Madras in words


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A net surfer recently wrote: ‘I live in Denver, Colorado. I met a padre from a local church in our gym. We swim in the same pool. He once asked me about the name Madras. He thought it came about because the British used this town to lock up all those who revolted against them. They called them Mad Rascals, in short Mad-Ras.’

There is another story with a similar twist. The British were amused by the fact that Vekatappa Naik could be crazy enough to gift away so much land to Francis Day (to build Fort St. George), asking in return only that it be named after his father Chennappa Naik (hence, Chennappattinam and then Chennai). So they called him the Mad Rasa, or the mad king. This single story explains both names, Madras and Chennai.

Someone else claims the name originated from Madri, wife of Pandu, official father of the Pandavas in the Mahabharatha. Madri was the mother of Nakula and Sahadeva, and is supposed to have come from this part of the country.

That’s the trouble with Madras, or any other city which has great spurts of history with ambiguous linkages. I once wrote in my Sunday column that the later White Madras is available to the historian, but not the period before that. Chunks of native history before the English settlement have been virtually lost in romance and myth. Given the Indian penchant for invoking and revering legends, that early history can hardly be reclaimed with any acceptable degree of objectivity.

Historian S. Muthiah – sometimes referred to as ‘Mr Madras’ for his passionate interest in the city’s history and heritage – picked up my lament and agreed whole-heartedly in his own column. He himself is, however, on an endless investigative spree, unearthing facts and fables that might help to patch up a forgotten fabric. There are, in fact, pockets in the metropolitan mapwork of this rapidly modernising city that still hide a treasure or two for the chronicler. Mylapore, the temple settlement, now struggles between trade and tradition. Spirituality, music, academics and islands of extreme conservatism jostle with breathless new commerce and traffic.

There are houses in Mylapore that still breathe in an ancient past. Artefacts and valuable old manuscripts are still being dug out. Coins from Roman times were found not too long ago. Senior citizens sit on pyols, brooding over their own versions of history. Preparing for an impressionistic book on Chennai, I wondered whether it was possible to sift history from myth and, indeed, if it was even advisable.

A city like Madras (or Chennai) is as much an idea as it is a living space. It is as much the sum of impressions gathered by people through the ages as it is the daily arena of those who struggle, enjoy and work out their lives. It is a socio-political laboratory where organised living is routinely experimented with. It can change with perspective, becoming different things to different people. This is the interesting aspect of working on a city like Chennai. Each book written about the city opens up a different avenue of ideas.

I was confronted with an endless list of books already written. I had once feared there would be little reference material to work with. Now it was apparent that there was too much. And the internet being a repository (and dumping ground) of information, there was that arena to be considered as well.

Taking a few of these books at random, let us look at their scope and success. Though many of them are repetitive and stick to already known areas, each one has, in one way or the other, its own contribution to make. For example, Chennai: Memory Chips (Legacy Publications, Chennai) is little more than a merry-go-round for tourists, relying heavily on earlier studies. However, for all that, it is also a compendium of quaint facts that come as a pleasant surprise, especially for the long-time Madras resident.



It neatly lists landmarks, pointing out to their ancestry. Did you know that the Kapaleeswarar temple tank in Mylapore was built on land gifted by the 18th century Carnatic Nawabs? More interesting, Muslims are permitted to come and bathe here during Moharram.

The Music College building (off Greenways Road) on the banks of the Adyar river was once the Brodie Castle. It was constructed in 1798 by an English civil servant, James Brodie. Now, after more than two hundred years, students of Carnatic music find fulfilment within its walls. Brodie himself drowned in the river in a boating accident.

The Cooum river, that ubiquitous life-line of the city which has thankfully sacrificed its much-touted stink for the sake of today’s generation, is mentioned in the Thevaram. And Mylapore finds a reference as far back as Ptolemy in 140 A.D.

On Cathedral Road, Hotel Chola Sheraton has replaced the old house where Gandhiji once stayed. It was from here in 1910 that he announced his satyagraha against the Rowlatt Bill. The book contains these random little peeks behind the curtain, delighting those who know only today’s Chennai.

In the city’s bustle, amidst the shrill call of the IT revolution, the pubs and fashion stops, the sleek glass and upstart high-rises, it would be interesting to occasionally pause and listen to such whispers of history.



The one man who has perhaps contributed most to our knowledge of the city’s past is S. Muthiah. If it isn’t through his regular newspaper columns and articles, it is through an unbelievable number of books probing and celebrating the city. His stated preference is for books of the coffee-table variety with profuse illustrations and lush production values.

His books include Madras Discovered, Tales of Old and New Madras, Madras – The Gracious City, Parrys 200, The Parry Story, Getting India on The Move, A Planting Century, Madras – its Past and its Present, The Spencer Legend, Madras – its Yesterdays and Todays and Tomorrows, At Home in Madras and The Spirit of Chepauk.

His book Madras Discovered (164 pages) which was written in 1981 has grown in leaps and bounds, culminating for the moment in the vastly enhanced Madras Re-discovered (417 pages). The book has broadly everything that the armchair historian needs to know about this city, beginning with Muthiah’s favourite enquiry into the origin of the city’s name. He throws up stories and interesting antecedents about landmarks and events. A remarkable example of how he peels away story after story from around a single focal point can be had from the piece on Chepauk. The name is now synonymous with cricket but he talks about the Chepauk Palace which once belonged to the Nawabs of the Carnatic but ended up housing government offices. Along the way, he traces the history of the nawabs, touches upon the Madras Cricket Club and rounds off its history, adding so many more facets to the unidimensional name.

Muthiah revels in peeking behind the curtain. Preserving the heritage buildings of Madras is a holy mission for him. To achieve this, he shares his stories of the past so that even laymen can begin to understand the value of these monuments. It is no secret that many who write about the city depend on him for information. Many a heritage building has also survived because of the interest he showed in its preservation.



However, I was fortunate to bring to his notice a little-known book of fiction that threw dappled light on the city during the turn of the nineteenth century. This is what I wrote in my Sunday Express column:

‘It is a novel by a woman named B.M. Croker who lived and wrote during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The publishers have provided little information about her and the novel itself is not dated. A little bit of detective work revealed that the story takes place around 1911. The author’s name rang a bell, harking back to conversations with my grandfather, and his collection of books. But I couldn’t, for the life of me, place this book. It was called In Old Madras. And it really is. But a White Madras. The Indians are either lowly servants or faintly disreputable heads of faintly disreputable companies right in the heart of Blacktown.’

‘You have a mansion in Egmore set on a vast rolling compound and of an evening there are balls and dinners and terribly focussed card games, magnificent coaches and cars driving up the impressive driveway and white sahibs and memsahibs dancing and gossiping and flirting and putting one over the other. To chill out (of course they don’t say that) they drive down to the club near the Island, which must be today’s Madras Gymkhana, and a beautiful-but-bored wife may leave her husband in mid-sentence in the heat of a summer evening and drive off down the promenade with an alternate escort. You have punkhas and polo and prim protocol. Mount Road, Marmalong Bridge, the Neilgherries – except for a bit of gymnastics with the spelling, they’re all there and so different from how we know them today. At one point someone says, "It’s in Blacktown! I beg its pardon – Georgetown!"

‘I wasn’t in the mood for long Jane Austenish fare. In fact, I had to grit my teeth and wade through the first few pages. And then I was coasting along. I couldn’t stop! It is an exciting story. A young Englishman, Captain Mallender, newly discharged from the army, sets out to India to find the whereabouts of his uncle, missing and declared dead for the last thirty years. He thinks the man in control of his estate is now impersonating his uncle and he wants to expose him. His adventures take him to interesting places and predicaments and he meets many strange people. The Madras we find in the book is a fascinating place of slow boulevards and leisurely life-styles. (Of course, you would have to be white and British.)

‘There is intrigue and deception, romance and love, excitement and adventure, physical pain and heartbreak. The ending is breath-stopping. The hero travels incognito and you are as tense as he is when he chances upon unexpected discoveries. When he arrives at a place named Panjeverram, I couldn’t help but exclaim: "Good Lord, are you talking about Kancheepuram, or have you misspelled some other name!"

‘It’s been a long time since I have read such a book. Robust and romantic and frankly unputdownable. It has its clichés and melodrama and pat situations, but what is life without those! And incidentally it gave me plenty of information about Madras in that sepia-tinted time. Madras according to Croker, that is’ (9 March 2003, New Indian Express).

Muthiah was so taken up by the reference that he immediately bought and read the book and discussed it at a Madras Book Club meeting. He found several holes in its authenticity, especially with regard to dates, but thoroughly enjoyed the spirit of the place it conjured up.



I would also like to make a passing reference to another book compiled towards the middle of the last century. History Of The World, edited by W.N. Weech and published by Odhams Press, London, is only relevant here for its brief conjecture about the quality of the Tamils. It probably explains the abundance of culture and trade, and the inward-looking native trait that discounted any ideas of expansionism: ‘The Tamil and Telugu states in the south, especially those on the coasts of Travancore and Madras, were rich and prosperous, and Tamil poets flourished. Their sailors took their cargoes of cotton to the Ganges and the Irrawaddy. But their soldiers were never formidable and, though boundaries shifted, no southern ruler ever looked like uniting India.’

And continuing with references to Madras, here are some extracts from Introduction to India by Toby Sinclair (Odyssey Guides, Hong Kong, 1991). ‘Despite its size and importance, Madras is a city that never hurries. Compared with India’s other major cities, Madras is a quiet backwater, conservative in its ways, with considerable importance placed on old-fashioned values and traditions. More women wear the traditional sari here than anywhere else in India; Brahmin men in finely woven white dhotis, their foreheads smeared with sandalpaste and sacred ash, go happily about their business, and every woman, regardless of status, has flowers in her hair.

‘For all this, Madras is a clean and efficient city. It has an excellent public transport system; its autorickshaw scooters are all new and well maintained… There are some unexpected contrasts: the garish Tamil film posters decorating sections of Mount Road; the massive cutouts of politicians; and the hysteria of political meetings are just a few. Although Madras presents fewer of the hassles and tensions common in other Indian cities, the main shopping centres are always throbbing with life… The people of Madras smile easily, have time for each other and are helpful to visitors.’



I had, for a long time, been looking out for a novel in English and set in Madras, written by a Tamilian named S. Y. Krishnaswamy. A grand-uncle had once certified that it provided an authentic portrait of the city of its time. It was called Kalyani’s Husband. There was a film of the same name, starring Shivaji Ganesan, and I wasn’t sure whether it was an adaptation of this novel. Surfing the net to locate the book, I came across several Kalyanis and their husbands, but not the ones I wanted. When I entrusted the job to my son, he effortlessly and triumphantly returned with the book, having found it among a cache of old retrieved tomes.

The author, in his introduction, claims that the story is based on the life of his cousin Kalyani and his friend Sekhar. He isn’t writing fiction but ‘about those who have been near and dear to me.’ He says his job is easy because he doesn’t have to invent, but difficult ‘because I have to betray confidences without consent.’ He is torn between the ‘surging flood of recollection straining at my reticence’ and his natural reluctance to wear his heart on his sleeve. He goes on to write that English novels of Indian life are ‘poor stuff’. Nevertheless, he has decided to ‘take the plunge’.



The language and manner of writing reminds you of a Hardy or Austen in spate. The novel begins in the grand manner with a stretched-out description of Madras (‘there are changes of fashion in a city, as in women’s clothes, but not of the same order of rapidity’). He describes people (merchant princes in their finery and the judges and leaders of the bar) and places (the commercial north and the more intellectual south). He is lavish about Mylapore, which he likens to Manchester. ‘What Mylapore thought today Madras thinks tomorrow.’ He devotes over five pages to this description, and never looks back throughout the novel. His descriptions are often tedious but follow the literary fashion of the day. He takes time to expand on various themes, intellectualising and philosophising, and even dwells at length on the intricacies of South Indian vegetarian cuisine.

Kalyani’s Husband is mostly light and descriptive, and is easily a tale of manners, though its hero dies at the end of the story. That the author is smitten by Victorian novels is obvious, and Madras takes the place of London. The novel was printed at the Huntley Press, Armenian Street, in 1957.

A name that keeps haunting you as you go about hunting material on the city is that of Randor Guy. He is a former lawyer named Rangadurai who uses his pen-name to intrigue readers into a world of whispered gossip and torrid romance, all from the bygone glitter of Madras. His chief playing field is cinema. There is little that he hasn’t discovered about the triumphs and tragedies of yesteryear heroes and heroines of the Tamil silver screen. He has a phenomenal memory which assists him as much during his lectures as when he is writing. It is through these lectures and his articles and columns that he shares his often shocking stories. One of these stories is about a rich and famous gentleman of the city who was fond of playing Krishna. Armed with a flute and a mischievous smile, he sat atop a tree as scantily-clad girls hired for the purpose pleaded for their clothes from his swimming pool. Guy’s ‘history’ of Madras is peppered with such almost unbelievable tales of drama and glitter.



His tales are peopled with legends like M.S. Subbulakshmi, Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, S.S. Vasan, MGR and a host of such unforgettable names. Already brimming with nostalgia, Guy further embellishes these names with his forays into a secret past.

The Story Of Fort St. George by Col. D.M. Reid, printed two years before independence at the Diocesan Press, has a foreword by the Madras Governor, Sir Arthur Hope. It was reissued in 1999 by Asian Educational Services (AES) in a trademark purple and gold edition. It is a small book, tracing the story of how the Fort was conceived and executed. Starting from Francis Day’s appeal to his superior Andrew Cogan to grab the opportunity and start work on a settlement at the site that he had negotiated for, to a grand tour of the Fort as it was during his time. He narrates the history of European interest in the area and how the British clinched their claim. There is a chronological table of events and illustrations showing the progressive changes in the premises. It is a brief study, focusing on the Fort and its historical background, adding to the numerous works on the city’s founding. The (short-lived) pride of the Englishman is evident throughout the book.



Another Englishman with a penchant for Chennai is Colin Todhunter. Reading more like a diary of his escapades in a hot and mystic land, Chasing Rainbows in Chennai (published by Hacktreks, Canada, and marketed by Zine5, Chennai) has been of late discussed and read at quite a few venues. It is a mixture of pained and amused observation that brings to life the small details of daily living that escape the average citizen. He begins with an arduous trip to a gym where ‘personality’ is more vital than any tedious workout. It sets the stage for a 100 odd-page saga of helplessness, discovery and acutely felt experience.

He has a wild two-wheeler trip to Pondicherry, a painfully one-sided love affair, and many encounters with fellow travellers with weird identity problems; he acts in a film, ponders on the mysteries of train travel and the ubiquitous vendor, he enjoys ‘meals’ in roadside restaurants and philosophises on almost everything he sees. It doesn’t help that he bears a strong resemblance to the Mumbai film star Sanjay Dutt. I met Colin in the beginning of last year. He was steeped in Chennai. It was a love-hate relationship that made him flee the city and then scamper back in no time at all.

These and many more raconteurs have sung about Madras that is Chennai. It isn’t over as yet. The layers are still being peeled away as story after fascinating story emerges, still waiting to lay bare the longed-for, elusive soul of the city.