A. SHRIKUMAR escapes the swelteringheat by spending some time in Madurai's parks

It’s Saturday. And I am at the Rajaji Chidren’s Park. The iron gates flanked by the two life-size cement giraffes gleam as the summer sun slowly climbs down. The place seems to be waking up after an afternoon slumber. There is a torpid breeze on the Gandhi Museum Road and vendors turn on the gas lanterns and set up their makeshift shops. There’s the balloon man, the candy man, the sweet-corn seller and the toy seller…

Chinnakalai sits on the footpath, spreads an old veshti and displays a range of light-emitting plastic toys. For the past three years, the Anuppanadi-resident has been doing brisk business in the park. A distant jingle rents the air and Ramar arrives with his white pony - decked up with colourful paper garlands and fluffy feathers. “I come only during weekends and offer a ride only to children,” he says. “My ‘horse’ is called Chetak,” he smiles. A group of children sign up for the short fun ride costing Rs.10 and gallop down the road.

Gradually, the park’s parking lot gets filled up and people make a beeline to the ticket counter. Families with aunts and uncles, the young and old, descend on the park. Kids jump up and down in joy even as Velayudham, manning the counter, tears off the small yellow tickets that cost five rupees. According to Selvam, who engraves names on key chains, the footfall to the park has come down since the advent of the malls. “Until a few years ago, every kid in Madurai had visited Rajaji Park. Even the schools used to bring students in batches,” he says. “Nowadays, kids enjoy playing in the air-conditioned game zones.” “More crowd can be seen during the summer vacation. Now, it is exam time,” points out Sadiq who sells popcorn outside.

Even then there is a sense of fun and enjoyment. Statues of a tiger and bear with the paint chipped off their nose greet visitors once inside. Fluorescent serial lights hang on the trees illuminating the paved pathway below. People pose for photographs against a dried-up fountain. The oldies settle down for a quick bite while kids run towards the swings, slides, see-saws and play houses.

There is a giant wheel and when Babu rams the lever, it starts rotating. “It’s like the gear in a car. Every time you shift the lever, the speed increases,” he says. In no time, the wheel appears like a blur of light. The five-minute ride costs Rs. 20. A little away, the Columbus rocks up and down. There are howls of excitement and whistles. “It was both scary and fun,” says Kumudha, whose seven-year-old son wants to ride the toy-train.

Half-a-dozen snack-stalls sell Ooty molaga bajjis, Delhi appalams, cauliflower 65, soft drinks and cone ice creams. Families occupy the plastic chairs and tables lying haphazardly around the stalls. Ants, flies and mosquitoes swarm over the overflowing litter bins, stray dogs hog on the leftovers and rats dart around.

On the other end of the road is the Eco Park. Young couples, married and unmarried arrive in bikes and enter the park in much style, flashing hip tees and denims.

The many trees and lush lawns make the Eco park an oasis of green. The air inside is clearer and it is quieter too. The dancing fountain which was once the main attraction of the park now lies defunct. Couples get cosy on the park benches and there are some students who are studying in the calm surroundings.

There’s not much sound except for the rustling of leaves, till a large group of people break into ‘ Happy Birthday to you... ’ It is for a little girl who sits in the middle wearing a bright pink party hat. “I wanted to give my daughter a surprise,” says Narayani, a school teacher. “A park is a nice place to celebrate birthdays. It’s beautiful, there’s lot of space and it costs nothing.” A group of walkers and joggers pass by.

“The park is a good place to hangout. It offers privacy to sit and talk leisurely with loved ones or to be with oneself,” says Vijayan, a frequent visitor to the Eco park. But the consensus is that there is urgent need to improve the condition of the existing parks and create more such green spaces inside the city.