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World of its own

Colin Todhunter, Jan 20, 2013 2:23 IST

Culture Curry

Crowded Mint Street is mini North India in the heart of Chennai. photos by Kumaresh Mani
Mint Street, which was once home to East India Company’s finances, is now a melting pot of communities in Chennai. Colin Todhunter explores its bustling bylanes that have become a city in their own right.

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 gets 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 hangouts. 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.

Shoppers’ delight

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 idlis, dosas and sambhar, 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 Marwari 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 Gujarati and Rajasthani aftertastes.

Marwari domain

Ram Ram Rajasthan, good day Gujarat. The area around Mint Street is Rajasthan by the sea, Gujarat on the Coromandel Coast. It’s where Marwaris (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 moneylender in Hindi.

It’s not just old women who you’ll see walking about in colourful, traditional north Rajasthani and Gujarati 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 a 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 Indian ancestry with a 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 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.

Food for thought

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 pyaaz kachori. How about paani puris or a murukku sandwich? Take some Chotu Motu bhel, Raj Shri paani puri, Sinabhai idlis, Novelty pav bhaaji, aloo sabzi, bhindi, raita, shahi panner or Kolkata paan.

For many who visit this area of Chennai, the place is just too crowded and congested. But they visit this area for dry fruits, spices and grains. They come for textiles and sarees. They come for gleaming metallic kitchenware, plastic products, fashion jewellery, machine tools, electronic items, stationery 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 hardwork, 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.

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