Motilal Street has paid the price for being in the Usman Road area

Childhood haunts often seem small when we revisit them later in life. I was coming back to Motilal Street in T. Nagar after some 25 years and was asking myself if that was what was happening, or if the street had indeed caved in. Everything seemed smaller, narrower.

As a child, my walks were great getaways into solitariness. I would hum a song as my walk would suddenly turn into a hop, become a run, and then slow down to a stroll – in keeping with the cadence of the song. I would, however, take care to heed my mother’s stern advice to stay close to the edge of Motilal Street – as my oblivious jaunt could invite accidents with vehicles.

Today, the street’s edges have been gobbled up by motorbikes, bicycles and cars parked haphazardly. The houses have all moved closer to the road. The narrow entrances are a complete mismatch with the apartment complexes they front.

Motilal Street used to be my weekend stop – my grandparents lived there. I remember running round and round under the portico of their house with other visiting cousins. We had the energy and didn’t quite know what to do with it. Chennai had enough space to take all our running, it seemed.

Not anymore. I tried that walk-hop-run routine today, taking care to see that others weren’t watching. There simply was no space for that, or even for a more ‘adult’ walk.

Motilal Street has paid the price for being in the Usman Road area – a mad shopper’s paradise, and one of the most popular places in Chennai. The noise, clutter, encroachments and lack of breathing space have made Motilal Street practically unliveable.

Two years ago, I came back to what I consider my home – Chennai. Unlike in the past, I could now hope to earn a decent living as a journalist here – all thanks to the same progress that made Usman Road what it is. Without that hope, I probably wouldn’t have returned. And I certainly don’t want to go back to my grandfather’s time. A hardy veterinary doctor, his morning routine included an hour at the hand pump, coaxing barely potable water out to fulfil the family’s needs. Now there is piped water and if that fails, there are tankers.

But does progress also mean disempowerment? Don’t residents have a say in deciding what kind of neighbourhood they want to live in?

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