Botanist C.V. Subramanian on a time when mangroves and research thrived in Chennai and life as a hosteller in Presidency College
I came from Ernakulam in 1941 to pursue Botany honours in Presidency College, and stayed in the Victoria Students Hostel. Our college (it was co-educational even then) and the hostel were in large compounds (separated by the Buckingham canal), with expansive greenery. We had three messes — the gingelly oil mess and the coconut oil mess (Kerala cuisine!) for vegetarians, and a non-vegetarian mess.
The gingelly oil mess had a fine secretary in M.M. Ismail, a staunch Congressman who wore khadi and spoke chaste Tamil. He later became Chief Justice of Madras High Court. Our mess’ head cook Krishna Iyer was a kind man. We would be served tasty, healthy meals. Every Sunday, I relished onion sambar and potato curry.
I used to love the buildings of the Law College, High Court, Connemara Public Library and our hostel. I used to walk from Victoria Hostel to the Connemara Public Library, for it stocked books you would find nowhere else.
When I was in Victoria Hostel, I listened to many lectures by statesmen. Meetings would be held in places such as the Kellett High School, Triplicane, and there would be no security. I’ve listened to V. S. Srinivasa Sastri, Rajaji, C.R. Reddy, and S. Satyamurthi, whose oratory left me spellbound.
In 1944, I completed my honours with a first class first and won the Pulneyandi gold medal. I wanted to join as lecturer at a salary of Rs. 40, but ended up joining research in University of Madras (UOM), and was paid Rs. 60 a month. The day India got freedom, I was getting my PhD thesis typed.
The period from 1944-1954 was a golden one for research. They never took more than one student for research. Sadly, today, the focus seems to be producing more and more PhDs. We had no funding (UGC, CSIR and ICAR happened much later), and worked under great constraints, but managed to put up a good show.
The teacher-student bonding was great. The lecturers were affectionate and fair. They would teach us the first year, and let us be in the second and third year. Knowledge came from the library and journals. You took notes of all that you read. You could become a member at the UOM library for Rs. 20. The chief librarian was S. R. Ranganathan, architect of the world-famous Colon classification system of library classification.
Institutions such as the Presidency College, Music Academy, University of Madras and Publishers such as G A Natesan, who published Indian Review, and the people behind these institutions made Madras what it was. Presidency College had stalwarts such as T. Ekambaram in Botany, BB Dey in Chemistry and K. Ananda Rao in Mathematics … all from the Indian Educational Service.
And, Madras University had gynaecologist Dr. A. Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar, who was Vice-Chancellor for nine terms, and other distinguished people such as MOP Iyengar in Botany, and M. Damodaran in Bio-Chemistry.
Madras then was a quiet, serene, unpolluted place with lots of natural beauty. Can you believe that there used to be lots of mangroves from Napiers Bridge to the junction of Pycrofts Road? The better part of Adam’s Road (now Sivasamy Salai) used to be lined with mangroves of the tree Avicennia. These mangroves took care of themselves. When man interferes, all is gone. That is what happened with the mangroves.
The stretch of the Marina from the University building to Presidency College was occupied by the Army during the war. They built a swimming pool and restaurant there. The Marina restaurant is a legacy of the Army.
Algae used to grow on the puddles by the Marina. And, MOP Iyengar would collect algae there. He started a Madras Botany Club, and would take people to the forests nearby and the scrub jungle in Vandalur and collect samples.
Madras Presidency embraced people of all backgrounds — you saw unification of language, culture and the arts.
Chennai was also where I had the opportunity to listen to great music. I listened to the legendary GNB in Gokhle Hall in 1941, and that prompted me to listen to him wherever he sang. In fact, on the day of the Quit India movement, I was listening to Alathur brothers.
(as told to SUBHA J RAO)
There would be mild ragging in the hostels, usually on Sundays. For weeks, a friend and I would have breakfast on Sundays and pack off somewhere returning after dusk to escape the seniors. The one week we took it easy and stayed back, it happened! They smeared an oily substance on our face; it would not go away even after 20 washes!
C V Subramanian Born in 1924, this botanist has received many awards, including ICAR’s Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Award, the Bhatnagar Award in 1965, the Jawaharlal Nehru fellowship and the EK Janaki Ammal National Award for Taxonomy. He retired in 1985 as HoD Botany, UOM. A dozen genus of fungi are named after him; so are about 20 species.