Slap, bang, wallop. It’s a full-force smack in the face. It’s the wall of heat that hits on exiting Chennai’s Central Railway Station. Turn left then left again and it’s not long before the road narrows and things get even hotter. A stone’s throw from the station and it’s off the train and into the sweltering world of Mint Street.
This isn’t the sanitised world of AC shopping-mall India that’s much talked about by the media. It’s the earthy Sowcarpet area of north Chennai. This isn’t the place of latest fashion trends, burger dens or cool cola hang outs. It’s a world of wholesale markets, cycle rickshaws and tightly packed buildings. This is a place of congested streets, narrow lanes and wandering cattle. It’s a place many Chennaiites have heard about but have never visited. The main pavementless thoroughfare, Mint Street, is a relentless offering of temples, hardware stores, eateries and clothes shops.
It’s a hard rock affair on Mint Street, where concrete turns to rubble and burst drains turn rubble to mud. It’s a heavy-metal, kitchenware delight, where a hundred shops and stores offer gleaming pots, pans, stoves, bowls and shiny, steel utensils. A thousand meals yet to be prepared throughout the kitchens of Chennai with equipment bought on this street. A million bellies yet to be filled with idly, dosa and sambar, the holy trinity of Tamil culinary delight.
Guarded by temple priests and touched by believers who pass by, an eternal flame rages in front of Shiva’s metal trident outside a Hindu temple. It’s dusk and Mawari moneylenders’ daughters hit the throttle and blaze into the night and possibly into your heart. Flames of passion down on Mint Street. Beauty exists not only inside a Hindu temple, but also on the seat of a Hero Honda.
Just another Indian street where cows compete with vegetable stalls, where people jostle with vehicles, where men haul heavy loads for quenching the insatiable needs of the masses? Nothing could be further from the truth. Mint Street may well be a hot and bothered affair and might fray the nerves, but it’s Chennai’s special street. It’s the world in one place.
Okay, that may be a little bit of an exaggeration. It’s more apt to state that it’s where different parts of India have come together to produce a uniquely Tamilian cocktail with intriguing Gujurati and Rajasthani aftertastes.
Ram Ram Rajasthan, good-day Gujarat. The area around Mint Street is Rajasthan by the sea, Gujarat on the Coromandel Coast. It’s where Mawaris (an ethnic group from those two states), mostly moneylenders and businessmen, migrated to during the 20th century. It’s where the yellow veil of the desert state still covers faces, still hangs head to toe on slender figures that glide at dusk. Down on Mint Street, hear the call of Gujarat, feel the heat of Rajasthan. Indeed, Sowcarpet derives its name from Sahukar, which means money lender in Hindi.
Its not just old women who you’ll see walking about in colorful, traditional north Rajasthani and Gujurati clothing and jewellery here. Slender women with faces fully veiled and wearing lehenga choli walk past in groups with babies perched on hips, as light-skinned 20-somethings in more conventional sarees zip past side-saddle on the back of mopeds or scooters. Out of Tamil Nadu and into the heart of what could be the most tradition-bound neighbourhoods of Jodphur or Bhuj within just a few minutes’ walk of Chennai’s main rail station. Even many of the store signs and name boards are in Hindi or Gujarati scripts.
This is where pedal power meets bullock cart. It’s a place where the modern submits to tradition. A girl in jeans accompanies her married sister in Saree. Traditional gold jewellery shimmers in brightly lit shop windows and drips on the skin of women who sit in groups on shop floors, where men wheel out cloth from endless rolls for customers’ inspection. Rolls of material destined to be draped around bodies then hung over a million Sowcarpet balconies above the streets while drying in the sun.
Men stand sipping at stalls. The world viewed from over the rim of a plastic cup of scalding coffee. A poor cycle rickshaw man transports a young woman of north India ancestry with mobile phone pressed against her veil-secluded head. Dogs take a break between naps in search of a spare bit of rice. Cows munch on vegetation strewn across the street. People stop at stalls of apples, mangoes, aubergines and oranges, all meticulously laid out for public perusal. It’s abundance overload on Mint Street.
Perfumes, paper, plates, plastic tubing or intricate henna hand painting done in the street, pay your money and take your choice. ‘Shree Ganesh Steel’, ‘Bharat Steel House’ and ‘Gents Beauty Parlour’. The mundane practicalities of everyday living next to alluring adornments designed to beatify and attract.
An innings already played out, an old man sits and waits on the step of a six storey apartment block. A hundred different architectural styles, each narrow building separately designed yet attached to one another and lining the streets. A dozen different designs in a single lane, many with intricately carved alcoves and cosy bays, stacked above the chaos of the streets below.
Functional concrete boxes stripped of any beauty or appeal by architects whose motto must have been ‘uglification is us’ stand next to shiny marbled buildings in which each metal railed balcony, window ledge and carefully designed recess were thought out down to the finest detail. The claustrophobic lanes hemmed in by a never ending wall of three to seven storey buildings winding their way into the distance. Ugliness and beauty, paradox and jumble.
Mint Street itself derived its name from having housed the East India Company’s mint. These days, many people visit the area to sample the tasty bites on offer, which hail from all over India. Snack on chaat or crispy jalebis. Try out different flavours of kulfis and sample pyaz kachori. How about paani puris or a ‘murukku ‘ sandwich? Take some chotu motu bhel, raj shri paani poori, sinabhai idlies, novelty pau bhaaji, aloo sabzi, bhindi, raita, shahi panner or Kolkata paan. But these are not the only Indian ‘reality bites’ around here.
Being both residential and commercial, a journey through the wider Georgetown area may not be to everyone’s liking. Stumble into the back streets and you’ll soon tumble into an India of grinding hard work. Dozens of dirty dhabas with workers frenetically boiling, frying, stirring from dawn till dusk. Offering carbohydrate, oil-laden fuel for the labouring classes whose high calorie, fat-burning endeavours keep India on the move. It’s an India that never sleeps. It’s an India of straw covered streets and bullock carts, of constant deliveries and heavy loading, of sacks of produce delivered on the sun-beaten, bare-backs of the young and not so young; in fact, the downright old.
For those more used to the genteel side of life in more affluent countries, this ‘land that time forgot’, this throwback to the pre-industrial era, is something that they only get to know about by reading history books. But it’s here and now in the 21st century. It’s living India. It’s ‘modern’ India. It’s not the India of cyber parks, social media ‘apps’ or Twitter accounts. It’s the India of unimaginable long hours, energy-sapping labour and tough, sinewy, dark-skinned men who’ve never had it so bad, who’ve never experienced life any better and most certainly never will.
It’s the India populated by the 800 million plus that exist on less than two US dollars per day. It’s the kind of thing that the great project of ‘globalisation’ sucks dry: the cheap buck sweated out of malnourished labour, the years squeezed dry from the reduced life expectancy brought by manual work, the legacy of stunted growth passed on to the offspring of the labouring classes. Little surprise that a new study of more than one lakh children (100,000) across six Indian states found that as many as 42 per cent of under-fives were severely or moderately underweight and that 59 per cent of them suffered from moderate to severe stunting. The findings in the Hunger and Malnutrition (HUNGaMA) report by the Naandi Foundation have been described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a “national shame.”
And as one hundred diesel powered generators along Mint Street and beyond power up to spew out their pollutants for the duration of the latest power cut (euphemistically called ‘load shedding’ here), little surprise also that one-third of India’s households do not even have electricity to power a light bulb, according to the 2011 census.
With each sunrise, the story in Sowcarpet continues. Women with hand-held brushes bend over and sweep dirt into the air. Back-street dairy owners release cows into the streets. And people wait. The destitute wait for alms outside the area’s many temples. Men squat and wait for a frenzied day of shifting and loading to begin. Others wait too – men who have more than their muscle power for sale. They are artisans whose tools – trowels, hammers, chisels and various other implements – are displayed on the ground in front of them. Skills for hire. The dignity of labour, no matter how low paid it may be.
Bells chime and semi-naked, soft bodied temple priests brush past proud-looking men honed from granite. They have already started their day’s toil of lifting and carrying bricks. A hard day ahead. Nearby, a mother and her two kids still fast asleep are lying on the solid wooden planks of a bicycle cart. No mattress or sheets. A hard night behind.
For many who visit this area of Chennai, the place is just too crowded and congested. But they visit this area of the city for dried fruits, spices and grains. They come for textiles and sarees. They come for gleaming metallic kitchenware, plastic products, fashion jewellery, machine tools, electronic items, stationary and various general products at low cost. The area is not really a place to hang out. It’s a fast and furious world of hard work, cow mess, mud, indigestion and sensory overload. It’s definitely not for the weak hearted. Perhaps that’s why many from more affluent parts of the city never come. They prefer to visit the AC worlds of Express Mall, City Centre Mall or Spencer Plaza. For many people, not just in India but throughout the world, perhaps some things are better out of sight, out of mind. In Sowcarpet, things are hot, maybe a little too hot, maybe a little too real.