I belong more to T. Nagar than I belong to Chennai. I have lived here, in the same building, ever since I came to Chennai over nine years ago. For those not familiar with the city, T. Nagar is the nerve centre of present-day Chennai, a neighbourhood that balances dizzying crowds in its shopping plazas with total tranquility in its residential pockets.
T. Nagar, or Thyagaraya Nagar, is my Chennai and the rest of the city matters very little to me. Why should it, when T. Nagar itself is a mini-Chennai, a self-contained universe? T. Nagar combines the tradition of Mylapore, the sophistication of Adyar and Besant Nagar, the snootiness of Nungambakkam and R A Puram, and the low life of Royapuram.
Today, I consider myself a more authentic Chennaiite than many Tamilian Chennaiites I know because I was baptised by fire upon my arrival in 2001. For the first 15 days, from the day Tamil Nadu Express brought me to Chennai on January 15 till January 31, I lived in a 'mansion' -- a lodge for bachelors. The lodge was located on Natesan Street, adjacent to Ranganathan Street, which is the nerve-centre of T. Nagar and is perhaps the most crowded street on this planet. So right on day one, I had a taste of the magnitude of the crowd, that too Pongal crowd, as I went about looking for a mobile phone connection. I could not find any mobile-phone shop that was open, but I succeeded in saving myself from being trampled over by an army of moustache-wearing men and flower-wearing women.
I had come to Chennai without knowing a soul. Had I had a friend living in Besant Nagar or R.A. Puram who would have been kind enough to host me till I found a flat, my impression of Chennai would have been entirely different. But I was destined to see Chennai at its noisiest, crowded and colourful best for two whole weeks before moving in to peaceful environs of Murugesan Street.
Physically speaking, I had only moved from one part of T. Nagar to another, not even a kilometre away. But philosophically speaking, I had moved from one universe to another, from cacophony to calm. The way it balances the two universes -- that's the beauty of T. Nagar. The day cacophony starts invading calm, it won't be long before T. Nagar comes to stand for Terrible Nagar. The process, unfortunately, has started.
I could write an entire book on Murugesan Street. It is the calmest street I have known. It is the street on which Illayaraja, the R.D. Burman on Tamil music, lives. It is the street of my life: the street on which my creativity sprouted, on which I spent the most crucial decade of my adult life. I came to live on this street when I had just turned 30, and today I am almost 40. From the age of 20 to 30, you don't even know who you really are, while from the age of 40 to 50 you ruminate about what life has been or could have been. It is only between the ages of 30 to 40 that you really live life. And I lived that life on Murugesan Street.
The street seems to have sensed that I have lived out the best part of my life on its lap: its obligation over, it has now decided to surrender itself to Changing Times, the new god of death. Yes, my street is dying. Right in front of my eyes.
One, the street has become a thoroughfare, thanks to the new flyover that has come up on North Usman Road. The flyover begins right at the point where my street meets that road, so vehicles not taking the flyover are left with two choices: to go under the flyover and get caught in the perpetual jam, or take the left into my street and find their way out, which is what most motorists do. So all day, all I hear now is honking.
That's only a part of the problem. What actually lent a sense of peace and calm to the street were the old buildings -- not very old in terms of years, but old-fashioned enough to be just two-storeyed instead of twenty, whose owners were driven by need and not greed. Need is when you have just one house but two sons: so you build the first floor as well so that the property could be equally divided between the two sons. Greed is when you sell off the house to a builder for a neat sum so that you could buy a beach house -- be it in Mahabalipuram or Miami -- and the builder could construct a 20-storey structure on the graveyard of your father's or grandfather's dream.
Such houses are falling like ninepins. My balcony, which overlooks the street, also overlooks two private houses that are right across my building. On the rare mornings I have managed to wake myself up early enough to sip tea on the balcony without nursing a hangover, I have found myself thinking: "The day I have the money, I would buy either of these houses in 'as is, where is' condition."
Today, I can't even see those houses from my balcony. Last week, thatched walls were erected high enough to shield them from public view. The labourers have moved in. Soon the two buildings would be razed to the ground to make place for the parking lot of a jewellery store. Imagine this: a man comes to the jewellery store in his car in order to fulfill his dream of marrying off his daughter in style. The valet takes his car away and parks it on the grave of another man's dream.
Dhoop dhaap, dhoop dhaap. That's the only sound I hear these days -- apart from the honking -- as labourers hammer their way into demolishing the two handsome houses. I dread imagining the sight from my balcony two months from now. I can't bear to watch Murugesan Street die. So I have decided to leave the street. From June 1, if things go as per plans, I shall have a new home in Chennai. The new home, far from the madding crowd, shall also be in T. Nagar: I can't imagine living elsewhere.