The Capuchins of the Coromandel

I had always thought that the link the French Capuchin missionaries, one of the three Franciscan Orders, had with the Coromandel Coast was first forged by Father Ephrem de Nevers when he was welcomed at Fort St. George and given permission to build the first church in it, St. Andrew's. I have written in the past about this connection, which started in 1642. But a little booklet by Rev. Fr. A. Thainis OFM, Cap of Sivaganga, that he sent me recently, tells quite another story.

He begins his narration stating, ?Amalashram in Srirangam, Trichy, is the first Capuchin house in Tamil Nadu. I thought that the Capuchins appeared in the Tamil soil only in 1943, when they settled at Amalashram? But I was surprised to discover that there were Capuchin Missions in Madras and Pondicherry from 1632-1834.? And that's the title of the booklet his research has resulted in: The Capuchin Missions in Pondicherry-Madras (1632-1834).

And the starting date of the mission on the Coromandel Coast, 1632, was the first surprise the book threw at me. The second was that on January 8, 1632, there ?arrived in Pondicherry the first batch of six French Capuchins with the French traders.?

He goes on to say that the following year the French closed their sea agency there and the Capuchins too left. A second batch of Capuchins then arrived in Pondicherry in 1642 ? and they too soon left. In 1673 there arrived in Pondicherry the third batch with several French settlers. The next year, Fr. Cosmos de Gien founded the Capuchin Mission in Pondicherry. Meanwhile, Fr. de Nevers had established the Capuchin Mission in Madras in 1642.

What intrigued me about Rev. Fr. A. Thainis's information were his references to Pondicherry. To the best of my knowledge the French East India Company was formed only in 1664. Caron established the Surat factory in 1664 and Marcara the Masulipatam one in 1669. Pondicherry did not exist at the time ? not even as an Indian settlement.

It was only after the French defeat in San Thom?, surrendering the fort on September 6, 1674, that they moved to what became Pondicherry. In 1673, with San Thom? threatened, Francois Martin had sailed south from Fort San Thom? to obtain a grant of land and when he received the grant from the Khan of Gingee, who represented the Sultan of Bijapur, the fleeing French had a new site to establish a factory. To this village of ?Phulcheree', Martin led the French in 1674 ? and thus was born Pondicherry.

That's a story the records tell. Which leaves us with the question based on the two records mentioned above: Where and when did Capuchins first arrive on the Coromandel Coast?

Now that's a pretty mystery researchers might like to try and solve.

An old friend appears again

There appeared on my desk the other day a slim book with the information that it was a new paperback from Penguin. It was titled Refuge and its author was Gopal Gandhi. The arrival of the book was like catching up with an old friend again.

The first time I had seen the book was in 1987 when it was titled Saranam and published by Affiliated East-West Press, Madras, one of its first fiction titles, if not thefirst. Then, in 1989, it came out as a hardback with the Ravi Dayal imprint and a new name, Refuge.

Ravi Dayal, when he published it, encouraged revision of the content, so it came out as ?a revised edition?. After Ravi Dayal, once head of Oxford University Press, India, and perhaps its finest Editor before striking out on his own, passed away, the few titles he had published ? and he was truly choosy about what he published ? were taken over by Penguin India, and, so, the Ravi Dayal version of Refuge has now come out as the paperback which arrived at my desk.

I don't know if too many books in India have such a publishing history.

Gopal Gandhi, the author, is of course Gopal Krishna Gandhi, the former Governor of West Bengal. Saranam/Refuge, set in the tea country of Sri Lanka's highlands, focusses on the plight of the Tamil workers of Indian origin to whom the tea estates of the Island are home, harrowing though their conditions be.

A moving novel born of the human tragedies of plantation life, the story came out of what the author had seen during the time when he, an IAS officer of the Madras cadre, was seconded to the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka and posted to its Kandy office to help the Tamils of Indian origin, about a million strong, who lived and worked in the hills surrounding Kandy but who were faced with the dilemma of not knowing whether they were Indians, Sri Lankans or stateless and of also not knowing what their future was, especially if they were repatriated to India.

Repatriation was Gopal Gandhi main portfolio, but now that he's retired and settling down to writing, I hope his next novel will be on the trauma of repatriation.

When the postman knocked

*Several of my Parsi friends write to say that a printer's devil must have been at work or my Olivetti had speedily got into Tamil mode, given the present climate ? to make Sirinbai a Srinibai in Miscellany, July 5. I hope this sets the record straight.

*The coordinators of Madras Week, that small group of persons who care so much for the city's past that they want it remembered every year, write to tell me that Madras Week will begin this year on August 15 and end on Madras Day, August 22, but that programmes appear to be beginning from around August 13 and ending around August 29.

As usual, they are calling for individuals, schools, colleges and other institutions to draw up their ?Madras Remembered' programmes for that period and inform and who will help them get the word around to a wider audience. They conclude by saying, ?Please remember that all programmes are purely volunteer efforts by those who care for Madras.?

* Meenakshisundaram Natarajan of Metrowater ? and I'm delighted to find at least one engineer in that organisation interested in the history of the city's water supply ? writes to ?correct? me on two people he appears to admire, James Welby Madeley and Joseph Alfred Jones (Miscellany, June 28 and July 5). But he offers not corrections but additional inputs, namely their first names and that Madeley was also ?responsible for the underpinning of organised water supply in Madras.? To substantiate Madeley's water supply connection he sends me the accompanying photograph of a commemorative plaque. He also urges readers interested in Madras's water supply and sewage systems to refer to website for Google book reference to the subject.

* V. Sriram, a frequent visitor to Pune, writes that for years the residence of the Petits (Miscellany, July 5) stood as a ghostly mansion on Bund Garden Road. Then, a few years ago, it was pulled down and there were left only the gateposts with a marble plaque on one of them reading ?Sir Dinshaw Petit'.

On a recent visit to Pune, just after he had read my reference to Sir Dinshaw's contribution to the Parsi community in Madras, he found the gateposts had also gone. An ancestor of Sir Dinshaw, he tells me, was actually a Dinshaw Maneckjee who worked in a French firm where his diminutive stature had him being given the sobriquet ?le petit Parsi'. Petit he then took on as a surname. A descendant made his money after the American Civil War, brokering many a rewarding transaction, even if some of them were speculative. He was honoured by the British Crown with a baronetcy (a hereditary knighthood). Thus, his son, the Sir Dinshaw Petit whom this column had referred to, was the second baronet. The second baronet's daughter was Ruttenbai who married Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Theirs was a love story that needs to be told one day in greater detail than it has been.

*What and where is the Moore Pavilion (Miscellany, June 28), wonders G. Sinnathamby. Behind what is now the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, at one end of what was People's Park, there were the grounds of the South India Athletic Association which was founded in 1901 through the initiative of several sports-loving Indians and the driving force that was Lt.Col. Sir George Moore, President of the Corporation of Madras. The foundation stone for a charming English county-style pavilion at the northern end of the grounds was laid in 1902 by Sir George, who was also the Association's first president. In the pavilion was held the first competitive billiards tournament in South India in 1903 and the Association thereafter did much to promote the game.

Between the first years of Independence and 1977, the activities of the Association diminished considerably and the Sir Ashley Biggs Institute, which nurtured Railways sport, took it over in 1978. The last time I saw it, the beautiful building was in a sorry state. It would be good to hear whether it has been restored. Or has it been pulled down like so many other heritage buildings in the city?

Keywords: Madrashistory