The Palimpsest of the City

The other day my husband suddenly turned to me and asked, “What was the old name for TTK Road?” I just blinked at him – I had forgotten too. When I first arrived in Chennai people still used both names – the colonial and the modern, but now it has slipped away.

The city, like all cities, is a palimpsest – people erase the old, build anew, forget. If you look closely, a few faint traces remain.

This becomes especially poignant when the very name of the city, which was Madras until 1996, has been changed. We still have many reminders of the old name, but it will eventually be more or less erased — unless the politicians who decided to change it in the first place decide to change it back.

Buildings, especially, are being torn down in a hurry nowadays, now that some real money has entered the city. The old Hotel Oceanic, S.S. Vasan’s house, the original Madras Club, the old Spencers, Moore Market… who will remember them? And they deserve some respect for the part they held in the lives of so many, who have been forgotten even faster than they have.

Hotel Oceanic, just before demolition

I have a fantasy about a project which would divide the city into neighbourhoods, and collect maps, photographs, articles, ephemera for each neighbourhood. Something small, just for me; or maybe a map to which people could append their own experiences of the city. It’s pie in the city sky at the moment, but who knows?

In the meantime, I did at lease find a site that has just a few of the old street names of Chennai, including that of TTK Road (Mowbrays Road! Of course!): Chennai Madras Tamil Nadu.

2 Comments so far

  1. Hyde (unregistered) on March 26th, 2006 @ 10:09 pm

    Mowbrays or Moubrays? Having seen some literature referring to it using the latter, I am not really sure what is the right spelling. :-)

  2. Nancy (unregistered) on March 26th, 2006 @ 11:06 pm

    I have seen both, but Mowbrays seems to be more common. I don’t know how the original gentleman spelled it. :)

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