400 yards of Anna Salai

[I wrote this in January 2001, when we first arrived in Chennai. The Connemara Hotel is an Art Deco masterpiece, Spenser Plaza is the oldest shopping plaza in India, built on the site of the original Spencer’s Department Store. To retrace this walk at present is tricky due to the excavations for the Chennai Metro. The pavement shops have gone and the hoardings are mainly plastic sheet, now, instead of hand-painted. But the buses still stop at the junction!]
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When I leave the Connemara to walk round to Eunice’s office, I am leaving a place where a room and breakfast cost $130 a night: that is 8000 rupees a day. The official poverty line in India is about 60 cents a day, so what I spend on a night in the hotel could support 216 people. I find this quite difficult to imagine.

Anyway, on leaving the hotel, I first see the auto-rickshaw drivers waiting by the gate (they’re not allowed into the hotel grounds). They don’t try to persuade me to use their services any more, as I do this walk every day. If I do want to do a trip, I try to use Navin, who is a good driver and has a good rickshaw. He lives with his family in a slum replacement property by the river, measuring 10 x 15 feet. One door and no windows, and I don’t know how many people live in it.

Then comes the first stretch of “pavement” up to the corner. I put it in inverted commas, since it is really only earth and broken slabs. There is a useful electricity junction box here – useful as a place behind which the men can go for a pee (although it is not exactly private, and I don’t know what the reaction would be if I went for a pee there). There is also the first of the beggars, a guy with withered legs who has a hand-pedalled cart to get around on. Two lads of about 7 and 10 work here with a hand pump, inflating bike tyres for a small charge.

Approaching the corner there are some stalls which conveniently block the pavement and force pedestrians into the road. We have:

  1. a fast food stall, serving water, tea and coffee; curry and rice (and pretty good it looks)
  2. a stall from which you can phone and fax (international too)
  3. a flower stall
  4. a woman with a machine which crushes sugar cane to make juice
  5. a cobbler
  6. a guy who appears to cut up inner tubes, for some mysterious purpose
  7. a book seller.

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Towering above these are the advertising hoardings for which India is famous. These are mainly made of tin sheets tacked to flimsy wooden or bamboo poles, and hand painted, even down to extremely accurate trademarks. Camel trousers are on one, and Arrow shirts on another. Most days there are some guys clinging onto the poles with one hand while painting with the other. There are certainly no safety harnesses. These hoardings are perhaps only 30 feet above the pavement, but some in the centre of town are about 120 feet up.

On the corner, which is railed off for safety, is the unofficial bus stop where everyone gets off into the middle of the turn left lane, since the official stops are too far away from the junction for convenience. It adds another thrill of excitement to getting off a bus, to add to the thrill of hanging onto the outside since the inside is full. I have seen 10 lads hanging on to one bus doorway with just the toes of one foot in contact with the bottom step.

Next I see the two old men, one who makes belts and the other who mends sandals. They can’t afford a stall, so they squat on the pavement at exactly the right level to inhale the exhaust fumes. They shade themselves with gunny bags tied to the railings behind and stretched forward to loop over one toe.

There is usually a woman with a baby begging here – I am in two minds whether to give, but the advice from Eunice’s staff is not to – and 2 or 3 kids who shout hello and try to shake my hand. They also want rupees.

We hit the entrance to the Spencer Plaza next, a multi-storey fully air-conditioned shopping centre. Only cars are allowed in the parking, so the rickshaws are forced to park illegally outside on the road, adding to the congestion. Spencers is popular in Chennai because of the a/c, but it is claustrophobic inside, full of little stalls, and I was glad not to have been there the other day when FoodWorld caught fire.

This is the main road of Chennai, so some big offices come next, each with its pavement resident: the man who sells lottery tickets, the woman who sells fresh coconuts, the two elderly cripples outside the shop which sells fridges, more books and belts, a guy who appear to sell plastic netting which I think is for storing fruit in.

The exciting part of the walk, where the pulse rate goes up, is where the pavement disappears for 50 yards. Pedestrians are the lowest form of life, whatever their skin colour, but just here there are not many places to jump to, as there is a high wall along the road. At least going to Eunice’s office I can see what is coming and squeeze in – coming back, I need eyes in the back of my head.

Just where the pavement restarts you get a part you don’t want to use. I am no electrical expert, but I feel somehow that cables sheathed in metal which is peeling off should be safely underground and not poking out of the ground. I tiptoe amongst them, but in the rainy season it must be interesting just here.

Across the entrance to the garage forecourt I stop and start, as the cars and rickshaws wheel in at full speed from the main road and I am expected to know which point they are aiming at. The same is true of the two streets whose entrances I cross here, where vehicles coming in and out do not stop for people. I have had cars nudging my legs before now.

I am approaching the lane to the office now, and only have to detour round another informal toilet (behind another junction box – I am glad I don’t work for the electricity board) and sidestep another beggar, before I can turn in. I have been ignored by most people, stared at by some, importuned by about 6, and that’s life on this bit of street.

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