Madras 375 Magazine

Encounters of the social kind

In early 1974, my family moved from Vannarapettai (Washermanpet) in North Chennai to the newly-developed suburb of Kalaignar Karunanidhi Nagar. The metaphor of chalk and cheese comes to mind. It was a geographical shift accompanied by a complete historical, sociological and cultural reorientation. Our one-room tenement house in Vannarapettai was on the first floor: a lone Orient fan with a long rod whirred from the tiled roof, making little impact on the stifling heat. Three families on the first floor shared a single toilet (my present home boasts of three). One stepped on to the narrow Tiruvottiyur High Road, a busy road bustling with traffic and out of bounds for a young boy. Outings meant Sunday visits to Pandian, Maharani and Agastya Talkies. I have no memory of seeing the sky or even a bird, save what the then ubiquitous house sparrow.

The auguries were good the day we moved to K.K. Nagar. Coincidentally, it was thai poosam. And barely 200 metres from our new home, a film shooting was in progress: Sivaji Ganesan — with a healthy paunch and dressed in a lavish coat — was playing a street-side acrobat. Vanisri fit the stereotype of Ananda Vikatan’s snooty actress to a T. Heavy rose powder — the kind a former minister still daubs liberally — passed for make-up. Later, I gathered the film shoot was for Vani Rani.

With its well-laid roads, parks and squares, K.K. Nagar in the mid-1970s was the antithesis of what passes for real estate development these days. Besides, it was the ideal location for shooting films. The land was flat, with nary a tree in sight. Famous film studios, out of which Tamil films would soon be liberated, were just around the corner. M.M.A. Chinnappa Thevar’s gardens were less than a kilometre away and, believe me, I once woke up to the roar of a lion (or was it a tiger?). It was a rare day that passed without a darshan of a film star.

Laid out in sectors — not the town-sized segments in Noida and Gurgaon but more a block by American urban definition — each sector enclosed a playground. K.K. Nagar was then dotted with numerous plots. A variety of weeds — one came with spiked leaves and poisonous-looking berries — overran the plots. Butterflies flitted past and we took great pleasure in sucking the stalk of the white thumbai flowers. Breaking the pods of erukkam was a delightful pastime. K.K. Nagar was a microcosm of the city with a full complement of all the social classes. There was a mix of HIG, MIG and LIG apartments, government staff quarters, one-ground plots, 800-sq.ft. artisan plots and a slum, Vijayaraghavapuram (now completely gentrified).

The playground was a liminal place where everyone joined. By some inexplicable logic, as though by State fiat, games changed overnight. Marbles gave way to tops and seven stones to kite-flying. Cricket cut across seasons. Improvisation ruled the day. Puny, with a snotty nose and often the baby of the crowd, I easily made friends across class divides. A gaudily-dressed young man who indulged me with goodies and took me around on his cycle was, I later found, a petty thief. Vijayaraghavapuram was the buffer between K.K. Nagar and Vadapalani. Though it was equidistant, the genteel folk of K.K. Nagar preferred K.K. Nagar bus terminus to Vadapalani’s.

An arrack shop greeted visitors to Vijayaraghavapuram. A local barber doubled as nagaswaram player. A small plot of land — now a playground named after Dr. Ambedkar — was the venue for feats like seven days of non-stop cycling. The highlight was the daredevil stunts on the last day after which the athlete was felicitated and given a purse. An early hero was Arputham; true to his name, a real wonder. One day he gave a stunning display of surul kathi, actually a bunch of tin strips used for packing. One false move and not only would one lose pounds of flesh but also render the most potent anti-tetanus serum ineffective.

After repeated entreaties, Arputham agreed to teach silambam to me and a Brahmin youth. Thursdays were auspicious for silambam practice, and we began with a small puja with betel leaves, bananas and country sugar. The mandated dakshinai was a rupee and quarter. On the day we graduated to practice with a real staff, Arputham demanded a vetti. The status of a guru came with a certain gravitas and an otherwise undisciplined Arputham was the epitome of discipline while at class. A knife went through my heart some years later to see my silambam guru with his once-muscular body wasted by drink and women.

Reflecting on those years, I value the sociological lessons I got. My daughter grows up in a gated community on OMR, a cocoon that offers little scope for such encounters. The street we lived on, I later learnt, was named for India’s first finance minister. Both the layout and the street names of K.K. Nagar had a method, unlike the madness of neighbouring Ashok Nagar with its non-continuous numbers for its streets and avenues. Jeevanandam, Bobbili Raja, A. Lakshmanaswamy, A. Ramasamy, ‘Sunday Observer’ Balasubramaniam, Munisamy, Alagirisamy, P.T. Rajan, Natesan, W.P.A. Soundarapandian, Ponnambalam, A.T. Panneerselvam… streets were named after people and invariably without caste surnames. To a student studying in a CBSE school, these names carried no meaning. In the first years of power, the DMK’s ideological moorings evidently remained strong and it was reflected in the studied choice of street names. The whole pantheon of the non-Brahmin movement — from the Justice Party to the Self-Respect Movement to the early Communists — was memorialised. I suspect the man who gave the nagar its name was behind it. And not to be left behind, some eager party man gave his mother’s name to a nearby neighbourhood — Anjuham Nagar!

Not until I was mentored by ‘Mugam’ Mamani, a cultural activist with strong Periyarist leanings, did I learn about the history behind the names. As I grew into a scholar primarily studying the history of social change in Tamil Nadu, these names jumped out at me from archival documents and faded newspapers giving it a special meaning. Reading Periyar’s tearful tribute to A.T. Panneerselvam (who died in an air crash in 1940 while on his way to join the Secretary of State’s India Council in the Gulf of Oman) brings back memories of the days when I cycled down the street named after him.

A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a historian and Tamil writer.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 7:12:04 AM |

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