One of the oldest business districts in the city, Mint Street in Sowcarpet is a dingy, congested stretch of road that that has been home to thousands of business outlets ranging from pan shops to designer jeweler outlets to micro finance firms for generations.
The narrow street and its adjoining bylanes, which probably forms the most important business hub in north Chennai, is also one of the oldest parts of the city with decked houses that mostly share walls with one another and where cycle rickshaw is still the most preferred mode of transport (the lanes are so narrow).
But if one intends to witness Holi celebrations in its most bona fide form, a visit to Sowcarpet is a must on the festival day. The neighbourhood which is almost impossible to even walk without brushing against fellow pedestrians and stepping over garbage on normal days transforms into a riot of colours.
Groups of young men walk from street to street with their faces and clothes soaked in coloured power singing popular Bollywood songs associated with the spring festival as residents lean out of their balconies and pour coloured water over them.
“It is all taken in good spirit,” says Dinesh Soni (43) from Sowcarpet who is known in the neighbourhood for his roadside Lassi shop Anmol Mohit Lassi. “I have lived here for the last several decades and if you have to see how Holi has to be celebrated, you have to be here during the festival,” he says.
On Holi day, even Dinesh whose kesar lassi is a local delicacy removes it from his menu and replaces it with ‘Thandai’, a drink consumed on the special occasion. “This region is home predominantly to people from North India who have made Chennai their home and are trying to bring their flavour to the city. It is during these occasions that we realize how much we have become a part of the city and its diverse culture,” Dinesh says pointing at his neighbours, Tamil folk, who have smeared their faces in coloured powder.
According to historians, the area that is now called Sowcarpet was first inhabited by Gujarathis from the Saurashtra region who moved from Madurai and Tirunelveli to Chennai during the 17th century. They were later followed by diamond, silk and other merchants from the Marwar region. As this region became popular for its business community who were also into money lending activities, the region came to Sowcarpet after the word ‘Sahukar’.
Despite living here for generations, locals here feel that they are a neglected lot. “Atleast 5000 to 6000 families of people from across India live in this small area and we generate 40% of the revenue for Chennai Corporation. Yet, our neighbourhood is one of the most neglected ones in Chennai,” says Krishna Chand Chordia, a resident of Sowcarpet for the last 38 years. “Streets are rarely cleared of garbage on a regular basis and there is absolutely no traffic policing. Even the dust and colour of Holi celebrations remain on the streets for atleast a week,” he says.
Every year, local politicians make it a point to join the North Indian community for Holi and take photographs with them. “We wish they pay some attention to our woes too,” Chordia says.