Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ranganathan Street

From the second anniversary edition of Times Of India, Chennai:


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.


Rukmini Sah said...

Wow..I have never been to Rangnathan street but your description has made it come alive for me.Your words have immense visual appeal.

Krishnan said...

Your piece on Ranganathan street made me nostalgic. The street's very name is synonymous for being jam-packed.

Neha said...

Which city do I need to visit to take a look at this street that you have described so beautifully?

Bishwanath Ghosh said...

Neha, it would be Chennai.

ரவியா said...

I don't think this is a hazard becose of the buzz about the tamil film "angaadi theru" which indirectly treats the workers' problems in this street..esp sarvana's etc

Pearl said...

Mr Ghosh this post also looks like a picture taken on a very sunny day. Its burning out in some parts with the white heat. But often what stays longer are the grey details that the photographer captures. And one wonders why did you choose this Ranganathan street.
How often did you pass there? Why so much thoughtful attention?
we all know that streets like that exist! so what? what made it special to you?

What makes this special for the reader offcourse is the fact that you really looked at it when you passed. Thats where that mundane woman selling Hankies and drum sticks becomes a good story. And offcourse the good measure of ' bras,Panties and gowns'...

looks like you have started gearing up for your upcoming book on Chennai. :)

janani sampath said...

being a Chennaite I have always dreaded vising Ranganathan Street especially during weekends and when festivals are around the corner.

Now, I am thinking: how much history lies in those mundane shopping areas...

Anonymous said...

Im sure it will fin mention in your book on Chennai. Being away from the city this helped me reminsce those days. As it goes " good old days" and not good new days. Can't wait to get a hold of your book on Chennai.

Anonymous said...

This could be scene from any city in India, but I am surely visiting it whenever I visit Chennai!!

Very well written, effortless piece of writing, after a long time..

Daniel. I said...

I never knew a street could speak so much. But one with an ear for a story certainly picks up its endless chatter.

A very good write up. Could you post more such pieces of your work please?

The Restless Quill said...

Brought back so many memories. Good post