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Inspiration from Madras

Some of the great names of English literature had connections with the city of Madras as it was then. RANDOR GUY uncovers some of these links.



Somerset Maugham

VERY few are aware that Madras has had links with some of the leading writers of Britain. The links are of many kinds and interesting though not all of them had visited Madras.

Such eminent literary figures were Sir Walter Scott, William Makepeace Thackeray, Jane Austen, and, last but not the least, William Somerset Maugham.

Sir Walter Scott, the founding father of historic fiction in Britain is a familiar name to Indian readers of English literature, thanks to his popular fiction known as "Waverly" novels like Rob Roy, Ivanhoe, Kenilworth and Quentin Durward.

Interestingly all the Waverly novels by Scott since 1810s were published anonymously under the odd pseudonym "Jebediah Cleisbotham" or "Author of Waverley".



Sir Walter Scott

It was only in 1825- 1826 after a severe financial crash suffered by him the secret of the successful writer's real name surfaced!

And in 1827 Scott wrote in his own name, The Surgeon's Daughter, which had the link with Madras. How did Scott get to hear about the City of Fort St. George half a world away about which he knew nothing?

Thereby hangs a tale of the East India Company era, of corrupt officials, and above all the smart, crafty and famous — more notorious — dubhash, Avadhanam Paupiah. In the Purasawalkam area of the city, one can still see "Avadhanam Paupiah Road". Who was he?

One of the most colourful key figures of the 18th-19th Century Madras, he was involved in many a scam.


There have been dubashes and dubashes but none ever so controversial as he was. He created history in many ways. His life reads like a typical American Horatio Algerish tale and is certainly a rags-to-riches story. He rose from very humble beginnings and reached the pinnacle of success and later he fell, due to his own avarice and crookedness.

Avadhanam Paupiah was a Telugu Brahmin from Nellore, which was then part of the kingdom, ruled by the Nawab of Arcot. He learnt English and also Persian, the court language of the Nawab. With his own lingo Telugu, he was a more than competent linguist. With these acquired skills and his own inborn talent, he sought employment in Fort St. George and became a "writer" (clerk who writes or copies documents and papers) in the Sea Customs department.

During that period, the department was situated inside Fort St. George. Indeed Madras and Fort St. George were then synonymous. He was in charge of keeping "anchorage accounts" under an English officer who was immensely impressed by the Brahmin writer's many-sided talents and skills. .

Paupiah rose quickly up the ladder and became a dubhash to the Holland Brothers. John and E. J., and most of their deals were put through him.

The two Hollands had considerable influence and clout with the East India Company and both became members of the Council of the Government. Both were highly corrupt and the smart writer proved an excellent handyman to put through their deals, shady and otherwise. His talent to cook up evidence at the drop of his turban, as it were, proved an incredibly welcome asset to his employers!



W.M. Thackeray

John Holland rose to become the Governor of the Madras Presidency though only for weeks in 1789. Dishonest, he indulged in every kind of fraud to enrich himself. He sold offices and jobs at attractive prices and took commissions for every deal of the Government.

His brother was no better and the Holland Brothers made merry at Fort St. George and amassed huge fortunes in the process. Their favourite agent and dubhash helped them with many deals. At one stage, he was so close to them that even the Nawab of Arcot had to go through him to meet the Governor in an emergency!

In the Governor's Council was a member, Haliburton, a close relative of Sir Walter Scott. An honest officer, he hated the Holland Brothers and proved a thorn in their flesh! No wonder they wished to get rid of him.

Paupiah seemed to be the perfect hatchet man for the job! With his manipulative talents, he landed Haliburton in deep waters.

However, soon Lord Cornwallis, the then Governor- General of India at Calcutta, took notice of the corrupt practices of the Holland Brothers but they proved too smart and escaped unpunished to England.

But, charges were framed against Avadhanam Paupiah and a few others for conspiring against Haliburton. The trial was held on July 11, 12 and 13, 1792 and, after 27 hours, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of "Guilty". Paupiah was fined 2000 pagodas and was lucky to escape with such minor punishment.

Back in England, Haliburton brought out a book setting out the truth entitled "The Trial of Avadhanam Paupaiah" published in England in 1793. This book was ghost written by Scott and also printed by him.

Scott made use of the scam in The Soldier's Daughter, and the most telling passage reads as follows: "The artful Hindu, master counsellor of dark projects, an Oriental Machiavelli, whose premature wrinkles were the result of many intrigues, without scruples, to attain political or private advantage."

* * *

Jane Austen (1775-1817), the creator of classic novels, like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, is still very popular. She had a spinster cousin, Philadelphia, and the Austen family succeeded in sending her to Madras.

That was when white women were in short supply in Madras and many British spinsters made their way here and invariably found husbands quickly. Philadelphia too succeeded in landing an East India Company official.

However, soon she became the mistress of a Company official destined to become one of the key figures in the History of the British Indian Empire, Warren Hastings. The affair resulted in the birth of a daughter, Eliza.

She returned to England. Jane was so much impressed by her charm and beauty that she had her married to her favourite brother, Henry Austen! Hastings left Eliza a large legacy, which made all happy! Being a prim and proper spinster, Jane Austen did not use the family scandal in any of her novels.

* * *

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), the writer of one of the most famous novels of English literature, Vanity Fair, was born in Madras Presidency. His father was a judicial officer in Madras and served as judge in the districts.

Sadly, he died young and soon his mother remarried in Madras. And she packed off the growing, sensitive lad to England. He wished to follow his father's footsteps and study law. However soon he gave up such ambitions and chose to become a writer. The little boy had heard his father tell his mother that Madras was the healthiest place in India! But he never returned, maybe because of the traumatic memories of Madras.

* * *

Gulstone Addison was one of the Governors of Madras; he died in office and had no issues. His estate was vast and his immense fortune went to his brother, the famous but poor writer Joseph Addison. He was in love with the Countess of Warwick but he could not afford to marry her because of his poverty.

However he kept the flame burning bright writing passionate love letters to his inamorata. When fortune from Madras reached him in London, the happy man lost no time in marrying the Countess. Addison is considered even today as one of the finest writers of English Prose.

* * *

William Somerset Maugham travelled to many parts of the world looking for story material. In such search he visited Madras during late 1930s and met the great seer, Sage Ramana Maharishi at Thiruvannamalai.

Much impressed by him he used him as model for the "Holy Man" in his best- selling novel The Razor's Edge. That was not all. He also wrote a brilliant essay on him, "The Man On The Hill". Maugham also met Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyer and interestingly, in his novel The Narrow Corner (1932) he named a character, <243>`Ramaswamy Iyer'!

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