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Updated: October 27, 2012 15:58 IST

Madras Miscellany

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The cover of the first issue of Blackbuck with a portrait of a male Blackbuck by M. Krishnan.
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The cover of the first issue of Blackbuck with a portrait of a male Blackbuck by M. Krishnan.

A Blackbuck revival

To celebrate the silver jubilee of Blackbuck, the journal of the Madras Naturalists' Society (MNS), there was recently released in Madras a compilation of articles selected by nature-lover Theodore Baskaran from those that had appeared in it during the last 25 years. Together with The Spirit of the Blackbuck were released two new issues of Blackbuck, which was making an appearance after a couple of years.

The author with the most articles in the compilation is, naturally, M. Krishnan, that prolific writer and photographer of Nature. Sadly, the picture on the Penguin cover was not the striking picture of a blackbuck that had appeared on the cover of the first issue of the journal, dated April 1985 (my picture today).

It was some years after the Madras Naturalists' Society (MNS) was founded that Blackbuck made its first appearance. It was one day in the 1970s that R.V. Mohan Rao and S.P. Chandra, birdwatchers both, bumped into two other birdwatchers in Guindy National Park. The latter introduced themselves as V.J. Rajan and T. Konneri Rao. Sitting under a tree and enjoying a feast of mangoes after their morning's exertions, the four discussed the possibility of forming a society of like-minded, Nature-loving persons. With Rajan taking the lead — as he was to in the society once it was formed — the four wrote to persons each knew who might be interested. Of the 40 addressed, 16 turned up at Mohan Rao's house to discuss the formation of a society. Among them were G.K. Bhatt, who had at the time just founded a photographic society and who, with that experience, offered to draw up the constitution, and K.V. Sudhakar, who to this day helps with the management of the Society.

The MNS was formed in May 1978 and adopted its constitution the following January. G.K. Bhatt was elected its first President and Rajan its Honorary Secretary, a post he was to hold till his death in 1994. The other members of the Committee were Preston Ahimaz, T. Konneri Rao, V. Santharam and M. Raghuraman, all still involved with the Society's activities. Rajan of the Telegraphs was the moving spirit of the Society in its early years and it was he who helped it to sink roots. Field trips and talks, discussions and film shows on flora and fauna were the MNS's early focus and still remain so. Then came a monthly bulletin, which still comes out, but the Society felt it should do more by way of communication. So was born Blackbuck.

The journal's first editors were V. Santharam and P.M. Rangarajan, the former still the guiding spirit of Blackbuck, now teaming with K.V. Sudhakar and Kumaran Sathasivam. Another associated with Blackbuck has been Dr. Rajaram, who was Editor from 1990 to 2000.

Blackbuck may be focused on a serious look at Natural History, but what has been special about it is that it has welcomed contributions from people ranging from professional scientists to amateur naturalists.They have sent in material varying from scientific studies to anecdotal recollections to masterly literary descriptions. Combining all three, the curmudgeonly M. Krishnan showed the way to many. It's appropriate that he dominates The Sprit of the Blackbuck.

The tale of an apology

V. Prabhakar, the antiquarian who first put me on the trail of Sir William Wedderburn (Miscellany, May 17), sends me a fascinating tidbit about this friend of India that might have some people making a rather different assessment of him. In a copy of the West Australian (Perth) dated August 3, 1897, Prabhakar found a cablegram report of August 1 with a London dateline. The report read:

“Sir William Wedderburn, Bart., M.P. for Banffshire, has apologised to the

House of Commons for having introduced Professor Gokhale, of the Bombay

University, to the Conference-room at Westminster.

“The Professor has latterly been suspected of sedition, and only escaped arrest

on his return to Bombay by apologising for allegations made by him in the

Conference-room at Westminster reflecting on the conduct of British soldiers in India.”

That the British connection with India was “divine ordained” and could never be broken was a view G.K. Gokhale and The Hindu once held in common. But over this apology, they had an exchange of words.

Gokhale, in an interview in London with the Manchester Guardian in July 1897, stated that British troops on anti-plague operations in Poona were destroying property, contaminating food, desecrating places of worship, and molesting women. He repeated these allegations at Westminster.

When his facts were challenged by the Secretary of State for India in the House of Commons, particularly on the charge of “violation of women”, Wedderburn, who was not present in the House, wrote to The Times, London, stating that Gokhale had “the highest character for integrity”, and should not be disbelieved.

But when Gokhale returned to Bombay and the Police asked him details about his allegations and his sources for them, Gokhale failed to confirm the charges he had made and wrote an apology to the Governor of Bombay, the Plague Committee and the Army.

The Hindu, while describing his letter as “a long and dignified apology”, nevertheless added, “Prof. Gokhale is discredited and almost crushed for the present…. A more sincere, well meaning, loyal Indian there does not exist…. That such a man should now stand before the world, humiliated and that his error should be the cause of our enemies' triumph can be understood only as the misfortune of the country.”

Responding to The Hindu Prof. Gokhale wrote, “The charges to which I had given currency…. were grave accusations imputing disgraceful personal conduct to men who had been engaged in very difficult and disagreeable work and if I was unable to substantiate them on any account it was my clear duty to withdraw them unreservedly and make the fullest reparation in my power… On my return to Bombay it did not take me long…. to discover that substantiation was out of the question and the amplest apology that I could offer thus became the only alternative. It was a fiery ordeal…. to return to my country and find the bitter cup of humiliation awaiting my arrival, to have to give cause to our opponents for triumph and exultation, and face the indignant reproaches of my indignant countrymen! But what was to be done? The situation had to be accepted as many before me had to do under similar circumstances, as an attendant evil of over zeal in a public cause…. Meanwhile, we must find strength and consolation in the fact that no great or just cause is ever really served by miserable subterfuge or can be permanently injured by the honest errors of an individual no matter who he be….”

When the postman knocked…

* Dr. K.C. Jayaram, who grew up in Srirangam and studied in St. Joseph's College, Trichy, remembers travelling to college in one of the two morning commuter specials whose main users were South Indian Railway personnel heading from Srirangam to Trichy Junction. There were many employed in the SIR headquarters (Miscellany May 10 2010), and at Golden Rock who lived in Srirangam and he recalls SIR being deciphered as the Srirangam Iyengar Railway.One of the commuter trains had a carriage popularly known as the ‘Ramayana Coach' and bhajans used to be sung in it throughout the journey.

* S. Satyanidhi, referring once again to A.S. Russell's book on the history of the Buckingham Canal (Miscellany May 24th), cites a chronology in it and says the Canal was extended from Durgarayapatnam to Krishnapatnam, 92 miles north of Madras, in 1876, then in 1877 the 22 miles to the Pennaru river and in 1878 to “its existing northern limit, viz. the junction at Pedda Ganjam, 196 miles north of Madras.” The emphasis of Satyanidhi is that the furthest northern limit of the Canal was Pedda Ganjam and not Cocanada. He adds that from Pedda Ganjam the Canal connected to the “freshwater, high level Commanur Canal of the Krishna Delta System,” ending near Masulipatam, still short of Cocanada. But was there a link from here to the Godavari Delta System and Cocanada, making a Cocanada-Marakkanam link via Madras?I believe so.

* Several readers have wondered whether a printer's devil was at work causing the item on ‘The Museum of the Word' to become in the text ‘The Museum of the World', (Miscellany June 14th). I'm afraid there must have been one — and he must have by now discovered that even spell-check is helpless in such cases.

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