main thoroughfare and well connected to it through lanes and by lanes.
“There are at least 10 to 15 such lanes and by-lanes that ease the traffic on Veli streets, says Ramesh, a resident of this area. "We can move to any area in the heart of the city without much hassle. The breathtaking view of full moon from here is a sight to behold. The only time this place gets crowded is during the Chithirai festival when the Lord Kallazhagar enters the river."
As the sun rises, commercial activities also gain momentum. A row of shops selling second-hand wooden door and window frames come to life. “We purchase these frames from those who dismantle their houses,” says V. Karuppiah, a vendor. “Some time ago, civic authorities destroyed a portion of houses which were found to have encroached upon the banks. We purchased the materials from them. These frames are cheap compared to the fresh ones. People who have a low budget for their construction work buy them,” he says.
As I near the Kalpaalam bridge causeway, the aroma of fish takes me directly to the Makkal Unavagam. “Basically, I am a communist,” says Rasool, to explain the name of his eatery. “I don’t run this eatery for profit. I am happy if I get the margin.”
Here you get fish meals for just Rs.30 and Rs.20. “The dry fish sambai is something very special and you don’t get this dish anywhere in the city,” says Rasool. This recipe is a Burmese import prepared by his wife R. Jimma Beevi, a Burmese refugee. This eatery is also a poor man’s paradise, selling ‘pazhaya sadham’ (boiled rice soaked in water overnight) for Rs.15 a plate.
The causeway buzzes with men selling used clothes for a throwaway price and vendors selling tender coconuts. Along the causeway, a group of boys fish in the murky puddles to sell their catch on the banks. More boys play cricket on the bare patches on the riverbed. Children bathe in a trickle of water.
The northern side of the Vaigai is full of residential pockets and rows of two-wheeler mechanic shops. All the life seems to be on the southern bank, the struggle to work and the pittance earned, and the emotional bond those workers seem to have with the riverbank in spite of it all.
(City3sixty is a monthly column that captures the different moods of the city)