Aparna Karthikeyan captures the late evening mood at Chennai’s best-known leisure spot.
A Margazhi evening; the Marina is deserted. The service lane along the beach hisses and bubbles with raindrops. For ten minutes, it pounds the car’s roof, splashes the windscreen, and sluices off the roofs of optimistic ice cream carts. At 7:30 p.m., it’s over; the sky and sea separate, one ribbed white with waves, and the other smudged with soggy clouds. Manish, Prashant and Sivakumar are taking turns photographing themselves when I reach the big, white arch of the Anna memorial. They’re from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, employed in Chennai, and love the Marina. “But we miss home food — halwa with dry fruits, litti-choka, rosogolla,” they tell me and get nostalgic.
A man in an orange shirt poses next to the golden statue of Anna, under arches curved like tusks. “Hai, MGR maadhary nikaraaru,” his family says, peeping into the digital camera’s display. Two small boys, in brown monkey caps, ask, “Is he the one inside the samadhi?” pointing to Ilango Adigal’s statue; their father asks them to hurry up and come. Two older boys, Veera and Kalidas, hurry up instead, carrying folded bedsheets; they’re from Arakonam and came to the city 10 days ago to work. “We’re going to sleep in a room, over there,” Kalidas points vaguely to the right and vanishes between the trees. But he comes running back to ask me my name, occupation and the paper I write for.
A milky, round moon appears as I walk towards the memorial; behind me, the lights of Chepauk turn the sky sooty grey. Beneath a mandapam, three men photograph a large rock; one of them tries to lift it. ‘Ada, ada, ada’, his friends laugh when he can’t budge it. Sixty students from a school in Andhra stand around Anna Samadhi. “We’re on an excursion,” their teacher Malliah tells me. “The Marina is very good; we also enjoyed visiting the museum, snake park and Mahabalipuram,” he says, and blows a whistle to assemble everybody for a group picture in front of the tall, black pillar next to the samadhi of Anna, who died on 03-02-1969.
I walk over to MGR memorial with three women from Salem; they’re barefoot, wearing the red of Melmaruvathur. Drawing their shawls closer, they tell me they were keen to visit the memorials after their pilgrimage. Coconut trees murmur, crickets shriek, and behind the red and yellow waterfalls, I hear the whisper of waves.
The memorial is a pearly flower, glowing even in its upside down reflection on the wet floor. Wind tugs at the eternal flame before the samadhi, making the fingers of orange dip and dance. Two men offer to take instant photographs; I decline, but watch a slim woman, in bridal finery, posing with her husband by the lawn. I ask if they’re newly married; she buries her face in his sleeve and laughs. “Ten years married; two children. Unnakku thevai annan,” their relative teases, as they walk away.
“Even though it rained, I think 10,000 people came today,” Murugan, the security guard tells me. The memorials, open from 6 a.m. to 10. 30 p.m., attract walkers and tourists by the busload everyday, and a bigger crowd on Kaanum Pongal, he says. It is 8:45 p.m. when I walk past the garlanded statue of MGR, unveiled on 24-12-1997.
Headlights stain the puddles of Kamaraj Salai golden; the walkway lights along the beach glow like fireflies. Three children play catch around the Triumph of Labour statue; above them, four men — carved out of black stone by Devi Prasad Roy Choudury — strain every sinew to shift a rock. To the left, a red and white police banner warns tourists that the sea at Marina is very deep, and reinforces the danger with pictures of skulls wearing red coolers. I follow women who’re walking barefoot over sand ground into a paste with rainwater; their silver anklets tinkle, my flip-flops squelch.
Banners advertising ‘Two names write in one rice’, seashells strung into necklaces, and heaps of wrung out sugarcane greet me as I walk into the ‘Anna MGR Sadhuka Manaparappu Sirukadai Vyabarigal Sangam.’ Many dialects of Tamil echo in the narrow space, besides some Telugu and Hindi.
Drawing huge crowds
Hyder Ali tells me that several lakhs of people will visit on Kaanum Pongal. “Sales bayangarama irrukum,” he smiles. Kuppulakshmi’s bajji stall is still open. ‘We’re here from noon till 10 p.m.; bajjis are very popular’, she says. A small child runs away from its family, and stands near a shop selling plastic cars; his father drags him away, promising a treat later; I hear him crying for a long time. The blue Simpsons clock shows 9:35 when I go home; the beach is busier than it was two hours ago; and under a sky as black as pitch, the optimistic ice cream carts do brisk business.