Aparna Karthikeyan visits George Town and is swept up in the sights and sounds of commerce

At 7.30 a.m., mere moments after I walk into NSC Bose Road, a street-dog offers to show me around. I'm very tempted to hop into the auto it's pretending to drive. Nearby, another dog — a beautiful brown one — plays a wooden flute. The warren of streets in George Town has, for so many decades, been the commercial hub of the city that the industriousness has probably spread to the dogs. At least, that's what I tell myself.

There's a flurry of activity all around. Behind mobile tea-kiosks, men swing fragrant brown tea from one container to another, before neatly tipping it into cut glasses. At roadside eateries, peppercorn-studded bondas and vadais are arranged in tidy, brown pyramids. Dust rises in little clouds from doorways, whenever a broom touches it. I follow two women, dressed in heavy silks, yards of jasmine hiding their plaits; they turn into Nyniappa Naicken Street, at the end of which a temple plays devotional songs from a cone-speaker. Across the road, cows ignore clucking cycle-rickshawmen and nose around dustbins, sticking their enormous backsides well into the narrow lane.

Longest street

Mint Street unfolds in front of me. It is the city's longest street, and among its oldest. It gets its name from housing the East India Company's mint. The glory and gold, though, are long gone; paint peels, plaster cracks, and plants grow from buildings. Heavily-accented Tamil and Hindi fight for air-space with Madras Tamil; a woman with two neatly dressed schoolgirls haggles with a rickshaw-man, browbeating him over five rupees; two young women pile another ancient rickshaw with seven large bags and ask to be taken to Central Station. Above a steel shop, a two-ft Gandhi statue watches over the street; all around him, washing flaps in a breeze funnelled by the tall, narrow buildings. Rubbish heaps — squished vegetables, sambhar packets, and masses of plastic — form small islands. A mango-seller dips into breakfast, drenching idlis in sambhar; a customer politely waits for her to finish.

‘Gold and silver zari bought' signboards give way to ‘gold and silver jewellery' as I turn back into NSC Bose Road. Mithai shops and pan houses open for trade. Opposite a jewellery store established in 1906, a lady pierces large green-chillies on a stout iron needle to make a short ‘dhrishti' garland and slides a ripe lemon after it; juice spurts on the jute-thread.

The sun is up, and there's not a scrap of cloud in the sky to filter the searing rays. I take an auto to Kothawal Chavadi. Driving past Broadway, I'm surprised to see it living up to its name; at 8.30 a.m. — before vendors and traffic eat into its breadth — it is, as Mr. Popham envisaged it, the major thoroughfare which he cleverly reclaimed over 200 years ago, from an open drain. A little girl weeps in the middle of the road, her mother looks on passively. Chickens race each other around truck wheels, dogs pant, cows pose.

Teeming with people

At Kothawal Chavadi though, it's a crush of humanity. ‘Thirty-five rupees a kilo, excellent mangoes' I'm offered, while nearby, a wiry, young man uses a curved hook to drag bulging sacks from a hand-cart. At New Sharada Lunch home, neem and mango leaves decorate the front door; outside, betel leaves, packed in fresh palm-frond baskets are counted. The kitschy collection of shops is open; a man with waist-length matted hair buys ghee from the oil and ghee merchant; another, in striped knee socks and shorts, chooses plump baby brinjals. Schoolchildren push me out of the way. Fish-carts jangle their bells warningly. Conservancy workers struggle to find two sq. feet of ground to sweep. There is no place to stop and stare.

I walk into Anderson Street, the wholesale paper and bag bastion; it is, in comparison, nearly deserted. Bags flutter, like bunting, from a string flung between two balconies. A radio belts out film songs. Labourers recline on sacks waiting for work, and politicians from the north and south smile from cards on the door of Rangoon paper stores.

It's exactly 9 a.m., and I'm back on NSC Bose Road. It looks vastly different now. Pavements teem with sellers. Shutters roll up noisily. Smoke, horns and voices prophesise another busy day. At Devaraja Mudali Street, turmeric and kumkum shops add colour to the walls of Chennapattinam's first temple, Chenna Kesava Perumal Koil. Inside, however, it's an oasis of calm. The bells of the dwajastambam make music in the wind. Overhead a kite circles the gopuram. There's some debate whether this little temple lent Chennai its name, but it was undoubtedly this neighbourhood that gave birth to the city. And its heart, I realise, still beats here.

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