As the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam awaits its most crucial election result, Bishwanath Ghosh tracks down the house where the party was born 62 years ago
I have the address in my pocket — the photocopy of a single-column report from the September 19, 1949 issue of The Hindu — and now I have to search for the house. As the autorickshaw deposits me outside the Madras High Court on NSC Bose Road, I pull out the piece of paper to confirm the house number. The report begins:
MADRAS, Sept. 17: The Working Committee of the Dravidian Federation met this morning at No. 7, Coral Merchant Street, George Town and passed a no-confidence resolution in their leader, Mr. E. V. Ramaswami Naicker. The Committee further resolved to form a new party called the Dravidian Progressive Federation with Mr. C. N. Annadurai as General Secretary.
Thus the DMK was born, not at Robinson Park in Royapuram, as widely believed, but in a house in George Town, where a group of Dravida Kazhagam leaders met on the morning of September 17, 1949 and decided to break away from their mentor, ‘Periyar' Ramaswami Naicker. The much-remembered Robinson Park rally took place only a day later.
During the George Town meeting, which was chaired by K. K. Nilamegam, Annadurai read out a statement charging Periyar, then 70 years old, with behaving in an autocratic manner ever since his recent marriage (for a second time, to a woman less than half his age). Ironically, the day happened to be Periyar's birthday.
My search for No. 7, Coral Merchant Street begins at the mouth of Armenian Street, where a vendor selling handkerchiefs tells me, “Keep walking, keep walking. Finally it will join the street you are looking for.” I do as directed.
George Town is where most of Madras lived until about a century ago, when the city decided to move southward and took prosperity along with it. Today George Town resembles a neglected parent — aged and ailing but hoping that the children will return someday. It's because of the hope, perhaps, that a number of buildings remain exactly the way they were a hundred years ago or even more.
Coral Merchant Street has its share of such quaint, dilapidated houses, with trademark tiled roofs and iron bars fencing the verandah. They sit feebly amid stronger and bigger structures, a number of which happen to be offices or godowns of transport companies and shipping agencies. Labourers loading large boxes onto trucks, or offloading them — that's the most common sight on Coral Merchant Street.
By the time the ‘old number' painted on the signboards counts down to 20, I find myself overcome by mild excitement. What would Old No. 7 be like? Would it be some kind of a memorial? A dilapidated, abandoned house like the many you find on the street? The well-kept home of an elderly DMK leader? My mind races from one image to another.
Old No. 7 turns out to be a five-storey apartment complex, painted in ochre. On the ground floor of the building runs an export firm called Cotton House. Outside the gate, a labourer offloads goods from a parked lorry.
I had expected to be treated to anecdotes once I reached my destination; but here, I am being generously treated to I-don't-knows. Nobody seems to know anything. People at Cotton House say their landlord should be able to tell me about the history of the building, but when I ask for his address and phone number, they say they don't know. (Subsequently, I find three phone numbers listed against the firm in various online directories; all are out of service).
Even the neighbours don't know a thing. Far from being excited by my ‘revelation' that the DMK traces its origin to their street, they remain unimpressed and indifferent. They have no time for a man asking questions about what had happened in 1949. One elderly neighbour does offer a valuable piece of information: that the ownership of the property had changed hands about 20 years ago. Was the previous owner a DMK leader? “I don't know.” As an afterthought, “May be.”
But there are still people living elsewhere who seem to have memories of the old house, and one of them is Sa Ganesan, 81, who was the mayor of Madras in 1970-71. “The house belonged to Shanmugam Pillai, who was the chairman of Thiruvottiyur municipality. Since he was a rich man, he maintained a house in Madras. It used to be bigger than the other houses on the street. But as you must have seen, it has been demolished now,” says Ganesan.
A few years ago, Ganesan and Professor A Ramasamy, a former vice-chancellor of Alagappa University, visited the street when the latter was researching his book, “DMK: Rise and Contribution”. “I was expecting to see an old house, but I was shocked to see a multi-storey building standing there,” recalls Ramasamy, now the vice-chairman of the Tamil Nadu State Council for Higher Education. “I wish the party had bought the house and made it into a museum.”
According to Ramasamy, even the first headquarters of the DMK on Surya Narayana Chetty Street in Royapuram has now become a kalyana mandapam. “But at least the party owns the land,” he says by way of consolation. The only relic in the DMK's history that remains intact is Robinson Park in Royapuram, where it had held its first public meeting and where children today play cricket. Ramasamy has documentary evidence to prove that the public meeting took place on September 18 and not on September 17, as commonly believed. “Here, take a look,” he shows a rare photograph of a poster publicising the meeting, “September 18, Sunday, 4 p.m.”