A few Sundays ago, on one of those rare sunny English summer afternoons, sunk in a sofa by the verandah and lulled by the stillness and quiet of Mayfair, I caught myself asking why there did not seem to be a word that captured this delightful kind of day.
Much later did it not occur to me there indeed was a word - Mylapore 1970s. (Two words, not one, but still). And its sweet spot in my opinion– an idyll leafy housing colony nestled between Oliver, Kennedy, and Appar Swamy Streets, where I grew up.
Though more than 35 years have passed I can vividly recall the memories of nearly all my childhood that I spent there. And the ones that stand out most being the long days of summer. Blessed by the absence of TV (there was one in the entire colony!) and with few friends of my age, I was, it seems, left to my own devices to keep myself busy. One such summer resulted in mastering cycling on my friends BSA. And when I was blamed (unfairly, in my opinion) for twisting the handlebar and thus had my borrowing privileges revoked I longed for my own. But the hints were firmly ignored by my parents, ostensibly for safety reasons. Not long after, when running an errand (a weekly routine of taking Peaberry +Arabica beans to get roasted and ground at the ‘coffee machine kadai’ in Appar Swamy Street, with strict instructions to sit on the bench and watch that the ‘fellow’ did not ‘substitute’), I noticed that the curmudgeonly Loganathan (or Logu to his pals) who ran the ‘repair’ shop next door had started a Hire Cycle business. To the uninitiated, ‘repair shops’ usually squeezed in the no-mans land between two shops, are places where you could get the reasonably uncomplicated domestic contraptions fixed - electric irons, immersion-heaters, taps, lamps and such. If you were lucky, they would work afterwards too. Clearly business had been good for Logu and he decided to diversify into the mobile (!) business. Parked in front of his shop were a clutch of cycles of varying vintage and makes – Raleigh, Atlas and even a brand new Hercules. Mustering up the courage to enquire, I paled when he told me the rates - 20 paise per hour for the older ones and 25 paise per hour for the brand new Hercules (it had a dynamo also). There was, of course, no question of ‘initial deposit’ (this was 70’s Madras; everyone knew everyone and probably still does!). To put the hire charges into context, my other objets d’desire then: NP Bubble Gum 15 paise, Commando Comic (at Easwari Lending Library) 25 paise, Bombay Halwa House Samosa 50 paise. And as pocket money to pursue my desires, I received monthly a princely sum of zero, save a tidy Rs. 5 for the entire summer, a reward for a (reasonably) blemish-free report card for the year that went by.
Oh, the joy that summer, and all thanks to Logu’s Hire Cycle. Throwing caution and budget to the wind, I sneaked away almost every afternoon for an expedition into the far reaches of Mylapore. (And sometimes, even as far as Santhome!) . The plan was simple. Every day around noon, when the household and the entire neighborhood slumbered into their siesta, I would tiptoe out, to Logu’s. Pay 20 p. Hop onto a cycle. Pedal away furiously for an hour. In any direction that caught my fancy. And to avoid the traffic (such as it was then!) and chance detection, more subterfuge - avoid the ‘big’ roads!
So began my forays into the great unknown, intrepidly zigging and zagging into Cross Streets and Main Roads that seemed to meet and intersect in complexities of varying geometric and algebraic proportions. I quickly learnt that CIT Colony’s Cross Streets followed the elegant 1st, 2nd, 3rd system. Whereas R A Puram’s Main Roads followed the more imposing Roman I, II, III. And the minor inconvenience presented by lanes that were not worthy of the title of a ‘Main Road’ or too friendly to be a ‘Cross Street’ was ingeniously overcome by calling them Link Streets. Whizzing past on my (t)rusty Atlas, none of these nuances escaped my attention(a skill that has stood me in good stead since, helping me flip through 30-slide PowerPoint printout just minutes before a meeting and holding forth thereon knowledgeably).
Emboldened by my escapades I ventured further North, crossing Edward Elliots Road, in pursuit of thrills. And Commando Comics. As a callow youth, barely into my teens, the greatest repository of excitement then was Easwari Lending Library on Lloyds Road, run by the doughty Mr. Palani. Summer afternoons spent in the cramped confines of his splendid establishment with just one table fan that would function at the mercy of either the EB or its thrifty Proprietor, was the result of a weekly pilgrimage in the quest of the latest Commando Comics. Having reached there on the ill-affordable hire-cycle, I had little time to waste - sifting through the stacks of titles to sort out the newer ones, surreptitiously read one or two while pretending to flip through and finally plea bargain my way out with the Proprietor who was prone to mood swings (especially when callow youth would try and defer payment). With the mission somewhat accomplished, I would snap the books onto the equally recalcitrant ‘carrier’ on the back of the cycle and then race back to return it to the clock-watching Logu. And then sneak back home.
And it was not always the pursuit of visceral thrills either. On one mission I noticed, tucked between the wall of Luz Church and Kennedy Street, a tiny lane which for some reason never seemed to have been baptized. Local legend had it that kindly neighbors took it into their fold and affectionately called it Kennedy 2nd Street. While the reason for naming it Kennedy Street in the first instance never really intrigued me then, many years later, ruminating on this and that as one is wont to, the ineffable wisdom (or humor!) of naming a tiny narrow lane less than five-feet wide after a man whose far-reaching vision galvanized humanity into putting man on the moon seemed to be wholly in character with the denizens of that tiny corner of Madras - Mylapore.
More than three decades later in London, I cheered when visiting friends took their daughters cycling though Hyde Park. And smiled when a recently married young friend tells me her partner and she had made Sunday cycling their routine. A more propitious sign for a life-time of excitement and thrills couldn’t be had! As for me, our recent move here seemed to have coincided with the launch of a Barclays/Boris hire-cycle scheme right in the heart of London. And this one costs a Pound for an hour! So as I sneak off on summer afternoons to explore the lanes and mews Mayfair and beyond (taking care to avoid the ‘big’ roads), life, it seems, has come a full cycle.
This post first appeared in http://bit.ly/qkhnZd . Thanks to Lakshmi Sharath for permission to use here