I am no stranger to these tiny streets of Mylapore. My feet know where to carry me, guided by time and age-old memory. These little streets tug at me eagerly, begging me to rediscover their hidden jewels. So, each time I return to Madras, I let me feet retrace the paths of old, on a literal walk down memory lane…
I start my walk at our apartment, Sante Granda, on Santhome High Road, and cross the road, heading into the interior lanes of Mylapore, one of Madras’ oldest neighbourhoods. Though the streets here are technically a part of Santhome, Santhome is also technically a part of Mylapore. The streets are lined with tiny shops and quaint, colourful temples dot the intersections. I love peering into these temples to see the adorned and anointed idols. Madras is a sleepy city, with a far slower pace of life than, say, Mumbai or Bangalore, but it is full of surprises, even for someone who knows it as well as I do. Mostly the elderly are awake at this time of day, and I catch glimpses of cows being milked, flowers being plucked for prayers, and hear strains of devotional Carnatic music on the radio. This, perhaps, is the soul of this city – Madras before globalisation struck. Without the blare of the television or armies of cars on the streets, I can close my eyes and be transported back to the days when Madras was a small town, something like R.K. Narayan’s fictional town of Malgudi.
Cows wander the streets aimlessly, occasionally trying to climb the stairs of a friendly house for a morning snack. People feed them bananas, leaves, and skins of peeled vegetables. Cows are India’s happiest and best-fed citizens, no doubt! As I continue down the lanes, weaving around cow dung and avoiding direct sunlight, I subconsciously aim my path for Mylapore tank, which, in many ways, is the very heart and soul of this area and home to my favourite haunts in this city. The tank in question belongs to the ancient, towering Kapaaleeshwar Temple, which has stood for centuries as a symbol of everything that Madras embodies. The temple has a cowshed with cattle and even owns domesticated elephants that are used for festivals and private ceremonies. Each time I enter the temple premises, I spend a few minutes eagerly searching for frisky calves or the occasional elephant tied to a tree. The streets surrounding the temple make up a thriving bazaar that is the perfect mix of old and new India. Flower vendors, fruit stalls, ladies selling puja thalis, men selling sacred threads and prayer beads…there is always chaos of a devotional nature in this market. Other shops, such as my favourite Vijaya Stores and Shanti Silks, cater to those pursuing the sacred art of dance, and it is to these shops that I regularly pay homage. Ankle bells, dance books, heavy necklaces and jewel-studded earrings, and gorgeous silk dance costumes in resplendent colours line the shelves. This, for me, is a scene from paradise. Outside, stalls sell everything from false jewellery, stationary supplies, fruits and vegetables, garlands of sweet-scented flowers, sweets, clothes, shoes, books, and even cell-phone accessories! This is where I come to buy little gifts and daily supplies for my cousins and friends, and to occasionally select a new pair of ethnic earrings for myself. Today, I pick up a pair of ten-rupee gold hoops. For sentiment’s sake, I suppose…
Walking in the sunlight is not a chore for this girl, and I turn right at the end of the market street towards Luz Corner. Some days, when I have less time on my hands, I turn left at this intersection, walk around the large tank, and head back home the way I came. But today, I have a strong desire to keep wandering down the old familiar routes. Like an elephant, I too retrace the familiar paths of the past.
I cross the busy four-way intersection at Luz Corner, just after the Mylapore railway (or is it the metro now?) station. There, I see the familiar blue tarp-covered streets stalls that form Luz Bazaar. During my school days, and in all the subsequent years, I came to these very shops to purchase sets of six “hankies,” as we used to call handkerchiefs, hair clips, headbands, pencils, pencil boxes, and lunch boxes. Strolling through the bazaar now, I am tempted to browse, but many of the shops are yet to open so I keep going, my feet leading me towards my old school.
Vidya Mandir Primary and Senior Secondary School stands in the shade of numerous trees – a peepul, some neem, and a few gulmohars. Nowadays its gates are guarded by security guards (unarmed, thankfully! This is a school, not a fortress!), but the old-Madras charm of the school’s cool grey, white, and dark green buildings cannot be diminished. Children in white and green uniforms skip merrily about; morning school (as today is a half-day) has just ended and everyone is in high spirits. I place my hand on the cold metal fence and the sign saying “Vidya Mandir,” and imagine myself a child in those sandy grounds again. But time has flown and the years have turned many pages in this book, so I turn around and retrace my steps to the main road once again.
Now I turn onto Kutchery Road again, headed towards Marina Beach and the Santhome Church, a pristine castle of marble against the clear blue sky. This road is full of tiny shops, a post office, dozens of coffee stalls, and gated apartment buildings. Everything is small in Mylapore – the houses, the shops, the height of the apartments growing like weeds through cracks in the cement. Just the way I like it. The road curves slightly and my feet patter past the lending library and the old Shiva temple that used to be a landmark for me when my grandparents first moved to the Santhome apartment. Suddenly, the road materializes in front of me. Santhome High Road. The marble church is the beacon. Standing at the intersection, I can go in one of various directions. Directly ahead, I can access the alley behind the church and end up on Marina Beach. To the left is the main beach road. If I turn to the right, I will end up at my house again. I decide to go straight and take the little-used alleyway that I know intimately to the beach.
This stretch of the beach is peaceful and quiet. The only people here are the fisher folk, who have built a village of sorts on the seashore out of makeshift hutments and strong boats. Their children look at me curiously, but a confident traveller is rarely stopped, and they do not question my presence here. The water is silvery-blue and endless; far out on the waves, I can see ships dotting the horizon. At night, they will pull into Marina Harbour at the far end of the beach and unload their catch. The water level is low; high tide has passed, and the next high tide will arrive around noon. Until then, the crabs can scramble freely in the wet sand and children forage for shells to make necklaces that will be sold at the evening beach fair.
The wind ruffles my hair as I gaze out at the calm waters. Today, Marina is peaceful. In the evening, it is a beach transformed, as visitors and locals alike come to dip their feet in the cool waters. Kalari and yoga classes are held on this beach both morning and evening, and dozens of children and adults congregate for these lessons. Men ride horses and ask families with small children if they would like a horseback ride along the water’s edge. I recall the days when I used to beg for a horseback ride. Vendors walk along the sand hawking cheap toys, roasted corn, shell ornaments and jewellery, magazines, and ice cream. Occasionally, I have come across men with trained monkeys who will perform tricks and dance to music if people pay to watch the show. It is cruel, but many visitors adore this form of entertainment.
Back I must go, and I let me feet guide me along the beach road. This road is lengthy, and in order to reach my house, I must turn into one of the tiny lanes, follow a zig-zag path of rights and lefts, and I will theoretically land up at my doorstep. I decide to turn theory into practice and turn into one of the small lanes approximately near to my house. Left, then right, then right again, and suddenly I am facing the small temple in the alley behind my house. I once fell off a cycle by this temple. Smiling at the memory, I pick up my pace and all at once my walk has ended and I am back at the gate to my building.
A walk down memory lane really is more refreshing than a steaming cup of chai…