Triplicane is a colourful neighbourhood of conservative Chennai. Over 1 lakh people live in an area that measures around 5 sq km, another 50,000 to 70,000 float in and out of here every day. The place is congested, like the old quarters of any city, and is therefore noisy and chaotic, but lively nevertheless. There is no space between houses here. The footpaths of Dr Besant Road, Triplicane High Road and Zam Bazaar have been fully encroached upon by eateries and fruit sellers. Cycles, rickshaws, two-wheelers and even buses vie with humans and cattle for space on the roads. Located very close to Marina Beach, Triplicane is home to the famous Parthasarathy temple (one of the 108 holy shrines of Vishnu), the Wallajah Mosque, the Amir Mahal (residence of the former prince of Arcot) and almost 300 mansions where live single men, students as well as professionals, from other parts of not just Tamil Nadu but also India. Search hard and you may also find some foreigners.
Each of these mansions, done up in no particular style, has 30 to 60 rooms. Each room houses one to three tenants. Rent starts from Rs 500 (if you are ready to share with others) and goes up to Rs 2,500 a month. The corridors that lead to these rooms are dark. The tenants have left their laundry to dry outside. The rooms are small, and the cots seem to fill all the space. Most rooms have a fan overhead, one light bulb and no storage space. There are common toilets. Some rooms meant for single occupants have attached toilets, and a few even have airconditioners. For the first-time visitor, this is not a scene straight out of Paradise. But the occupants love it. Where else in the city can you survive on so little? And it’s not just the rent they pay — it’s also the food they eat. A meal can cost as little as Rs 35; some residents claim it is possible to keep body and soul together in Triplicane even if you earn only Rs 2,000 in a month.
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There is a whole lot of history strewn around. The name Triplicane comes from Tiruvallikeni or Tiru-Alli-Keni (sacred lily pond, in Tamil) after the pond in front of the Parthasarathy temple. The British, during the Raj, found it difficult to say Tiruvallikeni, so they began to call it Triplicane and the name stuck. The place is just 2 km from Fort St George, the home of East India Company in this part of the country. Muslims and Iyengar Brahmins co-exist in the congested lanes of Triplicane. The tradition of music and art, kept alive by migrants from Tanjore, runs deep.
The first four mansions were built in the 1950s by farmers from the southern parts of Tamil Nadu after successive droughts had threatened their livelihood. They gave out rooms on rent to traders who came to Chennai (then Madras) from elsewhere in Tamil Nadu. Their progeny now own these mansions, and are responsible for maintenance and common services. The superstructure of these mansions has not been altered much since then, though the interiors have been refurbished. Famous people who have at one time or another lived in the bachelor pads of Triplicane include political stalwarts like Periyar, Annadurai and Karunanidhi.
In the last few years, ever since Chennai became a hub for computer software companies and banks, the demand for low-cost accommodation in the city has grown rapidly. So there are more and more seekers for rooms in the two- and three-storey Triplicane mansions. “The area is vibrant with seekers of low-budget rental accommodation,” says S Dhasthagir, secretary of the Mansion Owners’ Association and owner of a mansion called SAM. There is no slowdown in this part of Chennai.
Thangapandian came to Chennai in 2005 from a neighbouring district “in search of job, withRs 2,000 in hand” and “managed to survive” because he moved into Triplicane. “No other place can give such comfort,” he says. He enjoys living in these mansions amidst people of various hues. “There are people who earn Rs 2,500 a month and there are those who are earn Rs 1 lakh a month. Yet both will stay in the same room, use the common toilets and eat together in a small restaurant.” Kumar earns Rs 80,000 a month in one of the country’s top IT companies. “I came here seven years back for my studies and I was clueless that time,” he says. So Kumar took a room for just Rs 450 a month in the same mansion where he stays today. The only difference is that he shifted out of the room that he was sharing with three others to a single accommodation for Rs 1,800 a month. “I have gone up the professional ladder, and I can afford a better flat outside this place, but whether I will be comfortable is a big question” he says. For a carefree bachelor, everything is taken care of: food, laundry, packaged water and all his daily requirements. “All I have to do is ring a bell and pay some money,” Kumar adds.
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The big draw, of course, is the inexpensive food. That’s the reason why Pradeep Shivaram decided to opt for a room in a Triplicane mansion rather than an apartment elsewhere in the city. He came to Chennai from Delhi for higher studies in 2006 and is now working for a US-based BPO firm as a team leader. “All I wanted was simple, good food that did not cause health problems, which Triplicane offered,” he says. With thousands of bachelors like Shivaram to feed, Triplicane today has everything from fruit sellers on carts and roadside eateries to authentic Gujarati, Bengali, Maharashtrian, Chettinad, Nellai and Andhra cuisines. One of the most famous and oldest messes (a mess is a place that offers traditional food) in Triplicane is the Kasivinayaga mess, where food is served on banana leaves. Any diehard fan of south Indian food will vouch that this is as close as anyone can get to home food. There are several kitchens here that serve 15 to 45 men per sitting. Many housewives also cook meals for the residents of these mansions.
Despite the affordability, for an outsider, life in a mansion may seem tough. After all, it means living in a cramped, dingy room in the sweltering Chennai heat. There is poor sewerage, erratic water supply (which may also be salty, because Triplicane is next to the sea) and poor electricity supply. Originally a hub for boys from modest homes, Triplicane has in the last few years also attracted a more gentrified crowd. Some mansions have started to offer comforts like TVs, ACs and regular cleaning services to lure the upwardly mobile crowd. Security has also improved. The police have asked the owners of the mansions to install surveillance cameras and provide a list of residents along with proof of their identity and employer references. You could call these the irritants of modern life in an otherwise old-fashioned world.