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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 11, september 16-30, 2009

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Vincent D'Souza's Madras Week Diary

Specimens from Madras sent to Darwin

Nostalgia: Darshan of the Mahatma

On the Bookshelves


Vincent D'Souza's

Madras Week Diary
By Vincent D’Souza

August 15: It is a wet day. A holiday. But in the cosy hall at Sri Parvati Gallery in Alwarpet, at least 40 people cheer the opening of a photo exhibition on Trees of Madras presented by Rod Hudson. And they stay on to listen to Prof. Dayanandan.

His talk on Darwin’s work and all that went before it and after it, in commemoration of the great thinker’s 200th birth anniversary, was a fascinating exercise.

Lakshmi Venkatraman who runs this gallery has always been keen to offer her space for Madras Day events – this year, they ran for the entire Week.

August 16: The opening Sunday of Madras Week always features a walk around Fort St. George. We keep that date though there is some threat of rain. 86 people, including 40 staff of L&T, a company which has supported Madras Day events, gather outside the Fort.

Archaeologist Dr. S. Suresh, still to recover from his assignment at the Guruvayoor Temple in Kerala, leads the walk.

Perhaps next year around, the Secretariat would have moved to its new address – Government Estates?

August 16: There is good news from Kilpauk. Deepa and her friends who put together the Kilpauk Walk have pulled it off after hiccups, dampers and disappointments. They start from the Votive Shrine church where the parish priest steps out to chat with the group, and end up at Pachaiyappa’s College. Walking for over two hours is a tough exercise. But they are glad they made it. Now, she’s had calls to repeat the Walk. Bravo!

August 16 evening: Dublin is packed. The bar-dance place at Hotel Park Sheraton is the venue for Randor Guy’s talk on Some Scandals that Rocked Madras. The hotel’s PR chief Pratima Vasan’s arrangements are just right. Guy is on his trademark roll. But at the end of it, I think it meandered a bit.

August 18: This is the day we set aside to host the Power Point presentation contest for city schools on less known landmarks of our city. 20 schools sign up and check in at Srinivasa Sastri Hall in Luz. Kavi Bharathi Vidhyalaya from Tiruvottriyur, North Madras, is the winner. The team chose to research on and present the Old Jail, now the campus of Bharathi Women’s College.

Later that evening, at the same venue, Pradeep Chakravarthy presented a talk on ‘Some Madras Temples in Songs and Inscriptions’. This was followed by three actors of Kala Nilayam drama troupe reading three essays from the book Cennaikku Vandein.

Pradeep e-mails feedback days later. Can we repeat some of the interesting talks/events of Madras Week because many  events clash and disappoint people? Can we record and post on the Web all the talks? How do we get the IT sector involved?

August 19 evening: S. Anvar, docu-film maker, design professional and researcher gets a full house at Amir Mahal for his talk on Muslims and Mosques of Madras.

A good number present here are at the Mahal for the first time and the Zenana hall is a unique place that the Prince has opened for this event organised by Chennai Heritage. The host offers a sumptuous ’tiffin’ and promises the best biryani for Madras Day 2010! We look forward to that!!

August 20 evening: Another person who has wholeheartedly hosted Madras Week is Kaveri Lalchand, designer, business person, actor and promoter of Madras Terrace House in Sripuram, Royapettah. Kaveri not only planned a week-long programme, she produced a bunch of Madrasi T-shirts and decked her walls with vintage film stills. This evening, actor, writer-activist Pritham Chakravarthy presented a solo performance on Stories of North Madras.

Pritham focussed on how water has always been an issue since Francis Day set foot on this shore and ribs the habits of Englishmen. I expected her to drown us in the colourful yarns of Kasimedu and Royapuram, Washermanpet and Mint.

Again, Madras Day fails to register in North Madras. How are we going to network the community and play hosts to events in that area?

August 21 afternoon: 60 students from Tamil medium schools file into a hall at P.S. School in Mylapore to take part in the Madras Quiz in Tamil.

This event is a conscious effort to get Tamil medium schools also involved in the celebration of the city. Revathi R. plans and presents this Quiz and two confident girls from Rani Meyyammai School in Raja Annamalaipuram win the rolling trophy.

August 22 morning: D. Hemachandra Rao and his team of Madras Heritage Lovers present an exhibition of coins, posters, books, pictures on the city at a hall in P.S. School campus. Rao also arranges for the release of a special postal cover on ‘Old Bridges of Madras’. Chief guest Rajesh Lakhoni, Chennai Corporation Commissioner, is terribly delayed for the formalities, but he does make it to the exhibition.

This is the third Madras Day event that features him. And we learn that Lakhoni is tuned in too. Under his stewardship, there are plans to resurrect V.P. Hall, the city’s original Town Hall, give Ripon Buildings a new life and organise a permanent exhibition and a sound and light show on the city there.

August 23 morning: Finally, New Horizon Media gets to release the Tamil translation of S. Muthiah’s Madras Rediscovered at a Madras Book Club event at Taj Connemara Hotel. This magnum opus had its beginnings in a small 160-page book that was priced at ten rupees. Now, the English version runs into 450 plus pages and the Tamil version to nearly 600 pages. The new publication is surely a timely addition to the small corpus of books on our city. (Three other books based on Madras were released during the week!)

August 23 after­noon: Members of the Indian Quizzing League present the Madras Quiz at P.S. School auditorium. And at the Alliance Francaise, five short docu-films with themes on the city are screened.

The latter is again an avenue to encourage more films on the city.

August 23 evening: We have sold 40 T-shirts with the new design on it – Shreyas’ version of the notorious autorickshaws of Chennai. It costs Rs.100 only.

And we have also chosen the winners of the Madras T-shirt Design Contest of 2009.

A band promises to mail us a MP3 version of a Chennai anthem they played this past week.

Late in the evening, in the TV studios of NDTV-Hindu in Perungudi, Jennifer and Saptarishi anchor a special segment on Madras Week. They are feeling good, just as I am.

A Madras Day Nature Walk

On Madras Day, Saturday, 22nd morning, a group of us, about 25 in number including media and a few visitors from Switzerland, assembled near the Forest Department board at Pallikaranai.

At about 7.15 a.m. K.V. Sudhakar, who led the walk, gave a brief introduction about the marshland, its history, the hardship faced to protect and save it. He led the group along the road, pointing out the various wetland birds that could be seen, periodically answering doubts and queries about both birdlife and also about how to handle waste sustainably.

Some of the birds sighted were coots, grebes, moorhen, purple moorhen, sandpipers, egrets, purple heron, grey heron, white ibis, glossy ibis, ­pelicans, painted storks, lesser whistling teal, other ducks, black kites flying overhead, one lone shikra, a probable osprey, blue-tailed bee-eaters, drongos, koels, prinias and tailor birds. Also spotted were many butterflies.

There was a team from NDTV who patiently plodded behind us and tried to capture ‘birders’ in their glory. The walk wound up at around 8.30.

V. Aravind

* * *

Dr. Alaganandham, Professor Chandrasekhar, Gnanaskandan, Carthic and I were in Topslip one recent weekend. We trekked to Karian shola, and saw Malabar parakeets, Common flameback, Heart-spotted woodpecker, Black-rumped flameback, Jungle babblers, Dark-fronted babblers, Hill mynas, Emerald dove and White-bellied treepies. We also met a Common Vine Snake (Ahaetulla nasuta) which was standing still on the trek path and gigantic orb webs of Giant Wood Spiders on the way.

On another trek by Carthic, Skandan and I, we came across the rarest sighting of the trip – the Wynad Laughing Thrush.

The Professor’s acquaintance with the CCF earned us a ‘special’ trip through the National Park. We were allowed to travel in our vehicle to the elephant camp where we spent about an hour. We also went on a safari ride in Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary where we had many good sightings of wild elephants on the banks of the reservior, nesting Dusky Crag Martin, a majestically perched Grey-headed fishing eagle and an awesome display of peacocks on the roadside – (Courtesy: Madras Naturalists’ Society Bulletin).

T. Varun

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 Specimens from Madras
sent to Darwin
(‘Pages from History’ by Dr. A. Raman, Charles Sturt University,
Orange, New South Wales, Australia.)

The world is celebrating on his 200th birth anniversary (b. 12th February 1809) the life and achievements of the English naturalist Charles Robert Darwin, who revolutionised thinking in organic evolution. I have come across some pointers that Madras was in some way connected to his evolutionary concepts. Of course, Darwin never came to Madras, but biological specimens from the Coromandel (~Madras) were sent to him. Moreover, Dr. P. Dayanandan, formerly of the Madras Christian College, recently referred to Darwin’s Origin of Species in his talk during Madras Week. I imagine my notes below would add to PD’s remarks.

Charles Robert Darwin


The pigeon specimens were sent to Darwin by Walter Elliott (1803–1887; later Sir Walter) who started as a civil servant in Madras and became Governor of Madras in 1858. Elliott distinguished himself as an archaeologist, and antiquarian, zoologist, botanist, linguist, and orientalist. He co-founded the Madras Society for Literature and Science in the 1830s. Several of his articles on the anthropology of southern Indians have been published in the professional journal published from Madras – the Madras Journal of Literature & Science (Sewell, R., 1896. Sir Walter Elliott of Wolfelee. A sketch of his life and a few extracts from his notes. Private publication, Edinburgh, Scotland).

In his 2-volume book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868, John Murray, Albemarle Street, London, UK), Darwin refers to specimens of the Indian Ground Tumbler, Indian Frill-back, Laugher, and Nun (preserved in alcohol–?) sent by Sir Walter from Madras as follows:

On the Indian ground tumblers: “Sir W. Elliot, however, writes to me from Madras that he is informed that they tumble exclusively on the ground, or at a very small height above it. He also mentions birds of another sub-variety, called the Kalmi Lotan, which begin to roll over if only touched on the neck with a rod or wand…From Madras I have received several specimens of the Common Tumbler of India, differing slightly from each other in the length of their beaks.”

On the Indian frill-back, Darwin remarks: “A specimen of this bird, in spirits, was sent to me from Madras by Sir W. Elliot. It is wholly different from the Frill-back often exhibited in England. It is a smallish bird, about the size of the common Tumbler, but has a beak in all its proportions like our short-faced Tumblers… Had this bird occurred in Europe, I should have thought it was only a monstrous variety of our improved Tumbler: but as short-faced Tumblers are not known in India, I think it must rank as a distinct breed. Probably this is the breed seen by Hasselquist in 1757 at Cairo, and said to have been imported from India.”

On the Laughers, Darwin remarks: “A pigeon which seems to say Yak-roo is mentioned in 1600 in the ‘Ayeen Akbery’ and is probably the same breed. Sir W. Elliot has also sent me from Madras a pigeon called Yahui, said to have come from Mecca, which does not differ in appearance from the Laugher; it has ‘a deep melancholy voice, like Yahu, often repeated.’ Yahu, yahu, means Oh God, Oh God; and Sayzid Mohammed Musari, in the treatise written about 100 years ago, says that these birds ‘are not flown, because they repeat the name of the most high God.’ Mr. Keith Abbott, however, informs me that the common pigeon is called Yahoo in Persia.”

On the Nuns: “Nuns are symmetrically coloured, with the head, primary wing-feathers, tail, and tail-coverts of the same colour, namely, black or red, and with the rest of the body white. This breed has retained the same character since Aldrovandi wrote in 1600. I have received from Madras almost similarly coloured birds.”


“We have seen that according to Labat the vine and wheat require acclimatisation in order to succeed in the West Indies. Similar facts have been observed at Madras: ‘two parcels of mignonette-seed, one direct from Europe, the other saved at Bangalore (of which the mean temperature is much below that of Madras) were sown at the same time; they both vegetated equally favourably, but the former all died off a few days after they appeared above ground; the latter still survive, and are vigorous healthy plants.’ So again, ‘turnip and carrot seed saved at Hyderabad are found to answer better at Madras than seed from Europe or from the Cape of Good Hope’.”

Darwin’s remarks (reproduced verbatim) offer interesting insights into elements of biogeography and natural hybridisation of the floral and faunal elements of the Coromandel of the 19th Century.

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Darshan of the Mahatma
(By Dr. J.D. Ramanathan)

In 1946-47, I was in class VII, in M.E.A.H.S. School, Reading Road (later Mandir Marg), New Delhi, and won the class First Prize. The prize had several books, one of them being My Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi. During the summer vacation I went through the book with great interest. I found a vivid depiction of the hardships Gandhiji underwent during his stay in South Africa. I immediately made up my mind to get a glimpse of this extraordinary person and be motivated by him.

At that time, V. Kalyanam (now an active 87 in Chennai) was working with my father in the Defence Ministry. He left his job, started wearing khadar kurta and pyjama and enrolled himself in the service of Mahatma Gandhi.

Whenever he visited us in Mandir Marg he would give us a vivid picture of Gandhiji. It seems during the meeting between Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in Shantiniketan, impressed by Gandhiji and his way of life, Tagore called him Mahatma and he became thereafter known as Mahatma Gandhi.

I remember my father telling me that he had served Gandhiji in Yerwada Jail, Poona, in 1932. At that time, my father couldn’t get a suitable job. One day, depressed, he approached Gandhiji in the jail for some help. After making a thorough enquiry about the family’s conditions, Gandhiji decided to take my father as a typist for his English correspondences. He asked my father to come daily and after the work leave the jail premises without giving his identity. Most of the letters were typed on postcards, Gandhiji telling him that what could be typed on a postcard should never be typed as a letter needing an envelope.

After three months of association with Gandhiji, my father managed to get a job in the Defence accounts in Pune, and left with Gandhiji’s blessings.

After spending some time in the ashram at Wardha, Gandhiji came to Delhi and wanted to stay in the scavengers’ colony (Bhangi Colony) near the St. Thomas High School for Girls and not far from our residence.

Streams of people, including Congress Party leaders and others dignitaries, poured into the Colony for his darshan. One day, I too followed them to Bhangi Colony to listen to his prayer meeting, which was held daily from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. The surging crowd was so dense that I was jostled and pushed to the front and finally landed up in the area where the prayer was scheduled to be held. Suddenly there was hushed silence and the Mahatma was led to the stage by his two grand-daughters. He sat with both legs stretched to the left and pressed his right hand on the dais to stabilise himself. He had a white khadi towel on his bald head to protect himself from the heat of the scorching sun. What an awe-inspiring impression he made on me.

He started his prayer speech in Hindi and spoke of the seven blunders of the world:
a) Wealth without work, b) Pleasure without conscience, c) Knowledge without character, d) Commerce without morality, e) Science without humanity, f) Worship without sacrifice and g) Politics without principle.

When he finished there was chorus singing of Raghupathi Raghava Rajaram. As we listened to these words and joined in singing, each one of us in that vast crowd seemed to be in a trance. Exactly at 5 p.m. the prayer meeting came to a close and the crowd dispersed in an orderly manner.

A few days after this, I learnt that charka classes were being held there and joined them. I bought a portable box-like charka and started to practise the ginning of cotton from the seeds and spinning the cotton into fine thread and soon gathered a few bundles of spun-cotton. During one of the classes, Gandhiji came out and sat in front of my row and started spinning on his old charka. It was awesome sitting in front of the ‘Mahatma’!

The annual school function that year was presided over by Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) and T. Prakasam, two national leaders with different personal views. I was asked to garland them and, to everyone’s surprise, I did so with my spun cotton harams (garlands) instead of usual flower garlands.

The applause that followed remains with me to this day.

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(By Savitha Gautam)

Discovering a Muslim father

Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey through Islamic Lands
Aatish Taseer (Picador India, Price: Rs. 495).

As the subtitle suggests, this debut novel traces a son’s relationship with his estranged father. Taseer describes the embarrassment, frustration and occasional joy of meeting his father, and of approaching a cultural and national identity which painfully excludes him.

As a child, all Aatish had of his father was his photograph in a browning silver frame. Raised by his Sikh mother in Delhi, his Pakistani father remained a distant figure, almost a figment of his imagination, until Aatish crossed the border, when he was 21, to finally meet him.

In the years that followed, the relationship between father and son revived, then fell apart. Their tension had not just to do with the tensions of a son rediscovering his absent father – they were intensified by the fact that Aatish was Indian, his father Pakistani and Muslim. The relationship forced Aatish to ask larger questions: Why did being Muslim mean that your allegiances went out to other Muslims before the citizens of your own country? Why did his father, despite claiming to be irreligious, describe himself as a ‘cultural Muslim’?

Travelling from London through Istanbul, Damascus and Mecca, to Iran and Pakistan, Aatish tries to find answers to these questions. Written with a rare clarity of thought and fluidity, the book strikes a note of elegance and minute detailing.

Stranger to History is also the story of Aatish’s own divided family over the past fifty years. Part memoir, part travelogue, it is probing, stylish and troubling, It is also an absorbing read.

* * *

The literature of the North

Knit India Through Literature – North
Sivasankari (Westland Books, Rs. 900).

The fructification of a dream 17 years ago! That’s what writer Sivasankari’s project is all about. The fourth and final volume of her magnum opus concentrates on writers in the North Indian languages.

With this mega literary venture, Sivasankari hopes to introduce Indians to fellow countrymen and showcase a rich and powerful literary heritage.

She travelled the length and breadth of the country, interviewing many writers, some famous and others not-so-well-known, to feature them and their work in a series divided into four regional volumes. Sivasankari puts before readers a collective thought process where similarities co-exist with cultural differences. Her research may reveal that every creative person is proud to be an Indian. But the concerns they express in their work are also common – poverty, lack of basic education, gender discrimination and, of course, caste prejudices.

Twenty two authors make it to the North Indian volume, including six women and two Dalit writers, Balbir Madhopuri (Punjabi) and Mohan Dass Nemishray (Hindi). Other authors featured include Prof. Rahman Rahi (Kashmiri), Prof. Gurdial Singh (Punjabi), Qurratulain Hyder (Urdu) and Nirmal Varma (Hindi). Samples of their writings, brief profiles, and a brief history of each of the languages are combined in the book.

* * *

World of Indian Mus­lim women

The Hour Past Midnight
Salma; translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom (Penguin, Rs. 350).

“... Friendships are made and broken, families come together and fall apart, and slowly change creeps in and before they know it, the women’s lives are changed for ever…”

These lines from the blurb sum up the essence of this translated version of the Tamil novel Irandaam Jaamangalin Kadai. The Tamil poet Salma shocked many conservatives with her bold writing that exposed female subjectivity and the foregrounding of female desire in a male-dominated Muslim society. The characters in the book, be it the young and nubile Rubia or the grandmother Nuramma, stand as examples of a community where the women’s lives are confined within a suffocated, constricted circle. Some of them dream and dare in a small way, but how far can they go?

Yet another striking aspect is the loneliness of the women. They carry their loneliness inside like a little flame to cherish. It’s their secret strength. Or they wear it like a second skin, acquired early in life. It’s inescapable, it becomes their refuge.

Through this work, Salma allows readers a peek into the heartbreaking world of Muslim women in India.

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