It’s 8 o’clock on a Tuesday morning. Most of the shops on the stretch of Pondy Bazaar in Chennai still have their shutters lowered, while the pavements see fractions of people slowly setting up shop for the long day ahead.

Nestled in the tight space between Milan Jyoti clothes store and an ice cream outlet (“Rain or shine, our softy is fine”), a man is vigorously scrubbing clean a stout black Ganesha that sleeps in the alcove.

Water sloshes out of his orange bucket as he moves it aside and carefully pours milk over the figure and then lights the arathi, moving it thrice around the idol. Satisfied, he sets the bucket and assorted paraphernalia aside.

As I pass by ten minutes later, he’s curled up under the idol, sound asleep. Pondy Bazaar will soon come to life.

Seventy years ago, this land was predominantly a lake that was later interspersed by paddy fields. Today, Pondy Bazaar is part of Chennai’s biggest shopping quarter—according to many, one of India’s richest—a crammed, jostling, bewildering collection of hundreds of shops, vendors and department stores, selling everything from hairpins to bespoke gold jewellery. In the past few decades, it’s become a destination that newcomers to the city inevitably have to visit.

In the festival season, particularly Diwali and Pongal, more than 10 lakh people converge on T. Nagar, the shopping hub in central Chennai of which Pondy Bazaar is the crown jewel.

Seventy years ago, this land was predominantly a lake that was later interspersed by paddy fields. Today, Pondy Bazaar is part of Chennai’s biggest shopping quarter—according to many, one of India’s richest—a crammed, jostling, bewildering collection of hundreds of shops, vendors and department stores, selling everything from hairpins to bespoke gold jewellery.

A young man sells Osho chappals (at Rs. 90 per pair) in the shadow of Palam Silks, a sari shop started by the daughter of the proprietor of Nalli Silks which is one of Tamil Nadu’s homegrown retail giants. His turnover is Rs. 15,000 a month, if he’s lucky. Palam Silks’ is Rs.50 crore a year.

Pondy Bazaar’s assortment of pavement shops, hawkers and vendors, and stores runs for about two kilometres down the centre of T. Nagar. T. Nagar itself forms a jagged rectangle at the centre of Chennai and a green patch of land lies at its heart: Panagal Park, named for the Raja of Panagal who was the chief minister when it was built.

Pondy Bazaar runs along a dissected stretch of Thyagaraya Road and culminates in Panagal Park, around which the shopping area lives and thrives. Beyond the park is a crowded network of roads, the predominant one being North Usman Road, with its jewellery and electronic shops, and Ranagathan Street that lies to the tail-end of North Usman road. Together, these roads form the retail heart of the city.

T. Nagar today has land and rent rates that are among the highest in the city. When Nalli Silks first set up, one acre, or 18 grounds, was about Rs. 2,000. In 2006, one ground, or 2,400 square feet, cost Rs. 2.76 crore. The T. Nagar Social Club registered its 14 grounds of land for Rs. 200 per ground in 1930. Today, it’s worth Rs. 8-10 crore per ground.

A walk down the crammed lanes and pavements of Pondy Bazaar to be greeted by shops and sellers is an experience in itself. Row after row of vendors beckon, brandishing cotton pants, Ben 10 stickers, slippers, and sunglasses. Occasionally a blast of cold air breaks the humidity; on the right is the towering glass-fronted building that is Naidu Hall, its industrial-size air conditioners cooling the pavement right before it. The air is an overpowering mix of heat, sweat, spices and, as you walk further down, the rich scent of roasted coffee beans from Pandian Coffee.

According to Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti, proprietor of Nalli Silks and grandson of its founder, Pondy Bazaar came into existence in 1933 when a man called Chokalingam Mudaliar set up ten shops on the road, selling various small items and spread over 200 square feet.

“Being a Pondicherry man, he called the group of shops ‘Pondy Bazaar’, and set up a plaque saying the same; I remember that you could see it from very far away since the area was so empty,” he says. Chokalingam Mudaliar owned a lot of property in T. Nagar; the Nalli family themselves stayed in a small portion of one of his properties at one time. As other shops opened, they were all referred to by the blanket term Pondy Bazaar.

In many ways, T. Nagar is just another busy shopping district in a big city: a catchment of buyers—rich and poor—serviced by shops—big and small—that exist because of deals, both legal and not so legal; a barely-contained chaos orchestrated every day in the pursuit of money.

What makes T. Nagar different is the scale of the money, and the fact that its riches have been achieved by local retailers—mainly migrants from the barren lands of south Tamil Nadu—who started with one-room operations and now own hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space.

In many ways, T. Nagar is just another busy shopping district in a big city: a catchment of buyers—rich and poor—serviced by shops—big and small—that exist because of deals, both legal and not so legal; a barely-contained chaos orchestrated every day in the pursuit of money.

Earlier this year, The Economic Times claimed that revenues here are nearly twice that of New Delhi’s Connaught Place, Mumbai’s Linking Road, and Bangalore’s Brigade Road. The official turnover was in excess of Rs. 10,000 crore. Some hint that the real figure could be nearly Rs. 20,000 crore, or even multiples of it.

However, retail analyst Amit Bagaria, founder-chairman of the Asipac Group, calls this estimate “grossly overstated”, saying the total turnover is to the tune of Rs.13,100 crore or 28.5 per cent of Chennai’s total retail market of Rs.46,000 crore. “Sales are definitely higher than Brigade Road or Linking Road, but the comparison is not fair as the sales in T. Nagar are greatly skewed upwards due to a large concentration of jewellery shops, where average sales are much higher.”


In the early 1940s, Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti was a young boy playing in the quiet bylanes of what is now T. Nagar. In 1911, his grandfather, Nalli Chinnasami Chetti, set up the now-iconic Nalli Silks in their hometown of Kanchipuram; the shop was located in the weavers’ community and consisted of only one loom. In 1928, the family moved to Madras to expand their business.

T. Nagar was little more than a water body: starting from Doraiswamy Bridge and extending through Thirumalai Pillai Road, Lake Area, and up to Loyola College, the area was referred to as “Long Lake”. The railway track bordering the area still runs along what is called Lake View Road, even though the lake is now long gone.

In the early 1920s, the Justice Party was in power in the Madras Presidency, winning the first direct elections in 1920. To accommodate the city’s rapid growth, Long Lake was drained from top to tip, and a village developed along the Mambalam railway track. This colony of residences became Thyagaraya Nagar, named after Justice Party leader Pitti Theagaraya Chetty. Panagal Park was built, and the Raja’s statue stands there even today.

Most of the roads in T. Nagar were given names of Justice Party leaders (G. N. Chetty, Dr Nair), and engineers of the Corporation of Madras (Griffith, Madley, Burkit, Boag and Coats). There was one aberration. Two young workers, Nagamani and Govindu, were killed in a mudslide during drainage work. Two streets were named after them. Later, roads were also named for long-time residents who owned the largest houses or plots of land.

As older residents tell it, T. Nagar in 1925 had no buses or traffic; buses 9, 10, 11, and 12 would pass through the neighbourhood but it was much later that T. Nagar earned its first bus stop, and later a bus depot. It was served, as it still is, by the Mambalam railway station. It didn’t have a post office. Most of the area was vast tracts of empty land. On average, a road had only three or four houses, and each was laid out on several grounds of land.

Kuppuswami Chetti remembers his grandfather telling him how if they heard the gates of the house rattle at night, they would still have no fear. He talks to me in his small office in the incense-laden interiors of Nalli Silks, resting his hands on the glass-top of his desk—under which resides ten or twenty photographs of gods—and wearing an unassuming white shirt and dhoti. “There were no thieves back then,” he tells me. “Just foxes. By 8 p.m., the streets would be deserted.”

It was a small, close-knit community. “Swaminathan Sharma was a great writer who came from Burma. He had a house on Usman Road. Every day, people would gather to chat and drink coffee, and hear all the gossip: which girl was meeting potential suitors, and so on. If you wanted to know the latest news, Madras Mail would come every evening. The next morning at 6 a.m., The Hindu would arrive.”

Kuppuswami Chetti says at that time, a man was considered rich if his house had a telephone or a radio, or both. “There was a radio set up at Panagal Park and at 7.15 p.m., the latest news would be read from Delhi. Everyone would gather to listen. The news would end at 7.25 p.m. and then everyone would go home. After that, oru ee-kaka ille, road le (not a fly or a crow on the roads).”

In the 1930s, Mahalakshmi Balasubramanian was a pigtailed schoolgirl at Sri Sarada Vidyalaya Primary School, run by the Ramakrishna Mission. The land from Kodambakkam—which by the Fifties became the seat of Tamil film industry—to T. Nagar was then just a stretch of coconut trees; she remembers racing home through the groves before it got too dark.


Retail arrived with the opening of the first Nalli store in the area, but Pondy Bazaar itself was formed in different circumstances. City historian S. Muthiah has another story about its name and origins. He wrote that the area was named Soundarapandia Bazaar, after Justice Party member W. P. A. Soundarapandian Nadar, a coffee planter and principal leader of the Nadar community in the 1920s. Soundarapandian Bazaar, or Soundarapandian Angadi, was later shortened to Pondy Bazaar.

Several factors contributed to the area’s growth: it was close to Mambalam station, there was plenty of land for building, and the Madras tram service, discontinued in 1953, connected T. Nagar to different parts of the city. T. Nagar is also very close to Kodambakkam, then home to Chennai’s leading film studios (hence the term “Kollywood”), and many actors, producers, and directors made T. Nagar their home: from M. G. Ramachandran to Sivaji Ganesan, N. T. Rama Rao to Savitri.

Present chief minister Jayalalithaa grew up on Sivagnanam Road in Pondy Bazaar, where she lived with her mother. As a child, she was a familiar sight, making her way to school at Church Park Convent on Mount Road.

After the ten shops comprising Pondy Bazaar opened, others too sprang up: Udipi Hotel (now Geeta Cafe), Krishna Photo Studios, Balaji Hotel, and Salam Stores, where families would shop for groceries and other items of everyday use. Ranganathan Street had only one store: Kumbakonam utensil shop, which sold pitalai (brass) utensils, as “eversilver” or stainless steel only appeared a few years later.

The iconic Kerala Hairdressers opened in 1939. “They would play music all the time,” Kuppuswami Chetti remembers. “If you shut your eyes while inside, you would imagine that you were at a concert.” Naidu Hall opened in 1939 as well: one of the first textile stores that sold “unmentionables” and other assorted clothing.

He has another story on the T. Nagar he remembers. “In the late 1960s, Prema Srinivasan of the TVS family came to the Nalli store. She was accompanied by a foreigner. We didn’t pay much attention, since we were used to different kinds of customers. As she left, I went outside to have a word with her driver, Kannan. As I came out, the car window rolled down and the foreigner looked out. It was Jacqueline Kennedy.”

It should be pointed out that there is no official record of Jackie O visiting Chennai after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or India for that matter. This story, like many others, joins the repertoire of tales about Pondy Bazaar.

Mornings at Mambalam station are a drove of people on its four platforms, fighting for space. Wide-eyed children clutch their mothers’ hands, wriggling for room. A newspaper stand does brisk business.

As the day’s first train pulls up, an army of traders balancing trays and bags of goods surges out. Despite the painfully early hour, they are wide awake and ready for work. Trays and boxes are moved from hand to hand, each strapped with the cargo that brings in the daily bread.

They are all heading for T. Nagar.

The platform drill repeats itself in the evening. By 8 p.m., the majority of passengers leaving the station are clutching bulging white cloth bags stuffed with the goods they have bought from T. Nagar.


If 1939 was a calamity for the Raj, it was a year when T. Nagar really grew. The Second World War had just broken out, and many neighbourhoods shut down in fear. The Madras High Court was relocated from its premises in Georgetown to Holy Angels Anglo-Indian Higher Secondary School in Pondy Bazaar, where it operated through the war. Stores like Nalli continued to operate and there was a higher inflow of customers, searching for hotels, medical shops, and general stores.

By the time the war ended, T. Nagar was on its way to becoming a retail landmark.

“There was one jewellery shop in Usman Road, run by a man called K. Ramachandran,” says Meenakshi R., a longtime resident of Pondy Bazaar. “Then he set up another in the area. There was Nalli Silks for saris, and a general store which sold provisions in bulk for marriages. It became the area where you could purchase anything you needed for festivals, weddings, funerals. More shops started setting up as a result.”

According to the Retailers Association of India figures for 2013, the area has over 185 textile and garment shops spread over 5.5 lakh square feet. Over 65 jewellery stores occupy over 2.5 lakh square feet. At least 50,000 square feet of retail space is added every year.

“Even though the rest of the city is developing quickly, prices have no other way to go but up in T. Nagar,” says a source who asked not to be named. “Getting an accurate estimate of its worth is nearly impossible.”

According to the Retailers Association of India figures for 2013, the area has over 185 textile and garment shops spread over 5.5 lakh square feet. Over 65 jewellery stores occupy over 2.5 lakh square feet. At least 50,000 square feet of retail space is added every year.

For an area that generates an unimaginable amount of revenue, there seems to be little documentation of it. T. Nagar falls in Zone X on the Chennai map. The Chennai Corporation is the repository of all knowledge, but even they are reluctant—or unable—to reveal the actual numbers.


Pondy Bazaar is largely associated with its vast street shopping repertoire—flowers, second-hand books, clothes, stickers, cheap jewellery, hair accessories, religious odds-and-ends, toys, bags, produce, and novelty items—but now it’s also home to upmarket showrooms, like Wrangler, Levi Strauss, Peter England, Titan, and Mochi. Long-time stalwarts include Rathna Stores, (which has everything from gold lamps for Rs.12,000 to toiletry and furniture), Flora (where people today still go to buy swimsuits and thermal underwear), and Ponni Stores (selling assorted items like gas stoves, brooms and buckets). Ponni Stores has geared up for the new age, as you can tell from the yoga mats in bright purples and oranges sold alongside traditional pais (mats).

T. Nagar itself is one vast shopping area, but there are sub-divisions. Giridhar Shah, who supplies textiles to different stores, says there are many segments. “Pondy Bazaar is mostly fashion and fancy items; Panagal Park is an area for silks; Usman Road is where people go for maybe electronics and other items, and also jewellery. These are niche requirements. These areas might only be 100 metres from each other, but there is a difference in each one.”

Then there is the “Gold Furlong”, a long stretch of jewellery shops in the area. Stores like Joyalukkas, Tanishq, and Vummidi Bangaru Chetty see a multi-crore turnover ever year, while daily sales during festive periods go above Rs.50 or 60 lakh. In 2006, the World Gold Council said 70 to 80 per cent of the gold sold in Chennai is from T. Nagar.

“Our daily sales touch over Rs.70 lakh during Diwali,” says an employee of one of the largest jewellery stores on North Usman Road. “Akshaya Tritiya also really pushed the business of gold forward.”

Akshaya Tritiya is a day when it’s considered auspicious to start new ventures. Over the past decade, it’s become a marketing tool for jewellers to encourage people to buy gold. In 2013, gold sales were up 25 per cent on Akshaya Tritiya.

Ravi Selvam runs a small gift shop, Fancy Nice Stores; “fancy” being a blanket term for glittery knickknacks, hair accessories, and other ornaments “We never thought this area would reach the scale we see today,” he says. His grandfather moved to T. Nagar in the 1950s, after hearing that land was cheap. His father set up the store, hoping to make a little money, but no one in the family expected it to last this long.


In 1977, Saravana Stores opened its doors: a humble 720 square feet space in Ranganathan Street. Today it offers 25,000 square feet and “lowest prices” on anything you could name, from saris to furniture, electronics to clothing, utensils to crockery, and jewellery, household appliances, and cutlery in vast quantities. Thousands of people visit its outlets each day. Big Bazaar founder Kishore Biyani famously wrote in his book It Happened In India that his template is based on Saravana Stores. At the time, his employees were required to make a pilgrimage to the store and take notes.

“It operates on the idea that India is a family country, and families shop together,” says Christopher Selvam, a city-based research scholar. “They don’t waste money on the aesthetics of interiors. If anything, the interiors are shabby and rundown compared to Pothys, RMKV, and so on. But under one roof they have everything a family will need.”

Saravana Stores’ website says the first floor of its Ranganathan Street outlet has saris, churidars, nighties, cholis, undergarments, gift articles, crockery, stationery, wall clocks, shaving cream, and movie CDs. This is just a part of one floor. There are badminton rackets, jars of Nutella, the latest LG smartphone, and stacks of feathered hairbands, and people seem to be queuing up for everything. Men and children cheerfully strip down in the aisles to try on clothes, while lovers sit on the steps leading up to the next floor, oblivious to the surrounding pandemonium.

With five stores in T. Nagar—including the multi-purpose store, a utensils store, a jewellery store, and another all-purpose mall called Saravana Selvarathnam—the annual turnover at one store is a little over Rs. 510 crore. Geoff Hiscock writes in his book, India’s Store Wars: Retail Revolution and the Battle for the Next 500 Million Shoppers, that “ … this last store is operated separately by S. Selvarathnam, who with his two brothers … first set up the Saravana Stores name in Chennai in the 1970s. The brothers hailed from a village near the port city of Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu state, and made the successful leap from rice milling to retailing. Selvarathnam’s promise at his store is that his price will be ‘at least 50 rupees’ cheaper than the same product at one of the other Saravana Stores. Now, that’s brotherly competition!”

Saravana’s discount model has baffled industry analysts for years. Regional retail is seen as a structure that eats away at market share, and brings in revenue far beyond stores in the organised sector. In 2010, The Economic Times said that Kalyan Silks had an 85,000 square feet store in Thrissur, Kerala, reportedly doing business of Rs.100 crore per annum. In 2011, Amit Bagaria wrote that Saravana Stores does over Rs.1,200 crore annually: two-thirds more than the Rs.717 crore turnover reported by Tata’s Trent, which includes Westside (54 stores), Landmark (18 stores), and Star Bazaar (12 stores).

He wrote: “Chennai Silks is estimated to be doing a business of Rs. 1,150 crores (excluding jewellery) from nine stores, Nalli of Rs.700 crores from 22 stores, Pothys of Rs. 650 crores from four stores and RMKV of Rs.510 crores from four stores. These five Tamil Nadu retailers do sales of Rs.4,200 crores every year collectively, which is more than the turnover of Shoppers Stop, Lifestyle, Westside and Reliance Trends put together.” He says that Chennai comes fifth nationally in retail expenditure, after NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad.

The numbers seem to be a well-guarded secret, as proprietors are unwilling to divulge too many, if any, details. The proprietors and managers of Saravana Stores declined to be interviewed for this story. However, a former “in-charge” (who works under a floor manager) at one of Saravana Stores’ outlets suggests why.

“Everything is based on the numbers,” Ravishankar (name changed) tells me as we huddle on the pavement on Ranganathan Street. Across the road, the afternoon sun glints off the vessels neatly stacked outside Rathna Stores. Ravishankar is short and wiry, and competently navigates the pedestrian and road traffic. I stumble on the potholes; he barely notices them. He worked at one of the outlets for nearly five years before joining another garment store on the same road.

“The products are bought in bulk from various locations, sometimes from suburbs in Mumbai where it is quite cheap. Branded items are also bought in bulk. Some money is saved in this process. This is then sold at prices sometimes lower than MRP. They shave their margins to the limit. The people who shop here are mostly from poor backgrounds, so the savings are very high for them.”

Sources say that lorries from Chennai’s suburban areas often bring customers to Saravana Stores. Ravishankar says he has seen people coming from as far as Tirunelveli for their festival or marriage shopping.

Numbers are strictly not available for the peak seasons. Ravishankar says it is usually because a large portion of transactions are in cash. “People pay lakhs in cash during that time, sometimes up to Rs. 5 lakh or Rs.6 lakh. We employees might not know what sort of money this is.” He refuses to explain any further.


Tirunelveli-based Pothys also came to T. Nagar, in 1999, opening a six-storey showroom in Panagal Park. In 2012, it opened a 12-floor “boutique” on the coveted G. N. Chetty Road. The company also acquired 10 to 12 grounds on Raman Street, a stone’s throw from Pondy Bazaar, from actress K. R. Vijaya for an amount reported to be Rs.60 crore, according to Business Standard.

At the opening of the second store a lot of people wrote angry op-eds in neighbourhood newspapers and blogs. “There are no parking facilities, so they wind up parking underneath the (G. N. Chetty Road) flyover, or the side roads,” says B. Ganeshan, a resident of the area. “It’s a few metres from a major traffic signal, so the pressure on the road is immense.”

Both Pothys and Saravana Stores employ hundreds of people for sales and maintenance (“customer care executives” at the former). Alamelu came to Chennai from Kovilpatti in Thoothukudi (Tuticorin), around the same time Saravana Stores opened its branch in Panagal Park. In her late forties, she is rail-thin with an unlined face that glows yellow from the turmeric she scrubs on it every morning. Her voice wavers; she is uncomfortable with talking about her employers.

“We heard there would be plenty of employment with the new stores and our entire family decided to move,” she says. Most of the employees usually come from the deep south, she explains, moving to the city in a desperate attempt to escape the abject poverty of their surroundings at home.

Employees who work in Panagal Park and Ranganathan Street say they are usually accommodated in hostels or “mansions”—a grand name for converted houses that accommodate bachelors and sometimes families, sharing rooms with multiple others, and bathrooms with scores more. Some live in hostels in and around T. Nagar. Several also stay on the top floor of the stores: dozens stay in the same room, sleeping on the floor. Food is usually provided.

Paneerselvam is the “in-charge” of one of the sections at Pothys. He says that over 2,000 employees work at the Panagal Park store and the G. N. Chetty Road store. “Most employees stay in five different mansions around T. Nagar, free of cost,” he says. “Employees get five days off in a month. If you have worked here for more than five years, you get a Star Health Insurance policy.” Salary varies: it depends on experience and the number of years you’ve worked at the store.

Kannan, one of the salespeople at Pothys, says that most employees come from the south, like Madurai and Tirunelveli, and others from Chennai city itself. “People from Chennai usually bring lunch from home but for the rest of us, lunch is provided at a hostel near Doraiswamy Bridge,” he says. He says that families with children don’t usually stay at the mansions; they tend to stay in houses elsewhere.

Thomas moved to Chennai from Mizoram five years ago to join his brother. He works now as a waiter at a vegetarian restaurant in Pondy Bazaar, and stays at a mansion in Triplicane, an old neighbourhood about six kilometres away. “There are eight of us in one room, and we often take turns to sleep since there are only a couple of mattresses,” he says. “The rent is low—about Rs. 3,000—and the meals are cheap. We make do as we have to.”

Several stores have come under the scanner for their working conditions; long work shifts, sometimes up to 14 hours with no weekly off, especially during peak sales season. Alamelu makes Rs.2,000. It is unlikely to increase.

“During Diwali, the shop has lakhs of customers and the workload is very difficult,” she says. She also says she is unaware if any workers’ associations exist for people like her, and she would not join even if they did. “Why ask for trouble,” she says. “We need the job more than anything else.”

A more recent phenomenon, especially with space so tight, is for shops and restaurants to rent flats in the surrounding area and use them for their employees. “It is quite common, since rent is usually about Rs. 20,000 and we can have 10 people sleeping in the day, and 10 more at night when the shifts change,” says the owner of a small hotel in the area. “Waiters, managers, and clerks can sleep there and it turns out to be quite economical.”

Rajan, who works at one of the larger textile stores, says despite uncomfortable working conditions and constant pressure from floor supervisors to perform, people keep coming from villages to work in these stores. “We get to wear a uniform and work in an air-conditioned store,” he says. “It’s better than where we come from.”

The 2010 film Angadi Theru (translating to “market road”), written and directed by Vasanthabalan, mirrors many of these problems. Telling the story of two salespeople who fall in love while working at a famous textile shop in Ranganathan Street, the movie is said to be based on work conditions at Saravana Stores. The film, which got wide acclaim, shows that workers have a terrible time: brutal, overbearing supervisors; inhuman living conditions; unhygienic food appallingly served. In one scene, a salesgirl seeks permission from her supervisor to use the restroom during work hours. She’s given five minutes, and is told that Rs.1 will be cut for every extra minute she takes. Employees are also told that an equal amount will be cut per minute if they take longer than allowed during their lunch breaks.

The system runs like clockwork.

Visiting the crowded, cluttered streets of Pondy Bazaar can be exercise in nostalgia as many of the shops have been around for years. At Dawn Footwear, a fractious child searches desperately for white shoe polish before going to school. Towards the end of Thyagaraya Road, a group of girls head to Maya’s Plaza which became famous as one of the few places from the late 1980s where one could get “imported goods”, like toiletry and chocolate from Singapore and the Middle East.

At the intersection points of Muthukrishnan Street, party favours—pointy hats, streamers, balloons, printed cups and napkins, and other ornaments—are available in vast quantities, as well as prayer items like turmeric, betel leaves, coconuts, flowers, and knick-knacks tailor-made for that particular time of year.

To the lakhs of vendors and hawkers, Pondy Bazaar offers a livelihood they might not have in their homes. A number of migrants from Kerala and Andhra Pradesh have made their way to Pondy Bazaar, hoping that being part of this “shoppers’ paradise” will improve their prospects, as 42-year-old Seetamma puts it. She and many other vendors in the Muthukrishnan Street fruit and flower market stay in the Teynampet slums. They are the lucky ones as Teynampet is only 10 minutes by foot. It isn’t unusual for hawkers and shop workers to come all the way from Broadway, about nine kilometres away.


In 2008, Big Bazaar opened a 53,000 square feet store in Pondy Bazaar, with jewellery, furniture, bags, kitchenware, and food. For street hawkers who assemble down the front and sides of the complex with their own similar offerings, the threat is real. “We still see demand since we offer fresh produce,” says Kanamma, a fruit vendor on Muthukrishnan Street. “But people like big buildings and malls, since they can buy everything in one place. Who would want to stand in the sun and bargain when they can shop in an air-conditioned store?”

A cheerfully round woman with bright eyes and white hair that belies her 40-odd years, Kanamma has sold fruit in Pondy Bazaar for over 15 years. She says the raging growth unsettles her. “I moved from Erode with my family long back, because we thought in Chennai we can have a higher standard of living,” she says, carefully stacking pomegranates and sapota into neat piles. “But the past three or four years have been bad. I often have unsold fruit at the end of the day. They spoil quickly in this weather so I lose a lot of money.”

Kanamma blames “the government” for the hawkers’ plight. In 2003, now-retired Justice Kanakaraj headed a committee that recommended moving about 650 hawkers from the streets into a multi-storeyed complex in Pondy Bazaar to ease traffic and free up space on the platforms and pavements. The 18,000 square feet building was completed in 2010 at a cost of Rs.4.3 crore. Three years later, it stands: a solid building in green and white, still vacant.

The trouble started during the construction on a site which once had a large vegetable market. Hawker associations protested the lack of space and safety, and also worried that their business would be hit if customers were required to climb several floors to reach them. As a result, the Corporation was forced to delay the move to the complex, month after month. The Madras High Court set October 20 as the deadline for moving, but nothing had happened at the time of writing this story.

A similar fate seems to await a 2010 plan to transform T. Nagar into a “world-class commercial district”, taking into account all the problems of vendors and pedestrians. Property consultant Jones Lang LaSalle Megharaj was roped in to put together a report, working with the Tamil Nadu Urban Infrastructure Financial Services Limited (TNUIFSL). The report was submitted in August 2010, but a copy is still unavailable. It offered several solutions: pedestrianisation of the area, creating a limited-vehicle zone, and a third that combines skywalks and multilevel pedestrianisation.

Ratchagar, an official of the Chennai Corporation, says, “Tenders have been invited for the project (a proposed multi-level parking complex). Once that is completed, the project will take off.” In July this year, a similar proposal came up under the same consultants, to demarcate parts of the area as pedestrian-only stretches.

M. Karthik runs a photocopy shop in Gopalakrishna Iyer street, parallel to Thyagaraya Road, which usually sees a lot of traffic and parking in peak retail seasons. He raises a question many others ask: how are T. Nagar’s multi-storey commercial establishments allowed to function when they cannot provide parking for their customers? Is there no law, he asks, to monitor these structures?


In the wee hours of September 1, 2008, sleepy-eyed shop-owners and vendors on Ranganathan Street were opening up for business. There were only a few weeks to go before Diwali and Dussehra. It was also a few days before Ganesh Chaturti.

J. Muthu was setting up his “fancy stores” cart. As he uncovered stacks of mirrors, he says he heard a loud shout. “Someone was yelling ‘Thee, thee! (Fire, fire!)’ I looked down the road toward Saravana Stores. I smelled the fire before I saw it.”

Plumes of heavy, noxious black smoke were billowing from Lucky Plaza, which houses a collection of smaller stores. The fire had allegedly started at the neighbouring six-storeyed Saravana Stores. The flames spread to the top floors, before moving on to Lucky Plaza. It took 11 hours, seven fire tenders, 20 tankers of water, and the lives of two Saravana employees before the fire was put out. Employees sleeping on the top floor had been trapped when the fire broke out allegedly due to a short-circuit.

“It was very sad but we were not surprised, no,” Muthu tells me. “You tell me, where is the space for buildings like this to have any exit in case there is a fire? The fire engine could not even fit into the road properly because it was so crowded.”

This is corroborated by Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti, who said Ranganathan Street and Saravana Stores’ construction “would not even allow for a fire engine to come during an emergency.” Some reports state that personnel had to go via Natesan Street to douse the flames.

In the days that followed, Ranganathan Street remained closed despite passionate appeals from hawkers that they were losing business. The owners were arrested, but later released.

K. R. Shyam Sundar, director of Fire and Rescue Services at the time said that out of 694 commercial buildings in Chennai, only 123 had no-objection certificates from the department. The number now is likely to be much higher. Under law, shops that fall into a particular category need a seven-metre space around the building to allow for movement of service and rescue vehicles, as well as fire management materials (smoke detection systems, automatic sprinklers, hose reels, among others) on every floor.

However, an inspector with the department admits his job is predominantly to “check and advise”, rather than close down buildings that do not comply with safety standards.

“Most buildings in T. Nagar don’t comply, perhaps more than 85 per cent,” he says. “This is not a secret. This is also not going to change soon.”

On October 31, 2011, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) cracked down on 25 unauthorised commercial establishments on Usman Road and Ranganathan Street, locking and sealing stores like Rathna Stores and The Chennai Silks, among others, after a High Court-appointed committee had identified unauthorised buildings in 2007.

Shop-owners and workers look back on that time with unease.

Most buildings in T. Nagar don’t comply, perhaps more than 85 per cent. This is not a secret. This is also not going to change soon.

“We had to try and sell alternative things on the road as we waited for the shops to reopen,” says S. Sundar, who worked in one of the shops sealed at the time. “It was just before Diwali but there was no crowd. I have a family of five but we didn’t buy anything for Diwali that year, not even pattas (fireworks).”

R. Jayaram, a resident and a member of one of the citizen groups campaigning for the crackdown, says he sympathises with the employees, who are trapped in the middle. “We know it’s their livelihood at stake, and of course it isn’t their fault if proprietors engage in illegal activities,” he says. “But the law is what it is, and it’s finally come to T. Nagar. The buildings are illegal. How can there be any ambiguity about that?”

The shops were finally unsealed in January 2012, after the traders appealed to the High Court and then the Supreme Court, just ahead of Pongal, one of the peaks of commercial activity in the city. “It was a great relief since we had big losses in the previous two months, especially in December,” a representative of Rathna Stores said, on condition of anonymity.

Now things seem to have reached a standstill. In July 2012, the government passed an ordinance to amend the Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning Act, 1971, amending sections 57 (power to stop unauthorised development), and 83, 84, 85, 86, 88 and 89 (general provisions regarding penalties, punishment and cognizance of offences). A new sub-section was later inserted, allowing the government to “exempt any building developed on or before July 1, 2007, from any provisions of this Act or any rule or regulation made there under”. Illegalities can be anything from non-compliance with fire safety regulations to lack of parking facilities. It also includes minimum setback spaces around the building, and specifications with respect to the floor space index.

Owners of buildings constructed after July 1, 2007 are expected to approach the CMDA to apply for regularisation for a fee. However, A. Srivathsan, architect and senior deputy editor of The Hindu, points to a flaw. “No cut-off date or deadline has been set for filing the regularisation application,” he says. “This appears intentional. If the CMDA was serious about enforcement, it should have put forth a plan and not have an open-ended process. Secondly, there has been no substantial institutional change in the CMDA to effect better compliance. It is unlikely that any further action will be taken in the near future.” Only if another, more major, event occurs—like another fire in the area—will the government be forced to enforce the law.

Traders tell me that they worry constantly that the CMDA will come down on them again in the near future. Yet, none wants to leave and try their luck elsewhere. “My grandfather told me that if you set up shop in T. Nagar, you should never go,” Sundar tells me solemnly. He laughs. “Probably because there’s nowhere else to go anymore.”


There might be nowhere else to go, not as long as the stream of customers seems unabated. With Diwali round the corner, Nalli Silks is crammed with people; still more wait patiently on the stairs outside Saravana Stores and Pothys. More will come in the weeks leading to the festival. They will walk, take trains, catch buses, hitchhike in lorries, and land up at the stores before their doors open.

Some will stay right through the night; Diwali shopping is almost an all-night business. The stores remain open well past midnight, cash is piled in buckets across the counters. There’s no time to even reconcile the collection. The pavements have no room to walk. A man spins cotton candy for an eager group of children and their irate mothers while a vendor implores them to buy a miniature helicopter with spinning propellers.

Across the road from the stores, a line of men sit under umbrellas, offering mehndi services to whoever wants it. Even as I wonder who would put mehndi on a Thursday afternoon, a woman slows down, and then stops. Five minutes later, she’s sitting on a low stool, left hand extended forward, palm facing up.

If there’s something to sell here, there’s someone to buy it. Always.