Lakshmi Krupa strolls down Pondy Bazaar and bids adieu to the pavement hawkers

A burst of colour… pink, red, yellow and green… flowers being strung into garlands by deft hands. Goods wrapped in green and blue tarpaulin sheets, secured with ropes…this was the typical scene every morning at Pondy Bazaar. But after 9 a.m. the street would come to life with its eye-catching wares from all over… white metal jewellery, bindis, footwear, plastic goods for the home.... The joy of walking up and down the pavements, bargaining and shopping, was unique. A visit to this part of town was a must on everyone’s list of ‘things to do ahead of a big event in the family’. For those little knick-knacks such as safety pins, rubber bands, glass bangles and handkerchiefs, this was ‘the’ place to shop! A. Krishnan, 94, retired Additional Post Master General, has lived near Pondy Bazaar for several decades now. He says, “Back then there weren’t so many pavement shops, but we could find everything here. I used to buy my belts from these shops. And it was not at all difficult to walk or even ride a scooter through the area.”

In Ice Boys in Bell Bottoms, a humorous novel set in the Madras of the 70s, Krishna Devulapalli writes about how belts were part and parcel of the Pondy Bazaar shopping scene. He writes, “Quite often, elaborate schemes are undone by minor oversights. I had got the material, I had got the pants made, I had managed to get the biggest flare T. Nagar had ever seen, but I had forgotten one thing — a metal clip you could get for a rupee in Pondy Bazaar, a must-have accessory for anyone who was a bell-bottom-wearing cyclist. It was a ring-like contraption, open at one end, which you could clip around your trouser bottom to prevent it from getting entangled in your cycle chain.”

Favourite shopping destination

'Padmalatha Satish, who has lived all her life in T. Nagar, was at the bazaar recently before the vendors shifted to the new complex. “In the late 80s, when I was in college, it was my favourite shopping spot,” says this mother of two. “I would get off the bus here, and you know how college friends are! Even after spending the entire day with one another we would feel like we hadn’t spoken enough. So, we would walk up and down the pavements chatting and, most often, just window shopping. My most enduring memory is of buying ice cream from a petrol bunk which had a fast food store, and strolling around, bargaining and feeling all-too-important when I walked away and the vendor followed me down the road to give me a pair of earrings for the price I wanted! It’s also here that I have spotted several celebrities over the years, all without make-up. Often I would pass them by and realise, ‘Hey! I’ve seen them on TV!’ No matter how many of those earrings and necklaces you had, you were always tempted to buy one more here. It was also a safe place, any time of day. Walking under the canopy of those trees… It feels so nostalgic.”

Photographer's delight

These shops was also a photographer’s delight! Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan, who organises the Chennai Photo Walk, says, “I did two walks in Pondy Bazaar. What drew me was the history of the place. It was also the first evening photo walk; which is tricky to pull off. Pondy Bazaar has an amazing history — once part of a large water body, it was later filled and laid out to a superb plan and traders brought in from ‘the town’. And then followed the chaos, the colours, the activity, the man outside the petrol pump on the left-hand side, across the road from Ratna Stores, selling pirated copies of long-ago Forsyth novels. And the woman perched on the edge of the platform outside the Co-optex showroom selling flowers and, if you were nice, sharing old stories. They all drew me to Pondy Bazaar.” Chandrachoodan, who believes that “any street in Madras is a postcard waiting to be shot”, also feels “Pondy Bazaar is just around 2,000 of them (streets) in a space of 100 metres! There were people making and selling flower garlands just to the west of Thanikachalam Road. And then there were people selling material for drapes in all the colours of the spectrum.” During the walk, Chandrachoodan remembers how the lights in the sky would dim, and those on the streets would come on.