'Where do you live Murugan?'
'Mohan Mansion, Triplicane.'
'Just come to Bells Road and they'll tell you.'
'No need, just say Mohan Mansion and ask for me.'
When you reach Bells Road, and an auto-driver has helped you find the place despite the disappointment over your not having hired his auto at the discount offer of Rs 15 for 0.2 km, you face a building that has no name. As you check again, the watchman assures you: this is Mohan mansion. You ask for 'Murugan', and are guided to a 10 feet by 8 feet room on the second floor. Sunlight wades past male lingerie 'clipped' to clotheslines to withstand the salty Marina breeze. Murugan, fanning himself, shirtless and in a lungi, welcomes you and promptly orders special chai, two cups. He helps himself to a shirt from a pile, but doesn't button up. Your eyes take in the room: two narrow wooden beds, more like train berths; some old Horlicks bottles on the shelf with puffed rice, groundnuts, Marie biscuits; secondhand Wren & Martins, spoken English books, coconut oil, a transistor. This indeed is Murugan's mansion.
In Chennai, when someone gives his address as 'X Mansion, Triplicane', don't expect what you do from your guide in Udaipur—huge old havelis for tourists to gaze at. Chennai's mansions might interest neither the regulation tourist nor the Chennai 'family man'. But it's something a chronicler of Chennai that was Madras cannot afford to miss.
A single man—from Madurai or from Calcutta—with a new job in a strange city where he knows none, invariably knocks at a mansion door. Sometimes he lives here forever. Makes it his home. Falls in love with the anonymity mansion-life offers. Sometimes, he agrees to an 'arranged marriage' in a hometown two-three hours from Chennai, but finds an excuse to retain his solitude: "They won't give me a transfer." Visits wife and children only on weekends or once a month. "It perhaps ensures the longevity of the marriage," a mansion-owner concludes about one of his loyal guests.
Sometimes, they marry 'causes', not a woman. Like Chinnakkuththoosi (literally, Little Pinprick) who has been living since '71 in 'Mestri' Mansion (so called because a mestri, a mason, owned it) in a lane opposite Star Cinema, a landmark on Triplicane High Road. The Thiruvarur-born Brahmin (real name R. Thyagarajan) has been a DMK darling, having penned countless articles for the 'Dravidian cause'. Young journalists look up to him as a guru; Nakkeeran R.R. Gopal spends his lunch hour with him daily; edit-writers pick on his brains; researchers eye his roomful of journalistic and archival material. (After he was briefly afflicted with TB, he shifted his dusty collection to a separate room.) In this age of cellphones and computers, the 70-year-old Chinnakkuththoosi puts good old Camlin ink pen to paper and works from an especially-designed metal chair that doubles up as a table—his workstation. He is accessible only in person. Just walk up to Star Cinema and ask for him at the autorickshaw stand. A piece of journalism and mansion history lives there.
Mansions, especially those in Triplicane, have been home to poets, politicians, even cinema hopefuls. Kannadasan wrote many of his film lyrics here, K. Anbazhagan, officially No. 2 in the DMK, was a mansionite, as was rising star R. Thirumavalavan, president of Dalit Panthers, till recently. Filmmaker Bharadiraja lived in a mansion; so did actor Raghuvaran and many nameless others. Some move to "respectable residential areas" after they become famous. But some stay behind. Even die as mansionites, as G. Shanmugavadivelu did three months ago—having lived in Room No. 36, Select Ali's Mansion, CNK Road, Triplicane, for 37 years.He was in his 60s. His family lived in Dindigul, southern Tamil Nadu.
Triplicane, corrupted for those who can't roll their tongues around 'Thiruvallikeni', has some 200 mansions. "If you include the ones that dot Central Station, Georgetown, Park Town, Choolaimedu, West Mambalam, Mannady and Thousand Lights, the figure adds up to 700," says Mansion Owners Association president R. Rajkumar. Mansion life has inspired a Tamil novel, short stories, even an A.R. Rahman song, Thiruvallikeni Rani ('Queen of Triplicane') in Udaya starring Vijay and Simran. The film was never completed due to production hassles, but the song, sung by Sukhwinder Singh, was "picturised" in a Triplicane mansion and had a 'namaz opening'. In another film currently playing in cinema halls, Kamalahaasan who stars in and as Pammal K. Sammandam, lives in a room in Pammal Mansions in Royapuram, north Madras. And like quite a few real-life mansionites, Kamal's reel-life character too is anti-marriage and has a chorus of friends who sing praises of bachelordom. But because it's cinema, 'PKS' (Kamal) ends up marrying Simran.
No Simran, however, has charmed the 42-year-old Velumurugan, the bachelor whose home is Mohan Mansion on Bells Road. He left home (in Thirukkoilur, South Arcot district) when 16 and settled here in '82. His parents are dead, "there has been no contact for five years" with his two sisters and a brother and he is satisfied in running a successful "water can business". Some friends—and in a mansion they keep changing—did ask him to get a wife. But he wanted to marry for love and he doesn't like "wasting time on such things". He's content with his single room—a luxury among mansionites. Like him, Chinnakkuththoosi too never bothered about marriage. "I prefer the company of writers and politicians." Family, he has none.
Others have families—some mansionites can count 30-odd close relatives right there in Chennai—but they have no place for them. Usually septuagenarian fathers and grandfathers, these men seek refuge and company in these mansions at Rs 750 per month. Like V. Srinivasa Murthy, 75, who has been living for the past six years in the Ramana Vilas Mansion on Nallathambi Street near Triplicane's famed Parthasarathy temple. "All my three daughters live in Chennai. I spent most of my money on their marriages, even my granddaughter's. One daughter lives five minutes away. But I am not welcome." This when he has cared for them ever since their mother died in '68, and the youngest daughter was a toddler. Quitting his job with the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board in '65, he worked for private companies, briefly even in Bombay. "For 26 years and six days I worked with East Coast Constructions Pvt Ltd. I am only Class 8 pass, but I know the job of an engineer. I drew a salary till '97. But my daughters and sons-in-law treated me only as a moneybag. When I was hospitalised recently with a kidney stone, one son-in-law was hoping I'd die." Tears in his eyes, he adds: "I've just returned from my daughter's. I love playing with my great-granddaughter. It was dinnertime, but no one offered me food. I packed my chapatis at the mess."
Keeping him company is his roommate, the 72-year-old Raman from Tuticorin. "One son is well employed in BARC, Bombay; two are jobless." Raman "admitted" himself to Ramana Vilas for two months, but has been able to adjust quickly in the company of the fellow-Brahmin sufferer.
The mansion boom coincided with the software boom. In the 1990s, areas like CNK Road in Triplicane or the roads abutting the Central Railway Station saw an "eruption" of mansions. On a narrow strip of 1,000 sq ft, a three or four-storeyed structure would come up with 50 rooms. (In some cases rent for each floor would go to a different member of the family.) With scant respect for building rules and regularised tariff, these 'guesthouses' ate into the business of registered hotels and lodges. The hoteliers took the matter to the high court, which ruled that mansions could be deemed lodges if they obtained a police licence.
Today, mansions are of two kinds. The old, traditional ones like Select Ali's, Mohan Mansion or SAM Mansion accommodate only 'monthlies' (where tenants stay long, and pay a monthly rent ranging from Rs 700 to Rs 1,000), and the 'daily-basis' mansions which prefer to call themselves 'guesthouses' (rents ranging from Rs 60 per day to Rs 400).
Like most mansion-owners, association president Rajkumar who runs Rajbhavan Mansion near Central argues that mansions, both old and new, are doing social service. "When a middle class or lower middle class man lands in Chennai for a day or two's work, he can't afford a hotel for Rs 400 per day. We get poor clients who bargain for even Rs 50 per night. Where will such people go if you harp on archaic rules? Can't cut your feet to fit the shoe." The city's 700 mansions provide employment to at least 4,000 persons and affordable shelter to some 10,000 regular bachelors as also a floating population of 12,000, Rajkumar points out. He acknowledges a shady aspect to mansions—"agents" who promise to take Tamil villagers to greener Malaysian pastures—but says, "There's always a bad egg in the basket."
The software slump has also eaten into mansion fortunes—currently even the best mansions have only 70 per cent occupancy, while the bad ones have 70 per cent vacancy. Undeterred by these counter trends, K. Bhaskaran, a third-generation mansion owner, is renovating the historical Murugesan Naicker Mansion. The building is more than a hundred years old. "The Nawab of Arcot used to live here. After he moved to Amir Mahal (also in Triplicane) this place used to house the Nawab's visiting relatives and staff. My grandpa bought it in '50," says Bhaskaran. In its heyday, the mansion was the adda of politicians, writers and filmmakers. After it was shut down in '93 courtesy family and management problems, it was the favourite haunt for film shootings. Ajith-starrer Kaadal Mannan, Kamal's Mahanadi and recently Vijay's Badri were shot here. Now Bhaskaran is toying with the idea of making this 160-room limestone-mortar building a women's-only mansion.
For, traditionally mansions have been a male preserve. Even if they're run by women. Says Noor Aliza Abdullah of Select Ali's Mansion: "Women are not allowed. Even sisters and mothers who come visiting have to wait in the office room." Of '58 vintage Select Ali's is among the old sought-after mansions whose very architecture ensures copious light and air. "My father-in-law Haji K.K. Ibrahim got an architect from Malaysia to design it. Today's mansion-builders, who eye only business, might have built 20 extra rooms in place of the huge rectangular patio we have, but profit was not our sole motive," she says. Reason why Select Ali's has sometimes been the choice of three generations in one family. Aliza recalls an 18-year-old whose father had recommended Select Ali's, and whose father too had stayed here. "I run into ex-tenants in Madurai, Kuala Lumpur and Kanyakumari who recognise me and recall their stay here," says Aliza.
Select Ali's is also home to a sizable Bengali crowd. N.P. Haldar, senior manager with Metal Scrap Trade Corporation, has been here for five years away from his Calcutta home, wife and three daughters. He bought a harmonium some years ago and mansion life has given him the time to nurture a talent he had long neglected. He breaks into a song and says it is Ahir Bhairav. Fellow-Bengalis are fond of him, but others don't take too kindly to his sunrise sessions.For if some can tune their mansion life to Ahir Bhairav, many leave it to what their radios play. Some scribble away to meet deadlines over 'Kumbakonam degree kaapi'. Others create unrecorded records in watching the most number of consecutive night-shows. Some wonder if Rahman's Thiruvallikeni Rani will ever see the light of the day. Everybody lives life. Mansion-size.