Susheela Raghavan on Mambalam’s broad tree-lined avenues, walks along the River Adyar and the enduring taste of kulfi
The Mambalam I knew in the 1940s and early 1950s was clean and had broad roads and open spaces, with the ubiquitous raintree lining the avenues.
G.N. Chetty Road, in particular, had a lot of open grounds, unlike Cathedral Road, where there were coconut groves, or Kasturi Ranga Road, where there were rice fields. The grounds were where girls met up to chit-chat every-day and where boys, including members of the well-known cricket club, Jolly Rovers, came to play. Jeeva Park, promoted by yesteryear Ayurvedic pharmacy Jeevamrutham, was there long before other parks. Vani Mahal was built in the mid-1940s, but apart from that, G.N. Chetty Road was all residences, including those of prominent personalities.
We used to walk from Lakshmana Chetty Street, where we lived, to Sun Theatre on G.N. Chetty Road, then go through Mount Road and Venkatanarayana Road to the famous Parklands Hotel near Panagal Park. It was one of the few hotels in the area. There was hardly any traffic back then as very few people owned cars, and the roads were open and free to walk on.
In the evenings, Panagal Park was vibrant. It had a big tower with a radio at the top, and people thronged there to listen to the news or music programmes blaring on the radio as the children played. The park had plenty of trees and greenery, and it used to be very clean.
At other times, we went by car to the Theosophical Society and parked by the famous Banyan Tree — in those days, there were no restrictions on entering the Society grounds. We had to cross the Adyar river by the beautiful old stone bridge, which is now dilapidated and uncared for. We would then take a walk along the Adyar river trail inside the Society right up to Elliots’ Beach. Or, we would drive past the coconut groves of Cathedral Road and Edward Elliots Road to Marina Beach. We were also theatre regulars, attending the plays of Lakshmikanthan at Otrai Vadai Theatre, or Rajamanickam’s plays which used to be performed where the Congress Grounds now stand.
At night, we used to have kulfi. The kulfi-seller would bring it in a big pot — made in the traditional way — and give it to us on a small, round leaf, the mandara yelai for just kaal anna. He usually came ringing his bell late in the night, around 10 p.m., and it used to be a great thrill for us.
Most of our shopping was centred around Pondy Bazaar. It was our Mount Road, a vibrant shopping centre. There were hardly any other shopping areas in Mambalam — there were no shops at all on Usman Road, only schools and residences, and even Ranganathan and Venkatesan Streets were entirely residential.
Most of the wholesale markets were in Kotwal Chavadi. Even the vegetable vendors near Panagal Park were not there in those days. There was only one vegetable and fish market in all of Mambalam, near the corner of Nair Road.
There were no vendors or platform shops in Pondy Bazaar back then, no encroachments at all, so we could walk freely. Some of the popular shops are still there, such as Salam Stores, Nalli, Naidu Hall (it was very modestly-sized then), and Twin Brothers, which was famous for its costume jewellery. The other big theatre in T. Nagar, the Rajkumari Theatre belonging to actor Rajkumari, used to be there as well.
One of my fondest memories of growing up in Mambalam in the 1940s was of Navarathri. The children used to dress up in costumes, mostly as mythological characters. I would dress up as Lord Rama; even as a 14-year-old, I never felt shy.
We would go out on the road in our costumes and visit each others’ houses, on all the nine days. When I look back, I wonder at how uninhibited we were! That truly was an era of leisure and uncomplicated pleasure.
Born in 1934, she is an educationist of repute who has worked in various capacities at Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan, The School, and Chinmaya Vidyalaya. She started a school for Brakes India in Sholinganallur, and is currently trustee of the Vedavalli Vidyalaya, Walajapet, and Vidyavanam, a school for tribal and underprivileged children run by the Bhuvana Foundation.
Once a year during summer, the procession of decorated Tirupathi umbrellas would be taken around Madras; Mambalam like other suburbs had this privilege. We would hear the nadaswarams as they were taken on G.N. Chetty Road and would dash across from our house to pay obeisance and offer vethalai-paaku.
(As told to DIVYA KUMAR)