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Cities, Heritage, Urban Design

Documenting Life: A Neighbourhood in Motion

A whiff of tamarind, sounds from the kitchen upstairs. Calls of vegetable sellers in the market, shrill cries of a travelling hawker and a tinkle of an ice cream cart. In between, the chains of beauty parlours and supermarkets, a near-empty train station, an apartment at the end of the not so poetic cul-de-sac with a BMW.

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Living in an old area of the city, Mylapore,  you get snippets of a lifestyle past. Sometimes not so different – a compact apartment, modern on the inside, Wifi and the rest. But sometimes, vastly different- a retired uncle now a part-time priest and speeding to them temple with his veshti, tuft and Scooty; red chillies drying on the staircase landing; a family gathered in the apartment terrace laughing together while they leave food for the crow. One day, you stand cleaning the table and suddenly get a ‘how are you’ from an open window of the neighbouring apartment. You are taken aback and smile in confusion, but it is only a gentle old lady smiling benignly from her kitchen while her mentally challenged son looks on.

Life is slower, yet faster. Pressure cookers whistle as you make your coffee. The aunty in the opposite house worries if you haven’t picked up your newspaper and milk from the doorstep at 8AM. The maids gossip with the laundrywoman. You watch professions fading out from urban life on your way to work- a man who makes mridangams, rhythmically tuning the instrument, a suitcase repairer. Hot idlis are made on a pushcart, a man gets his morning shave from a hole-in-the-wall barber shop.

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Not too far away are some of the most posh streets of the city, old colonial bungalows that speak of of generations of wealth, some contemporary , aesthetic houses that speak of cultivated finesse and richness. Big businesses, niche patisseries and designer jewelry run in their corners.

But on another side, there are some even older streets, houses closely built around a temple tank like a traditional agraharam, water pumps with colourful buckets, men sitting in the courtyard of their houses looking up from their newspapers. Milk is picked up from the doorsteps, ladies walk to the numerous temples,  one or the othershikhara still visible from most of the houses.

Source : Houses of Mylapore

Source : Houses of Mylapore

Signs of shops and professions you would rarely see anywhere else- Bharatnatyam jewelry for hire, a shop selling just pens, an artist who makes photographs into sketches. In one house, firewood is still used for cooking and veshtis are hung in the narrow open courtyard, the strains of an alapana are heard from the next room.

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The new constantly fights with the old. One of the old shops selling vadas now also announces paneer cheese rolls. The narrow road where most people would have walked or owned cycles now has a slew of cars, autos, share-autos, taxis and an occasional truck. A neighbour rings the bell and extends a cup of special home-made pickle- a small barter for some favour like connecting her phone to your WiFi so that she can see pictures of her grandchildren from far away America.

There is a mad rush. But there is an occasional calming familiarity. You buy from a small bakery with the polite, non-native proprietor more comfortable speaking English as he greets you with a ‘Good evening’ and packs the loaf with a ‘have a nice day’. There is the vegetable vendor who never fails to put in the free coriander and curry leaves into your bag even as you ask her not to , knowing you would not need so much of it.

There are the personal exchanges that you never usually have in the chain departmental store that you may have visited twice a week for a year, but the billing attendants remained ladies in an orange coat to you, and you just another customer to them. You visit an older couple ordering vegetables on an online portal, and you are the curious, old fashioned one who stops at the market on the way back from work.

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Travelling in the trains and buses too, bring about the glimmers of familiarity despite the different times and different people. The rooftops, the boards of shops and paying guest advertisements, women squeezed together in the ladies compartment. Some who sit on the floor near the doors staring out, almost all looking into their mobile phones, most of which have Candy Crush Saga on the screens.

But they are not entirely sucked into the digital age yet. On a quiet New Years Eve, when you stand on the terrace of the apartment building, the narrow lanes fill with women drawing kolams outside their houses until midnight, weaving their wishes into intricate floral patterns. Firecrackers go off, briefly lighting the grey street with the colourful patterns, children run about excitedly between their mothers. Children who still play cricket on the street, swing on the gates.

Swinging on the gates, watching life pass by, not just whirr by in a daze. The age too, will pass, like the sounds of the mridangam maker at work getting fainter. A lounge-salon will replace the barber, the vegetables will move into plastic racks in air conditioned stores. The changes may not be all bad, better lifestyles and economic liberation for many, a more sanitised neighbourhood with security guards and no neighbour who will peep out of her house, worried about the unusual sounds at your door if you arrive at your house in the middle of a working day.

Is there any way that we can have the good changes without the bad ? The laundry woman gets a better paying job, the baker expands his business by becoming a franchise of a larger chain, but there is still the human contact ? The neighbour with no WiFi gets online to communicate with her grown-up grandkids but doesn’t become a WhatsApp addict like the hundreds today ? We have a cleaner, organised streets and colonies but not at the cost of gentrifying the neighbourhood ?

Will the souvenirs of the past still stay as a gentle reminder of what the place was, or will the tearing rush to keep up with the times wipe away that smile of the elderly lady who still lives in a time when it was alright to look into a stranger’s window and wish them a good morning?

All photographs courtesy the author unless otherwise mentioned.

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