Aparna Karthikeyan walks through the city’s history at Fort St. George
At 6.15 a.m., the morning I go to visit Chennai’s past, rain washes the streets clean. Fort St. George stirs to bird song; the Indian flag flutters atop one of the country’s tallest flag posts. Two policemen stand by the security barricade. A dog sniffs my feet as I state the purpose of my visit, shielding my camera and notebook with a large umbrella. Some hems and haws later, I cross the deep, wide moat that separates old Madras from busy Chennai.
The Fort — or ‘White Town’ as it was called — came into existence in the 17th Century, as East India Company’s trading centre. The 300-year-old handsome building to the left — yesterday’s Fort House, today’s Secretariat — was the nucleus around which the Fort grew. It’s chalk white, set-off by kohl-black columns and blue screens. A priest’s helper, from the Nagathamman temple just outside, fills an orange pot with water. We walk in companionable silence, the birds’ loud chirps and the occasional mopeds, ferrying milk or bananas to the stores, the only sounds.
Right across, on York Street, rain falls in silvery chains from the steel-blue sunshades of the Fort Museum. Dating from 1790, it was originally the Public Exchange, and later the British Infantry Officers’ Mess. Today, its tall doors open to reveal snatches from the past. To the front, a row of wet cannons glisten; to its left, a gulmohar tree dabs red and orange on the broody sky. Women arrive for work, two to an umbrella, picking-up saree-hems to keep them dry. A short walk from the Secretariat portico, a restaurant — Saapida Vaanga — invites the hungry. By the multi-storied Namakkal Kavignar Maaligai, a fire engine and official cars stand at the ready.
“There’s an Aavin booth over there; have a hot drink,” a policewoman kindly tells me. Two men are seated inside, both blowing into paper cups. The Fort opens up at this point. In the centre is the Parade ground, the tarmac shiny-black after the rain. ‘Oultry’ street branches off to the right. Film music plays loudly from a tea-shop radio. The canteen, housed in a stately building — the erstwhile King’s Barracks — is yet to receive customers. Columns hold up the tiled roof, supported by stout wooden beams. Rain drums on the metal sheet over the seating area. Across the grounds, the tall, pointy steeple of St. Mary’s church beckons me.
Did it rain the morning Robert Clive got married at St. Mary’s church? Did booming thunder and streaking lightning play a tropical band when Elihu Yale signed the wedding register? His was the Church’s first wedding, on November 4, 1680; but that wasn’t his only distinction; later, an American university was named after him. I watch pigeons play on the church’s curved stone staircase at 7.25 a.m.; but the clock on the steeple keeps ancient time. Sunlight tears a hole in the cloud cover, dapples the white walls; these walls and vaulted, bomb-proof roofing are here since 1680, part of the oldest masonry structure within the Fort.
By 8 a.m., I’m studying wet tombstones, spot-lit by sunshine. ‘Here lies interred the body of Anne daughter of John’ one reads. It is dated 1701. Anne was only 16 years old when she was buried. The church interiors are still more beautiful, still more poignant. Stained glass filters the light; beautiful marble plaques speak up for the dead. I walk around, admiring the courtyard (hill station green, hill station quiet), the ‘Last Supper’ at the altar, brought from Pondicherry in 1761, painted long before in Europe.
At 8.30 a.m., marching feet and clipped cries of ‘left, right, left’ draw me out of the church. Nine uniformed men stamp their feet and keep rhythm perpendicular to Church Street.
Opposite the steeple, on Charles and James Street, Clive’s House — now housing the Archaeological Survey of India — is neatly reflected in a huge puddle. Soaring cream columns hug tall rows of blue-shuttered windows; with its elegant arches and wooden staircases, it was, in 1753, Robert Clive’s residence. I almost expect him to walk out of the locked Clive’s corner, but an army truck from Jabalpur trundles part, shatters the moment. At the back, two young officers sharing an iPod smile back shyly.
The Army area beyond is out of bounds; I head back towards the Secretariat. Just after 9.30, workers arrive, with rolled-up umbrellas and rolled-up newspapers; I walk past ASI boards declaring the buildings to be of national importance, past construction workers, laughing and talking in Hindi, past lady constables lining the Secretariat drive. By the museum, a man offers me huge, yellow Allamanda flowers for my hair. I decline, and enter the museum. For Rs. five, I take a walk through Chennai’s past. Baby beerangis, big statues, paintings and portraits entertain and enthral.
As I take the ‘exit’, the ‘entry’ is lined with office-goers and visitors. They bow by Nagathamman shrine, sign registers, cross security and are swallowed by 17th Century Madras. And I walk into the soot and sunshine of 21st Century Chennai.