We know of a West Mambalam. Where is its eastern counterpart? And what is Lake View Road doing there with no waterbody in sight barring the occasional puddle? The answers to both lie in what was once known as the Mambalam Town Planning Scheme Eastern Section or as we know of it today – T(heyagaroya) Nagar.
Marmalon, Marmalong and Mamelon are some of the names by which this ancient village was known to the British. In the 1640s when Madras was in its infancy, this was a village known for its painters and printers — those who did Kalamkari work and block printing on cloth. The village however, did not come under British rule till 1750 or thereabouts. It was to remain outside the municipal limits of Madras till the 1950s.
Mambalam was separated from Mount Road by the vast Long Tank, an enormous water body. Early in the 20 century, around 70 acres of the lake was acquired by the Corporation of Madras. This in 1924, was filled in and together with further land acquired in Puliyur Village and the eastern half of Mambalam altogether totalling 540 acres was made over for developing T Nagar. In the 1930s, the South Indian Railway company laid its track separating T Nagar from what was left of the village, which being to the west, became in effect West Mambalam, a name that still continues to be in use. This old area was a contrast to neighbouring T Nagar. Thus the latter had underground drains, parks and broad roads, all absent in Mambalam. The profile of the residents also reflected this – T Nagar had the upper and upper middle classes while Mambalam the lower middle classes.
Running diagonally off the railway track on the West Mambalam side is Lake View Road. It once commanded a fine view of the Long Tank and after its demise, of the Mambalam Tank which was the leftover bit remaining unfilled. This smaller water body regularly flooded the neighbourhood during the rains, its surplus water not having the Long Tank to drain into. Consequently, the entire surrounding area was covered in slush at all times. By the 1950s, with Mambalam drains connecting to it, the tank had become a cesspool, a perfect breeding ground for the mosquitoes for which Mambalam became famous. This was around the time that veteran author Ashokamitran moved in as a tenant to this locality. He writes in his book Oru Parvaiyil Chennai Nagaram (Chennai City at a glance) that everyone in the area suffered from elephantiasis with either a swollen arm or a leg, thanks to the mosquitoes.
By the 1960s, the tank was being filled in by dumping garbage. It slowly made way for houses and today there is not a trace of it. After all, building over lakes and then lamenting over water scarcity is a continuing Chennai tradition. The road name survived as did the mosquitoes that were honoured with a league cricket team – The Mambalam Mosquitoes!
This article appeared in The Hindu dated August 2, 2014 under the Hidden Histories column