Madras of the 1930s and 1940s was a different city. Looking back on a time of silent films, convent schools and the first whiff of the freedom movement.
I have only memories. No photographs… going back to the early 1930s when I was a child. Memories of white men with cropped hair, in dust-coloured khaki, riding chocolate-brown horses, up and down, patrolling the Government Estate on Mount Road. This scene is vividly etched in my mind as we lived on Ellis Road, off Mount Road, opposite Elphinstone Theatre. The English name is still in use and has not been traded to please today's narcissistic politicians.
Elphinstone Theatre. Silent films where music was played during the interval by an orchestra composed of Anglo-Indian boys. At the end, we stood up obediently to the strains of “God Save the King”.
I studied at St. William's European Middle School on Peter's Road near the Royapettah Hospital. My father took me to meet the headmistress Mother Margaret, an Irish nun. He dressed up in a full suit with a waistcoat and a pocket watch tucked in it. He took his hat off and greeted her.
She looked at him and smiled and said, “I am going to call your daughter, Peggy. It is the short form of my own name Margaret.” And so Peggy I was till I joined college. My siblings' names were also changed. My eldest sister Indira was Hilda, Hemalata became Annie, my elder brother Niranjan James and my younger brother, Siddharth, was Sid. All Hindus had their names changed. My classmate Chandra was Sandra and Palaniswamy was Teddy. Our names were “difficult” to remember and impossible to pronounce.
Royapettah was more or less an Anglo-Indian locality. Peter's Road had a number of small bungalows where the more well-to-do Anglo Indians lived. Andy's Street, which still retains its name, had small houses that opened onto the street. How unselfconsciously I admired the little houses with their flowered curtains and dining rooms, tables laid with English crockery, spoons and forks and sparkling glass tumblers!
At home we sat on wooden planks on the floor and ate with our hands off banana leaves. We were never allowed to even sip from tumblers.
In 1939, we moved to Lloyd's Road. I was admitted to the St. Columban's European High School, one of the earliest convent schools in Madras. By this time, the winds of freedom had begun to waft towards us and we realised that we were not a free nation.
So at School Assembly two songs were sung, the words of which some of us changed. “God save the King” became “God shave the king”. The other claimed that Britain's right to rule over other nations was God's charter: “For Britons, never, never, never, shall be slaves”. We delighted in singing for “Britons ever, ever, shall be slaves” before the unsuspecting nuns.
St. Columban's was in George Town. I used to go by tram, which was fairly empty except for a bunch of Anglo-Indian girls. The trams rolled so smoothly that some of us would finish our written homework before reaching school. We knew the tram conductors well and some of them would allow the more adventurous girls to drive the tram for a short distance.
On a recent visit to St. Columban's, I found my school, which was built more than 100 years ago, still looking as good as new. Only I seem to have grown old. Was it because the building was built of stone, I wonder?
In the 1940s, we shifted to a house on Ramakrishna Mutt Road, then known as Brodies Road in Robertsonpet. Brodies Castle and all the houses on Greenways Road were the residences of the British. Although we often took walks down Greenways Road, we never saw a single white person. The houses were set so deep inside that one could not even catch a glimpse of them. It was as if they never existed.
But I did meet an English girl accidentally on the Marina. Before sunset, cars would arrive and ayahswith their little British charges would get down and walk on the sands. The toddlers would play with buckets and shovels while they gossiped: black ayahsin spotless white saris, fair bonnie toddlers with golden hair, the blue sea and sky and the golden sands.
A girl of about my age (I was then seven) stood nearby bored. The English usually sent older children back to England or to a boarding school in the hills.
It was strange to see a girl of my age there. Suddenly the girl came up to me and held out her hand as if to give me something. I stretched out my palm to receive it. All hell broke loose. The ayahs jumped up and shooed me away. I opened my palm and saw what she had given me. It was a sea shell.
Was it given in friendship? Or was it a symbol of the only worthwhile British legacy perhaps, the gift of the English language?
And then suddenly and swiftly Madras was evacuated. The threat of an attack by Japanese in 1942 loomed large. The city became an empty, lonely, dangerous place to live in especially with the mandatory blackouts.
Most people left the city to seek shelter with relatives. Air raid wardens patrolled the roads in jeeps to check whether any light shone from any window and to see that the blackout was observed properly
And just as suddenly Madras was back to normal. World War 2 was over .A wave of excitement and anticipation of freedom gripped all of us as we took part in the Quit India movement, by not attending classes, learnt to weave khadi and wore it. And on the evening of August 1947, bright lights shone all over Madras. The trams ran free and were over loaded with joyous people who had come to have a glimpse of a brilliantly lit city.
The Madras of the 1930s and 1940s was a different city altogether. It does not exist anymore. It has changed and appropriately its name has also been changed. It lives only in memories…