From the second anniversary edition of Times Of India, Chennai:
A SHORT WALK DOWN DISCOUNT LANE
Ranganathan Street: The Spirit Never Sags At T Nagar’s Golden Mile For Shoppers
Bishwanath Ghosh | TNN
IF the people after whom streets are named got paid a small token amount, say 50 paise, for every footfall, then the kin of Rangaswamy Iyengar would easily be one of the richest families in India. Not that Rangaswamy Iyengar would have accepted the money: the sub-collector of Madras Presidency, who built a house in T Nagar after retirement, was so humble and god-fearing that when the civic authorities suggested that the street on which he lived be named after him, he requested them to name it after Lord Ranganatha instead. So, what was about to be called Rangaswamy Street became Ranganathan Street.
If you want to punish someone for a heinous crime without being brutal, make him count the number of people on Ranganathan Street from 10 am to 10 pm everyday, till he gets the accurate figure: chances are he will count heads for the rest of his life, so crowded the street is. At 2 pm, with the sun blazing overhead, the crowd may be thinner, but only compared to what it was in the morning –– for the rest of Chennai, it is still the most crowded street, even at that hour.
Till a few years ago, two sugarcane juice shops on either side of the street, greeted you as you entered Ranganathan Street from Usman Road. One shop displayed its loyalty to the DMK on its signboard, while the other declared its love for the AIADMK. When election results came out, you didn’t have to switch on TV to know which party was winning: you could tell from a glance at these two shops. If the DMK-supporting shop had downed its shutter, you knew the AIADMK had won, and vice-versa. But some time ago, the AIADMK juice shop became a garments store, leaving the portrait of a smiling Karunanidhi, gracing the signboard of the rival shop, to welcome you.
In an upmarket mall, you might, in a genteel fashion, call them lingerie or innerwear. But out here, on the pavements, the nomenclature is without any frills –– just bra and panty, so is the display –– dozens of pieces piled up in stacks, serving as the front office for vendors who also sell nighties and hankies and towels. Rubbing shoulders with them are those who sell cheap toys and ‘Rolax’ watches. Looming over these vendors and their wares are the big stores –– gigantic in size, exhaustive in range. Cool breeze wafting out these air-conditioned shops create pockets of respite as you walk under the sun, wondering why anyone, at this hour, would stop by one of the stalls selling cutlets and vadas glistening with oil. But tastes differ: the stalls are doing decent business.
Even the elderly, sunbaked woman who sits almost in the middle of the street with a basketful of jasmine is unruffled by the fact that her flowers are wilting under the sun. She knows she will find buyers. That’s the thing about Ranganathan Street: the hawkers don’t run after you. They know that of the thousands who walk the street, a small fraction is bound to stop. As for the gigantic stores, the attendants behave as if they are doing you a favour by responding to your call.
One sari store is so huge that it even has a reception lounge, as if it is a corporate hospital. In the air-conditioned lounge, women, in small groups, are squatting. They are clutching bags bursting with saris, but they all seem to be in a daze, as if they have a close relative fighting for life in one of the wards. The women, who seem to be from neighbouring towns, are clearly dizzied by the size of the store and the variety of saris they have had to choose from.
You keep walking. More bras, panties and nighties. And then yet another big store, which can easily the one-stop shop for a man marrying off his daughter. A board outside the shop gives an important piece of information:
Gold 1 gm Rs 1448; Silver 1 gm Rs 29.60
You walk on. Suddenly you notice Mambalam railway station. You’ve reached the end of Ranganathan Street. Once again, the smell of crushed sugarcane pervades the air, but this juice shop seems to be apolitical. You really don’t need to be loyal to any political party in order to make a living from Ranganathan Street: all you need is common sense.
Look at these two women: one of them is selling raw tamarind as well as safety pins — what a combo — while the other is selling drumsticks as well as ladies’ hankies — what a combo again. But look at their business sense: while you are looking at the hankies, you might suddenly remember that you have run out of drumsticks to prepare the next day’s sambhar; or while you are buying drumsticks to prepare the next day’s sambhar, it might suddenly strike you that all your hankies are worn out and it’s time you bought some new ones.
And the best part is, while rest of the city takes a lunch break and indulges in an inevitable post-lunch laziness, Ranganathan Street, even under the blazing sun, has its business — and business sense — alive and kicking.