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Life in a mansion

Photo: R. Ravindran  

Space is sparse inside Sanju Gandhi’s grungy room at A.S. Mansions in Triplicane’s narrow Habibullah Street. When Sanju raises his hand to make a point, it brushes against unwashed clothes hanging just above his rickety cot.

When he moves his leg around, it gently scrapes against the small bucket that, in turn, nudges the carefully-sealed detergent bar forward.

When he stretches himself, like we all do first thing in the morning, he risks punching his roommate, Siva, who sleeps a few metres away on another wobbly cot, below which is yet another bucket and a bar of soap.

On a regular weekday evening, neighbours Kubera Prabhu and Abdul Rahman join them for an hour of casual banter. There’s little space and it’s quite stuffy, but their laughter fills the air. You can almost hear it at the other end of the dimly-lit corridor.

According to Wikipedia, a mansion is a ‘large dwelling house’. In Chennai’s bustling Triplicane, it is anything but that.

‘Not home, but still dear’

There’s a distinct smell as I enter Kubera Prabhu’s room at A.S. Mansions. It’s the smell of all things old and new — old clothes, new books, wet socks, fresh deodorant and half-used cigarettes — all rolled into one. It hits you when you enter the room, but soon, you get used to it and almost start enjoying it.

Kubera, who works in a private bank in Kodambakkam, loves it. He’ll miss all these years of ‘mansion life’ in a couple of months, once he gets married and moves out. “When I first came in, I was very afraid. I was from a small town and didn’t know anyone here. I’d heard many stories and so didn’t know what to expect. However, over the years, I have found so many friends here,” he says.

Abdul Rahman, who hails from Nagoor, is one of them. A medical representative, who gets his afternoons off on most days, Abdul is cheerful even though it is almost 11 p.m., when most others are yawning away and wondering when to hit the bed. He found this mansion on the fly in 2009, after checking out many others in the same locality. “There’s freedom,” he says, “More importantly, there’s flexibility in rent; if someone loses a job, they can pay later.” He sheepishly checks if the manager is eavesdropping on the conversation, and looks quite desolate when he finds no one around.

Triplicane, the bachelor’s paradise

They show Chennai Central in the films to mark someone’s arrival in the city. But once a person does that, Triplicane is the place they head to — it is, as a mansion owner puts it, a ‘bachelor’s paradise’. Arumugham Srinivasan, whose family runs four mansions in different parts of the city, says, “Triplicane is accessible at all times of the day and night. It is also big on food — here, you can eat an idli for Rs. 2 or Rs. 20, depending on your financial background.”

The rents differ — from Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 3,000 at most places per month — but the accessibility and amenities in the area are a big draw. We enter Room 115 at A.S. Mansions and find Prabhu P. correcting answer sheets. A Biology teacher at Sunshine Academy, the 30-year-old has been living in the ‘mansion’ for three years — and prefers the privacy of his room and the silence of the night to study; unlike his neighbours who’re indulging in loud banter about the day’s events.

“My roommate has gone out,” he volunteers, as we look around. Prabhu looks forward to Sundays — not just to take a break and get some fresh air at the nearby Marina Beach — but to do his laundry. “That’s the only day when a few of them go out of town and there’s peace in the mansion. Sunday morning is the only time I get to wash in peace.”

On the other days, you can find people rushing to the common bathrooms in the morning. Work timings differ from person to person, but the mornings are always hurried.

Everyone is in a frenzy to get going — but not Chandrasekhar Sukumaran, who hails from Thiruvarur, and is currently on the lookout for a job. Like many others, Chandrasekhar got into mansions through the ‘referral system’ (“a friend, senior or an acquaintance in the village would have come to Chennai at some point of time and we get leads through them”) and they’ve been home to him for 10 years now.

“I’ve found so many friends here, who have helped me both personally and professionally,” he recalls with a smile, “I go home to Thiruvarur only during festivals like Deepavali, Pongal… otherwise, namba ooru Chennai thaan, area Triplicane thaan.”

The ‘posh’ side

“Quick, come inside,” beckons Balasubramaniam K., “The manager might spot us. He’s not too kind to visitors.”

He takes me in through the dark corridors of Supreme Mansion, tucked away in narrow C.N. Kumaraswamy Street. “My roommate is out… come in,” he invites me.

Inside, two cots have been placed near each other. The small cupboard separating the two is filled with coconut oil bottles and deodorant cans. The stench of cigarette smoke is still present in the air. Salem-based Balasubramaniam has been here as a tenant for just three months; he’s here for a short-term aviation course, but he shows off his room like any landlord would.

“There’s an attached bathroom, there’s television,” he says proudly.

He’s seen worse. Just before moving here, he was put up in a mansion in T. Nagar that had a water problem. “There were five of us holed up in a room and the bathrooms hardly had any water,” he recalls.

Today, he pays a monthly rent of Rs. 3,000 — twice the amount he paid earlier — but “it’s well worth it.” “Isn’t our mansion a paradise,” he says, almost condescendingly, when I tell him I stay in an apartment with my family. “The privacy and freedom here is something you won’t get anywhere else.” That’s exactly why in these tiny matchbox-like structures called mansions, the bachelors live like kings.

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FAQs

What’s a mansion?

A hostel of sorts with small rooms that are usually shared by occupants.

Who stays in a mansion?

Predominantly men coming to Chennai from different parts of the state/country for employment or studies.

How long can they stay?

For however long they wish to. Some have stayed in mansions for more than 30 years. Rent is, however, recovered on a monthly basis. In some mansions, occupants need to pay separately for electricity.

Are there any rules for its occupants?

Many. Some mansions do not allow guests and disallow bringing liquor to the premises. Some have a written rule that ‘ladies are not allowed to stay in any case’.

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Inspiring films

Tamil film director Saran is a Chennaiite, but he used to be a regular visitor to the mansions in Triplicane during his college days. “On the days when we were on strike, I used to fear going back home late in the night, and so would crash at some friends’ mansion room. I found their life — and rooms — fascinating. The late-night mansion chats and the mess meals… they were all a wonderful experience that I’d never forget. In fact, I shot in Murugesan Mansion for my film Kaadhal Mannan starring Ajith Kumar.”

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The security aspect

Almost anyone can get into a mansion on a monthly basis, provided you have some documents of identity, and that poses a security problem. In fact, Ramkumar, the suspect in the murder of Infosys employee Swathi, stayed in a mansion in Choolaimedu.

Mansion owners seem to have pulled up their act in recent times — almost every mansion I visited had CCTV cameras switched on and was monitored at all times — and kept a ‘police register’ in which all occupants sign on a regular basis.

Ibrahim J. of Dimark Mansion, which has about 40 rooms, says, “We thoroughly check the credentials of a person seeking accommodation and ensure we have copies of their voter ID or driving licence before we rent out the room to them.”

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 8:22:37 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Life-in-a-mansion/article14490919.ece

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