It was in June 1983 that I arrived in Chennai after spending more than 20 years in Calcutta. Needless to say, it was a culture shock. I did not know the language, found it tiresome waiting at bus stops for buses that never seemed to turn up, and there was just no sign of a pretty girl. Meanwhile, I kick started my career with jobs as assistant in two or three companies, the first one on Mount Road, the second in Tondiarpet and the third in Parrys.
Our home was in Jawahar Nagar, Perambur, and I still remember travelling by buses on routes 29, 8A and 42. Initially, I was scared to travel by bus, not quite sure where to sit, when to buy the ticket, and how to stand. Could I sit next to a lady if the seat was vacant, did I have to approach the conductor for my ticket, and did I have to stand facing the women or the men? These questions kept popping in my mind ever so often. Calcutta was so different – you never thought twice about sitting next to a woman in a bus; indeed, if the woman was young and pretty, you could hardly wait for the seat next to her to be vacant; then again, where was the need to buy a ticket when you travelled by public transport in the City of Joy, unless the conductor was insistent; and, of course, if you didn’t have a seat, which was more often the case, you could stand any which way you wanted; chances were that you’d be pushed from one end of the bus to the other. Even today, I do not quite relish to thought of travelling by PTC buses, although memories of Calcutta have faded into the background. But that’s another matter.
May 1985 was a turning point in my career. I had found myself an officer’s job in the insurance industry and there we were, 25 of us direct recruits, provided excellent boarding facility at the company’s training centre down Nungambakkam’s Fourth Lane. The six months we spent there still remain the best days I have spent in Madras. Evenings would be at Cakes & Bakes on Nungambakkam High Road; it was the place to be in during those days. After dinner at the training centre, off we would head to Tic Tac, the open-air restaurant where you could see the kebabs being readied while you waited for them. Outside was Khan Saheb, the friendly neighbourhood paanwallah who greeted you and offered you a Benson & Hedges or a 555 cigarette while he expertly stuffed your paan. And, of course, who can forget the huge ice-cream scoops at Tic Tac? We usually gathered on the pavement outside the counter at about 11 in the night and took our time deciding on the scoop we wanted.
There was no Ispahani Centre then. Where MOP Vaishnav College stands today was a sort of a crèche, one corner of a huge untenanted ground or so it seemed. However, it was almost as if the Fourth Lane belonged to us. We would play table tennis well past midnight. There were a couple of romantic relationships brewing in our batch and there was enough to talk about. Many an evening was spent on the training centre terrace, gossiping and looking up at the night sky. And if you watched carefully, you would hour after hour notice the glimmer of an overseas flight, a tiny speck moving across ever so slowly. Except the occasional barks of an Alsatian dog in the opposite house, nights were quiet. It was Madras of another generation, a time when the world almost lay at our feet.