The Man from North Madras

LIFE BEYOND THE RAILS Old homes in Perambur

LIFE BEYOND THE RAILS Old homes in Perambur   | Photo Credit: Photo: V. Ganesan


It was sad to hear last week’s news of a friend, a fellow-writer and a man who had made a singular contribution to business education in Madras. It could truly be said of S. Ramachander that the good die before their time.

There was so much more he wanted to write, I know, for whenever we met we always talked about all the things he wanted to record for posterity.

One of those subjects was something I had long been asking him to write a series for Madras Musings, and that was on growing up in Perambur, which to most of us is the back of beyond.

My request followed a piece he had written for Business Line, his favourite paper, and he kept promising to do so, saying that when he got down to it he would later be able to expand it into a book. Sadly, that’s not likely to happen now unless he has left behind drafts that could be worked on. What he did leave behind was the significant thought that he had expressed in an article titled ‘The Narrow Road to the North’ he had written for Business Line some years ago. In it he wrote: “The strange truth of the matter is that everywhere — the US, Britain, Italy, Germany, Spain, France, China — something fundamentally different separates life in the North from that in the South. This is true of cities too, as I discovered growing up in the North Madras suburb of Perambur.

“The title of this piece is from a book of poems by the Japanese poet Basho, which applies also to what seems an undeservedly remote Northern corner of our city, because for most of its rulers and high society, it still remains an area of darkness, reached by narrow lanes. There, the dark satanic mills grind and belch out soot and smoke, the centuries-old roads are forever congested, and the poor toil and sweat for the Sahibs of the South!

“To this day, many residents and visitors have little to do with anything that lies to the three sides, other than the front, of Central station, the traditional entry point into the metropolis. What life is like beyond the railway junction, and Vyasarpadi or Perambur, which are technically much closer to the downtown area than, say, Besant Nagar is a mystery to many. It is as if the southern direction of the map monopolised all commerce, art, culture, media, civil administration, economic prosperity and public life in the city.”

How true! Only the other day, a few of us met to draw up plans for Madras Week and I suggested that we should have more programmes in North Madras.

Up piped a couple of voices, “But whom do we know there? At least, whom can we ask for help?” Perhaps someone will respond to that plea, but meanwhile it just shows how isolated the South and the North are from each other in this city of ours.

In recent weeks, I’ve had to make a few trips to Ashok Leyland’s factory in, really, Kathiwakkam, though everyone calls it Ennore. What a trip it has been on the Ennore High Road, a potholed `highway’ narrowed by the elements and now made still narrower by a row of slums along the coast hidden only by a non-moving line of huge container-laden trucks on one side and by a row of slums and factory walls on the other!

And then, when you burst out into the open near the well-maintained and somewhat greened Ashok Leyland factory, you find it is an oasis sandwiched between two roadside ‘shopping stretches’ adjoining a village or two, all little more than slums. That’s North Madras for you — and no one in the South seems to care enough for it to do something.

But, to get back to the man who always remembered growing up in North Madras, there was yet another aspect of the life of this writer, actor and educationist that did not quite figure in the recollections about him that have been published.

And, that was his marketing skills honed in Hindustan Lever, and his management of Hindustan Thompson, as JWT, was then known, where I had first got to know him. At both places, he had much to do with making a success of the Pond’s range. That’s almost as forgotten now as North Madras.

Recommended for you