What's in a name

The proposal to change 50 ‘English' road names in the city to ‘Tamil' ones has, I'm delighted to find, set in motion a procedure by the Corporation of Chennai to investigate the antecedents of the existing names and learn whether they are of significance or not. I've had several divisional officers calling on me to find out whether Graeme of Greame's Road or Yeldham of Eldam's Road or Taylor of Taylor's Road or Gen. Patter of Pater's Road were significant figures in Madras history. And, all I could tell them is what I've said so often before. Namely:

A popular 18th and 19th Century way of naming a road or an area by the Corporation was to name it after a house, in a city of garden houses set midst acres of space, or an institution or a place to which it led. For example, De Silva's Road, Luz, led to six acres of property a Francis de Silva had been granted. Brick Kiln Road in the Purasawalkam-Otteri area had led to a brick kiln. And, Poonamalle High Road was, of course, the road leading to Poonamallee. Particularly in the case of roads leading to houses, it often did not matter how important the person was. For instance, de Silva was a publican, a tavern owner! And, Haddow's Road was named after J.G. Hadow, a Collector of Customs, who owned a house called Blenheim on the road.

But, while many of the East India Company men remembered in such road names were not persons of great significance, there were others of considerable significance who were remembered, such as Madley, who was responsible for the city's water supply, Ellis of Tirukkural fame, and Balfour of the Museum, Zoo and the Madrasa. In the case of Indian names, too, the system has been followed to an extent, though commemorative names are more frequent. Nair Road, T'Nagar, led to Dr. T.M. Nair's house, but who remembers Thambu Chetty and Badrian Chetty in George Town, or a Jani Jhan Khan in Royapettah? Did they live in the streets named after them, or were they commemorated?

In fact, tracing the history of every street name in the city would be a fascinating exercise, but since that's not going to happen, let's just look at the Corporation's present problem. If only it identified roads in different areas of the city matching their significance with that of the person whose name it wished to use to replace the existing name, then it can be assessed whether the present name is of historical significance, or whether the existing name could be changed without causing concern to anyone.

A matter for consideration, however, is this thought: How many changed names are in everyday use in the city? Whoever calls Nungambakkam High Road as Uttamar Gandhi or M.G. Salai? Aren't Mount Road and Broadway still used by many instead of Anna Salai and Prakasam Road? Ingrained habits are hard to change. Wouldn't it therefore be better to name new roads in the city with the proposed names? Every day, new areas are opening up in Chennai and roads leading to such areas could do with names deserving recognition. But since such thoughts might be considered heresy, let's go along with the policy of changing existing names, but happy that the Corporation is at least using a ‘consultative' approach.

The native surgeon's contribution

The postman's been kept busy with several responses to my request for more information on Mohideen Sheriff (Miscellany, April 5) but the picture is far from complete.

Reader M.S. Sastry tells me that E.J.Waring's Pharmacopoeia of India (1868) refers to the “monumental work” of Moodeem Sheriff (note: yet another spelling, a commonplace occurrence that I had pointed out in Miscellany, April 12). He adds that a supplement to the Pharmacopoeia is “a catalogue of Indian synonyms of the medicinal plants, products, inorganic and organic substances used in that work with explanatory and descriptive remarks in 14 languages” that was prepared by Moodeem Sheriff, described as a native surgeon in Her Majesty's Service 1869. Sheriff's name is appended with the initials G.M.M.C., which, reader Sastry tells me, translates as ‘Graduate of Madras Medical College'.

Yet another spelling of Sheriff's name is found in Ramineni Bhaskarendra Rao's contribution to the story. He tells me that he has a manuscript copy of a book, Nafevul Aramjee, published in Telugu in Madras in 1868. Bhaskarendra adds that that manuscript copy had been prepared by his great grandfather and then redone by his grandfather in 1891. The book provides information about the medicinal value of various organic materials available in the local markets and how they should be used. He then gives me an English translation of the first five pages recorded in the manuscript — and they are what are relevant to the Mohideen Sheriff story.

From the title page, it would appear that a translation by a Dr. William McKenzie of “A book of Hindustani Medical Science called Nafevul Aramjee with the help of Native Surgeon Mohadeen Sheriff Saheb who examined the book” was translated into Telugu by Aa. Veerasamy Naidu and First Dresser Khaja Fareedudeen and printed in the Government Press, Chennapattanam in 1868.

The Preface by Sheriff provides an interesting publishing history. He writes: “This book was first written in Nagari Basha by Dr. Watbus Ramsay and published in Bengal in 1821. The book was translated into Hindustani as Nafevul Aramjee in 1846 by Dr. William McKenzie, who is the present head of the Hospital, for the benefit of the dressers in the employment of the Nizam. It has proved to be very useful to them. Now, as per my wish and after examining by me, the book is translated into Tamil and Telugu by the translators named in the title page. As I thought, it is better to be translated in the two languages separately…As the book contains the details of medicinal drugs of this country and medicines used daily in the hospital, in my opinion it is useful for various doctors in Southern Hindustan and for the people knowing Tamil and Telugu who are working in the Government Hospitals…At the end of this book two lists are given. The first list gives the dosages of important medicines to be given to women and children. The other list gives the names of all the medicines discussed in the book in alphabetical order. This book contains the indexes in Telugu, English and Deccani.”

Thus, we continue to hear about Mohideen Saheb's work, but nothing as yet about the man.

When the postman knocked….

* On the eve of the Balakrishna Joshi centenary commemoration, I received yet more information about the Kulapathi (Miscellany, April 12) from a former pupil who passed out of the Hindu Theological High School in 1950. T.C.A. Ramanujam recalls that Joshi, who had a soft corner for poor children, organised a Deenabandhu Sangam to provide mid-day meals to such children. He also organised special study facilities for final year dormitory students; those who wanted toavail of them could come into school at 7 p.m. and study silently till 10, when the ‘lights out' bell would ring. They would then be woken up at 4 a.m. and study till 6 a.m. He got the teachers to wear a uniform comprising a cap, panchakacham and khadi jibba.

After the Kulapathi retired, the faculty uniform vanished, student indiscipline set in and the school declined, according to reader Ramanujam. But, from all accounts, the school has once again improved and now is dedicated to living up to the Balakrishna Joshi legacy.

Keywords: historycultureMadras