Searching for information about one subject has often led me to information about another. This time, I was tracking the Anglo-Indian connections of St. George's School and Orphanage on Poonamallee High Road and discovered that Madras got its General Post Office 225 years ago this year. The link was Governor Sir Archibald Campbell (1786-1790) who established the Male and Female Orphan Asylums (that developed as St. George's School) as well as the Madras G.P.O. that made the postal service a Government facility.
The Madras G.P.O. started functioning from June 1, 1786 and the first Postmaster-General was Sir Archibald's secretary, A.M. Campbell. Robert Mitford was appointed the Deputy Postmaster-General. The G.P.O. was served by one Writer (clerk), five sorters, a head peon and ten postmen. They worked out of a building that was “at the beach in (by?) Fort St. George square.” In October 1837 the post office moved to “the old Bank” building inside the Fort, what is now the Fort Museum. And then in 1856 to Garden House, Popham's Broadway, near the Kothawal Chavadi market. Eventually, in 1884, it moved into its own building, the handsome one by Chisholm that it still occupies.
The Madras Post Office, as it was generally called, began expanding its services when it opened receiving offices (as opposed to full service offices that also delivered mail) in March 1834 at Hunter's Road in Vepery and what is now Westcott Road in Royapettah. In February 1845, four more receiving offices were opened, on Mount Road, in Triplicane, and two in Black Town (yet to become George Town). Receiving offices were added in San Thomé and in Teynampet, near St. George's Cathedral, in 1855. Not long afterwards, six more receiving offices were opened.
All this expansion warranted a large main post office for receipt of mail and distribution and the Madras Chamber of Commerce urged the Governments of India and Madras in 1868 to build a large General Post Office in a central place. Only Rs. 2,00,000 was sanctioned for this purpose by the two Governments in response to the proposal, construction of GPOs in Calcutta and Bombay being cited by the GoI for its inability to contribute more. Eventually, the present site — where the Abercrombie Battery had once been — was selected in 1873, but there was no money to proceed with the work till 1880. The Chamber then urged that both the Post and Telegraph Departments be housed in one building and that, as this would necessitate an even bigger building, the Abercrombie Battery site not be divided between the Bank of Madras and the Post Office as had been intended.
The three-storied building, 352 feet long, 162 feet broad, and with 125-foot tall towers, was inaugurated in 1884. Besides a high ceilinged central hall, the ground floor provided space for stores, kitchen, servants etc. The first floor was used for offices. And the second floor served as accommodation for officers. The Postmaster-General moved in on March 1, 1884 from space he was occupying in the Mercantile Bank building further down the road, and the Broadway staff moved in on April 26. The new building had cost Rs. 6,80,000 against an estimated Rs. 6,92,000. Those were the days when such things could happen!
Tailpiece: The Government Medical Department, with a Physician-General in charge, was also started in 1876 by Sir Archibald Campbell.
Back to the village
Rags to riches stories are not unusual in the India of today, where almost every move for personal growth by those in rural areas is migration to large urban settlements. But taking the riches back to the village and bringing modern development to it is certainly rare. That, however, is what S. Shangaralingam has done.
He was born and brought up in a backward village, Sankarankulam, near Nanguneri in Tirunelveli District. Rather than scrabble for a living in an area that seemed doomed to poverty, Shangaralingam went to Coimbatore in search of a job. It took him a while, but he found one — as a supervisor in a small printing and book binding unit. The work floor was his home for the night.
It was here that he found a mentor who spotted his talent for printing and urged him to join a printers' course in Madras. Shangaralingam may have got his printing diploma there, but he became obsessed with the film world. A couple of small film roles that did not see him take off made him decide to stick to printing. He started a small screen printing unit in Kodambakkam, and his film world contacts helped him to develop a modest business printing visiting cards, letterheads and other stationery.
Fate now played a role. When he decided to get married, he could not find the kind of invitation card he wanted in Anderson Street, Georgetown then the centre of the wedding invitation card business. Shangaralingam decided to design his own card and print it. He followed this up with the card for his brother's wedding. The attention the two cards attracted and the inquiries from friends and relatives made Shangaralingam set up Menaka Cards. That was nearly 25 years ago — and there has been no looking back since.
The pioneering specialist in wedding card invitations now has 30 branches all over India and booking arrangements in North America and Europe. The person who used to design every card himself in the early days, now has a design studio, fully computerised like all his branches. But every one of the over 1000 house designs and the 300 designs for customers done every month needs his personal stamp of approval.
This, however, is where Shangaralingam's story is different from others. When he decided to set up a modern printing and finishing unit, he didn't do so in Madras or Coimbatore. He set up the 1,00,000 sq.ft. production facility in his village. “I was determined to give back something to the place where I was born,” and, so, in this fully air-conditioned factory with the latest equipment in the back of beyond, he provides employment for 350 persons, most of them locals, most of them trained on the job. It is a card manufactory that supplies around 50,000 finished cards every day, uses 50 tons of paper every month, and is constantly introducing innovations in design, materials and printing techniques.
Shangaralingam has come a long way from a floor without a pillow that was his bed, then the 200 sq ft room that served as an office, to a nearly Rs.20 crore business today. While travelling that journey he has never forgotten that backward village that deserved better.
When the postman knocked…
*At a party the other evening, a friend greeted me with, “Miscellany seems to be becoming a regular ‘Lost and Find' column!” Indeed it does; many of its readers seem to be looking for people lost to wider memory and the column itself seems to be finding out something about them, through its own digging or from its readership, thus bringing the lost back to present memory. I thought I'd preface today's search for the lost with that comment, because what I quoted above was made on the same day as a request from S. Nishant who wants information about his maternal great-grandfather, Kandampully Krishnan Vaidyar (1883-1965) of Nhamaanghat village near the Guruvayoor Temple. His reason for getting this column involved in this search is that this Ayurvedic physician, “who even had patients from abroad”, had a clinic in Royapettah in the 1930s where he'd camp from time to time to meet patients. He was apparently also a farmer who was always active in village development; and to study his work in this field, Chief Minister Kamaraj had visited him during a Malabar tour in 1854-1855. These Madras angles is what I am looking into for my mother, writes Nishant, adding, “the attached image may jog the memory of a few old-timers.”
*Another reader searching for the ‘lost' is Mervyn Rimmer. He says that while he was in Ooty recently he had heard of “an Anglo-Indian lady who had served the post office there for fifty years.” He wondered whether I knew who she was. I'm afraid I'm not quite that old, but I had read about a Mrs. Ida McLeish who, till her retirement on May 1, 1912, had served in Ooty for fifty years as the only Telegraph Mistress in the country. The Indian Telegraph Department, founded in 1850, had merged with the Postal Department in 1913 and the Posts and Telegraphs Department of India was born only then. So, to be quite accurate, Mrs. McLeish was not in the postal service but in the telegraph service.
*K.V. Ramanathan points out that many of those I had mentioned as members of the Analytic/Indian Mathematical Club (Miscellany, October 24) went on to distinguished careers. Of Vepa Ramesam (and not Ramesan “as you have mentioned”) and Dr. S. Swaminathan I have written in the past. But Ramanathan reminds me of the contributions of two others; Littlehailes went on to become Vice-Chancellor of the University of Madras (1934-1937) and R. Ramachandra Rao was the Collector of Nellore District who, along with S. Narayana Aiyar, had helped shed light on Ramanujan the mathematical genius before going on to become a Secretary to the Government of Madras.