When Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru happened to see the one-room tenements constructed by the City Improvement Trust (CIT) for the economically weaker sections he was furious. “Burn them all. It is inhuman not to have privacy.” The administrators pacified him saying that the economics would not allow them to build bigger houses. They also explained to him that many slum dwellers would be left without any dwelling but for the efforts of the CIT.
Narrating the incident in the book Madras (Chennai) — A 400-year record of the first city of Modern India, May George and R. Venkatachar have said that even after 50 years the position is the same. It will be deemed an incorrect statement at a time houses constructed by any agency have more than one room and there is a separate scheme for construction of latrines.
The book, a compilation of articles on various subjects, written mostly by members of the Association of British Scholars, is second in a three part series edited by chronicler of the City S. Muthiah. It covers services, education and technology in 19 articles by those who have in-depth knowledge about the subjects. When there is a growing interest in the history of the city, the three volumes will serve a felt need.
The city unfolds itself before the reader since its inception and its emergence under the British colonial power in September 1641. Both May George and Venkatachar have beautifully described the transformation of house construction — from usage of curved tiles to rectangular Mangalore tiles to Madras roofing to pile foundation supported structures. They also advocate the advantages of cost effective construction, but add that people might not buy the idea that housing is a life-time investment.
Marien Mathews’ piece on food and hospitality is equally interesting. Tracing the history of food and wine since Tamil Sangam days, the author covers even the modern-day bakeries. There were many hotels in the city for Europeans and a letter in The Hindu in 1905 made a case for starting a hotel for “Hindu gentlemen” maintained like those for Europeans. And “the first hotel to merit attention is the Mysore Modern Hindu Hotel founded by Kollegal Thrumalaswamiah Apannah of Mysore state on Rundall’s Road at Vepery.”
Many Chennaiites believe that McRennett, a chain of bakeries offering good quality breads and cakes, was started by some European and sold to an enterprising Madraswala after Independence. But behind the European name McRennett hides Ponnusamy, a son of a marginal farmer from North Arcot, who migrated to Chennai in search of livelihood in 1903, and started the bakery with a European flavour.
While every article in its own way enlightens the reader with new details, the lack of a critical approach and the silence on socio-political factors behind important developments in many articles is evident.
The excellent pieces on school education by Suseela Raghavan and Indira Narayanan and higher education by Dr. Vedagiri Shanmugsundaram analyse the subject from different angles, but are completely silent on the hostel run by Dr C. Natesan. His hostel catered to non-Brahmin students who could not get accommodation and food in the city. Similarly, the article on labour in the city oversimplifies the reason behind the launch of the Justice Party in 1916. Also the contribution of the Loyola College to the field of higher education is not adequately touched upon. Shanmugsundaram goes beyond the frontiers of Madras and discusses higher educational institutions that came up in other parts of the State, but does not write of the contribution of U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer, eminent scholar of Tamil classics.
According to M. Sundara Raj, author of the article on labour, Anne Besant’s affinity to the Brahmins in political and social matters made the non-Brahmins resent her, and paved the way for the formation of the Justice Party. While writing about the trade union in Simpson’s, he says trade union leaders “of different political hues have been able to successfully deal with the management with productivity as the basis of negotiation. That must be some kind of a record in India.”
But he makes no mention of the Simpson’s strike, which changed the face of labour movement in Chennai, the strong-arm tactics of Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi to break the stir, and the brutal attack on labour leader V.P. Chinthan.
The article on agriculture by V. Arivudai Nambi has not confined itself to Madras. A piece of information for those who eulogise the health benefits of olive oil. In 1842 I.D. Gleig, Principal Collector of Salem had imported olive plants. They were distributed to the Shevroy Hills, Dharmapuri, Hosur, Denkencottah. But in 1849, the collector of Tinnevelly reported that the olive plants planted in several locations around Courtallm had failed to survive.
(B. Kolappan is a senior assistant editor with The Hindu)
Madras-Chennai — A 400-year Record of the First City of Modern India: Services, Education and The Economy. Edited by S. Muthiah; Palaniappa Brothers, 14, Peters Road, Royapettah, Chennai-600014.