Memories of bygone days when chiming trams meandered Madras roads

Trams, Madras, The Federal, English news website
Madras, Calcutta (in picture) and Bombay were among the first few cities where trams were introduced in the late 19th century. Photo: iStock

Artist Manohar Devadoss reminisces the good old days when he used to jump off the tram, when it was just about to halt. He also remembers jumping into it, a few seconds after it began moving, just for thrills. For many like the 83-year-old, who grew up in the Madras of the 1940s or the 1950s, the trolley on tracks was a fascination.

“I was raised in Madurai, but I spent a lot of time in Madras during vacations, spending time in T Nagar, that still had paddy fields on one side. I was so smitten by the tram that I took a train from Kodambakkam and got off at Egmore to board the tram on the other side of the station. One ticket cost around an anna or less than 1/16th of a rupee. The most fascinating route was after crossing Monroe’s Statue, before getting on a bridge, underneath which ran electric trains and below that was the Buckingham Canal,” he recounts.

Saroja S, a nonagenarian, reminisces how she travelled to school every day by trams during the 1930s from Royapettah to Santhome. She says, “I used to go from Royapettah to Luz and then switch to another tram that took me all the way to my convent school near the Santhome Church. It was a breezy and slow ride and I was escorted by my father’s office staff in a bike behind the tram. I was just about 12 or 13 and travelled alone in those days when girls hardly stepped out of the house. My father gave me an anna for the ticket fare. That was my pocket money.”

From scary to fun ride

From the narrow roads of Luz to Santhome Church to the arterial roads of Anna Salai to the Poonamalle High Road, trams were once a popular mode of transport. Chiming and chugging in a pace that one cannot imagine today in the chaos of traffic snarls, trams ran for almost 60 years before being discontinued in 1953.

Nivedita Louis, a city-based historian who has carried out extensive research on trams says, “The Madras Electric Tramways was incorporated in 1892 and the first run was in May, 1895 and it continued services till April 21, 1953, when it had to be discontinued due to labour unrest.” Travelling by trams, Nivedita says, was a scary thought for Madras residents, initially.

“Free rides were offered for a few days before they were ticketed and people took to it gradually. From office rides to pleasure trips to school rides, the trams were a necessity and a wonder for many,” she said.

A paean or two

The trams varied in size and could ferry around over a hundred people, travelling less than 10 km per hour. There were season tickets issued as well, costing around ₹6 per month.
The fascination for trams is chronicled in the work Tram Vandiyin Alangara Kummi, a folk song that talks about the beauty of a decorated tram. It says drivers called Paul and Jones drove the trams that had about 500 lights. “Just the 500 lights bit was the artist’s imagination,” Nivedita adds.

G Suryanarayan, is in his 70s now, but there is a child-like euphoria in him, as he revisits his childhood, when he travelled in the tram as a 10-year old. “It was exciting to be in a slow-moving tram on a road filled with hand-pulled rickshaws, bicycles and occasional horse-driven jhatkas. The tram rides were economical too. The bus service between Triplicane and Parrys cost 1.5 anna for a trip to Central, while by tram it was 3/4 anna. A person saving 1 1/2 anna by travelling on trams could enjoy three idlis or a masala dosa.  A cycle tyre getting stuck on the tracks was a common sight, but tram drivers went about it without causing an accident,” he says.

Devadoss remembers that many school children would jump off the tram when they saw the conductor advancing towards them to issue tickets. “Ticketless and footboard experiences were common then,” he says with a smile. He explains that the most fascinating part of his tram rides was the driver switching from one end to the other, when the tram changed its direction. He says, “The driver would stand while operating it and the wheels were connected with the electric lines above. A blue spark would emanate as it went around and it would be a beautiful sight in the night to watch the sparks. During the day time, we barely noticed it.”

After the unrest, when the Madras Electricity Board refused to take up the operations, it is said a company was given a contract to remove the tracks. The person who received the contract made a fortune as he unearthed thick copper wires from the routes.

The last remnants

Nivedita says there are remnants of the trams in the form of tracks in the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board’s office in Royapettah, which was once a tram shed. She says, “There were hand-drawn jhatkas that ferried people to other places like Mylapore from Royapettah.”

Now, almost 70 years after trams became history in the city, a few like Saroja, Suryanarayan and Devadoss have lived to tell the story. Devadoss, who has lost his eyesight completely, says that even today when peanut vendors hit the stone against the vessel while roasting them, he is reminded of the trams. “I have climbed tall buildings and the Light House to have a view of it. They looked like chocolate boxes. I can still visualize the glee and excitement in me when I witnessed the sight, though I cannot see today,” he says. Saroja remembers that there was a minor problem in its operations and her father had to send her along with her two sisters by cycle rickshaws.

The tram tickets are a collector’s delight, says Suryanarayan, who is wistful while talking about parting with it. “I gave the 3/4 anna ticket, I had preserved for years, to a  friend, a stamp collector,” he says.

The trams represent the time when life moved at a snail’s pace, says Nivedita. “They have an old-world charm and a pace devoid of the fervor and hurry we have today in our lives,” she adds.