MUSIC blared from portable PA systems and the makeshift stalls were festooned with brightlycoloured salwar kameez suits and elegant kurta. A seething mass of humanity snaked its way through the shops, browsing, bargaining, buying and, sometimes, just basking in the festive air.
Indian sweets of vivid hues and the aroma of thosai enticed hungry passers-by, arms loaded with plastic bags, into restaurants.
The main street, lined with arches, was clogged with traffic, and from my vantage point at the corner of an alley, the train of cars and buses seemed endless. Motorcycles deftly twisted their frenzied way to nowhere and at one point, an ambulance burrowed through the vehicular morass, siren screeching in an almost futile attempt to reach its destination.
The night sky was almost lost in the blaze of street lights and neon signs.
I sighed ... it was the week before Deepavali, and I was in Chennai.
Okay, I’m kidding ... I was actually in Little India, Brickfields of KL, waiting for my missus and mum to finish their tour of the stalls. But we could well have been in any south Indian city, so authentic was the atmosphere.
Later, as we drove out, I spied the remnants of the legendary “Pines” row of Chinese restaurants, demolished to make way for a modern complex.
Nostalgia prodded me. Back in the mid1980s, I lived in Brickfields – not the notorious Lido area but what is now Little India – for three years, after returning from India, where I had spent a decade and a half.
Having no place to stay initially, I crashed with friends. Brickfields was “home” to the years that I struggled to earn a living as a writer and photo-journalist, my handful of possessions being my clothes, books, guitar, camera and rackety old typewriter.
The Pines row was where we – my new friends, mostly newly-employed twentysomethings – would treat ourselves to dinner and booze when we could afford it. The wee hours would inevitably find us in the last restaurant open for the night, for a final round before we stumbled back to our rooms.
Saturday night, especially, was a time for extended revelry. Then, late Sunday morning, nursing hangovers, we would crawl into Mathais’ crowded stall at the Peking Hotel, not far from The Pines, for his famed fried fish, chicken curry and rice. The piping hot food fixed our hangovers; after that, Sundays were easier to get through despite the spectre of Monday.
Some days when I wasn’t broke, I would drop by the Anthonian bookstore to pick up sci-fi books on sale.
I moved a couple of times, but always near The Pines and under the shadow of the gigantic – so it seemed then – Crescent Court condominium, which lent the area a dash of class. Hey, it was the 1980s!
One place I rented was a tiny room in a flat behind the Sri Kota supermarket. Some nights, I would spend hours pounding on that typewriter, then suddenly realise it was 4am and I was hungry. The short walk to the hive of hawkers at the corner near the supermarket took care of that. Also located in the area was “Gandhi’s” stall; so delicious were the fried rice and noodles, we believed the dark arts were evoked in their making!
Like The Pines, most of these places are now gone, and as I drove away that humid night before Deepavali, I realised I missed the old Brickfields. Sure, it had a big drain running along the main road then but the occasional flood only added to the character of the place!
This century’s Brickfields may be more “cosmopolitan” but its “Malaysian-ness” seems to have receded deeper into the alleys.