If you thought Perambur was a working-class neighbourhood, it is positively gentrified when you compare it with Chennai 12 which comprises Pattalam and Puliyanthope. This is a fascinating part (which part isn’t?) of Chennai, packed with history of the labour movement. For the record, Chennai 600012 begins on Vepery High Road to the south and goes all the way to Perambur in the north. On the east it is bound by the Buckingham Canal and on the west by Purasaiwalkam. There are three POs here – Perambur Barracks, Puliyanthope and Venkatesapuram. 

A small part of Chennai 21 extends further south of Vepery High Road and this comprises Maddox Street and General Collins Road. It was at the notorious double bend of the latter that at dusk one December evening in 1943, the muckraking journalist Lakshmikantham was stabbed. He died two days later leading to the arrests of MK Thyagaraja Bhagavatar and NS Krishnan. On the same road is St Aloysius’ Convent, once the house of General Collins and later a masonic lodge. Also here is lovely Thyagar Villa, a stately home which belongs to the family of Ramswami Pillai who made his fortune in liquor and later endowed hospitals, schools and other institutions in the name of his favourite deity Thiruvottriswarar. The road eventually leads to Choolai, where as I mentioned in the write up on Vepery, is the Chidambareswarar Swami Temple built by the Thotikalai family of dubashes. Choolai itself commemorates the brick kilns that once lined this entire area – they supplied the bricks during the construction boom of the late 1800s in Madras. Brick Kiln Road recalls that history too. 

The defining institutions of this area do not exist any longer. Pattalam takes its name from Perambur Barracks and Puliyanthope is synonymous with Binny Mills. Both have vanished. Perambur housed a chunk of the Madras Army in the 1800s and that is how Perambur Barracks Road came to be, as did the name Pattalam. Powder Mills Road commemorates the period between 1802 and 1875 when gun powder was made here before the facility was moved to Kamptee near Nagpur. The mill land later was taken up by the Madras Fisheries Department in the early 1900s and when that shifted to Chetpet in the 1930s, this land was swapped with property owned by the Salesian Brothers in the Shenoy Nagar area. The Brotherhood moved into Pattalam and began the St Joseph’s Industrial Training Centre and the Don Bosco School here. Both continue to function. Close by was Harness and Saddle Factory Road, which led to that production facility. Both have gone. Surviving is Paper Mills Road, leading to a long gone factory that made paper for armaments. 

Binny, as I said before, does not exist but its memories remain. The vast properties that were once the Buckingham Mills and the Carnatic Mills have been sold for development and skyscrapers are in the process of being raised. A small part of the Carnatic Mills still remains, let out for film shoots. Walking there, you can only imagine the mills at the height of their glory – 20,000 workers, supervisors, managers, the British bosses and Anglo-Indian lady secretaries. The top management lived in elegant bungalows at Buckingham Gardens and Carnatic Gardens, of which the latter is now the State Bank’s training facility. There was also the CarnBuck Club, now sadly only a memory. Hawkfield, the large open area where workers and management played cricket and other sports, thereby making formidable sports teams, is now a weed-infested space awaiting development. All around are now dense housing colonies that were once workers’ villages – Alexander, Belvedere and one more whose name I forget. The Binny canteen is now a housing complex. The Binny Workers Cooperative I think now houses the local police station. 

The Binny effect spills over much of Puliyanthope. On Strahans Road is the decrepit office of the Madras Labour Union, India’s first trade body. The bust of BP Wadia that used to stand on its pediment has long fallen off and like something out of Cambodia, the building now has a massive tree whose roots hold it in a vice-like grip. This was where people like Thiru Vi Kalyanasundara Mudaliar and others harangued the workers. The MLU itself came about because of a bhajana mandiram run by Selvapathi Chettiar and Ramanjulu Naidu. Known as the Venkatesagunamritabhivarshini Sabha, this was where Binny workers lamented their condition leading to the formation of the Union. Selvapathi-Ramanuja Park in Pattalam has made way for high rise but the clock tower commemorating the duo still stands though not in working condition. The Wadia Park remembers BP Wadia. Strikes at Binny were legion and defusing the tensions that arose saw many leading political figures including Mahatma Gandhi being involved. The management played games on the basis of caste and religion to break the strikes, and the politicians did the same to build their constituencies. 

The Otteri Nullah, that river of sorrow, snakes its way through Binny and much of Pattalam-Puliyanthope. The two mills used to be on either side and it was common practice for bales of cloth to be thrown into the water – to be fished out and sold later in black– such was the demand. Finally, it was the river that did the factories in. Binny’s owners, the Inchcape Group were not keen to invest, fearing India’s socialist policies. The company, whose heyday was the 1940 to 1960s, hobbled along through the 1970s, with ageing machinery and expensive, and militant, labour. Competition from plants elsewhere was intense. Then in the 1970s, during heavy rains, the waters from the Nullah swamped the plants. That was beginning of the end. 

Two identical theatres, Lakshmi and Saraswathi stood opposite each other on Strahans Road. One survives, I don’t remember which. They are typical working-class theatres – no drive or parking area – you bought the ticket at the box office that was just on the pavement and went in. There are plenty of playgrounds in this area – it kept the workforce and their families fit and so lots of players in games such as football, boxing and hockey came from here. 

While this area is largely Christian in population, there is a small Muslim population as well. The Dadpir Dargah near Binny mills is venerated. Dadashah Makan commemorates another Muslim saint though of late the area is being referred to as Dasamahan. There are besides numerous small shrines – Hindu, Muslim and Christian. Puliayanthope may have been known for labour strikes but never has it made it to the news for religious strife. Three major religions co-existing in such a congested space speaks much about Chennai. 

You can read about Chennai 600011 here

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