Remembering Kovai

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Observing the pace of change technological and otherwise in the Coimbatore of the 1960s, one stood dazed like good old Rip Van Winkle.

The PSG College of Technology at Peelamedu, Coimbatore. K. Ananthan
The PSG College of Technology at Peelamedu, Coimbatore. K. Ananthan

G.S. Balakrishnan

Thanks to local legends and myths, every third man in Sirkazhi is called Sammandam and in Tirunelveli, Nellaiappan. When I first landed in Coimbatore in 1943 as a student , I encountered two names : Morris and Virupakshi. It took me a while to trace their genealogy, not knowing they were two popular varieties of bananas and not people!

In the early 1940s Kovai wore a woebegone look. The city was in the grip of the plague and cholera. The impact of the Second World War was felt here too and streetlights had been partially blackened against possible air raids. Mock bombing and blackouts were common, and the menacing march of the British Tommies added to the gloom. Hotels served an apology for a meal, a cupful of inferior rice and a small quantity of half-baked wheat, euphemistically called


(divine nectar) by the regular clientele. Endless queues for sugar and kerosene were a common sight in Uppilipalayam and Pappanacikenpalayam. The


and the hand-pulled rickshaw, the common man's transport, had become too dear.

But war also had its recompenses. The hardships helped tickle the funny bone and generate cynical and cruel jokes, doggerels and cartoons on walls. The frequent farces staged at our college the Government Arts College invariably had a dig at the British rule. On one occasion, the Principal was pulled up by the authorities for permitting a skit pillorying the British.

There was no hotel on Tiruchi Road, where the college was housed, except Hotel Majestic whose portals were restricted to the affluent. During the lunch break, we, the students with lean purses, used to surreptitiously scale the A.R.P compound wall, seeking a short cut to Venkatesa Lodge, our favourite haunt. Onion Bajji was the hotel's speciality (a dignitary of the college had been nicknamed Venkaya Bajji, as he was credited with gulping down two dozens at a stretch!)

We also visited the other renowned hotel R.H.R (Royal Hindu Restaurant) to have a glimpse of M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, of Tamil cinema fame, who visited it often. Five- star hotels were unknown. The leading film personalities were accommodated in Hotel Davey opposite the railway station. Coimbatore's contribution to fine arts and culture was significant in the 1940s. Central Studios, Pakshiraja Studios and many others produced memorable box-office hits. Over the years, Kovai lost its importance as a filmmaking centre. Some of the buildings, which housed leading studios, became godowns and warehouses. An old-timer like me cannot help exclaiming, "Whither has fled the visionary gleam?"

The first ever Tamil writer's conference was held in Kovai with unusual pomp and splendour.


(whose honorary editor was R.K. Shanmugham Chetty),

Veera Sakthi

(edited by Ko.Ni. Annamalai) and many other periodicals contributed their mite to further the Tamil Renaissance heralded by the Manikkodi writers, Kalki, Rajaji and many others. Ramakrishna Vidyalaya had on its staff many notable Tamil savants like T.S. Avanashilingam Chettiar, Su. Gurusami and Periasami Thooran.

Thooran, who used to read out his poems and musical compositions to youngsters like us, often remarked with pride that the school of which he was the headmaster was "a nest of singing birds!"

On my "second coming" to Coimbatore in the late 1960s to teach English in a reputed college, I felt quite a stranger. Observing the pace of change, technological and otherwise, I stood dazed like good old Rip Van Winkle. Peelamedu, which was once the hotbed of dreaded diseases like the plague and cholera, had metamorphosed into a bustling centre of education and industry. In 1943, Coimbatore could boast of only one arts college offering Intermediate with a few hundreds' strength and an agricultural college. Within two decades, the spread of education had warranted the starting of many arts, engineering and medical colleges besides polytechnics. Exclusive women's colleges teaching a variety of courses had reduced Ibsen's

The Doll's House

into an outdated myth!

Textile mills had multiplied beyond belief. The cheap power from Pykara, the salubrious climate of Coimbatore ideal for spinning cotton fabric and the increasing demand for yarn from handloom workers might have been the major factors in the growth of the textile industry. But none can deny the business acumen of the Coimbatore entrepreneur who ventured to gather knowledge even from distant Manchester and Massachusetts. The slovenly life of the 1940s had given way to sophistication, speed and hurry.

The emergence of women entrepreneurs, doctors and engineers in large numbers was in striking contrast to what obtained in the 1940s when a lone girl (my classmate M... ) venturing to bike her way to college was the butt of ridicule and sarcasm. Landmarks like Vasu's Kerala Bakery and Solomon's Boys' own saloon, had been replaced by Xerox shops, computer centres and fast-food kiosks. Pop culture had made inroads into every aspect of life. Shops displayed baggy jeans, Barbie dolls, T-shirts with funny legends and video discs.

The typical businessman had ceased to conform to his stereotype popularised by the films of a pot-bellied popinjay clad in a full-sleeved silk shirt with fancy cufflinks and a gold chain around his neck to boot. Widely travelled and well informed, he looked like anybody else with nothing unique to mark him out.

While the industrial growth of Coimbatore was remarkable, bookshops and music


had not proliferated with the speed of factories and foundries. Seldom did anybody within my hearing ever talk of the bestsellers or the Booker Prize. When I was groping in the dark for an answer, a journalist friend remarked that the average Coimbatorean was as much a book lover as anybody else, but had a strange preference for handbooks on lathes or electrical baling process!

For those with nostalgia for the Coimbatore of the 1940s, the sight of men balancing half a dozen water-filled pots on either side of the cycle, bullocks drawing water from bottomless wells (reminding one of Milton's description of everlasting punishment),


in garland form known as

murukku saram

and the typical Naidu breakfast of wheat


and bananas and a few


near the Uppilipalayam bus stop, the relics of a bygone past, are still extant. More than anything else, the warmth and bonhomie exuded by the term


used by women to address their seniors deserves special mention.

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(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 4, 2006)
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