Saturday, December 19, 2015
Friday, November 20, 2015
My name is Valtteri Kovalainen. I am from Finland and I live in Chennai. This is my diary where I write some of my experiences of living in this very complex city.
It’s not easy being a Finn in Chennai, I can promise you. The heat is, you know, kind of special. Also, the traffic makes me afraid; sometimes, very afraid.
I have many good things too, certainly. My motorcycle, for example - a Royal Enfield Bullet! She is a beauty. There is also my house on the beach…to live in a house like that in my country; I would have to be a millionaire.
My happiest hobby is taking my motorcycle and going for long rides in the early mornings, on the East Coast Road. Sometimes I go all the way to Pondicherry and have breakfast there.
But today I want to share a special adventure I had last week.
On some days, very late in the night, like 3 o’clock, I used to be disturbed by the sound of some people whispering urgently for a few minutes outside my garden wall. These whisperers seemed to come together outside my house and disappear like a cloud. I wondered if maybe they were robbers planning to burgle my house or another house in my neighborhood.
About two weeks ago, I asked my watchman about these people. After much shaking of the head and acting like he knows nothing, he told me that these were some local people who meet and go for a drink.
I can tell you that I was very surprised.
I know all the good bars in this city. They close by maximum 1 AM. And the police are everywhere to catch you and fine you if you are drunk and driving. So, some people meeting at 3 o clock in the morning to go for a drink was, what I can say, very interesting.
After a few days, I again asked my watchman who exactly these people were. After some hesitation he told me that it was the old gardener who was the main man. This gardener was a shadowy fellow. I rarely see him but he is supposed to be my gardener. I told the watchman that I wanted to talk to this man. Two days later, he came with the watchman and stood silently in front of me.
With the watchman as interpreter, I asked the gardener about the 3 A.M. drinking. He just stood there and looked at me blankly. I waited a moment and came to the point. I told him I wanted to go with him and his friends to have a drink at 3 o clock in the morning.
After the watchman interpreted my request, an animated discussion broke out in Tamil between the two. I made out some words like “cycle” and “Reddykuppanh” and “local” from the gardener. My interpreter, the watchman, kept repeating "bike” and “Bullet” to the gardener. I understood the problem and interrupted them. I told them that the gardener and I could go to the “place” on my motorcycle.
The old walnut was not convinced at first but with a little encouragement from the watchman he finally agreed, reluctantly. A date and time was agreed upon and before saying goodbye the watchman formally introduced him to me as Velu….
And so it came about that two days later, at 3 o clock in the morning, I was waiting with my bike outside my house for Velu and his gang.
They appeared from different directions - 6 men on 3 cycles, loudly whispering greetings at each other. I started my bike, Velu got on and we were off. As we turned into ECR towards Mamallapuram, Velu shouted “Reddykuppanh” into my ears and I nodded my head. After several kilometers Velu tapped me on my shoulder and waved his hand signaling me to slow down and turn.
I had done some checking with my friends at the office and they had explained to me that this early morning drinking place on the beach might be a joint for selling “rice beer”. They told me that this was a fisherman’s specialty and that the local name for the drink was “sunda-kanji”. Strictly speaking it was an illegal item. The fishermen drank this before they set out to sea before dawn. This perhaps explained the odd timing for these parties.
We turned left into one of the many lanes that lead from the ECR to the beach and at the very end of the street we stopped. Velu’s friends soon arrived and we all trooped in a single file with Velu leading.
At the edge of the village, on the very sands of the beach, there were some abandoned houses. Detritus from the Tsunami.
We entered one of these buildings. We were in a small, dark hall with no lights. Velu pointed with a jerk of his head and we shuffled towards a corner.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that there were already about two dozen people in the room. There was an edgy expectancy in the air. The gathering was silent but a small buzz rose and died when they noticed me, the newcomer. I could smell beedies and cigarettes. With my gang, I too sat down on my haunches on the bare concrete floor and lit a cigarette.
A woman and two men suddenly walked in through a door in the far corner of the hall. They each had three sturdy plastic jugs clasped in each hand and quietly moved back and forth and distributed the jugs – one per customer. The jugs were filled ¾ with some liquid. I could not make out the color in the darkness but the smell reminded me of sake.
After the jugs were distributed the three people brought out some trays. The aroma of spices and seafood filled the room. When the woman came to our group and lowered the tray I saw piles of anchovy like fish and small crabs.
Velu mumbled something and the woman heaped several portions on a banana leaf and handed it over. Velu placed it on the floor and everyone reached to take a piece. We now finally started to drink, straight from the mugs.
The drink not only smelt but also tasted a little like sake. We quietly sat sipping from our jugs and feasting on the anchovies and curried crabs. There was very little conversation.
After about 30 minutes we all finished our drinks and stood up. I had a pleasant buzz going. Velu looked at me with a smile. I smiled right back and gave him a 500 rupee note. And suddenly everybody in the gang was smiling.
When we paid the woman and stepped out of the building, dawn was just breaking and the birds in the trees were waking the rest of the world up.
Celebrities in sleek cars, hiding behind illegally darkened windows; wobbling cyclists; suicidal motorcyclists; erratic pedestrians constantly oozing onto the carriageway; homicidal “share autos” convulsing to the beat of a beastly drummer that only their drivers can hear; behemoth buses bullying for non-existent space...
An endless succession of commercial establishments… by turns big and small, by turns pretentious or unassuming. Swank followed by sordid followed by stinking followed by stylish.
Astronomical prices per square foot of “Land”.
A few sleepy fishing hamlets separated by vast stretches of casuarina groves and tenuously connected to each other by back roads, have today coalesced like a humongous, toxic amoeba and transformed into one of the most sought after parcels of real estate south of the Vindhyas - the Chennai section of the East Coast Road.
This road is now The aspirational address for every real estate shark, fixer, shop keeper, star, starlet, retired civil servant, celebrity sportsperson, non-resident Indian, expatriate, CEO and everybody else in between.
What is the story of this stretch of road? When and how did it come to be?
This bustling 4 lane highway was, till the 1960’s, just a little red mud track that wound lazily southwards from Adyar, roughly following the contours of the coastline, till the backwaters of Muttukadu. And that’s all it was.
There was nothing of “interest” on this road, except for the people living in the few fishing villages that dotted the coast.
By most accounts gleaned from old timers who remember, the earliest establishment on this lonely little track was Dr. Dhairyam’s “mental institution” in Vettuvankeni. Locals used to then joke that this Dr. Dhairyam (Dr. Courage in Tamil) must have been a “dhairyasaali”, a courageous man indeed to come and establish his clinic on such a desolate stretch!
Then, in 1965, the Cholamandal Artist’s Village started slowly taking shape with an initial purchase of half an acre in Injambakkam. Around the same time (1967), VGP bought several acres just down the mud track, in the same neighborhood.
The end of the line for the little mud track, though, remained the backwaters of Muttukadu. If you wanted to proceed further south on that mud track, to say Mahabalipuram or beyond, you would have had to take a boat across the backwaters and then proceed by whatever means of transport were available on the other side of the lagoon.
But what about the people who wanted to come from the southern edge of Madras to Dr. Dhairyam’s clinic or to Cholamandal or to VGP or to any of the villages along the coast up until the backwaters?
Till 1965, there were no buses on this route. Many villagers just walked. Or they hired a jutka (covered horse drawn cart) from the jutka stand under a large banyan tree that stood where the Adyar Standard Chartered Bank building stands today. Hiring an entire jutka for the trip from Adyar to Injambakkam cost Rs.3 and 5 to 6 people could travel in the jutka for that price.
People who used to travel regularly on this stretch in those days say that if you missed having your chai at Hotel Coronet (established in 1955) your only alternative was a tiny teashop in Palavakkam.
Indira Nagar and Besant Nagar did not exist as yet then. The layouts for these neighborhoods were just being finalized by the government.
Although a foundation stone for an Thiruvanmiyur - Muttukadu Road was laid as early as in 1957, the work proceeded in fits and starts and was completed only around 1970.
However, the end of the line for this little mud track still remained the backwaters of Muttukadu. Then, finally in 1972, the Muttukadu Bridge was built, setting the stage for what would eventually become an almost 700 KM highway stretching from Chennai to Tuticorin.
The first bus service on this road was introduced in 1966 – route 19C from Parry’s to Muttukadu. The commuters were mainly fisher folk who used the bus service to transport their catch to the city. There is at least one corroborated story of a young Cholamandal artist’s crisp kurta suddenly getting drenched with foul smelling, fishy water sloshing down from a basket tied to the roof of the bus.
Slowly, over the years, certain establishments on this stretch became weekend destinations for the city folk: Cholamandal Artists’ Village, Silver Sands Resort (est., 1968), VGP Golden Beach (est., 1975), Taj Fisherman’s Cove and the Crocodile Bank (both established in 1976).
Through the 1980’s, the ECR was still a narrow, mostly sleepy road. There were vast casuarina groves abutting the road and rolling up to the sands of the beach. The people who moved from the city into these hamlets in those years were somehow “different”…people who had chosen a “different” lifestyle. This corner of the map was still more or less the back of nowhere.
All that changed with India’s big leap in the 90’s into the brave new world of open economics. Development on this once sleepy little red mud track suddenly became ceaseless, frenetic and unplanned. But the resulting permanent state of chaos has not stopped the masses from clamoring evermore for a piece of this prime real estate.
After a massive upgrade and conversion into a toll road in 2002, efforts are again on to widen the highway. How this project will eventually pan out remains to be seen.
Whatever shape the expanded highway might take, one thing is for sure: Today, the ECR is as much a part of the Chennai narrative as a Boat Club Road or a T. Nagar or a Parry’s Corner.