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Vol. XXX No. 18, January 16-31, 2021

The Adyar that was

by Raghunathan Jayaraman

The old Elphinstone Bridge, for the long the gateway to Adyar.

In the 1960s, if you took a right turn onto the main road – once called as Guindy Road – from a deserted Kasturba Nagar First Cross Road, you would come face to face with a long thatched-roof structure, about 25-odd feet long and perhaps 12 feet wide. It was right on the platform that separated Guindy Road from the First Main Road of Gandhi Nagar. This establishment housed a long row of bamboo plates and containers that would brim with fresh vegetables and green leaves. A simple black board on the premises carried the structure’s name, handwritten in Tamil – “nyaaya vilai kadai” or the fair price shop.

The shop would buzz with activity in the mornings and evenings. It would be visited by housewives accompanied by their children, tufted uncles and moustachioed gentlemen. The affable manager would be all smiles at his customers, even as he enforced a reign of terror over his employees. Children at the billing counter would invariably be gifted a small banana or a tomato with his best compliments. A native format of the much acclaimed but failed concept of uzhavar sandhai, this fair price shop was a grand success to the best of my memory.

From there, if you continued further East towards the Ananthapadmanabha Swamy Temple – a happy jaunt in those days, for a car or a bus crossed the main road only once every fifteen minutes or so – you would hit upon a small booth that distributed milk in bottles. An earlier avatar of Aavin, the booth had plump half-litre bottles with caps made of aluminium foil – the blue capped ones contained buffalo milk and the red capped ones, cow’s milk. The Gandhi Nagar First Main Road on that stretch was quite deserted in those days. It had a couple of large and patronising banyan trees, which gave shade to a community of narikuravas in the area.

You would also spot the Besant Hotel, now known as the multicuisine restaurant Coronet. The whiff of fresh, hot idlis would fill the air, along with the aroma of lip-smacking sambhar. Unfortunately, Adyarites in the 60s didn’t eat out much. Besant Hotel did not survive and gave way to Coronet Hotel, an establishment which flourished until a couple of years ago.

Right next to Besant Hotel was a factory, Ganges Printing Ink. One could see blue-uniformed workers loitering around in front of it and on Saturdays – payday – rows of street vendors would sell their wares, which included ready-made clothes, fruits and home-baked biscuits.

If you walked back westwards, you would see a row of low-roofed shops opposite the fair price shop – Hongkong Tailors, Gentlemen Laundry, Adyar Bakery and Amrutha Coffee Works. In the evenings, the owner of Hongkong Tailors would invariably be spotted outside his shop, smiling at you as you passed him by. Adyar Bakery was a small shop then, selling out-of-the world cakes and bun-butter-jam pastries! It also carried Coca Cola in 200ml bottles costing 25 paise each. This was a key incentive for me to walk back home instead of taking a cycle rickshaw ride – a clear half-a-kilometre distance to my house from the main road!

I remember being afraid of the owner of Amrutha Coffee Works. A short, dapper, dark man in a white shirt and half white dhoti, his pockets bulged with his leather purse and soiled notes. I have never seen him smile. The store roasted and ground coffee seeds for its customers, a tremendously noisy process. It had two machines, one for roasting the seeds and one for grinding. The owner would deftly scoop the coffee powder from the machine’s tray, pack it into a butter paper cover, which was stapled and duly handed over to waiting customers. He never smiled at his patrons, even if the shop was serving a young boy like me. At home, I would wait for my mother to empty the coffee powder into a tin and grab the butter paper cover – it ballooned quite nicely if you blew into it and closed its mouth, and made a satisfying noise like a Lakshmi vedi when you smashed it.

The son of the owner of Amrutha Coffee Works studied in the same school that I did, in a class senior to mine. He was a shrewd kabaddi player as well as a playful prankster. He was often seen standing outside the class-room in punishment. Sadly, he passed away at an early age. Within a year of his death, Amrutha Coffee Works vanished. Adyar Bakery took over the space, and you can still see it there today.

Along with the petrol pump, the Runs Hotel and its bunk shop are one of the few surviving landmarks of yesteryear Adyar. The hotel remains popular and continues to see significant footfall even today.

The Adyar of the 60s had an old-world charm that is missed by the long-term residents of this wonderful neighbourhood! Today, as I pass Ramkay Motors or the Ambika Appalam junction into Sardar Patel road, I am greeted with dizzying traffic, a crowd of pedestrians, a plethora of unfamiliar fruit vendors and a row of tea shops. I can’t help but recall the old days in a fit of nostalgia – the Adyar that was.

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  1. Sriniasan Chakravarthi says:

    Nice memories.

  2. Sundar says:

    Nicely written with surprisingly good photographic recollection of yesteryears.

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