In the wake of the recent fires at the historic Kalas Mahal and Agurchand Mansion, Prince Frederick looks back at yet another tragedy etched in the mind of Madras

Roughly a year before it was going to be handed over to Southern Railway for construction of a car park, the old Moore Market met with an unexpected end. Minutes past midnight on May 30, 1985, a raging fire — supposedly sparked by an electrical short circuit — engulfed the Market complex and when the flames died down around 6 a.m., only the skeletal structure of the landmark remained. The roof had come crashing down and the southern and eastern blocks were damaged beyond repair. Only the northern and western sections offered some semblance of a hope — however, even here, the merchandise was charred.

The flea market had over 800 stalls, and the majority of them sold books, clothes and plastic goods. Helped by the combustible material and a strong south-easterly wind, the fire spread swiftly across the complex. The entire battery of fire engines — around 20 — was pressed into action. Water was fetched from near and far, but this proved insufficient, and the salvage team turned to the Buckingham Canal for more water. Foam was also used. The mammoth column of fire proving uncontrollable, a Simon Snorkel — bought at a cost of Rs. 42 lakh for firefighting and rescue operations at high-rise buildings — was utilised. The machine helped minimise the damage to the northern section. As the snorkel gave them a bird's eye view, firefighters could launch a ‘coordinated effort' to bring the entire blaze under control.

During the crisis, shopkeepers tried to salvage their merchandise. A portion of the goods were carted to safety. However, in the prevailing confusion, opportunistic elements sneaked in and made away with a part of the retrieved items.

When the city woke to the distressing news, bibliophiles, who frequented the flea market in search of rare titles, rushed to the market. Hoping against hope, they went to the less damaged Western wing and asked bystanders about the fate of the book shops. What they heard broke their hearts. G. Arumuga Chetti, one of the key members of the book stall owners' association, narrated to the visitors how most of the 72 book stalls had gone up in flames and that efforts to save the books were largely unsuccessful. The majority of the unsinged, intact books were common text books of little value.

After they recovered from the shock, the public wanted to know the cause of the fire. After investigation, experts — including members of the forensic department — ruled out sabotage. A theory that gained credence was that the fire could have been the result of an overheated step-down transformer left running by an absent-minded shopkeeper.

The nearby Lily Pond was de-weeded for installing temporary stalls. In a literal sense, the new Moore Market rose out of the ashes of the old one. The rubble of the demolished Moore Market was used to fill the Lily Pond where the new market now stands.

'When we bragged about bargains'

Sanjeeva Raj, academician, recalls:

In the 1940s, Moore Market was a tourist destination for residents of the Madras Presidency. Anybody who visited the city wouldn't leave without visiting the market. The complex had features that contributed to the holidaying mood. Based on an overall quadrangular design, the complex had an outer circle of shops which led to an inner circle of shops, through broad passages. After shopping, people parked themselves in an open-air platform for a chat and a bite.

Students and voracious readers were drawn by the mind-boggling collection of second-hand books. In the 1940s — as a zoology student at MCC — I frequented the market for the same reason. The sellers' knowledge about books pertaining to science, humanities and fiction was impressive. There was nothing they could not get for you. Given to the study of animals and birds, I enjoyed visiting the building — behind the main one — where pets were on sale. Kittens and dogs were sold. In the 1940s, little jackals, monkeys, slender lorises, star tortoises and hares were also offered. Talking mynahs and parakeets were a major attraction. From the mid-1960s, I invariably visited the Market with my family. There were innumerable toys and children would have a field day. Women would hunt for perfumes, rare garments and footwear. The men could look for gizmos, including high-end cameras. Most importantly, every item could be bargained for. After every trip, we would brag about the bargains we managed.