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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XVIII No. 12, october 1-15, 2008
Another look at life
in Fort St. George
(Geeta Mahadevan)

When my father was transferred to Madras from Bombay, I threw every tantrum in my book of survival. I hated the thought of leaving my friends behind and when you are a teenager there is no life beyond friends. We lived in Churchgate in South Bombay which was a great place to live in compared to the rest of overcrowded Bombay and to me, at that point of my adolescent life, Bombay was a great place to live in anyway. So from bustling Bombay I was dragged unwillingly to Madras .

My father was allotted the government quarters inside Fort St. George, which at that time was mostly administered by the Army. My father’s office was also inside the Fort and the building on Body Guard Road was then only in blueprint. We moved into one of those huge, rambling, old structures inside Fort St. George and to me it was like being confined to the dungeons. The mansion (in the literal sense and not the Triplicane meaning of it, for it was nothing less than that) had 18 rooms on the ground floor and 13-odd on the first floor. That was for our family of three. It had been the house in which Robert Clive had lived while he was still a lowly clerk in East India Company and long before he became the empire builder (or so the story goes).

From the ground floor rose a wide staircase of stone which had iron rings driven into its corners which were used to tie the horses. The drawing room was 80 feet long and proved a nightmare for my poor mother when she wanted to arrange the sofas and coffee tables in it. The dining room could seat forty people comfortably, not that my mother ever intended throwing such a huge party at home. The other rooms had our meagre belongings. In the massive rooms, our beds, tables and chairs looked like dolls’ furniture.

We did not use any room on the ground floor. I would often go there with my beat-up Hitachi transistor or a Thomas Hardy (whom I developed a passionate love for) or assorted comics when I needed to hide from family and visiting relatives. I chose a room for myself at the back of the house . It had a long window which took up an entire wall and it was 12 feet high. After my bed, almirah and study table were put in, there was so much of the room left over . I loved my bathroom – it was just a little smaller than my massive bedroom. My father woke me up at five each morning to study and I would just lock myself in the bathroom, spread a bedsheet on the floor at the other end and curl up and sleep for another half hour.

My room had a view of the spire of St. Mary’s Church through the foliage. The clock in the tower would strike every quarter and the bell would toll every hour. While living in Bombay we had a view of the Rajabai Tower from every room of the house and all our clocks had died and gone to clockwork heaven. It was, therefore, wonderful to have a personal time-keeper. My life was divided into quarter hour durations from then on. For me, somehow, the quarter strikes meant a lot. It was like the God of Adolescents was reassuring me that life as I knew it was not going to end in misery. I would not be left friendless in the world.

After all the sulking came to nought I picked myself up and set about discovering the charms of the Fort. Soon I acknowledged to myself (I would never let on to my parents, though) that it was actually a fantastic place to live in. The entire Fort fell silent after five in the evening when the government staff left after work and as security was not an issue then there was only a lone policeman at the huge silver-coloured gates. I would stand in the long balcony that stretched the entire length of the house and gaze out eastwards, watching the blinking lights of the ships at sea, and conjure up stories of sailors and sea adventures. Sometimes I would see huge mounds of yellow sulphur waiting to be shipped to some place. I spent most of my time talking to myself, as I had no one else to talk to. Seemed as normal a thing to do – just as some people sing to themselves.

I learnt to love the darkness and the silence. Bombay had been bright and glitzy and I had revelled in it then, but the magic of the old Fort soon pervaded my soul. I spent my vacations flipping through the register in St. Mary’s Church, sitting in the pews and regarding the nave, and reading the tombstones in the yard. I thought of myself as some reborn Romantic poet and just sat down to soak in the atmosphere . I wondered at the people who had left the comfort of their familiar life and travelled this far to a strange land to make it their temporary home, hoping to return to their shores again someday but had not.

It was so safe inside Fort St. George that my parents never objected to my wandering around in it and most of the people knew whose daughter I was. Hardly any family lived inside the Fort . There were the barracks for the soldiers and other quarters occupied by sundry labourers. There was a small post office from where I mailed letters to Bombay and a small Army clinic where I went to see the Army Doctor when not well. The Army canteen visit was a chore I had to do for my mother every month. Sometimes, a soldier would stop to talk to me and discovering I spoke Hindi would be thrilled to hear me chatter – just to hear the familiar sounds of his mother tongue.

I often visited the Fort Museum to which very few people came and I walked around it pretending it was my private collection. Of course, I missed my friends and I wrote them long letters running into 20 pages or so, but I stopped missing Bombay. I fell in love with the history and romance surrounding me and sat up many, many nights hoping to see some apparitions. I would have settled happily for a bonnie ghostly child or a woman in white sweeping along if a headless rider would be difficult to come by . The doors and windows groaned and creaked at night and I felt they were recounting tales to each other and I only wished I could understand them. My mother, however, failed to enjoy any of this and spent most of her time praying that she would be protected from them.

I was inspired to scribble a lot of teenage poetry about silence and shamelessly copied the style of the English poets, but it helped me express myself. We lived there for two years and I changed from a teenage Bombayite who loved big cities to a more mature Madrasite (I hated being called a Madrasi even then) capable of introspection. I often think of my early days in Madras. When I drive along Kamarajar Salai (then called Beach Road) I see the house I lived in and its long balcony and then some rude road hog leans on his horn and wakes me up to Chennai.


(Savitha Gautam)

Alice in Indus-land

Empires of the Indus: The Story Of A River
Alice Albinia (John Murray, Rs. 550)

The Greeks called the Indus “the greatest of all rivers that flow into the Erythraean Sea.” Pliny the Elder called it “the western boundary of India”. Great emperors such as Alexander of Macedonia, Muhammad bin Qasim, Mahmud of Ghazni, Mohammed Ghori, Tamerlane and Babur crossed it.

Albinia’s riveting chronicle blends history and travelogue in narrating the nearly 4,500-year-old tale of the mighty Indus river. From the Indus Valley Civilisation to the present, the 3,180 km long river has been witness to great human tragedies and turbulent times. As The Guardian wrote, the book captures the “rich and varied heritage of the Indus in all its appalling splendour.”

The journey begins an untouchable clan in modern-day Karachi and relives the painful days of Partition. It then goes back in time to when the river was worshipped as a god and finds mention in the Rigveda. Nearly 5,000 years ago, nomads made homes on the banks of the Indus (also known as Pilou, Gurmukhi and Sengge Chu) that originates in the Tibetan plateau. However, the most important settlers on the banks of the river were those who created the Mohenjo-daro and Harappan civilisations.

Following the course of the river, Albinia meets different people who have their own stories to tell, which invariably link the present with the past, a past which saw the great Alexander of Macedonia, the Mughals and the British cross it during their conquests.

Alice’s encounter with the Sheedis, whose ancestors were slaves, led her to translate the works of ‘Musaffir’ Muhammad Siddiq, who recorded the history of the Sheedis. She chances upon the abandoned tombs of the kings of Sindh, who fought the East India Company, and then takes the trail that Alexander is believed to have taken. Her journey ends where the river’s journey begins – at the Tibetan plateau. An engrossing tale all the way.

* * *

Music was his religion

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer: Life and Music
– V. Subrahmaniam and Sriram V. (East West Books, Rs. 790)

Putting together a book on the doyen of Carnatic music is no mean task. That's what makes this centenary tribute to Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer an interesting read. As the blurb says, “In many ways, Semmangudi's life mirrors the progress of Carnatic music.”

Stringing together little known details of the singer’s life with more well-known facts, the authors paint the picture of a man for whom music was a religion. Each of the black and white photographs tells a story of its own. His days as principal of the Swati Tirunal Academy of Music were filled with introducing new courses and new voices to Travancore. Similar was his three-year stint as Chief Producer (Carnatic music) at AIR, when he even managed to get the reluctant T. Brinda to sing Dikshitar kritis on AIR. That he was responsible for the discovery of the dulcet voiced M.S. Subbulakshmi and his involvement in the unification of the Tyagaraja Aradhana in Tiruvaiyaru are the stuff of legend now.

There is enough spice in the form of the various controversies that Semmangudi courted. Such as his open dislike for critic Subbudu, his row with Balamuralikrishna over new ragas (they resolved it when Balamurali played viola for Semmangudi in one of his concerts), his role in the choice of the Music Academy’s Sangita Kalanidhi awards, and his most bitter war of words with Veena S. Balachander over Swati Tirunal.

His relationship with his fellow accompanists and, later, his students spoke a lot about his magnetic personality. For Semmangudi, however, what finally mattered was his music. Nothing more.

A free CD with a selection from various concerts of his over the years is a bonus.

* * *

India through the Ramayana

An Indian Odyssey
– Martin Buckley (Hutchinson, Rs. 495)

Here’s yet another book that tries to capture the ethos of a nation that is steeped in tradition but has embraced the latest technology whole-heartedly.

Buckley’s adventures began in the most unusual manner. He read the Ramayana and was fascinated by the complexities that India posed. Twenty years later, he visited the land of Lord Rama and traversed the length and breadth of it using various modes of transport – motorbike, bus, train and rickshaw. What he discovered fills the pages of this part travelogue, part historical, and part spiritual odyssey. The Ramayana becomes a key in understanding the nation that India is today.

Even as the book explores the religious and geographical aspects of India, it offers a peek at what makes the country's heart beat… that unique quality that defines Indianness – a nation where life moves on even as bombs explode and riots break out, a nation where contradictions co-exist, a nation where spirituality is a way of life.

That Buckley is deeply spiritual comes through even though he tries to lend a sensual slant to his experiences here. The book provides yet another perspective of India and its people.


(Vincent D'Souza)

Halwa, Iranis and street food

I revisited Mount Road recently. To check out Bombay Halwa House, once a favourite destination.

As the name suggests, this place is known for its halwa. But there are a few other things on its menu which have drawn people for over 50 years.

Bread and peas masala is one.

I was there on a Sunday and the young man who was in charge did not seem to be in a particularly good mood.

I had hoped to engage him in a conversation and catch up with the House’s recent development. I failed.

Wonder if it was the rain which had affected his business or was he simply bored with this trade?

Restaurants and eating joints have a lot to do with our lives. What they do, how they entertain people and their colourful histories tell us who we are.

I wanted to check out another place. Yes, an eating place in the busy Thousand Lights area of Mount Road.

The Irani Restaurant, a hole in the wall, was the last refuge of all those who had closed work after 11 p.m. and wanted to satiate their hunger with simple, hot, good food. Parathas and kurma or paya.

This Irani which had maybe six tables would be busy at that time. And that was the pre-BPO and IT boom era.

The Irani, which morphed into something unremarkable, is no more on the map of our city.

This Navaratri I intend to explore the Mint Street and Sowcarpet area to find out if the old has given way to the new and why.

The street food business is till alive and well in those parts. And a few new restaurants have opened up, offering authentic Gujarati and Marwari food.

The festival season should be the best time to explore.

One area where street food can become a huge draw if some things were done right is the Triplicane-Zam Bazaar hub.

You may not get the best biriyani and kebabs here now because the fastfood joints compromise a lot.

But if we were to clean up the inner streets after dusk, cut off the traffic, put out the tables and benches and begin cooking in the nooks, we would have a great food destination.





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Happy Birthday, CoC
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The Parsis of Madras
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