L. Lakshman on the anti-Hindi agitations, car festivals in Mylapore and a city of gracious people
Say old Madras and I think of silence. No blaring loudspeakers or rude honking in the 1950s and 1960s. A legacy of British decorum? Shop keepers were polite, so were their customers. The policeman was a respected person. The postman in khaki knew the members of the families to whom he diligently delivered mails, and was often given coffee or buttermilk. Our postman used to regularly bring fresh murungakai for us!
My maternal grandfather's home, now the Gopalapuram Girls' High School, had a park and a playground close by. They survive still, though most of the open spaces in every part of the city remain only memories for senior citizens. Mowbrays Road and Cathedral Road were not wider in the 1950s, but because of less traffic and fewer people, they seemed huge.
Maattuvandis, rickshaws and cycle rickshaws were common. You could count the cars — Morris Minor and Buck Fiat, and the occasional Chevrolet or Dodge. I cycled from home on Edward Elliots Road to school on Harrington Road, safely, not just because there was less traffic. In small-town Madras, people were caring. The Madras of my childhood was a green sheltering space.
Outings were few. An occasional ther thiruvizha in Mylapore, or to hear the police band play martial tunes at the beach on Sundays, near the Gandhi statue, flanked by liveried policemen on horseback.
As a college student, I queued outside Elphinstone or Odeon, to get tickets for “Roman Holiday” or “The Guns of Navarone”. Our dress? The idea was to cover the body — not style or fashion or colour scheme!
Connemara, Gaylord and Kwality were the swankier restaurants, but college boys confined themselves to Sukha Nivas, Kumbakonam Vilas and Rayar's Café. Did girls visit these places? Never! We boys knew our sisters' friends, but socialising with girls was taboo. We used to play billiards in a parlour near St. Thomas' Church and hang around outside to see the girls from a Catholic centre going to the beach. Actually talking? We wouldn't dare!
Rosary Matric Convent ‘evicted' the boys after Class 4. A ladies club launched a school for the stranded boys of my batch, and Vidya Mandir was born!
Parents were figures of authority with limited imagination about careers — engineering or medicine. My parents didn't catch me smoking. But, I couldn't lie when my mother found out about my eating non-vegetarian food! Teachers insisted on a mechanical process of learning everything by heart. Surprising, given the value system of those days.
I recall how the eveninger The Mail maintained quality, untouched by tabloid sensationalism. No one could miss the screaming headlines in every paper during the 1966-1967 anti-Hindi agitation. What an uproar! Schools and colleges were closed for weeks. C.N. Annadurai's measured speech at the Parliament against the imposition of Hindi was hugely reported.
Kamaraj and Annadurai were both my father's friends. There are photographs of Anna carrying me as a child. He came through as a thorough gentleman. Kamaraj had a large heart and a sense of purpose. I remember his asking my father to raise funds for the Avadi session of the Congress.
The death of two political leaders affected me deeply — the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a personal hero; and later, the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri. Shastri had become a family friend during his frequent visits to his son's home in Madras, diagonally opposite our own. His son worked in Ashok Leyland.
My cricket-mad uncle took me to league games, and overrode my father's objections to my cutting classes during Test matches. Lunch at the ground was a feast. My foodie-uncle ensured home-delivered masaal dosai, vadai, bajji and adai for his 15-member team!
A great excitement was the return of the Test match to the MCC grounds after 15 years, with a star-studded team from the West Indies, including Gary Sobers and Rohan Kanhai. We queued up at 3 a.m. to get tickets. Pongal also heralded the kathadi season — manja making and cutting each other's strings from terraces and the beach. Strange alms seekers appeared on the streets — boom boom maadu, Govinda man… the gudugudupandi wore a veshti, black coat, murukku meesai and sivappu pottu. He had a drumming gadget in hand!
I grew up in a golden age. Where are the spaces for children to play outdoors now? Or, streets to cycle safely? A gracious way of life?
L. LAKSHMAN Born in 1946, he has a degree in engineering and an MBA from London. He heads Rane Holdings Limited and is the past President of ASSOCHAM, ACMA, Madras Chamber of Commerce & Industry, and is an active member of various industry forums. Chennai knows Lakshman, who retired as Chairman of the Rane Group of Companies, as a veteran with 35 years experience in the automotive industry. He is also a connoisseur and singer of Hindustani classical music.
My first introduction to a Test match in 1959 at the Nehru Stadium turned into a clamorous drama as a bouncer from Roy Gilchrist, the controversial bowler, hit our batsman G.S. Ramchand. The crowd roared and stamped in anger. But, Ramchand gamely got a few stitches put in and returned to play.