My first job led me to Chennai and my office was in Mylapore. I was on the lookout for an accommodation once I reached here. A colleague asked me to checkout a few mansions in Triplicane. One Sunday, I went looking for one such mansion, where I was told I could get very affordable housing and some wonderful food in the nearby messes.
Perhaps it is the fault of English language that gave me a very different idea of the word mansion, which ranges anywhere between the Hogwarts of Amitabh Bachchan in K3G and the Diwan family home in Dekh Bhai Dekh. As I waded through the narrow streets of Triplicane, I gave a course correction to my imagination. It definitely couldn’t have accommodated several ‘mansions’ like I had imagined. But when I was taken to the first mansion, I felt I had invaded someone’s privacy.
The story of bachelors’ accommodation in any city comes with its own problems and humour. The century-old story of mansions, which have been home to generations of bachelors in Chennai, is quite unexplored and yet, interesting. For those who come to the city for the first time, mansions provide easy and affordable accommodation. Many of the mansions have worn out over time and the occupants often live in cramped rooms. Let’s not even discuss about cleanliness and ventilation. Place two cots and the room is full. If you are lucky, you will get an AC room.
The story of mansions is more than 100 years old, though no one is really sure about how the term got associated with accommodation for immigrants in the city. Some believe that that the term could possibly have come up considering the capacity of these buildings, which could even accommodate over 70-80 occupants at a given point of time.
When the British started operating from Fort St George, Triplicane got an advantage due to its proximity to the place. Also, this place was close to the Chepauk Palace. Madras was at the threshold of expansion and a new immigrant population was swarming the city. They were easily accommodated in the mansions that rose in and around Triplicane. With the rise of mansions sprung related businesses, which catered to the requirements of the occupants here, such as restaurants, messes and catering services. Some occupants have been living here for decades together.
A closer look at the mansions suggests a pattern. The mansions in Saidapet cater to students in various colleges in and around Guindy and Saidapet. The mansions on Mount Road and Choolaimedu have a floating population of people arriving in the city for medical assistance in the famous hospitals,in the nearby areas. Mansions in Chepauk and Central see an inflow of migrants who come for a very short visit. Surprisingly, Triplicane even has many politicians among its occupants. Many famous politicians such as Periyar and Annadurai are said to have stayed in the mansions in Triplicane during their early years. Later, they got attached to it and have come to see the rooms as their lucky charm. They continue paying the rent for these rooms, which is anyway a paltry sum.
In 1998, the Mansion Owners Association fought a case, as a result of which mansions are today treated at par with lodges. Mansion Owners believe that in spite of criticisms of mansions not being maintained properly, they sustain a huge population, who would not have found shelter at affordable rates otherwise. Many mansions have upgraded themselves over time. But the mansion business is not very profitable today and hence there are also issues with redevelopment of these buildings. Many are being run today only because the owners feel comfortable with the status quo.
PS: I eventually stayed in a mansion in Teynampet eventually, only because there was awesome food nearby. But not so awesome that I could take the mess and filth around me. I left it in a week to begin my house hunt again. But that’s for another day.