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Footprints of the Company


Looking back at Madras, which was an important cog in the Raj wheel.

STATELY: The Madras Club, favourite halt of the English.

In the 1800s an Englishman said of Madras, "A worse site was never chosen for a great city!" But Madras has charmed its way to the rank of a metropolitan city.

The English first began their trading activities in 1626 near Pulicat, but their sojourn was brief. In 1639 Francis Day of the East India Company chose Madras as the new site of the company, and in 1640 the Fort of Madras was named Fort St. George. By the 1850s Madras Collectorate had 16 sub-divisions.

Europeans visiting Madras in the 1700s stayed in "Punch houses," so called because they served a cocktail of limejuice, sugar and alcohol. But by the 1800s they had more choices. An Englishman could rent a room at the Madras Club for just fifty paise a day. The Madras Club had the biggest bar of all clubs in the country, but it was a male preserve. While the men enjoyed a drink, the women would retire to the `hen house!'

Rooms were also available in hotels like Ayyah Mudaliar Hotel, Velu Mudaliar Family Hotel and Myrtle Grove, all in Mount Road.

Visitor's delight

There was nothing much to see in Madras in the mid 1800s. There were a few shops on Mount Road, like Pharaoh & Co. and Higginbotham, both booksellers. The former was also a general European warehouse and even published a weekly newspaper called "The Athenaeum." Shops like Wren Bennette, and Whiteaway & Laidlaw came much later. The English used to refer jocularly to the latter as `Right away and Paid for' because one always had to pay in cash.

Spencer's founded in 1882 was patronised by the rich. The Nizam of Hyderabad once bought up all the shoes in Spencer's so that he could choose the pair he wanted at his leisure.

Englishmen often travelled by boat through Cochrane canal to Ennore. The salt-water lake there was an angler's delight. The successful angler could boast of the day's catch at the club in Ennore, which also had card rooms and billiard tables.

LANDMARK: Higginbothams

Englishmen feared the monsoons, and insurance companies refused to compensate shipping companies for losses incurred during the monsoon season. In 1807, as a result of a hurricane, seawater inundated the Town. The bottom of a ship of 800 tons, which had burnt down in 1797, was washed ashore near the Parry's office. In 1846, as a result of a severe cyclone the observatory anemometer broke down and one of the pillars of the Elphinstone Bridge was blown off.

The British in charge of administration were paid fantastic salaries. A secretary in the Revenue Department in Madras was paid Rs. 3,333 a month in the 1850s. Civil servants also had fabulous pensions, and it used to be said that a civil servant was worth a 1,000 pounds, dead or alive.

But getting into the civil service was tough. The exam consisted of 12 papers for a total of 6,875 marks. New appointees in addition to their other duties had to learn Tamil.

Anglicised Tamil

The attempts of the English to learn Tamil had hilarious or disastrous results, depending upon how one chose to look at it. `Nadi' meaning river became `nuddy,' and `aaru' also meaning river became `ar.' Maps often used both words and the word river too and would refer to a river as "nuddy ar river." Indian names were Anglicised. Srirangam, for example, became Sheringham. With such maps, it was no wonder that regiments often got lost.

The locals mutilated English names too. Collett of the East India Company, who built a Varadaraja temple near Tiruvotriyur, had his name mutilated to `kaalaadi,' which in Tamil means scoundrel. Landon's Gardens behind Kilpauk Medical College became London Thottam, and even today KMC is referred to as London Thottam hospital.

Letters posted on behalf of the East India Company did not bear postage stamps, but had the words `On Company's Service' or `OC' written on them. In course of time `OC' in Madras slang came to mean `free.'

It is a cliché, but one worth repeating, that Madras is a mosaic of cultures. Tamil scholar Ra. Pi. Sethupillai pointed to the Persian influence on the city. In Persian `bunder' means harbour, and sure enough there is a Bunder Street not far from the Madras harbour. There are names redolent of the Telugu influence too.

Yes, Madras a.k.a. Chennai whose founding day was celebrated on Monday last, does have its drawbacks, but one will find that it has a way of growing on you.

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