A question of ‘caste'

Doing a bit of research into ‘caste' (or should I say ‘class'?) among the British, particularly in pre-Independence India, I recently came across an intriguing tale on the subject in a book titled Colonial Cousins, in which Joyce Westrip and Peggy Holroyde look at historic connections between the two colonies, India and Australia. The story is about the travails of a James Brockman who in the early 1870s was an Assistant Superintendent of Police in the Madras Presidency.

James Brockman was the eldest of the five sons of Col. H.J. Brockman, who was in action in Coorg in 1833. The Colonel's other sons too served India; Henry as Crown Solicitor, Madras; Williams in the Indian Revenue Service, working in Bombay, Punjab and Bengal; Ralph as a Captain in the Royal Engineers in Madras; and Edward with the army medical service in Madras Presidency.

Trouble found James Brockman when he was serving in the Bellary District. While there he was charged with what might be described as “conduct unbecoming an officer in Her Majesty's Police Service.” His unbecoming behaviour was dining with a Police Inspector who was not named but described in the charges as being an ‘Eurasian'! For this “heinous social faux pas”, Brockman, an uncovenanted officer, was dismissed from service!

While filing appeal after appeal, Brockman worked as a journalist in Madras to keep his family fed and clothed. When his final appeal to the Governor was turned down, he left for England to take up the matter with the Secretary of State for India. Being uncovenanted, this appeal too failed, as it was bound to. He then managed to have the injustice raised in the House of Commons. What happened there seems to be lost in the mists of time, and he then vanishes into the pages of history, perhaps to West Australia where there is today a Brockman clan.

There was, however, a tale that circulated in gossip-ridden Madras during the appeals that a Captain Wood had wanted Brockman's wife to be a companion to his, when Mrs. Wood's chaperoning maid eloped with her (Mrs. Wood's) brother. When the Brockmans refused to get involved, an irate Captain became the hidden hand behind the allegation of impropriety against James Brockman, it was bandied about.

Such was life among the British in small stations in the heyday of the Raj — and the justice meted out in capitals where social behaviour was often seen as more punishable than criminal actions…

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An oasis on Cathedral Road

A recent call on the Rt. Rev. V. Devasahayam, Bishop of Madras, to discuss history had him end the afternoon leading me into a little oasis on Cathedral Road whose rather cinematic exterior had kept putting me off from exploring it every time I passed it by. ‘Vision Divine' is what the sign outside announces almost overpoweringly, but behind the out-sized façade is a serenity quite in contrast to what is seen from the road.

An awkward-sized, elongated plot between St. George's Cathedral and the Bishop's house was proving quite an unsightly contrast to the green-rich entrance to the Semmozhi Poonga, the city's new botanical garden, and the Bishop therefore decided to do something about it with the help of a former Director of the Botanical Survey of India. So was created this meditation and inspirational haven with greenery as dominant as the two dozen life-size pictures of the Christ story in niches that line the two longer walls. Bounded by the rectangular paved way is an open-sided hall with a sheltering roof for those seeking to spend time under it in meditation or silent prayer. The pathways themselves are in the process of being shaded by long pergolas which will before long host flowering creepers. And at the rear is a sound-proof room where, on request, there will, in the near future, be screened short films on Christianity to visiting groups of schoolchildren.

Open to all, this little oasis midst the bustle of neighbouring Gemini Circle is rather thoughtful use of wasted and ill-used space. Now if only that frontage has the same green look as the interior — why not ivy or wall-hugging flowering creepers, no spot-lighting, and muted signage? — this could prove a really inviting haven for a break, message or no message, for those seeking peace and quiet.

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When the postman knocked…

*I knew V. Theetharappan would come through one day with a picture of Dobbin Hall (Miscellany, May 16). And he did — giving readers who had never seen it an opportunity to see it today. And he went one better producing a picture of Major W.D. Gunn, the first Principal of the Madras Veterinary College (1903-07). Theetharappan's father, S.V(aidyanatha). Mudaliar, was a later Principal.

*I've been chided again. This time it's by Karthik Bhatt. Talking about elephants and the city (Miscellany, June 13) how could you forget Elephant Gate, he asks. How could I, indeed! Elephant Gate, in case you don't know your Madras, is the area bounded by Wall Tax (V.O.C) Road, N.S.C. Bose Road, Mint Street and Audiappa Naicken Street in George Town. The area derives its name from one of the seven main gates providing access to what was in effect a walled city in the early 19th Century. The gate, when it existed, opened on to Elephant Gate Bridge Road, that led to Choolai and Vepery, and into Elephant Gate Road, the road leading into George Town. One of these two roads could have been what in the past was called Elephant Garden Road, the garden where load-carrying elephants were tethered. Could this have been what is now Salt Cotaurs?

*A. Raman writes that, following up my elephants-in-Madras items (Miscellany, June 13), he stumbled across the fact that the Wellington Zoo in New Zealand received an elephant from Madras in 1927. Nellikuthra, Nellie for short, was a gift from the Government of Madras, then led by Dr. P. Subbaroyan (1926-30). Dr. Raman adds that Nellie was followed by three other elephants to the Zoo, Maharanee, Nirvana and Kamala, and wonders whether they too were from Madras. Kamala arrived in Wellington in 1963 and was one of its most popular attractions. But when she died in 1983, the Zoo decided not to host any more elephants. Would you rate this as another Madras elephant story, wonders Raman in his letter to me?

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