Heritage walk in Purasawalkam

October 18, 2014
The Gangadhishwarar Temple, Purasawalkam

The Gangadhishwarar Temple, Purasawalkam

Let us explore Puraswalkam on Sunday October 26, from 6.00 to 8.30 am followed by breakfast. The charge per person is Rs 500. The payment can be made either through NEFT or through our payment gateway online for which you need to click here.

Details for NEFT

NEFT:Account Name : Past Forward
Account Type: Current
Bank Name : The Federal Bank Ltd
A/c No. 12820200104237
Branch : Royapettah

Please make sure you send us the reference number by email to walks@chennaipastforward.com after making the transfer so that we know which payment is from whom.

On international smuggling itinerary…

October 25, 2014
The entrance arch of The Oceanic hotel

The entrance arch of The Oceanic hotel

To most residents of Chennai it is an empty piece of real estate, the art deco ‘O’ shaped entrance being the sole survivor. It was a top-notch hotel that once boasted of the city’s first discotheque. To actor Dilip Kumar it was home in Madras, probably because former flame Madhubala stayed at The Connemara. To the Indian cricket team, this was their place of stay when test matches were played here. To me, ever since actor Mohan Raman set me off on the story, The Oceanic will always be the place where a dreaded smuggling duo spent one night.

On December 31, 1965, B.P.C. Comyn and S.T. Lamb, both British nationals, landed at Meenambakkam airport, via an Air Ceylon flight. They spent one night at The Oceanic, before leaving for Bombay, where they stayed at the West End Hotel. There they were arrested on suspicion by police officers D.H. Crawford and R.S. Kulkarni. Their fingerprints were taken and found to be those of wanted international smugglers Daniel Hailey Walcott of the USA and Jean Claude Donze of France.

The two had come back to India in order to retrieve a consignment of gold that they had dumped off Bombay. Both were not new to Indian Courts or jails. In 1962, Walcott flew into India in a DC4 craft. Caught smuggling ammunition, he was arrested, tried and sentenced, being lodged in Tihar. Released conditionally, he would periodically attend to his impounded aircraft at Delhi’s Safdarjung airport. One afternoon, he simply took off in it. Having circled over Tihar and dropped cigarettes and chocolates as gifts for the inmates, he flew off to Pakistan. He had been wanted ever since. Donze had a cleaner track record; he had served his sentence for smuggling off Rameswaram and left the country.

The duo’s 1965 entry into India having been through Madras, they were brought here in the custody of V.R. Lakshminarayanan, later to become DGP, Tamil Nadu. Tried for entering the country on false passports, they were sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for five years. The appeal in the High Court of Madras had V.P. Raman as the Special Public Prosecutor. The sentences were confirmed, which the duo accepted meekly, Walcott even congratulating Raman and asking if he would appear for him in the Supreme Court!

Lodged in the Madras jail opposite the Central Station, they were one day found on the roof of the prison, planning their escape! R.S. Kulkarni was summoned to take them to Bombay where after the discovery of hacksaws and files in their cells, they were transferred to Tihar. These attempts increased the sentences. Released ten years later, Walcott came to Kulkarni’s office in Bombay, complimented him on his fairness and left.

He settled in Los Angeles where he was shot dead in a drug smuggling feud in 2001. Donze vanished from his home in France in 2007 and was later confirmed as having been killed in 2009. The Oceanic was demolished in 2005 or so.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated October 25, 2014, under the Hidden Histories column.

More details on The Oceanic are available here.

Making space at Central Station

October 23, 2014

The Man from Madras Musings has always had a fondness for the Central Station, though his heart has always belonged to Egmore. MMM still recalls the vast emptiness of the latter station, its wooden staircases and the drive-in platform. But all that is gone and Egmore now exasperates more than pleases. But leaving that aside, MMM having committed to writing on Central will do just that.

There may have been a time when this station was a vast emptiness too, giving you the impression of having entered a particularly cavernous church. Certainly, the Chief’s book on olde Madras confirms that view though MMM has never ever seen it that way. To MMM, it has always been a place of chaos, noise, hustle and bustle, thereby encouraging people to spend minimum time in it – you are better off rushing home or jumping into a train. That way, it admirably fulfils the purpose for which it was constructed.

But of late, getting in and getting out of the station has become such a nightmare that MMM despairs at the very thought of it. The entrance and the exit are probably what the good book meant when it spoke about the eye of the needle. Add to this the natural tendency of our brethren and sororities towards indiscipline and mayhem, and you have a rich mixture. To add local colour you also have the excellent vocabulary of those thwarted in overtaking, parking, entering and leaving. Family relationships are called into question and the blush of shame mounts MMM’s cheeks when he thinks of it all.

The Railways have blamed it all on Metro Rail, saying that this is the best that can be done considering the situation. What MMM would like to question is this attitude. There are actually acres of wasted space all around the station that can be put to good use if only someone had the imagination to think differently. Who needs, for instance, a scrap of a lawn which only serves as a resting place for vagrants? What about the largish area occupied by a hideous fountain unveiled by some minister-or-the-other for some-event-or-the-other? Do we really need it? After all, far more aesthetic buildings, statues and monuments have bitten the dust in the name of development. Next, do we still need an artificial palm tree that does not work? This was installed a few years ago and MMM remembers putting up a spirited protest even then, but to no avail. When lit up, this created the illusion of having several fronds, some dates hanging down, and was supposed to make us believe that our city had become a second Dubai. But then the dates vanished, and after some time, the fronds stopped being lit up and, finally, the trunk alone stood illuminated. Then, that too gave up the ghost.

Next, do we still need a memorial for Moore Market? MMM would be the first to admit that the scaled down model is a wonderful reproduction of the original but now that its inner courts are used as makeshift bedrooms and toilets, can we not do away with it altogether?

A substantial part of the old jail was given to the General Hospital but there is still a sizeable piece of land that can be used as parking space. Those wishing to reach the station need to only use the underpass and through it the subway. But for that, we need to clear the settlers there and stop people from using it as the largest public toilet in the world.

All this, if removed, can make for some additional space in and around the station and thereby ease up the chaos a wee bit. Easier said than done?

The Gurudwara on GN Chetty Road

October 21, 2014
The T Nagar Gurudwara

The T Nagar Gurudwara

Lt. Col. G.S. Gill was among the first of the prominent Punjabis who settled in the city and made important contributions to it. Born on September 16, 1893, Gurdial Singh Gill was from Faridkot, Punjab. Sent to England to study law in 1912, he opted for medicine and moved to Edinburgh University from where he graduated in 1919, throwing in, for good measure, a few months’ service in the Indian Field Ambulance Training Corps during the World War I.

Dr. Gill and his Scottish wife Rena Lister Gill set up his practice and home in Bolton near Manchester for a while and raised a family of four sons. In 1923, they came to India where he joined the Indian Medical Service (IMS) and became Lt. Col. G.S. Gill, IMS. With the IMS being abolished in 1930, he moved to prison service and became Inspector General of Prisons, Madras, which meant all gaols in the Presidency were under him. Most Madras-based Congress leaders arrested during the Quit India movement became his wards and there developed a close affinity between them and the warm-hearted Sikh.

Post-Independence, Gill opted to stay on in Madras. He and other prominent Punjabis settled here at that time were to make important contributions to the city. The Punjab Association had been founded in 1937. The body was to be tested to the hilt in 1947 when it invited, with the backing of former premier C. Rajagopalachari, who had become good friends with Gill while in gaol, scores of Partition refugees to settle in Madras, most having no idea about the city to which they were making their way.

Lt Col. Gill would invariably meet them at the station. A ‘sharanagat rahat punarvas’ (refugee rehabilitation) committee was set up and with money obtained from donations it helped them put down roots. The enterprising newcomers soon became successful entrepreneurs and professionals.

Lt. Col. Gill was a close confidante of Maharani Vidyawati Devi Sahib of Vizianagaram, a princess from Keonthal near Shimla, who had married into a princely Andhra family and had, like him, been transplanted to the South. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan had been an early protégé of hers. In her, Gill found a powerful patron and supporter. In 1949, when the Punjabis in Madras felt the need for a gurudwara, Gill led the committee that founded the Sri Guru Nanak Sat Sangh Sabha in T’Nagar. It was the Maharani who helped in making the dream a reality, donating generously for the building. Work began in 1952, with Gill personally supervising the construction. Lt. Col. Gill died in May 1982. A block in Guru Nanak College and Gill Nagar, a busy colony of the city, commemorate him. One of his sons was the celebrated Lt. Gen. I.S. Gill, PVSM, MC, whose life was documented in Born to Dare by S. Muthiah.

Kill Nagar! Scary!

Kill Nagar! Scary!

The gurudwara seen above has been completely renovated, modernised and expanded in the last decade, but has retained its traditional character and stands a landmark off GNC Road, T’ Nagar.

You may want to read about other landmarks of the city, past and present:

Kalaivanar Arangam

The Corporation Zoo

Victory House

Gemini Studios

Old Woodlands Hotel

The Oceanic Hotel

My Ladyes Garden

Connemara Hotel

The Airlines Hotel

Everest Hotel

Modern Cafe


The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark

Talking to the Government

October 20, 2014

Have you ever tried calling any Government office? The Man from Madras Musings has, and he can assure you that it is a fun activity, particularly if you have plenty of time and no particular agenda on hand that requires immediate attention. These being days of telecom revolutions and high-speed connectivity, most Government departments feature telephone numbers on their web sites, letterheads and circulars. They exude the image of desperately wanting to be in touch with the likes of MMM and every one of you out there. The responses that you get are quite typical and MMM has classified them under various heads for your convenience.

Landlines: These will give you one of two results – either a recorded voice will tell you in a bored manner (it is only on Government telephones that even recorded voices can sound bored) that the dialled number is not in use, or the phone will keep ringing till eternity. Sometimes you will find that it remains engaged till eternity (bored recorded voice – dyulled numbarr is busy, please duyal later) which simply means it has been kept off the hook so that our Government officials can get on with more pressing business on hand, namely attend endless meetings. Sometimes the odd miracle does happen and the call gets answered. Here again, you can have two results – the first one being that the person at the other end says that this is not the relevant number and if he/she is in a good mood gives you a different number. When you try that number, you find that it is either not in existence or keeps ringing or is engaged. In desperation you call back the first number in the hope that the kindly voice will give you another number, only to find that that number too now rings away to glory with no response.

The second result is not meant for those with weak hearts – the call is answered and then the person at the other end offers to transfer the call to the intended respondent. But be of good cheer, for nothing further will happen – most Government officials do not know how to transfer calls and will simply hang up. Otherwise they will tell you that the respondent is not, er… responding (sir/madam is not in seat) and ask you to call later. When you do that you know that the number will be either continuously busy or will just keep ringing.

Cell phones: Some departments publish cell phone numbers of key officials. These are strictly one-way instruments – the officers only make outgoing calls on them to juniors. All senior bureaucrats have a second and private cell phone on which they receive calls from their spouses and children or receive transfer orders. That number is never disclosed to the undeserving general public.

RK Narayan’s first school

October 17, 2014

ELM Fabricius School, Purasawalkam

ELM Fabricius School, Purasawalkam

Last fortnight saw many articles on R.K. Narayan, the man who put Indian writing in English on the world map. Almost all of them lamented the fact that No 1, Vellala Street, Purasawalkam, the house where he spent his childhood, is no longer standing. What flourishes, however, is the first school that R.K. Narayan went to. Located at the intersection of Purasawalkam High Road and Gangadeeswarar Koil Street is the ELM Fabricius School. Established in 1849, it was initially a tiny parish school located within the compound of the Lutheran Church on Tana Street. It soon developed and became known as the Lutheran Mission Middle School. In 1893 it was renamed the E(vangelical) L(utheran) M(ission) Fabricius School, after the German missionary of the 18th century who did such good work in Tamil Christian hymnody and the translation of the Bible into Tamil. In 1894, the school moved from the church into its present premises. The structure remains more or less what it was, with the exteriors now having been plastered over while retaining the original contours.

Narayan, however, did not take to it. In his My Days where he refers to it as the Lutheran Mission School, he reminisces as to how as a child he trailed behind his uncle on Puraswalkam High Road. “When we passed an orange-coloured school building with a green gate, my uncle promised that I would in due course find myself there. I did not welcome the idea. It was a gaunt-looking building with a crucifix on its roof. I hated it at first sight.” Narayan joined the school in 1912, weeping with fear on the first day. He was never to warm up to the institution. He disliked the masters who flourished their canes as “a medium of self-expression like a conductor’s baton”. That he was bad at clay modelling, handwork and writing on the slate did not endear him to his teachers.

This institution was clearly the inspiration for some episodes in Swami and Friends. Both the schools that Swami attends — the Albert Mission and The Board, closely resemble the ELM Fabricius. At the Albert Mission, Narayan has Swami do something he never dared to do in real life — stand up and question the Scripture master when he spoke derogatorily of Hindu gods. Similarly, like Narayan, Swami gets into trouble at the Board School for skipping drill class. And unlike Narayan who patiently suffered the Headmaster’s cane on his palm for this, Swami snatches it and throws it out of the window.

Narayan studied till middle school at the ELM Fabricius and then briefly joined in succession the CRC (now the MCtM) and the Madras Christian College schools before moving on to Mysore. Late in life he would occasionally visit Purasawalkam, trying to spot old landmarks. In his Foreword to the special edition of Swami and Friends to commemorate his 90th year, he was to note that the school stood firm, just as he “knew it as a reluctant schoolboy.”

This article appeared in The Hindu dated October 18, 2014, under the <a href="http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/stories-of-a-reluctant-schoolboy/article6510831.ece“>Hidden Histories column.

Freudian slip?

October 16, 2014


Walking on Chennai roads is a strain anyway!

A pedestrian plaza in T Nagar

October 15, 2014

If everything works well, T’ Nagar may soon have a pedestrian plaza, a walkers’ paradise that will stretch from Panagal Park to Anna Salai/Mount Road. In terms of distance it is not much, being just about 1.4 km, long, but it is significant as it is probably the first instance when the authorities have recognised the rights of pedestrians. However, from concept to implementation is a long road to be travelled and much depends on how the project shapes up in reality.

The idea was first mooted in 2012 when experts from New York were called in to study the problems of public transport in Chennai. The team comprising the Big Apple’s Transport and Planning Commissioners was brutally frank in its findings – the city’s waterways were polluted beyond words and needed to be resurrected, the concept of designing flyovers and roads to facilitate car movement at high speeds was outdated, and the need of the hour was for increased use of public transport, encourage cycling and promote pedestrian facilities. The report singled out T’Nagar and, while recognising its high energy, said that it needed to be cleared of all traffic, making it a pedestrian area. It drew parallels between Panagal Park and Times Square of New York, which faced similar problems before becoming a walking/cycling only area. This appears to have been the inspiration for our Corporation.

The design, which was finalised in May this year, envisages the division of the area into three zones. The first, between Panagal Park and Dr Nair Road, and the second between Dr Nair Road and Residency Towers, will have pedestrian walkways and a dedicated bus lane. The last section, between Residency Towers and Anna Salai will have the standard four-lane carriageway and wide sidwalks. The cost is estimated at Rs 83 crore and part of it is expected to be funded from the Rs 50 crore loan that the Corporation hopes will be sanctioned by the World Bank for a larger revamp scheme of T’Nagar that includes aerial walkways and parking lots.

There are, however, dissensions within the Corporation’s executive on how the project is to be proceeded with. The engineers are of the view that it is best that the multi-level parking lot, which was to be constructed on one side of Panagal Park be completed before the pedestrian project takes off. They are concerned about the traffic chaos that will ensue if work on the latter begins without any proper arrangements for vehicles. It is, however, reliably learnt that the elected representatives are all for the pedestrian project to start at once, presumably because of its high profile nature and the urgency to see it completed before the term of the present Council ends in three years. The multi-level parking lot, incidentally, has had a history of its own. It remained on paper for years, with no bidder being interested in the tender. Estimated at Rs 25 crores, it has undergone further changes in the light of the pedestrian plaza – what was originally planned as a multi-storey parking facility, it has now been redesigned as an underground lot capable of holding 500 cars.

While all this is welcome and hopes run high for the revamp of T’Nagar, our fundamental fears, highlighted when this idea was first mooted in 2012, still hold good. What happens after the plaza is ready? Will it be free of encroachments? Will hawkers not take over the whole place? Will commercial interests not want all pedestrian areas to be made over as parking lots? Much depends on how the Corporation handles all that. Experience has shown us that construction of such facilities is relatively easy. It is in the maintenance that we invariably fail.

Corporation begins training on heritage, finally

October 13, 2014

At long last, the city’s civic body appears to have woken up to the fact that none of its engineers is trained in heritage conservation. This wisdom, though belated, is to be commended. And it is to be hoped that will lead to correction and, consequently, the presence of a trained corps that will in future be able to take on tasks of enumeration, evaluation and conservation of heritage buildings within the city.

This thinking was followed up with quick action when the Corporation recently had over 80 of its engineers attend a three-day workshop on built-heritage conservation specially organised by INTACH-Chennai with experts from the city, Delhi and Bangalore offering the participants a wealth of insights into both the theoretical and practical aspects of conservation, supported by site visits. These engineers, thus, had an exposure to the technical knowledge necessary to save old buildings as well as sensitisation on the unique architecture of the city, whatever that is left of it that is. The Mayor attended the valedictory session, which is a good indicator of the importance that was attached to the programme, and promised support to more such training programmes.

While this step of the Corporation is indeed a most welcome initiative, it is to be hoped that the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) and the Public Works Department (PWD) will follow this lead and work together with INTACH-Chennai on similar programmes, as much of the heritage of this city is also under the control of these two departments. The CMDA holds the key to decisions on demolition of public heritage buildings, especially those that stand in the way of development projects, through the role that could be played by its Heritage Conservation Committee (HCC). This largely dormant body has, thankfully, controlled the Metro Rail’s tendency to largely steamroll its way over heritage. For instance, some positive action has been taken by the HCC when it came to the eventual decision to protect the RSRM Choultry from demolition. Similarly, the HCC has also ensured that proposed stations near heritage buildings are not designed to dwarf their surroundings.

Nevertheless, one of the greatest failures of the HCC, and therefore of the CMDA, has been the inability to come out with a comprehensive list of heritage buildings in the city which can then be notified. Though a fresh listing is most unnecessary, given that the High Court of Madras has furnished the CMDA with what was put together by the Justice E Padmanabhan Committee on hoardings, the CMDA has been insisting on preparing a list of its own. That it has failed despite seven years having passed is chiefly because it has no trained personnel to take on this activity. It may be best that the task is entrusted to the Corporation’s Junior Engineers (JEs), now that they have been through the recent heritage awareness programme. These JEs, given that they are attached to wards, will be able to list what is in their localities and then a comprehensive list can be made with the inputs received from them.

As for the PWD, it still controls all restoration activities in Government buildings. Given that it has no trained personnel for such special tasks, it continues to put out specifications for heritage restoration on the same lines as modern buildings. The consequence is that budgets are completely out of touch with reality – you cannot restore a wooden doorway that is 100 years old at the same cost as a modern glass one with aluminium beading. Yet that is exactly what is expected of contractors, resulting in most of them shying away from such tasks leading to buildings languishing without restoration. Things have changed somewhat recently, with the long postponed Chepauk Palace renovation expected to be on different lines — but that has not yet moved beyond the planning stage.

It is therefore to be hoped that such heritage awareness programmes are taken up soon by the CMDA and the PWD, teaming with experts in the field. Training Corporation engineers and officials alone will have limited impact. It is nevertheless a step in the right direction and will hopefully have a beneficial effect on heritage conservation in the city.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s #Karvachauth

October 11, 2014

To someone brought up in a South India mileu, Karva Chauth has no meaning. For that matter, it had no significance even in Calcutta where I grew up. It was only when I went to Delhi for college that I came to know of such an event. It was a day when women broke their fast only after seeing the full moon via a colander/sieve/strainer, for whatever reason. A wag once told me that the vessel signified the tribulations the husband went through in life but I will let that pass.

The Barjatyas and their Rajshri Productions gave this whole event a kind of glam quotient after which it became big. In fact, if I am not mistaken, there was even a film by them with this title. A ghastly production it was, with Bharat Bhushan in the lead. He of course lent himself to such films. It also had Helen in it, the last person whom you would associate with such a title. In fact most women observed Karva Chauth to ensure their husbands did not run away with Helen, or at least aspire to.

Anyway, that is not the gist of my story. When I was studying in Delhi, Mikhail Gorbachev came on a State Visit, along with his wife Raisa. Rajiv Gandhi wanted all stops removed to make it a visit to remember. School children were asked to cheer the leader as he drove from the airport and when that did not make for an impressive number, Jats from Haryana were brought in truckloads to wave and hail Mikhail and Raisa. Rajiv Gandhi clearly wanted all world newspapers to report that “thousands lined the streets to welcome the USSR chief” or words to that effect.

The Times of India carried a report the next day. Clearly nobody had explained to the Jats what exactly was the name of the man whom they had cheered along it noted. Some called him Gobar Chor (stealer of cow dung). Others yelled out Ghar Bachao (save our homes). Several simply called him Karva Chouth. Fortunately for Gorbachev, he could only see them and not hear. But given that he and his wife were a happily married couple, I am sure she must have fasted and looked at the moon through a colander/sieve/strainer in some earlier birth.


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