Sunday, July 26, 2009

When beer cost 16 annas and Egmore railway station had sponge cake, lemonade: here's Anna Varki

She’s 87 years old but, would you believe it, she is keen to proofread! Anna Varki belongs to another age, so too her reminisces. Her memories of the Egmore Railway Station (its centenary was celebrated recently) in the 1930s-40s when life was more easy paced and Chennai quite another city, are vivid. With the city’s birthday less than a month away, Anna’s descriptions of Madras with its old world charm make for delightful reading. So, here’s Anna, in her own words:

Apart from the Marina Beach and good old Moore Market, our one and only mall where you could get everything you wanted, there was the Egmore railway refreshment room. A place I have vivid memories of, where we could have a treat. It used to be a favourite haunt of my father and his journalist buddies, days when journalists had to rush to get news to papers by phone and telegrams They enjoyed their anecdotes and we could hear their raucous laughter. People like Raja of Pithapuram and the Raja of Kollengode all spent time in the Egmore Railway Station refreshment room waiting for their trains.

Those days, trains came and went. Those who spent time in railway refreshment rooms were not travellers but just those who wanted a place to eat or a place to meet. In Chennai those days, eating out was not encouraged, in fact not allowed A bottle of beer cost 8 annas (before the decimal system, we dealt with rupees, annas and paise; 16 annas made a rupee). One rupee was a precious amount, especially for journalists who were so poorly paid. My dad used to take us for a treat to the Egmore refreshment room. We looked forward to sponge cake and lemonade fare and spent time moving around watching cars drive into the platform, people alighting and entering – something so much in the past. We watched the trains coming to the platform, the guard blowing a whistle waving a green flag, and the train steaming out.

No idli dosai. English breakfast consisted of two fried eggs, bacon and coffee. Really Expensive. You could have a four-course English lunch soup, a fish dish, meat dish and a dessert. You couldn’t just eat with a fork. The strict British manners were followed with cutlery meant for specific purposes A great favourite, which now may be termed as Anglo Indian, was rice and curry, and the famous Mullagutawny soup, which is really a kind off pepper rasam with some other ingredients put. Even some chicken pieces could be added which you the termed Chicken Mullagtawny soup.

Train travel those days had four classes - first class, in which only the rich and the British travelled The first class was a four-berth compartment; it had an attached bathroom then. The second-class and inter-class depending on the degree of thickness of the cushions; the inter-class where the cushions were very thin. Last but not least, the third class with wooden seats, in which the majority of people travelled by. A third-class compartment would have forty to fifty seats, long wooden benches; it was the cheapest. Any travel meant a holdall, suitcase and a trunk Travelling light was years away. Not far from Egmore station, round the corner, was the Egmore ice factory, which has a history of its own. One rupee was all my mother sent for the day’s marketing, which included meat, fish, vegetables and everything a family needed, except for the rice masala etc.

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