A flyover to nostalgia

Unbroken columns of trees, roar of the lusty waves, mongoose scuttling across the road, Austins moving about unhurriedly, enchanting orchestra of birds.... GOWRIRAMNARAYAN takes you back to the Adyar of the Sixties as she inches her way through the cacophony that prevails today.

"Look! The flyover is almost complete. Once it is opened, driving through Adyar will be a cakewalk," exults my friend as we inch our way along the traffic snarls leading to the Adyar bridge.

Signs of progress are all around us. Cars old and new, lorries and vans, cycles and jeeps, honk and holler in an unending sound track. Two wheelers try to squeeze past any gap, real or imaginary. Autos dive in where angels fear to tread. Trees have made way for the widened highway. A few teeter where they stand. Roots hidden from the sun for decades are splayed out naked in the open air. Waiting for the axe...? Those which remain have their arms lopped off to fit town planning schemes.

Suddenly, I am no longer in 'singara' Chennai, but back in the Madras of the 1960s, when Adyar was land's end to the city dwellers. But to me it was homeground. The daily journey was from my house (on Greenways Road between Carnatic Music College and the then sprawling Satya Studios) to school (Besant Theosophical High) and back again.

My walk took me across the river on the sleepy bridge - now bearded with wild growth, down the main road roused to sporadic action, and into Besant Avenue which dreamed its lonely way right up to Elliots Beach. The sands were home to casuarina groves, sighing loud enough to drown the waves. Its remote isolation made it the favoured spot for film shooting. (Remember Gemini Ganesan and Saroja Devi cycling down to Vadikkai marandiduveno? In "Kalyana Parisu").

My walk to school was between unbroken columns of mainly rain trees (toongumoonji) on either side of the road. They arched up to a thick, dark, leafy awning, which air conditioned the entire stretch even on the hottest day. The breeze blew lustily. At high tide, you could hear the roar of the waves providing a constant sruti for birdsong.

The traffic was light on the main Guindy road. I don't remember lorries or autos, and not too many cars either. Standard tens and Austins sailed unhurriedly. Sometimes a Rolls Royce turned into the Padmanabha Palace, home to the royal family of Travancore, invisible behind dense foliage. A few kudirai vandis and man- drawn rickshaws stood under the banyan by the bus stand, where reluctant buses halted now and then.

Bicycles were common. But women cyclists of all ages and sizes, in traditional cotton sarees woven in Kalakshetra, were rather exclusive to Adyar, where, the Theosophical Society had brought out the early feminists.

There were a good many carts, piled high with fresh smelling straw, announced by creaking wheels, and bells tinkling round the necks of the bulls which drew them. At noon, when the nodding drivers were jerked up by a bump on the track, they cracked their whips to show they were awake after all. And began to sing a most untuneful song.

Such sounds made for an acutely self conscious silence. It sent a chill down the spine when a mongoose scuttled across the road, or when you spied a motionless chameleon on the tree trunk, with only the beady eyes to tell you it was alive.

Besant Avenue was haunted by birds. As I straggled out from class, often long after the other kids had raced home, munching raw mango or fresh tamarind stolen from the tree, I would see hoopoes, wagtails, bulbuls, barbets, raucous parakeets and mynahs passing messages to and fro as they flitted through the leaves above. Golden backed woodpeckers tapping tree trunks were not uncommon, and I kept hearing the musical beat of the coppersmith, without ever getting to see it. In summer the koel was the pushy leader of the orchestra.

Once a terrific din proclaimed the alighting of a flock of huge, flamboyant treepies on the highest branch. Flaring their wings and flying at each other! Were they quarrelling perhaps? Sometimes the beautifully groomed horses from the stables beyond the river, cantered past on thundering hoofs. The rhythm was so infectious that you wanted to gallop after the noble beasts.

The most gorgeous sight was one that we took for granted. Lush, green paddy fields grew where Karpagam Gardens and Padmanabha Nagar have packed their concrete houses.

Tying my school bag securely round the neck, pavadai tucked up, I would walk through the water filled ditches bordering each square of the half grown saplings. Just standing in that slush was bliss. I saw shoals of fish swimming with flicks of their saucy tails (tadpoles?). A blaze of blue! It was the kingfisher swooping in and out with a wriggling prey on its fiery beak. A flash of white! It was the egret's wingspan which frightened me as it flew up from behind the stalks a few feet ahead.

And can I ever forget coming upon my first cobra in that field, its hood raised for god knows what cause? As it swayed to and fro, forked tongue darting in and out, eyes gleaming like rubies in the evening sun, I knew the power of beauty and magnificence.

Tranced, I waited until it suddenly slipped away into the reeds. I never saw it again.

I think the greatest difference between then and now was the absence of shops.

I do remember a hardware and a provision store at the head of Besant Avenue, as also a sweet shop, a daily trial. I spent my busfare (a half anna) there on the best kamarkat I've ever crunched in my life. Yielding to that temptation meant I had to walk home. A reward?

The bridge signalled that home was near. When friends came with me for weekend visits, we would stop midway to gaze at the horizon beyond the estuary. Dropping a quarter anna below with a wish, we'd recite our variation of the old verse:

"Gangai-Sindhu, Brahmaputra, Narmadai, Mahanadi,

Tapatinadi, Godavari, Adyar nadi, Kaveri."

To us the "Adaiyaru" was no less holy than those great waterways, and certainly more important. It was the water cooled region which made us see that nature was full of fun, life - of beauty tranquil and entrancing.