Prasanth Radhakrishnan on the improbably-named dwelling that is much sought after by single men landing in the city
The lore is well-known. Periyar and Anna are believed to have lived here. Thirumavalavan and director Bharathiraja most certainly did. As do students, small-time politicians, businessmen, tourists and patients, even today. You get “everything” here. And at the apex of the bustling ‘bachelor’s paradise’, that is Triplicane, are its most improbably-named mansions.
Even old-timers merely shrug when asked about the history of these structures. What everyone agrees on is the fact that there was a boom some 20 years ago when many land owners in south Tamil Nadu, due to the worsening state of agriculture, sold their land and came here and set up mansions. S. Dhastageer, secretary, Mansion Owner’s Association, estimates at least 20-25 per cent of the owners hail from Sivaganga district.
Many of the mansions were once houses altered by their new owners. Your average venerable mansion is a dingy, often claustrophobia-inducing structure with rooms to match. But residents proudly list the changes over the past 5-10 years — tiled floors, televisions, intercom.
“The food options, too, have increased,” says ad-film maker R.S. Paul, a resident of J.R.S Mansion on O.V.M Street. “With Andhra messes and Bengali messes, everyone has an option,” he says. Also, every other mansion now flaunts CCTVs, installed as part of ramped-up security in the wake of construction of the then proposed secretariat.
Part of their mystique is obvious. They provide convenient lodging — for Rs. 1,500 to Rs. 7,000 per month. But other aspects defy logic. Their numbers, for instance. There are nearly 250 mansions in the Triplicane-Chepauk area alone. In some places, like on Lal Mohammed Cross Street, a narrow 150-metre-long stretch, you can jump across the street from one to another.
How are they sustainable? Flexibility is one answer. For instance, many have transformed into guest houses that rent out rooms on a daily basis and permit families unlike traditional mansions which are preserves of ‘maledom’.
The crowds vary, says Mr. Dhastageer. “Since the past few years, patients from West Bengal flock here. About 70 per cent of rooms are usually occupied,” he says. Even so, owners are wary of the bourgeoning city. “The IT boom on OMR has had an impact,” says a mansion manager.
And then, there are lives inextricably linked with the mansions of Triplicane. Mr. Paul, for instance, has been living in various mansions for nearly 25 years.
“After my marriage, my wife came here but she did not like the city. So, she went back to Tiruchi. Staying in a mansion has helped me save enough to buy a house there and provide a good education to my children,” he says.
There are also those like the South India marketing head of a firm for whom mansions make sense as he is often on the road. “It is just not worth taking a house,” he says.
Sometimes, the reason a man stays on for years boils down to camaraderie. Gulab Singh, of Allahabad, on probation with the Central excise department, has been living at Marina Palace, off C.N.K road, for a year-and-a-half and has no plans to relocate.
“Language is a problem. So I prefer to live here where there are others from the north. Those who have been here longer are an excellent support system. Recently, my friend’s grandmother passed away. It was our lodge-mates who made arrangements to ensure he got home in time for the last rites,” he says.
The patron saint of the mansion seems to be Somnath Mallik, alias Shambhu bhaiya, who came here from Balasore in Orissa when he was 17.
“I have lived in this area for 18 years and know both the police and the dons,” claims Mr. Mallik, who is the manager of a nearby Bengali mess. He has diversified over the years into many businesses but has no plans to move out.
“This place has become like home,” he says pointing to the dark cubicle-ish reception room of the mansion where the caretaker watches DD Oriya. “I considered leaving once but dismissed the idea. I think I will stay on…”
A mildly disconcerting thought as I make the umpteenth attempt to leave my own mansion-house of the past two years.
Keywords: Madras mansions