The great old Chennai Mail
“Chennai is growing fast in every sector.”
This was the message that got in mind when I began my recent trip to Chennai after one and half decade.
This was also my first trip outside Kerala since my arrival from Qatar.
The last two Chennai trips were during my college day’s .Whenever Chennai comes to my mind, I would go to the school days and recollect the lovely nostalgic flavour of Madras cakes that my father would bring us during his travel to home.
Those special cakes have been my passionate item since then.
Travelling by Chennai Mail (superfast) was interesting with lot of fun and full of passengers.
Every journey can be an occasion to know oneself and the world around us. Especially, train journey teaches us new lessons of patience, mutual respect and many more.
There was one group of travelers hailing from Kannur who engaged in songs and claps. Some of them seemed to be outperforming new singers with their conventional style. They sung Mappila songs and old melodies with their own music. Fellow passengers turned their head towards that orchestra team and enjoyed their songs followed with comments.
Another group was engaged in playing cards along with discussions of worldly matters.
How many tea and coffee I had my trip?!I really enjoyed zipping tea and coffee during train journeys than regular days. I had ordered for vegetable biriyani in the train. Interesting thing was that, another guy came to me in the night and gave me the packet and I gave him the price. But after some time the other guy (the real one who took the order came!) My God.I told him I had already got it …Actually I thought the same guy who came to me to take order and serve meal….
Chennai mail has been an icon of history to Malabar Malayalees who have made year long trust in small and big trade with Tamil people. To Keralites Chennai is something more than a neighbour; a home away from home for Keralites.
Hundreds of thousands of big and small merchants in Chennai are from nowhere else than in Kerala. Many Malayalee families have settled permanently in this coastal Tamil state.
‘Time has ripened for alight’, say passengers to their men, when the train passed the Basin Bridge.
Every one was preparing to get down from the train. A lot of Malabar Malayalees with homely items packed for near and dear ones in Chennai have been a usual sight in Chennai trains.
Many carried coconuts with their luggage for relatives, which are more expensive there. Besides, Keralites enjoy the taste of homely coconut food items than anything. The coconut in Chennai grows in salty water. So the taste is also different.
Good Morning, Chennai
I opened my eyes towards the dawn of Chennai. The sky seemed to be little misty.
Did Chennai change? Definitely, there was good sign of infrastructure development.
There was plenty of space to relax than my old trip inside and outside the railway station.
You need not look for a taxi or auto, because a number of auto drivers would be waiting outside the central railway station.
(Offering auto and taxi in Tamil language), ask the auto-taxi men.
Chennai seemed to be waking up from its late night sleep. It was interesting to watch the early morning sights of Chennai outside the railway station than going fast to Egmore by auto. [I had to attend a program in the late evening at Egmore.]
I had some more time to spend on street!
I observed morning Chennai for some time sitting at a bus- bay in front of Southern Railway headquarters.
People were busy to catch buses and autos. But the city was not crowded. The bus number system was still there. It was organized professionally in bus bays by indicating the number and destinations more legibly.
Many auto men stopped and offered travel. After giving them my hand- signals with ‘nandry’(word for thanks in Tamil) from my mind for their service mentality. (These clever guys might know that I was an outsider who has come on a trip. That maybe why they approached me than going to local travelers! It is a common talk among Chennai Maalayalees that outsiders would be charged more by some auto-men in Chennai!)
Private advertisement on transport buses became usual. Besides that political parties and other organizations stuck notices on buses.
Milk man was fast moving in the town with milk cans on his cycle rickshaw. He found out his own space among big and small motorists. There were bike travelers with and without wearing helmets.
After a few minutes, I went by an auto to Egmore.I got an accommodation nearby Egmore Railway station. The old traditional look was still there amidst the changes, just same as the life and style of Chennai.
Egmore – in tune with roots
Egmore Railway station was maintained beautifully by the railways. Private Cell Phone Company displayed their advertisement in the frontage of the station. Chennai Egmore Railway station looks marvelous.
I had not much time to spend visiting many places because it was a short schedule.
But I longed to read the life of Chennai. There was vibrant life in all spheres.
Tamil people love their language and culture than anything. It was expressed everywhere.
Whatever is the background, educationally and financially, people’s first priority is their language .They do not ignore their roots and customs amidst any developments. This can be seen everywhere, in public transportation, government programs and even in private sectors.
Most of the educated gentle men and ladies speak pure Tamil in public places.
Whether the traffic displays boards or any other informative pieces, the leading language is Tamil. Digital display boards in platform looked innovative.
The number of small unauthorized huts on road side pavements has come down.
I enquired to lodge boy for a shop to iron my dress. Fortunately, it was not far away.
I remember, in old days mobile iron shops were there around city, especially in front of lodges and cottages.
I was happy because Saravana Bhavan was very near to my room. Its Dosa varieties and different chutney items have been famous. Dosa priced rupees 35.
Though adjacent states, Chennai and Kerala differ a lot in food items. Pongal, sevai, variety rice (lemon rice, curd rice, tamarind rice and so on) are unique to the Tamil State. Even for ordinary meals while most Malayalees prefer bold rice, Tamilians use slender varieties. Keralites, who have earned their bread in Tamil Nadu, naturally retain this even after retirement and back home!
I had my tasty breakfast from there. Two foreign women tourists were enjoying the cuisine on the third raw.
Most of the Tamilians wore Chandana (paste made of sandalwood worn as a caste mark) or Vibhoothy (specially prepared powder of dried cow-dung) on their forehead. Some were engaged in serious discussion during tea- time.
There were plenty of newspapers and magazines outside.
In old days milking of she-buffaloes was usual sights in the early morning in front of hotels and tea shops. But the live -milking has been stopped due to traffic blockade. Milk is mostly supplied in vehicles.
While searching for a net café to check mail and take a print out of my program invitation, some of the tour agents came to me and asked, “Bus, train, air ticket ellam inke kidaykum…enke pokarthik?” (Bus, train and air tickets are available here. What is your destination?)
The area was filled with many travel and tour operators. They thought I was looking for tickets!
Any way each of them competed well for getting a customer. When I told them I was looking for an internet café they lost the interest. For me it seemed like an air-bursting balloon! But one of them showed me an internet café.
The down stair of the shop sold stationery items and up stair worked as browsing centre.
Surprisingly enough, I could not open or print the document in PDF format .When I asked the lady staff there, she was helpless. I thought why these people didn’t download at least a trial version of Acrobat, available free on internet.
I just checked mail and left the café.
‘Visiting’ for cards
I looked for a shop for designing and printing some visiting cards. I entered one shop, offering urgent cards. It was part of a house.
One or two guys were browsing net there. When I asked for urgent visiting cards, the shop owner told me “Sorry. Today I am alone here. It will take some time. Besides, today we will have a guest and I am busy”, saying this in a requesting tone, he engaged in house- hold chores! By Gods grace, he suggested another shop where easy print outs were available.
But, I could take my print out from there… (Thank God, Acrobat Reader was available!).
I thought Tamil people don’t spend much on houses. Rich or poor, they adjust life in minimum conditions. Many run houses and shops or small business firms under the same roof. This has been a good lesson to Keralites who spend too much on houses, rather major share of their earnings over a lifetime, even sacrificing life, on brick and mortar.
I travelled some more distance to reach the shop. There was a lady engaged in busy DTP works. She told me it was possible to get cards ready within half an hour. Relieved! But I had to wait another 45 minutes more to get the cards. While waiting for the cards, I wondered to hear the sound of bullock cart. Really, I saw an old man was going with his bullock-cart. With’ hot cards’ in pocket; I rushed back to Egmore to attend the program.
Multiple Modes for Mobility
Public transportation in Chennai is more attractive. There are plenty of electric trains and transport buses bound to small and big towns. The number of transport buses has increased.
Roads were neat and clean than before. Dedicated workers were deployed in city and suburban areas to clean the garbage.
All the modes have their own importance in Chennai.
Nobody scorns at rickshaw men or cycle riders and pedestrians in the city.
Most of the motorists pay respect to cycle- riders and pedestrians.
Manual riders have their own freedom similar to transport buses and other motor vehicles.
Definitely Chennai has changed lot in all its spheres.
Roads and bridges, trains and buses, platforms and passengers…
Many fly -over and pompous sky-scrappers have marked the new face of Chennai.
Slums and polished streets are there to know Chennai more.
Many women drive their vehicles in Chennai streets than before.
They are equally respected in towns. No comments or unwanted looks on them by other travelers.
The attitude of Chennai is really cosmopolitan. That is entirely different from Calicut.
People’s mindset has been changed and they don’t interfere in other’s style or drive.
After lunch, I had hectic schedule to attend the evening program.
Dear Mosquitoes…please leave me alone
In the late night I realized that Egmore mosquitoes were more prowess than Kochi species!
(I had the bitter experience of biting of Kochi mosquitoes during my PG days.)They celebrated the night as they got a new victim. I lost my sleep in any case. So I woke up and listened to some melodies from my iPod. Then I scanned some magazines. The attackers (better to call suicide squads!) might have felt some sympathy on me. At least for few minutes they left me alone.
Even I scolded them with all known languages, later I thanked them for arranging me odd hours to read and enjoy music!
Falling to a light sleep, I heard the sounds of people who were getting ready for catching early morning train to reach their job places.
At Mylapore Temple
The next morning I decided to move again to streets to experience Chennai,to observe the changes over years, with patience.
As I treaded slowly, I reached Mylapore Kapaleeshwarar temple (Temple of Shiva) situated in city premises.
The age-old structure looked great with sculptures, colour pillars and scriptures.
Cows and calves were also kept in the temple premise.
A charming temple-pond with hundreds of fishes outside the temple premise attracts many.
Water-birds were seen moving around. There are beautifully sculptured small towers in that pond also. Some of the devotees who visit the temple would go to feed fishes in that pond, said to be a blessed rite.
A priest was sitting there to guide the devotees who come for darshan and feeding the fish.
While asked on the way of ritual, he told me, “Lord likes this traditional offering of food to fishes.”
Outside food was not allowed here. The prasadams from the temple alone is permitted, he clarified in Tamil.
I stood there for few minutes, enjoying the beauty of the pond and wonderful sight of fishes that were so friendly with the devotees turned there.
While returning from Mylapore Kovil, there were bunch of tender-coconuts in front of a house gate. Needless to say, we can’t even imagine the real taste of Kerala ‘ilaneers‘(Malayalam word for tender-coconut)
‘Ilaneer- energy’, definitely gave me some confidence. I didn’t look for an auto at least for few minutes.
I walked along the road near by CPR Aiyyar Foundation Office (Eldams Road, Alwarpet).
I moved some more steps and entered into a tea-shop run by Malayalis.
After zipping the medium ‘chaya‘ (Malayalam word for tea. There are many varieties like strong medium and light teas, measuring the quantity of tea powder used in it.) I walked some more distance along Teynampet market where vegetables and fish were sold on the road side. Being one of the crowded business centres, Teynampet is also famous for coconut sales.
Later I caught a bus from Teynampet town to reach Central railway station.
Some of the tired cycle-rickshaw workers were seen sleeping on road side pavement.
Chennai Central Railway station gets a facelift
Travelling under the hot sun was tough in Chennai. I decided to go to Central railway station. After lunch, I scanned some newspapers and magazines. Still I had few hours for my journey back home. I turned to be a roamer until the train time.
Chennai central railway station has changed with many add –on and facilities.
Passengers are benefited with comfortable chairs and retiring zones.
Transport buses come very near to the railway station premise. It looked more convenient for passengers.
Special vehicles on platforms used for easy mobility of physically disabled or sick and aged passengers were a new sight. This is a private sponsored system.
Many groups of Ayyappa devotees were surrounded in the platform. Some had even performed Kettunira under Guru Swamis.
Internet cafe in the platform seemed crowded.
There are many good restaurants, quick snack centers and shops.
Can I forget to buy my favorite cake? Never. I searched for the great old traditional brands to complete my trip. When I was collecting the delicious ones, I flew to my childhood days.
Indeed, my father asked me, ‘Did you buy enough? He knew me better! how I liked Chennai Cakes?
(Indeed, my father has been my best friend and guide during my Chennai trips.)
The old traditional look was still there amidst the reforms, just same as the life and style of Chennai.
Dogs with permanent residing status in platform were examining every nook and corner of the platform!
Some of the train-thieves were caught by police from the platfrorm.Many passengers turned their attention towards that direction. The security system of Railway Protection Force has been intensified hence the confidence of passengers doubled. Still, there were some pick-pockets, but most of the criminals were caught by police.
I had some more time to relax. I searched for best musical albums from the CD shop in the platform.
There were enough collection of devotional music and classical items. I picked MS Subhalakshmi’s devotional CD. The book shops in the railway station were also modernized. Best selling classics to light reading stuffs were available for purchase.
Cycle Rickshaw-the old marks
I found one cycle-rickshaw man, sleeping in the rickshaw outside Mylapore temple, near by the shore of the divine pond. I really liked the green place with big and small plants and flowers. I experienced the cool, gentle breeze while walking along Mylapore. The surrounded areas had a mix of big and small residences.
There were a few cycle-rickshaws in front of the Chennai Central station gate, also. When they surrounded the station for a while, the police came and threatened some of them to move away. But one guy didn’t care police’ words and continued to remain there with a smoking beedi on his lips. Later he was beaten by the police and moved to another side. I wondered how that police man could be so cruel with the poor, lean rickshaw man.
Glimpse of Chennai evenings- an epitome of equality?
Chennai was looking traditionally beautiful in its romantic evenings with fragrant flowers and aromatics. Kovils (small temples in city) were more crowded with devotees than morning. Jasmine garland, jamanthis and roses were plenty on city.
The subway in front of central station takes you to the other side of Chennai. Hawkers were there with as many as items.
‘Nalla pazhamark….romba kammiyayirik vila…. (Good banana, price also is cheap)’said sellers.
I bought some bananas, it looked so fresh. Really it was tasty too.
The sub-way vendors and sellers with their family and children were same as the old story years ago.
Tea shops and snack centers in front of General Hospital also turned unchanged. Large numbers of people were gathered there to have their fast snacks.
Basic attitude reflected in all spheres of their lives.
On the subway step a woman was counting her apples that were kept there for sale. There were lot of woman who occupied there to sell flowers and other small items. Flowers and garlands sold like hot cakes in front of Central Railway station. From small children to old women wore flower garlands.
Many poor women worked as equal bread-winner of families; they earned money by selling flowers in city premises. The sights were interesting, while mothers were engaged in selling items in front of Chennai Central Station, their kids surrounded nearby, elder kids taking care of younger. Many road side merchants keep their small children along with them. They try to find out their own family space in the big crowded city. They could make a space with mats or tarpaulins to run their business. It doesn’t matter whether the space is just near by big shopping malls!
Chennai- as unique as ever-towards development, conserving roots
While marching towards development in their infrastructure, the old icons of growth were visible in one way or other. The rare bullock-carts in modern metros could be seen in Chennai (even if the numbers have fallen down greatly).That is Chennai. Here electric cars or bullock cart doesn’t bother people. They are moving and working their own way with traditions kept with their heart, firmly.
At the same time couples carrying their infants in baby-carriage while going for outings were also seen.
May be the slow and steady development, the adage of Chennai without demolishing all the ancient pillars of development?
Still Chennai is moving fast without giving any compromise on customs and beliefs.
Chennai has a beauty with a colorful blend of tradition and modernity.