Several years ago, when I was a student of the diploma course in Journalism and Mass Communications, a professor posed questions that provoked and confused in equal measure : “If you witness an accident, what would your first instinct be? Who would you call? The ambulance or your chief reporter?”
Today, I am going to tell you the story of Anna Nagar. I am not going to tell you the story like a journalist, but like a friend. This is not the typical report I would file if I am at a newsroom. I am journalist, yes, but I am on a sabbatical now. Also, I am just like most of you.
I have lived in Anna Nagar all my life. It is a great locality in Chennai, and to me, it will always be home. It has been my home for 38 years now, and as I type this, seated in my study, under just one LED light powered by our solar rooftop plant, I cannot but think how things must have been very similar the year I was born.
My mother has a favourite story that she tells me every birthday of mine. I was born in November, 1976. That year, the city witnessed epic floods. I even checked this recently with one of the weather bloggers Pradeep, who is quite popular these days, especially over the past two weeks with his fairly accurate predictions.
But getting back to the story, you see it is not a myth. The third and fourth weeks of November, 1976 saw some very heavy rains in Chennai. My grandmother found a way to glorify the rains, and would narrate stories about the birth of Krishna which coincided with floods too. The point of this kind of pre-deriliction with mythology is that we sometimes miss the most important point. None of us wondered if Mathura was a poorly constructed city but then the lack of proper drainage system probably helped Lord Krishna. Divine will, eh?
Coming back to Anna Nagar, I grew up here and have fond memories of my childhood through the 1980s. This locality used to have the best planned streets and fantastic avenue trees. There were very few cars up until the mid-1990s. I remember playing cricket on the streets with my friends.
We also used to play a local game that went by the name ‘Seven Stones’ – in very simple terms, it is a game in which one team tries to construct a vertical column of stones, and the other team tries to deconstruct it. A full house – all seven stones in a column – or a complete null – with all seven stones dislodged – ends the game.
‘Seven Stones’ involved a lot of running around the street, and it was easy because there were not many cars.
The Fourth Avenue or ‘Shanti Colony’ as it was called used to be the pride of Anna Nagar. People would walk freely. I would imagine it to be the widest street in the whole world. We had great pavements, and I remember walking to Book Nook library with a bunch of my friends.
I recently discovered some old black and white photos of mine that show me playing cricket with my sister and my cousins in the front lawn of our house. And there is this photo of mine that I am still searching for – it had me sitting in the *thinnai* of our home, and you could see nothing but open plots in the backdrop.
I also have plenty of memories about rains in Anna Nagar.
Let me assure you, it floods frequently in Anna Nagar, as with the rest of the City. We have always had waters staying upto hip level for a few days during the months that the North East monsoon is active. Being a November born, I know that in Chennai, it always rains on Deepavali Day and closer to my birthday. It just happens all the time, and I don’t need to follow the weather reports to know that.
I have many memories of rains. Like the one time when water levels came up to the third step of our thinnai. That was the year, I learnt how to make kaththi kappal (paper boats).
A slightly terrifying memory was crossing the Cooum River, that was quite nearby to our home – it still is just three streets away. There used to be this stone bridge that one had to take to cross over. My grandfather – a retired Southern Railway official who was tall, and a strict disciplinarian – used to take me across the River during the rains to the *Panchali Amman* Temple on the other side, to pray for my good health during the rains.
I remember going to the local *Bawa Stores* with my grandfather to buy vegetables. He used to carry this dirty yellow cloth bag. I always used to hope he would get a slightly better looking bag for shopping.
The mid-1990s changed Anna Nagar dramatically. We suddenly had super-markets. Many shops started coming up on the Second Avenue (which we used to call *Blue Star Main Road*) and slowly onto Shanti Colony too.
Shanti Colony went from being this quiet, laidback housing colony, to a mini mall of sorts. Almost all the housing quarters there used to have open space for car parks, and a few housing complexes used to have badminton courts too.
But things changed within the span of a few years. I left Anna Nagar for the first time in my life in 1994 for my college, and by the time I came back I could hardly recognise the place.
Too many things changed too fast. But it was still not too bad. I quite liked some of the new supermarkets even though I missed a few old shops. There were more things to buy, but I missed some quaint old people. *Book Nook* and *Velmurugan* libraries were shutting down, but we had stores that sold books.
Slowly, people started buying cars. Suddenly the distance to the Blue Star bus stop felt longer than it actually was. People were no longer playing cricket on the streets, but there were more gyms where we could sweat indoors.
The Anna Nagar Tower – which used to be central to my childhood – had changed too. One could no longer climb up to see the vantage view, because all of sudden there were frequent suicides from atop.
Multi-storeyed apartments came up in places that had individual houses. Huge building complexes came up in all the grounds where we used to play “tennis ball cricket”. We lost South Colony grounds, P&T quarters grounds, what not.
By the early 2000s, I was trying to establish myself as a journalist, and I spent less time with my school friends. But whenever we met, a lot of us lamented missing out on our weekend cricket. Personally, I was going from thin to obese.
The Anna Nagar I live in today has no resemblance to the place I grew up in. Shanti Colony road has become a one-way stretch. There are shops on either side, and many vehicles are regularly parked either on the pavement or on the road. It does not feel safe to walk there. And I can only just how small the stretch is.
Bawa Stores has changed location, and is today a small kirana store. There are many stores that sells vegetables but very few carry cloth bags, and certainly I miss those dirty yellow cotton bags.
Traffic during weekends is unimaginable. It takes one by car at least 45 minutes to just get away from Anna Nagar. Many prefer to stay indoors. There are no kids playing street cricket. Seven Stones? I don’t even think people will recognise it any more.
If Anna Nagar was metaphorically like the game of seven stones, let us just say the team that managed to decontruct it has won the game.
I see that black and white photo of me, my sister and my cousin playing in Anna Nagar. I miss my childhood, but I miss Anna Nagar more.
(I filed this story on December 4, 2015 when Chennai was heavily flooded. Power was cut off in Anna Nagar locality, and there was close to three feet of water outside my home. I had originally filed it for a website, but it was not published by them. So I am publishing it here, ten days later.)