Writer Timeri Murari talks of a city with sprawling spaces, tree-lined avenues and a sense of community

What I remember very clearly about this town is its quietness. In the 1940s and 1950s, when I grew up, there were no loudspeakers. No traffic. It was not a very brightly lit city. In fact, it was not really a city. More like an extended village.

My grand-aunts, aunts and uncles lived within walking distance. There was a great sense of community. This had a lot to do with the fact that it was all horizontal living. There were no flats. It was a much more inward looking community. You always had cousins your age to play with; you mixed a lot more with the people who lived on your street. All kinds of interesting people would find their way down these roads — snake charmers, knife sharpeners, boom boom madu men.

Homes were mainly garden bungalows. A lot of them were built by the British, but many were built by the locals too. The architecture was almost similar: they all had high ceilings and were sprawled out. This house that I’m living in was built in 1911.

There were strict demarcations — community spaces were strictly for the community. Bazaars were separate. The whole of Egmore was residential. There were garden bungalows all along Pantheon Road. Most of those bungalows are gone now. I think there are about 50 left today, including the ones that have been turned into commercial spaces.

You could walk all the way from Poonamallee to the Fort in shade because of the huge rain trees on either side of the road. There was lots of place for us to play as children. We had the maidans. There were open spaces everywhere. Not many slums, and the rivers were certainly cleaner.

Then, shops were in what is now George Town. Small shops — we didn’t have malls or supermarkets. The vegetable man would come home, and the milkman came, and so did the fruit man. If you wanted something special… biscuits and the like, then you would go to Spencer on Mount Road, or Bosotto Brothers.

You took what you got. You took what there was. We weren’t a consumer society. Nobody tried to shop till they dropped. There was nothing to shop for. No cellphones. You were lucky to have a phone; you were lucky if it worked.

Spencer was the only choice. They were really the first real chain. They had hotels in railways stations. You could get a meal at Egmore or Central Station. They made good British food — chops, bacon and eggs. The railways then had a first, secondand third Class. It was all steam engines, which were much slower. By the end of the journey you would be covered with soot. They used to have dining cars on the train. In the first class compartment, there were beautiful leather seats.

I left Chennai for many years. So, I saw the changes every time I came back to visit. In the late 1960s, nothing changed that much. In the 1970s you could see acceleration. In the mid-1980s there were the economic reforms. It was like suddenly letting a genie out of the bottle. The untapped energy of India exploded. The city started changing very rapidly. Old homes were replaced with apartments on each and every road.

In the early 1990s, commerce began creeping in; legally, you weren’t supposed to have commercial and residential spaces together. There are outsiders coming into residential areas. It unbalances the rhythm of a street, the rhythm of a family.

The tragedy is that we haven’t retained the structures that define our past. You can go into Rome, Paris, London and they look the same as they did a century ago. Regent Street looks like it did in the 1800s. Interiors have changed, but the outside is identical.

Our past is being demolished. Our culture and identity is anchored in the heritage we have. Young people growing up here don’t have a heritage. What defines Chennai now? Maybe, Ripon Building and Fort St. George.

This city was solidly anchored for so long. It vanished too quickly. Was it L.P Hartley who said the past is a foreign country (In ‘The Go-Between’)? It’s true. The past no longer exists.

TIMERI MURARI Is the author of 17 books, including the best seller "Taj". His latest work of fiction is the young adult novel, "Children of the Enchanted Jungle". After working abroad for many years, Murari has settled in Chennai, living in his ancestral house: one of the city's few remaining garden bungalows.

I remember

My father was the first Indian to join the Madras Cricket Club in 1930. The Madras Club, on the other hand, was segregated right till the early 1960s.

By the time I started using the MCC, to play cricket, there were a few Indians. But the atmosphere was very different then. About 60 to 70 per cent of the members were British. They would come by 5 p.m. every day to have a drink or to play cricket.

(As told to SHONALI MUTHALALY)

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