India’s oldest mall is dying

The original building of Spencer Plaza was razed in a fire in 1983. Hindu Photo Archives   | Photo Credit: HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

On January 26, 2001, when I was precisely two weeks old in Chennai, a bunch of people from the office (I was with Express then) set off for Mahabalipuram in one car and four bikes. During the onward journey, I sat in the car, and people sang all along the way.

On the return journey, I rode pillion on one of the bikes, and we were still mid-way to Chennai when the bike skidded and I was thrown off the vehicle. I went sliding down the road, my face scratching against the tarred surface. A speeding four-wheeler coming from behind would have killed me instantly, but those days the East Coast Road wasn’t what it is today. Traffic was minimal, especially since it was a public holiday.

Once back home, the accident was quickly forgotten (though the scars remained for months), but what remained in my head was one particular song sung in the car during the onward journey. The song was Haiyyo pathikichu from the Tamil film Rhythm, which had released recently. The tune refused to leave me. When I begged a colleague to find me the cassette (those days, there was no internet search or downloading, and CDs were very expensive), she said: “Come, we will go to Spencer Plaza. It’s right across the road.”

And thus, I first set foot in Spencer Plaza. It went on to become my second home for many years to come. At the time, I did not know — and it did not matter to me — that it was India’s oldest shopping plaza. I wasn’t so sensitive about heritage back then: in any case, the original building of Spencer Plaza was razed in a fire in 1983.

What mattered to me was that this mall provided me with everything that I could possibly want — all under one roof: books, music, clothes, shoes, watches, even booze (there used to be a liquor outlet in the now-defunct Foodworld store on the ground floor).

It was also the venue for the poor man’s Page 3 party: by that I mean a fashionable place for the masses to hang out and be noticed. Now when I look back, the thrill that seized me back then is comparable to the thrill Spencer Plaza must have given its visitors about 100 years ago. A tribute from the 1914-published Southern India: Its History, People, Commerce, and Industrial Resources, “A stroll through an almost interminable succession of finely fitted and ornamented rooms in the Mount Road establishment (of Spencer & Co.) reveals such a remarkable assortment of all kinds of goods that one is bewildered at the quantity and variety…”

What did not change in a 100 years has changed in just 10 years. Today Spencer Plaza, even though still an important landmark on Mount Road, has almost fallen off the mall-map of Chennai. People now mostly go to the nearby Express Avenue, where they can also watch movies.

I still visit Spencer Plaza once in a while, purely for old time’s sake, and come out of it sadder each time. The crowds have long gone; many of the international brands have shifted to greener pastures; the air-conditioning, which once lifted your spirits as soon as you entered the mall, no longer works; and on the days of power shutdown, the mall represents a ghost town. How long can the modest pedestal fan, in the weather like Chennai’s, encourage you to keep browsing books or trying on new shirts?

And so, India’s oldest mall is slowly dying. Do you think it can be saved?

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 9:50:32 AM |

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