Another Gandhi Jayanthi has come and gone and all the usual platitudes uttered yesterday have been forgotten today. Rather than get involved in that word game, I chose to remember Gandhiji by searching for information about his first visit to Madras. And discovered that though thousands thronged Central Station on April 17, 1915, no one looked for him in the right place.

The local leadership scoured the 1st and 2nd Class compartments and could not find him. Then, the guard turned up and told them quite matter-of-factly that he had seen the Gandhis board the train somewhere towards its tail. And so, the local leaders scurried down the platform, peering into every compartment till they found Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi patiently sitting in a third class compartment that had emptied fast, leaving all the space to them.

The Hindu of the day described what they saw: “Mr. Gandhi looked thin and emaciated; a loose shirt, soiled by four days of continuous travel, covered his body and a pair of trousers similar in appearance covered his legs.”

A crowd pushed its way into the carriage, and it was some time before a passage could be cleared for L.A. Govindharaghava Aiyer to garland them and lead them out to the awaiting carriage.

Now, who Govindaraghava Aiyer was I have no idea, except that he was a lawyer, but no doubt someone will tell me all about him one of these days, explaining why he was in the van of the welcoming committee.

But once the Gandhis got into the carriage outside the station, everyone else had to take a back seat as the students took over, unharnessing the horses and pulling the carriage all the way to the residence of the visitors' host. The Gandhis stood much of the way in the open carriage, acknowledging the cheers of the crowds lining the streets.

The Gandhis' host was G.A. Natesan and his home and office, G.A. Natesan & Co., were at Sunkurama Chetty Street, George Town. Before alighting from the carriage, Gandhi thanked the welcoming crowd for “the expression of their love for him” and added that, though he now needed rest after a very tiring journey, he'd be available between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. every day during his stay in Madras to meet with them.

During that stay, he called on a friend who was seriously ill, G. Subramania Aiyer, the Founder-Editor of The Hindu who, in 1898, had gone on to found and edit the Swadesmitran. V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, who was at the meeting, recalled it as being “one generation bidding farewell to another”.

Subramania Aiyer, it was reported, wept as he told Gandhi how unhappy he was that his illness made him unable to continue to serve the public cause. Gandhi, wiping the tears of the man lying before him, said that he had “done more than his share of work for India” and that it was now the turn of others.

A year later, almost to the day, Subramania Aiyer passed away, aged 61.

The changing scene

A niece visiting from abroad with her teenagers in tow insisted I should see a bit of New Madras — and off she took me to ‘Express Avenue'.

Once inside, it looked to me like any other mall my daughters had taken me to in Sydney or the Bay Area but a modicum better than the ones they had dragged me to in Madras over the years. And once that feeling wore off, all I could think of was the good fight that INTACH-Tamil Nadu had fought to save what had been on this site and which had so rudely been pulled down thereafter.

Club House Road, which leads to ‘Express Avenue', was indeed the road to what was the first and premier club of Madras, the Madras Club. Founded in 1832 for “officers and gentlemen” only — and not for boxwallahs and ‘shoppies', women and ‘natives' — it before long developed one of the most striking clubhouses in India.

Starting with one garden house, it added to the garden's expansiveness by purchasing adjacent properties, till, by 1853, it occupied space bounded by Mount Road, Patullo's Road, White's Road and General Patter's Road.

Then it set about, with Robert Chisholm's help, to add to White's Bungalow (dating to 1810), creating a clubhouse worthy of the garden space it was now set in.

The core of the building became a handsomely pedimented grand lounge of great length with an equally long, stately dining hall — fit for royal banquets — leading from it, to an octagonal Smoking Room at the rear.

And, beneath the halls was the Bar with a memorably-long counter. On one side were a couple of corridors of bachelor rooms and, on the other, a block housing the billiards room, the library and ‘Strangers Room'. This last, let out for meetings, was where most of the clubs of pre-Independence Madras — the Madras Cricket Club (1846), the Madras Boat Club (1867), the Madras Gymkhana Club (1885), the Adyar Club (1890), and the Yacht Club (1911) — were formed. Madras' first ‘swimming bath' was built in the Club's gardens in 1855, and the city's first tennis courts were laid in 1876 adjacent to its earliest sports facility, the racquets courts. With that kind of background, the building was ideal for a sports museum-cum-library-cum-sports studies centre or for some of the public rooms of a luxury hotel with a sense of heritage — as the Taj group has done with its Colombo property, using the Colombo Club's (Colombo's equivalent of the Madras Club in the days of the Raj) handsome main block for a space for public functions big and small.

It was with these thoughts in mind that INTACH tried to save the building but failed in its efforts to persuade the owners, one of the heirs to the Indian Express Estate whose Ramnath Goenka had bought the property in 1946 when a diminishing membership made the Club decide to downsize.

INTACH then went to Court but failed there too to save the historic property — when the judge in effect wondered what, though it might well be a heritage property, was the law that prevented its owner from pulling it down. Sadly, that remains pretty much the situation on the heritage front today.

Once there was a fort

Few who visit Egmore Railway Station are likely to know that its yards and sidings have been developed on the site of a fort, work on which was started 300 years ago this year to protect the road to Poonamallee and Wandiwash, whose Nayaks had granted Madras to the East India Company.

That fort — later called the Egmore Redoubt — was developed from a choultry for Indian travellers which Governor Thomas Pitt converted into a guardhouse in 1703 when he felt Fort St George was under threat from Nawab Daud Khan, a Mughal satrap.

In 1710, William Fraser, a senior Councillor but then acting as Provisional Governor, appointed a committee to consider whether Pitt's guardhouse should be strengthened and made into a fort.

When the committee felt that it might not be a bad idea, Fraser, long at odds with everyone, decided to go ahead without seeking due permission from London. He had spent over 4,500 pagodas on the unfinished work when the new Governor, Edward Harrison, arrived in 1711 and stopped construction. After London told him to do what he thought best, Harrison completed the work by 1713, spending about 1,500 pagodas more.

During its days as a fort, the Redoubt was also used as a convalescent home for soldiers, the climate of Egmore at the time being considered most salubrious.

In 1754, the Redoubt additionally became a gunpowder mill to provide Fort St. George its requirements, but one of the first things the besieging Comte de Lally did was to blow up the mill. The mill returned to business in 1762, but by then the area around Madras had become more peaceful, and production dwindled.

With conditions more settled, the Male Orphan Asylum in 1793 moved into a fort no longer in use, and in 1800 was instrumental in making it, additionally, a Government Press.

This was a consequence of the Rev. R.H. Kerr, Superintendent of the Male Orphans' Asylum, requesting permission from the Council to start a printing press where the boys in the asylum could learn a useful trade. He also shrewdly pointed out that printing in Madras at the time was a virtual monopoly and the Asylum Press would be able to do work for the Government at much lower rates.

The Government eventually welcomed the press and it was from it that there came the annual Madras Male Asylum Almanac, later called the Lawrence Asylum Press Almanac, a most useful and comprehensive directory that survived, if I am not mistaken, into the early years of the 20th Century.

In 1900, the South Indian Railway bought the property and used it, after adding a second floor, as accommodation for its lower grade staff.

Later, the entire property was flattened and the railway yards expanded into it besides new quarters for staff being raised on the periphery.

RELATED NEWS

The patriot November 1, 2010

Memories of Madras – Of happy childhood daysNovember 2, 2010

More In: Metroplus | Features