Director Jayabharathy on growing up in Adambakkam, the Breda train and popular radio dramas

Many prime localities today were farmland in the 1950s. I grew up in a village bordering Madras — Adambakkam! Surrounded by grain fields, the few streets in the locality appeared to be a rude tear in a green carpet.

Most things that we take for granted today were then a luxury. Adambakkam had no electricity. Every evening, a Panchayat worker lit the kerosene lamps on the streets with a burning stick. Before he turned his back on a lamp, the flame would go out. When electricity finally arrived in 1959, only some families could afford it. Those that could were considered affluent.

Strange forms of barter were in practice. Womenfolk in Adambakkam used to exchange cow-dung cakes for vegetables. To buy vegetables and fruits for any big function, the ‘rustics’ of Adambakkam relied on Kotwal Chavady (Broadway). Not just vegetables, but any big purchase took us to Broadway. As our street was only a stone’s throw away from the railway station, we had no problem commuting to patnam (city).

A student of Ramakrishna Mission’s branch school on Bazullah Road, I took the electric train to Kodambakkam and walked the rest of the distance. In the late 1950s, the snazzy-looking European train Breda was introduced. Until the attraction wore off, my friends and I took only the Breda to school and back. Among images of the old railways that have stayed with me is that of men and women queuing up to take pure water from a steam-powered passenger or goods train that had halted. It was not water scarcity, but the novelty of using the train as a water tanker. The engine men invariably granted their request.

With two lakes nestling close (Adambakkam lake and Alandur lake), Adambakkam was a water-rich area. The Adambakkam lake became a cricket ground during summer when it dried up. Later, the lake gave way to the residential area called Nanganallur. The growth of Nanganallur led to the creation of the Palavanthangal railway station.

During the time I was a school-goer, Kodambakkam did not have an overbridge. Top film stars, proceeding towards or returning from studios in Vadapalani, waited in their expensive imported cars at the level-crossing for not less than 10 minutes. During lunch hour, we rushed to the level-crossing seeking autographs. Except for M.R. Radha, all the stars obliged. He would come out of the car and yell at us, “We are wearing greasepaint because we are uneducated. And, you are running behind us for autographs. Get back to school.”

N.T. Rama Rao lived next door to our school on Bazullah Road. The star attraction was a tree in his house whose branches were weighed down by a profuse yield of mangoes. Pelting stones at the mango tree was the boys’ sweet pastime. One day, the principal received baskets of mangoes from NTR and a request that the fruits be distributed to all the children.

My best buddy at school, E.V.K.S. Elangovan loved to have the curd rice that had been packed for my lunch. In return, he would give me four annas, with which I either went to Universal Biscuits at Panagal Park for a bun-butter-jam or to Nathan’s Cafe, near Nalli’s for a masal dosai. These eateries were among the reasons why I loved to go to school.

For entertainment, the people of Adambakkam travelled to the city, unless a touring theatre had pitched tent. A film at a touring theatre was long drawn, because only one projector would be in use. If a film had 14 reels, there were six intervals. In those days, tickets issued at Janata Cinema had an interesting small print. It ruled out refunds in the event of a power failure or generator breakdown and insisted that women and men sit separately. Even a married couple was not exempt from this clause.

In the 1960s, radio dramas by Vividh Bharathi had an avid following. They were like today’s prime-time soap operas. ‘Kopu Kati Chatram’ (KKC), which had a long run, was a big hit. As battery-run radios had not arrived on the scene, people cursed the electricity board if power failure prevented them from listening to a KKC episode.

I did not have much patience for radio dramas, but I fell for any trade fair. In the mid 1960s, I was taken to one held at the Anna Nagar Tower (which was in fact under construction then). Anna Nagar was not in existence then. The entire area was a lake bed. That is the why the soil from Chintamani to West Anna Nagar is clayey. As I think of areas such as Anna Nagar that have been unrecognisably altered, I see urbanisation as a wild monster that gobbles up villages.

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