History & Culture

Memories of Madras Turning the pages of time

MEETING OF MINDS: Mahatma Gandhi chatting with C. Rajagopalachari at the Basin Bridge railway station in 1940.  

I grew up in Kizhanatham village (Tirunelveli) by the river Tamiraparani. For us, Madras was like another country. I first set out from my village in 1940, boarding a train to Madras ? to see Gandhiji. I was all of eight, but looked much older, and managed to reach Madras safely.

Not many people travelled by train; also there was no concept of reserving tickets. But, one could still travel in comfort. The stations were well-maintained and there was no fear of theft. You could leave your bag anywhere, and return to find it right there.

I got down at the crowded West Mambalam station. The English sergeants did a fine job controlling the crowds that thronged the station on their way to see the Mahatma. Gandhiji was staying at Mangala Bhavan in T. Nagar, and I was among thousands of hopefuls who set forth for his darshan. Rajaji, who was at the entrance of the building, requested us to leave, saying the Mahatma needed to rest. We did not pay heed. But, the minute Gandhiji came up to the window and waved at us, we dispersed without a word. That was the kind of respect he commanded.

There was a prayer meeting held on a large playground in T. Nagar; I headed there too, and got to stand behind the dais. I can still remember the strains of ?Baja Mana Pyare Seetharam' that the entire congregation sang, led by Pyarelal Nayyar. And, when a section of the crowd would not repeat the bhajan, he would lovingly chide them to sing louder.

City lights beckon

I went back to the village after a week in Madras, taking in all the temples and city life, and returned to Madras nine years later, in search of a job. Those days, Madras used to be very clean. The thinnais (pyols) in front of most homes would turn into shelters for the floating population during the night.

And, as early as 4 in the morning, the public lavatories would be cleaned and thrown open for use. This ensured that the roads stayed clean. Commuting was a dream too, thanks to the trams.

Those who knew English were held in high esteem. And, the school syllabus used to be of a high standard. We had mastered Wren and Martin, and quite a bit of Shakespeare and other classics before we completed SSLC. The verandah of 64, Bells Road, Chepauk, was home for many days, till I found a job in Best and Company for Rs. 80 a month.

Though one could lead a comfortable life with very little money those days, it was still a difficult proposition for many. A full meal cost only two-and-a-half annas, but even that amount was hard to come by. And, we could get 32 padis (measures) of rice for one anna. With five rupees, you could run a house for a month.

Dosais and sweets were a rarity; we had them only at wedding feasts. Those days, we got rice from Burma. And, during World War II, it used to be imported from Brazil. By the time it reached us, the rice would be mouldy and smelly.

After the village and Palayamkottai, where I later studied, Madras was a dream come true. I especially loved the Connemara Library. How it opened my mind! That was where I read the Sack of Srirangam by Krishnaswamy Iyengar, which got me interested in the temple, and later led to my writing the book Tiruvarangan Ula.

Temples were a font of knowledge. During festivals, people would sit outside the gates selling Kovil Ozhugu, and other books about the temple, its rituals, and the like. These books did not boast stylish covers. They scored on literary merit and served as a wonderful introduction to a temple.

A novel cost an anna or two. I particularly remember the English translation of our epics published by Vavilla Press... Now, you hardly find such quality fare.

Soon, I moved jobs and joined the postal department, and began writing in all seriousness. People used to read a lot. Ananda Vikatan, Kalki, Kumudam, Dinamani Kathir?the list was endless.

That was also the time when magazines started training their eyes on reportage of real incidents. Till then, fiction ruled. Saavi, who was the editor of Dinamani, once sent me to write about condemned prisoners. It was an experience that stayed with me for long.

Occasionally, when going to Tirupati, we would drive past Nagari Mooku near Chittoor. There was a small mandapam atop the hill, where palm fronds would be burnt to alert approaching ships and boats that Madras was near. That was our native lighthouse!

What do I miss most about those days? Actually, nothing. I believe change is needed, and have gladly accepted that. I enjoyed Madras then. I do even now.


SRI VENUGOPALAN aka PUSHPA THANGADURAI Born in 1931, he has written more than a thousand short stories and 2,000 novels. He wrote crime novels under the pen name Pushpa Thangadurai, and demystified religion and science and narrated the history of temples in a lucid style for the common man under his real name. He has also written plays, and for TV serials and films. His stories have been translated into all the South Indian languages, and some into Hindi. He has a collection of more than six lakh books on a range of subjects.


Before I found a job at Best and Company, I ran out of money and had been starving for 13 days. I went for the interview wearing someone else’s clothes, and told the official that I needed the job as I had come wearing ‘borrowed feathers’. Impressed with my usage of the Queen’s language and understanding the dire straits I was in, he gave me the job.

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