Chennai days – Part 2

The family jewels had shrunk to the size of grapes with the onset of fear and I was shaking at the knees. Well, a typically argumentative Malayali would ask, which type of grapes? The minuscule Salem Drakhsi or the bigger seedless Angoran type, with mirth on his face and I would be tempted to take at swipe at that smirking mug, but well, this was all really in t mind, as they say, especially those who make comments sitting relaxed in their arm chairs. Then again, this fear must have come about from Krishna Iyer’s comment – ‘be careful or they will cut it off’. As you can see, I was young and had a life ahead, and the family jewels were important. Nevertheless….I had taken the plunge.

People who had read the first part of this note would recall my plans of stepping into the hallowed environs of the Amir Mahal. The desire was exacerbated by our school ‘shikhshana’ of not balking at anything. ‘Go for it’ was the motto and so here I was. I had stood in front of the gates for a few minutes, across the road, gathering myself and the courage, watching the old watchman and his moves intently. He stepped away for a minute and I moved in, purposefully, as though I belonged. I quickly walked through the tall brick gates stained a dull red (like oldish betel spit) and into the Mahal.

Simple, was it not?

It is all in the mind, I kept telling myself again, this is free country, there is no problem out there and there is nothing to worry. I do not recall now if it said, ‘private property – keep away, entry by permission or trespassers will be prosecuted (or castrated)’ or some such thing. But I definitely know that there were no skull and bones pictures and the watchman seemed a ‘namke vaste’ geezer, the remains of wealthy days of the Nawab, vestiges long trimmed by the passage of time. But the sharp nag at the back of the neck and chest remained, for I was convinced I was in a place, a place I should not be in – maybe due to everybody else saying I should not go there. At that time I did not know that the Nawab and the people inside were a gentle lot.

It has always been like that with me, some friends may remember my experience with the taxi driver or the jump into the pond, articles published elsewhere. Act first, think later was my motto in those impulsive younger days. So that morning, on my way to the bus stop, on a Saturday, alone and lonesome, I was out planning to go for the Mardi Gras at IIT Adayar, which none of the others in Ambika Nivas were the least interested in, I decided to step into Amir mahal and take a look at the prohibited grounds, the place from where all those burkha clad females and shehenai wadan had emanated. I had to clear the mystery in my mind.

I did not know then, that it was an alternate living arrangement offered by the government to the Prince of Arcot, or that it was the Royapettah police court which got converted to a palace and thence renamed Amir Mahal. I did not know also that the Amir Mahal was actually converted to a 70 room place in 1875 by an Englishman, Robert Chisholm, with designs based on Queen Victoria’s Osborne house. The owners were finally shifted from the Shadi Mahal (Before that they were in the Chepauk palace or Kalas mahal) to the Amir Mahal, with their entourage. A few other things I did not know - Why was it called Amir mahal? Because it was the palace of the Amir-i-arcot or the Prince of Arcot, as he was renamed after the Nawab title ceased to exist. Maybe it was ‘emir’ which transliterated to ‘amir’, but I have to correct many that it was not ‘Amir’ as in rich, but ‘amir or emir’ as in chieftain. In the old days, sentries with rifles stood at the gates while the Nawab’s army band played in the rooms above the gate arch. Or that the Nawab still gets Rs 1.5 lakh or thereabouts as pension from the Govt of India.

I also did not know then that the Arcot prince in the early 20th century had purchased the first Rolls Royce in Madras, but that he was bitterly disappointed because it ran silent and he could not make an event of his arrival with that statuesque car. I also did not know that this was not to remain so, for a clever local mechanic (probably an Anglo Indian for they were the best repair men of the old days) of Royapettah used his spanner cleverly and loosened a few strategic screws, perhaps a trick that would have frowned upon by the RR engineers in Derby, to provide the prince with the right amount of noise from the tails and the exhaust and elicit admiring looks from passers by. Yeah! The big man cometh!!! vazhiye maruda...peria nawab vanthitte irukku....

I also did not know that anybody could go into the Amir Mahal on Id or Ramzan days for lavish tea parties, for I would have waited in that case and not taken this unholy risk. Anyway I was there, but I did not walk though the 14 or so acres that the grounds cover, I had entered the grounds, done the deed, now all I wanted to do was slip out without getting caught. I walked back and forth through the Zenana courtyard for a bit, sheepishly looking at the trees and aging buildings, the houses needing new paint probably, seeing eucalyptus and coconut trees between the buildings, remembering the sighing sound created by the tall eucalyptus trees swaying in the wind in Trivandrum, only there was no wind in the sultry Madras areas, the coconut trees looking sick and tired, they were not at home, I thought, home being the shores of Malabar.

There were plenty of people milling about for they were all related to the upkeep of the 600 or so members of the Royal family living within those many acres of land and buildings. I had no intentions of getting waylaid and being asked questions and then submit to the cleaver and the loss of the jewels. Yes, there were plenty of Burkha clad ladies wandering here & there, maybe with purpose, I do not know. So I beat a hasty retreat, deflated somewhat, not seeing pomp and glamour, or sights unseen, but nevertheless with an adrenaline rush still on high… The website of the Nawab shows many a dignitary visiting him, including Bill Clinton, but my in and out trip was over and done with in a jiffy, was not captured in camera for posterity and I still have my crown jewels. Finally I was out, quickly heading out to the next bus stop near Woodlands looking for the 5B going to Adyar.

And there I spent the next few hours and the evening, in the company of two pretty Gujju girls from Mylapore, whom I met during the bus ride, also going out across the river and Annie Besant’s home to witness the festival at IIT. It was indeed a gala time, and the last part was quite a scene. We witnessed a not so good Bharatnatyam performance by the ‘dream girl’ Hema Malini, and watched her being pelted onstage by all kinds of missiles, mostly of the paper variety, though I would not be wrong to say that one or two were of the soft and watery reddish vegetable variety. A miffed Hemaji stopped her performance, remonstrated to the crowd, that she had never seen a more rowdy group and walked away. Fortunately Dharam-paaji was not around to give it back to the public. And we all had a pretty good laugh...Ah! the vagaries of youth...

But nothing beats the proposition I got while wandering through milling crowds at lunch time to the Armenian and Thambu Chetty street restaurants some days thereafter. I was in a hurry, for my pals at Crompton’s were holding a seat for me in some eatery. Feeling a light tug on my shirt, I looked down, to see a small urchin with a pleasant face. Now I can continue to wonder forever why he chose me, but the fella asks – ‘sir – girl’s venama? (Want girls?) -Very good – Bombay, Goa, Kerala, just name your choice’. I was flabbergasted. What the heck – in the middle of the street, amongst this entire crowd, at 1PM in the afternoon. What a gall? And I just asked the question that came naturally. ‘Enappa – neram enna nu unakku theriyuma? Like – do you have any idea what time it is?’ And the boy answers - rather retorts – ‘sir – ithukellam time irukka? Is there a time for these things?’ Well – I had no answer to that – and walked away – man – that was the limit, got me thinking anyway.

You know what – the location of Ambika Nivas was really great. We had Quaid-e-millet women’s college down the corner, Ethiraj not far away, SIET some miles down. So as Tamilians say it was a great locale for 'color watching'. The cycle, auto and electronic market of General patters were close, cross the road and Higginbotham’s was a landmark. The biggest building in town, the LIC building was a stone’s throw away and after the Thousand lights mosque, we had the Southern Chinese restaurant down Mount road to top it all off. There were movie theaters all around and many a restaurant or smaller eating places.

Those days I used to wonder why the bus stop was called Ayiravilakku or ‘thousand lights’. Well there appears to be confusion even today - It is said that 1000 lamps needed to be lit in order to illuminate the assembly hall in the Wallajah mosque. So people believed that the name came from this or the Thousand Lights Mosque. However, there are other people, who maintain that a thousand lights were lit by the Indian National Congress to mark their first meeting in Madras. The December 1887 session was held in Mackay's Garden, just off Greame's Road, placing it squarely in Thousand Lights, but, whether there were a thousand lamps lit or not, nobody knows. I think the former is more appropriate, but the paraffin or electric bills are bound to be horrendous anyway for I have seen such halls and many hundred lamps at the Blue mosque in Istanbul.

Thus went life in those parts, the back door to the British Empire. Now the young un would chirp – what is it the back door? The answer is interesting, the front door was considered to be Calcutta by the British. But well, Parry's corner was one hell of a place and these days I imagine what it must have looked like, the chetty's and Jews and Armenians rushing around with their small trading establishments, the arguments and fights of the left and right handed classes, the 18th century period when people like Parry, Spencer and Binny set themselves up in the area to create establishments in their names that survive to this day (Maybe not Binny). Imagine a time when Thomas Parry purchased the corner from the Nawab who had got it from John Call, the actual location of Dare house was a garden house in a plot and it was here that he built his colossal business empire with John William Dare. This later became Esplanade. Those days I believe they had a tram terminating at Parry's.

Here as Parry laid a foundation for his business, he had many a lay of a different kind, for It was here that Parry had many liaisons, cavorting with many a lady of many a heritage and nationality and finally leaving the world in gentlemanly fashion writing a will that provided for many of those ladies and their born and unborn children...Perhaps the urchin who cornered me in Parrys corner always knew that Parry's corner was a stimulating environment. This was even before all that the location where Comte Lalle the French Commander, after fighting the Malabar raja's (or at least around that time) sited his artillery while cannonading the Ft St George. But today in the hustle and bustle of the flower sellers, the business men, the petty shops of Burma Bazar, the street sellers, the lawyers and judges of the high court across the NSC Bose road, much of that is forgottten. Here in America, with that kind of story line, they would have made it a tourist destination of choice, with expert guides rattling of all these great stories while they point out the locales...and I feel as always, we Indians dont really have a sense of history...perhaps not marking time and events, simply letting life and times slide by, for they insist that times and events occur as fated, simply meant to be...

And then again, the British were the first to start it, and the North Indian’s followed, calling the people of the whole region as Madrasis, for they were from the Madras presidency. As Tharoor once wrote, why did they not call natives of Madras and the Madras presidency Chennayyn or something; maybe it was too difficult for their tongue. Anyway one person I would blame for all this mess is the late actor Mehmood for playing the role of a ‘madrasi’ in Padosan ( and the song Ek chatur naar) whom and which the Northies took to heart. Even after the place has been ceremoniously renamed Chennai, the people are still Madrasis, not Chennaiyaas. But then, If the Portuguese are to be believed, the name Madras came from the prominent Madeiros family, but equating Madrasis to the people of mediterranean is a tall claim, somewhat like saying Shaksespere was actually Sheshappa Iyer from chennai. Anyway Malayali’s have finally been somewhat disassociated from the Madarsi group and have become Mallus thanks to eubilent comedians like our Lola kutty.

And so the only Madras that remains in todays world is Madras in Oregon USA, or Madras as in Madras checks (clothing). The Madras in Oregon is home to some 5500 people, but curiously an airport servicing the place is called Bombay farms airport, 6 miles to the west. Unfortunately there are no Madrasi’s or Mumbaikars that I know of in this Madras, though they have a Taj Mahal restaurant owned by a Reddy-Garu who would also be loath to call himself a Madrasi.

Back to Madras - on some days we went to the only ‘kind of’ mall. It was in Egmore on Pantheon road, and called Fountain plaza, a hep place where the youth congregated. With ‘chat-bhel’ places and imported mal stuff sold in those Gujju shops. It still appears to be there, though dwarfed by the hundreds of modern malls and shopping places. Some other days we would creep up to the ‘Drive in Woodlands’ at Cathedral road ( as we were entering by feet, not on wheels). Fortunately they had a proper eating place where you could sit & eat and not just in your car, but that landmark vanished a couple of years ago.

So many other memories surface now and then and there are still some more stories untold, but to bring this rambling to a close, finally this Madrasi moved on to Bombay and that led to another series of stories, to be told some other day or other days.

If you want to take a look at old Madras, get a whiff of the old times, look through this picassa Album by Mageshwar

Political History of Carnatic Under the Nawabs -  By N. S. Ramaswami
Indian life in town and country - Herbert Compton
Hindu articles 1, 2, 3, 4
Prince of Arcot Website

Note: There is another side to the RR story, and probably the nut that was loosened became tight again for The Nawab of Arcot stopped being driven in his Rolls-Royce. Instead he attended meetings and conferences in an old car of a different make. When queried as to why he chose the inferior car for his trips, his straight-faced answer was: "Well... the Rolls-Royce does not make any sound when I drive it, even in high speed. During my use of the car in estates, my tenants do not get a chance to look up and pay me homage.... As such I have to use this cheaper and more noisy model, which gives advance notice of my coming!"

Maybe this one is true, but I still like Ramaswami’s version with the clever mechanic who provided the right sound from the muffler by a turn of the nut.


L N Srinivasakrishnan said...

Per his autobiography, KPS Menon was already called Madrassi in the 30's. Mahmood etc are too Johny come lately :)

Maddy said...

Hi LNS - As I mentioned, the British were the first to start it in the early days of the Madras presidency... Further popularized by the movies...

Kamini said...

What a fantastic post!
This brought on such a wave of nostalgia and homesickness. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Happy Kitten said...

nd the mystery of the mahal is finally unraveled..

the Arcot Prince has company here in Kuwait too... the local boys love to zoom arnd in their cars sans silencers.. nd it is a pain!

Maddy said...

Thanks Kamini and HK..
I really enjoyed my short stay in Chennai actually and developed a love for the language as well - can speak the tongue reasonably fluently too