It’s uncomfortable. Taking a cold shower and still sweating in the process. Everything in the room feels damp. Even the bed sheets. Monsoon in Chennai. By the time you head down two flights of stairs, you are again dripping. By the time you are out on the street, you are again pouring. Heat and humidity have no mercy.
Out of the front door and on to Walltax Road. It’s never a pretty affair, never an uplifting start to the day. The roadside seems to be permanently dug up – for cable or pipeline repair or some other maintenance problem that makes the place look like a building site with no end in sight.
The buses, two-wheelers, cycle carts and autos jostle for space against a backdrop of incessant horn blurting. And pedestrians. Sandwiched between two layers – the fume-belching vehicles and the dug-up dirt, bits of metal that randomly protrude from the concrete and discarded industrial springs and coils. It’s uncomfortable.
Being near Chennai’s Central Station, Walltax Road is a place for doing business. Couriers, booking agents, seedy hotels and its sweatbox eateries that refresh local workers who sell their muscle power or the transient masses from the station at the end of the street.
The traffic, its noise and pollution and the years of caked-on grime make the street the type of place to pass through or avoid. But it serves a purpose – it’s functional at best. It used to be an entertainment hub, but its last cinema closed years ago. You would be hard pushed to say the street still has an air of faded grandeur. Traditionally designed buildings have long been replaced, and the few remaining ones tend to be crumbling.
Turn into one of the many alleyways that lead up to Mint Street for some respite. Wade through one of the lakes of dirty water at the entrance, then it’s about an eight-minute walk past a wall of four-to-eight storey concrete-box buildings on either side before reaching Mint Street.
Along the way, one-room grinders, millers, print shops, engineering workshops, paint stores and more. Hauling and lifting from cycle and bullock carts and small vans and trucks, bare-chested young men wearing lungis barely break sweat as they collect and deliver machines, boxes, sacks and metalware. At least they work in a degree of comfort – the shadowland backstreets of Sowcarpet allows some escape from the sun.
It’s not the only type of deliveries you get around here. A maternity hospital that pops out kids suddenly pops out itself, indistinguishable from any other building, apart from the sign, and a school – similar. Surprising additions packed into this street of mundane grind. Each alleyway almost a small town in itself.
And off the alleyway, more alleyways. In the distance, a woman wearing a saree rides a moped into the haze of humidity – or is it dust pollution – never to be seen again as she disappears into the hundreds side streets of this over-populated Sowcarpet area where a quick estimate might place the resident population at a couple of hundred thousand or more. Almost a city within a city.
Foreigners from the Western countries stay elsewhere in Chennai and hardly come here. It is not listed in the guidebooks as a must-see place or as containing the ‘sights’ to be seen.
Sowcarpet is defined by the industry of its people, the industries of the area and the eclectic mix of India you find here. I have described its essence some time back – elsewhere (see Hot Mint in Chennai, for instance).
But enter Sowcarpet, take a walk along its most famous thoroughfare – Mint Street – and you could be forgiven if you think you are suddenly in Gujarat, Rajasthan or some other state from more northerly parts. It’s an area where migrants from those places decided to settle during the last century.
And as Mint Street finally arrives on this early November day, it is as it always is. A couple of goats climbing onto the seats of parked up mopeds. A stray cockerel paying a visit from one of the alleyways. A huge light-grey bullock hauling a cart through the crowds. A cow hoping to steal some fruit from one of the carts at the side of the street. And a dog panting in the heat with teats almost touching the ground. Yes, for some, it can be uncomfortable here too.
And the humans of course. The humans whose every need and whim must be catered for. They must be watered, fed, adorned. They must engage in religious ritual and social interaction… and shopping.
The cavernous Jain community halls and impressively designed temples. The intricately carved gopurums (towers) of their Hindu counterparts. The glass-fronted clothes and jewellery stores, and the open-fronted dhabas and chai shops where the dust from outside comes free.
And the street carts lined up selling fruit, veg and clothing. Women in brightly coloured materials hover like bees, collecting the latest bargain to be had. Shopping is an artform – one I will never understand. My strategy is to get in, buy and get away. Mission accomplished. But where would places like Mint Street be if that was everyone’s method of attack?
Buying a new item of clothing can be an all-day affair. Groups of women chat, drink chai and sit on the shop floors of material sellers who bring out their rolls for inspection. If it’s material to be worn for a special occasion, it takes time. And time is a stretchable concept in India.
When someone says something will be ready in five minutes, that could mean an hour. Earlier, the hotel manager had informed me that the power will be back on in “five minutes” – “we must fill the generator with 55 litres of diesel”. Forgetting to leave out the fact it could well take an hour to procure the fuel beforehand.
So, I returned to my room to continue sweating under the stationary fan.
Half an hour later, still no power. I was then informed about the procurement issue. I had been under the impression that the 55 litres were already being poured into the generator. But after spending years in the country, deep down I knew five minutes could never be five minutes.
Indian stretchable time often sees a few minutes being stretched into hours. The piece of string is infinite. As the tourist board says – Incredible India! But I don’t think it was ever meant to be said with a shake of the head and a sigh of complete resignation.
It can at times seem strange that five minutes does often become an hour because a lot of things are performed at breakneck speed. Like the horn-blurting maniacs in autos and on scooters on pedestrian-dominated Mint Street who must get from A to B as if ‘B’ is about to burn to the ground. Maybe they are all on a mission, trying to procure 55 litres of diesel for their generators and prevent five minutes turning into two hours.
Just like the ‘meals’ eateries at lunch time where workers slap down rice from metal buckets, sambar and overcooked veg on banana leaves to be devoured fast and tables vacated asap so the next customer can sit.
As soon as a customer sits, someone approaches to place a banana leaf in front. And when the food arrives, people eat as if there is no tomorrow. It’s fast food – shovelled in by hand – both in the way it arrives and in the way it is eaten. Indigestion overload.
In India, time can be either painfully slow or painfully quick. And especially in Sowcarpet, it can be elastic, or it can contract and even appear to stop.
Take an everyday scene from the area, for example. It could be a village in Gujarat. A twenty-something woman of North Indian ancestry in nine yards of non-stretchable material wrapped around her slim body and head with only face appearing. She could be from the 1960s, ’80s or some other decade. But the giveaway that this is Chennai in 2022 is the ubiquitous cell phone pressed to the side of the head.
To those from foreign shores, she might look a bit out of time and out of place. The same could be said of Sowcarpet itself. But the people here and the area are very much in time, in tune and in place.
Custom, tradition and regional and self-identity are so deeply intertwined. As intertwined as the hive of one-room workshops and businesses. As intertwined as the alleyways themselves and the stretchability of time and place that transcends the decades.