Nostalgia Writer Vikraman on a time when Saidapet was the hub of handloom, and jatkas connected far-flung areas

The role of industry in Madras' growth cannot be overemphasised. Many localities owe their formation to migrant artisans and workers. Purasaiwalkam was born when weavers from Purasai, a village in Kancheepuram district, resettled here in the hope of better opportunities, and continued their profession. Chintadripet and Saidapet were also in the forefront of handloom weaving. Hand-woven textiles were dyed and stored in godowns in Washermanpet, Royapuram and Tondiarpet, before being packed off for export.

While hand-weaving as a small-scale industry faded away from most localities, it thrived for a long time in Saidapet. Even in the mid-1940s, the clack-clack of looms filled the streets. Weavers in the locality produced lungis that had a ready market in Burma and Ceylon. Improper disposal of the starch used in the making of the lungis was considered responsible for the mosquito menace in Saidapet.

Areas on the banks of the Adyar river became washermen localities. A portion of Saidapet had a heavy population of washermen. Vannandurai in Besant Nagar is evidence of a similar concentration.

Parry's, part of George Town, derived its name from the tall EID Parry building — Dare House. Due to its proximity to the harbour, George Town flourished as a business centre. The area held great charm for merchants who were keen on having their residences close to their shops.

As textile mills proliferated in North Madras, what were called “workers' areas” sprouted. A majority of those living in Choolai, Pattalam, Otteri and a few other areas depended on big mills such as Buckingham and Carnatic Mills (B&C Mills) in Otteri, and Choolai Mills. At one point of time, B&C Mills had 10,000 workers on its payroll. The management built quarters for its workers.

People were forced to find accommodation near their work spaces. Because, barring areas that benefited from tram services and suburban railway operations (introduced in 1931), the city was not adequately connected by public transport. Bus services, run by private operators, were infrequent and mostly locality-centric. So, people swore by trams and trains. As a result, areas touched by these mass transport systems bloomed. In many areas, jatkas (horse-driven carriages) were more popular than buses. They were found in plenty at Kodambakkam, near Paragon Talkies (Triplicane), Central Station, General Hospital, St. Thomas Mount and Saidapet.

At General Hospital, jatkas were used to carry the dead. The area beyond Kodambakkam was considered back of beyond; but, for horse carriages, transport to places such as Vadapalani was almost non-existent.

Many who detrained at Central Station stayed the night at the Sir Ramaswami Mudaliar Choultry, opposite the station. Some jatka operators took advantage of the visitors' unfamiliarity with Madras. After being taken around on a long, rambling ride, they would be dropped at the choultry, and charged a hefty amount! Even Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, before he abandoned his suits for the sparse clothing of the common man, was taken for a ride by a jatka driver. Gandhi wanted to go to writer-publisher G.A. Natesan's house on Thambu Chetty Street. After a long ride and a hiked-up charge, Gandhi reached Natesan's doorsteps.