Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXV No. 11, September 16-30, 2015

Street Life

An occasional column by a British freelance writer on her eight years in Madras
It’s early morning in Kotturpuram and the residents of my street are beginning to stir. Security guards, roused from sleep, drag reluctant pedigree pooches around the block, watched by street dogs who raise a desultory eyelid, and then return to slumber. The dawn mosquitoes square their shoulders in preparation for the first walkers and from the nearby mosque the muezzin proclaims the greatness of his god.

Babblers, little birds that fly in tightly packed groups, twitter and follow each other like insecure teenagers flitting from hedge to lawn as the sun rises on another pile of garbage in our street. Unperturbed, a cow on the corner grazes on plastic bags and crisp packets from the pile of litter cascading out of the bins.
A man wanders the street crying “Peepers!” For many years I thought he was selling something until I realised that he collected old newspapers and was calling out ‘Papers’ in the local accent. This is recycling Indian style, and one man’s rubbish is another man’s living.

Likewise, a barefoot old crone sifts through the contents of the bin extracting cardboards which she folds into neat bundles and carts away on her head. A skinny urchin picks out plastic bottles and, packing them into a tattered jute bag, strolls off to find the next rich pickings.

But things are changing. The more affluent inhabitants of our street are fed up with the piles of litter, the cows, the smells, the crows and the recycling urchins. The idea is that all the houses have bins, a blue one for ‘dry goods’, and a turquoise one for ‘wet goods’. These are put out early in the morning and collected daily. The head of the project tells me:

“It is the big houses that are the worst offenders, they leave it to their staff to do the segregating and put out the bins and the staff do not understand so they do not do it.”

But all improvements start with education. It is good to hear that children in Madras are now being taught about harm of littering and the impact it has on the ecosystem, but thwarting those improvements is a government that is not prepared to pay the price for a clean city. The steady decline in cleaner streets was obvious when one cleaning firm’s contract was terminated in exchange for a cheaper deal some years ago.

Time moves on and the overture of car horns begins, gradually reaching a crescendo as the school opposite opens its gates. Impatient drivers and harassed parents late for work hurry to drop off children. What was once a large house and lush peaceful garden is now the concrete school playground where instructions are barked out through a loudspeaker and the children are marched into class to the accompaniment of a bass drum and whistle blowing.
Next door to our house, the mali sweeps the leaves from an immaculate, verdant lawn and washes the dust off the mock-Grecian statuary that adorns the luxuriant garden. For many years this was a field where people relieved themselves and the only inhabitants were a family of cobras. It is now a super swanky pad, the inhabitants of which are rarely seen; its Le Corbuisier style concrete blocks dominate the skyline.

Down the road another empty plot develops into a block of flats. Adjacent to a slum around the corner, so-called “dream apartments” are mushrooming. Houses are no longer financially viable when land is so valuable and I hear that, eventually, when we leave, our house is destined to become a casualty of development.

All these expansions begin to take their toll on the  environment. More people need more electricity and water. Although we regularly have recourse to our generator, for the first time in nine years our well has run dry and we are forced to buy water from tankers.

Progress has been slow in other less financially remunerative areas. The street we live on is still a mass of potholes and has never been properly made. In the monsoon the drains overflow and the road becomes a small lake and a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

In 1989, a dreamer called M.B. Nirmal founded a non-government environmental service called Exnora. The word derived from Excellent, Novel and Radical and it was designed to solve environmental and civic problems by involving those who caused them. There is no longer an Exnora in my district. As always in India, sustainability became an issue. I imagine that enquiries to local government councils would be a bumpy road in itself!
As the morning progresses, the heat rises. Two girls stroll down the road carrying tiffin boxes in a basket. They are dressed in beautiful pink and orange sarees, their hair adorned with jasmine. A street dog jogs jauntily past them. Taking care to avoid the cow, the dog has a quick sniff at the garbage and enjoys the freedom its pedigreed descendants behind gates might envy.

The chai seller comes on his bicycle, stops for a chat with a security guard, and gives the old lady sitting half naked on the curb a paper mug of tea. Children from the slum around the corner contrive to turn a rag into a blindfold and play at pirates with the inventive creativity of the poor. The paper collector takes away a pile of our newspapers and bottles to recycle somewhere and keep his family fed. The day drifts on.

I love this street, this district, and this crazy city. For all the physical changes, good and bad, it is still Madras and its people, the essence, steeped in tradition, will, I think, be slow to change.

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