The Story of the Hidden: walking into Besant Nagar

This is a post by one of Kabadiwalla Connect’s research interns, Sinduja, who’s a student at IIT-Madras. Sinduja has been involved in collecting data from the field.

When I thought of the area ‘Besant Nagar’, one of the eastern most localities in Chennai city (sharing a border with the Bay of Bengal), I admit that what used to come to my mind was: a) the beach and b) Kalakshetra. Growing up in Chennai, those are the two attractions that I have identified the locality with.  However, with the determined purpose of mapping kabadiwalla shops in the locality, I set out one weekend there and what I found surprised me more than I’d like to disclose. 


The heart of Besant Nagar can be identified by rows of ‘cross streets’ (Google Maps estimates around 36), housing some of the most upper class, educated and esteemed people in the city.  The calmness that meets you when you chance upon these neighbourhoods in the afternoon is almost deafening. There is very minimal human activity, no traffic except for the occasional few vehicles visiting the beach and a sense of laziness creep in. Above all this, there is not a single “maligai kadai” (grocery shop) or any of the other smaller shops (no kabadiwalla shop either) that you would find in such a densely populated residential area. Some of the questions I had after I walked around for over three hours was, “Where are the people? Where is the activity?”

Kabadiwalla Shop in Urur Kuppam. 

Kabadiwalla Shop in Urur Kuppam. 


I found the answers to my questions behind the Bus Depot, behind Velankani Church and then behind restaurants like Dhindigul Thalapakatty and Subway. Not just ‘behind’ or ‘inside’ but well concealed. I use these words only because of the stark contrast that hit me once I stepped into these areas. From the calm, there was a sudden shift to chaos; an abrupt burst of activity and noise. The roads were narrower, buildings were crowded, shops flanking either side of the road and the smell of fish pungent. And the kabadiwallas that I hadn’t been able to spot after three hours of walking in what I understood to be Besant Nagar, I spotted immediately. They were situated in what we term to be “slum areas”, except the clients they served and the type of business they run aren’t exclusively a part of the immediate neighbourhood. In my time spent interviewing some of the owners, I noticed quite a few high-end vehicles come drop off cardboard or newspapers and drive away. Mr. Arul, of Chellathai Waste Paper Mart, told me, “We have three branches in this area only. It’s a family business.” And another owner said, “Without us, the city would collapse.”

Shop behind Astalakshmi Temple in Besant Nagar.

Shop behind Astalakshmi Temple in Besant Nagar.


For a group of businessmen who understand the importance that they have in the area and its workings, it is almost confusing as to why they would be hidden away or absent from what is understood as mainstream Besant Nagar. It might not be due to a conscious effort but it is definitely due to the way we view the area: Besant Nagar as a sophisticated locality overlooking the beach, where people take walks and jog on the pathways, where school and college-going youth come for leisure and where lovers unite. Adding waste-pickers or kabadiwalla shops to the mix definitely puts a dent on the picturesque portrait that Besant Nagar paints. This is not to say that every activity that doesn’t fit the bill is a well-concealed secret. In fact, while walking in the area, I spotted an ironing shop in almost every cross street. The kabadiwalla is as vital to the working of a household as the iron man is. No one wants accumulated newspapers or boxes strewn in their house. And yet, these shops are always a safe distance from the residential portion of the locality. 

Material stored outside a Kabadiwalla shop in Urur Kuppam.

Material stored outside a Kabadiwalla shop in Urur Kuppam.


Is it because we associate the nature of the work that they do to the place that they should be in? That because they collect waste – things we discard and don’t want to see anymore, they too must not be in our direct line of vision? If we take what we understand as Besant Nagar to be the centre of the area, then these shops are most definitely on the peripheries. Do they ruin our beautiful experience of Besant Nagar? On the contrary, I would say they add to it. By taking what we don’t want, they give us our pretty picture of leisure, fun and sophistication.  By being hidden, they let us enjoy the sites that are open to us. If we reveal them to ourselves, we open our minds to them and the ‘hidden’ becomes ‘unhidden’ and they gain the legitimacy that they don’t have. 

- Written by Sinduja Raja