Listening to that recent discussion on women in the 21st Century that generated into focusing on rape and sexual harassment (Miscellany, January 20), I couldn’t help thinking about what women like Isabella Thoburn, Sarah Tucker, Dorothy de la Hey, Eleanor McDougall, Mary Scharlieb and Ida Scudder had started and where their efforts have taken the Indian Woman today — a world far beyond the world of rape which has existed from the beginning of history. The achievements of women in the last 200 years and more, particularly in the last century, certainly have a much shorter history — and one that every Indian girl and woman moving out of the closet called home should be proud of. Part of that history are those names I have listed above and who made me wonder how many in that audience to hear Naomi Wolf and Barkha Dutt had even heard of them.

Except for Thoburn, the other five contributed significantly to educating women in the Madras Presidency in the sciences as well as the humanities besides medicare. Thoburn is in my list because she started the first women’s college in India, the Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow (1886). Her example was followed in Palayamkottai near Tirunelveli, made possible by Sarah Tucker enabling a school to become in 1895 a second grade college (plus-2 today and Inter then). And then came the legendary Dorothy de la Hey to help establish a hundred years ago this July Madras’s first women’s college, Queen Mary’s College (QMC). And it is that college, celebrating its centenary this year and recalling those thousands of educated women it produced, not to mention women leaders, that I remember in this column today. Perhaps alumnae will add to this brief remembrance.

QMC, the third oldest women’s college in the country, the second oldest in the South and the oldest in Madras city, was opened by Government in 1914 as the Madras College for Women. It is speculated that its beginnings were in discussions Miss Dorothy de la Hey had with Governor Lord Pentland, whom she had come to know through her brother, Clement de la Hey, Vice Principal of Newington College (Princes/Minors) College and a cricketer of some note at the Madras Cricket Club where he regularly used to meet Lord Pentland, an enthusiastic cricketer in his youth and still, at the time, an ardent fan. The women’s college was renamed Queen Mary’s College in 1917 after the Queen Empress. Under Dorothy de la Hey, the College was not only to play a major role in the emancipation of women in the South but also encourage many of its brighter students to join its neighbour, Presidency College, for higher studies.

Miss de La Hey led QMC’s first 37 students into what had been known as Capper House Hotel, then an almost derelict building on the Marina in which a hotel struggled to survive. The building was first rented but, then, the very next year, bought by Government to serve as both college and hostel. The isolated garden house belonging to Col. Francis Capper was the first residential building to be raised on the beachfront. Capper was a soldier and a geographer and it was only appropriate that QMC became one of the few colleges in India to focus on Geography.

Capper House, facing the beach, was sadly, and unnecessarily, pulled down in 2002/3 and replaced with a building meant to echo it but topped by a dome to imitate Presidency.

As the College kept growing under Miss de la Hey’s stewardship, she kept adding buildings to it. And before she retired in 1936, Pentland House had been built in 1915, Stone House in 1918 and between them Jeypore House in 1921. Beach House, owned by Justice S. Subramania Aiyar, the first Indian private residence on the Marina, was acquired in the mid 1920s and not long afterwards a neighbouring bungalow owned by Justice Sankaran. Around all these buildings she developed greenery and today it is a tree-rich campus offering welcoming shade to its students.

Over the years the College has sent out graduates who went on to eminence and I’d be glad to have a list of them.

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The first play in Tamil

Some time ago, I had written about a Tamil play, Manonmaniyam by P. Sundaram Pillai (Miscellany, September 24, 2012) in which what is now an anthem, Tamizhtaai Vazhthu, was first sung, in public. I was reminded of this recently when I read an article Indira Parthasarathy, well-known Tamil novelist and poet, wrote correcting a school textbook that, in relating the history of Tamil literature, claimed that Manonmaniyam was the first play in Tamil. No, it wasn’t, writes Parthasarathy; it was Pratapa Chandra Vilasam by Ramaswamy Raju, which was published in 1877. Whether it was staged or not is not known.

Raju, I learnt, was a lawyer and a polymath. He was fluent in English, Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit and wrote in all of them. Of all his writings, only Pratapa Chandra Vilasam and a paean to British rule in India, dedicated to Queen Victoria and written in Sanskrit (!), are said to be available.

The play, Parthasarathy relates, has a hackneyed storyline. A well-to-do young man personifying all that is good comes under the influence of an older man who is the personification of all evil. Inveigled into a life of debauchery, the former is almost lost to depravity, but is saved by fate in the form of a poet. A happy marriage follows with a girl he then meets.

A social commentary on the ‘minors’ of zamindaris brought up in two cultures, that of the East and the West, were his reason for writing the play, stated Raju in his Preface where he says: “This play is written to reform those young men, who, instead of learning the good aspects of Western culture, like civility and a hygienic way of living and respect for women, only imbibe the bad aspects of their social living like partying and expensive habits.”

Writes Parthasarathy, “(The play) perhaps sums up the interaction between cultures — the East and the West – and throws light on what happens to an English-educated semi-intellectual who cannot shake off his cultural upbringing from his birth.”

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When the postman knocked…

*Bhaskarendra Rao sent me these advertisements, one from 1887 and the other from 1922, which reveal that T.R. Tawker & Sons of Mount Road (Miscellany, December 30, 2013), which had a telegraphic address ‘Runganatha’, was known in 1887 as T. Runganatha Tawker, “manufacturing jeweller and precious stone dealer” whose offices were in 19, Yagambaraswera (Ekambareswar?) Agraharam in Sowcarpet and, in 1922 it was advertising itself, from its Mount Road address, as ‘Dealers in and Direct Importers of Diamonds, Watches and Clocks, Silverwares (sic) and Plated, Electro-plate Goods, etc.” My correspondent also writes that in 1922 there was another Tawker diamond dealer and jewel (sic) manufacturer in Madras, T.V. Krishnajee Tawker. The firm’s address was 15 Mint Street, Park Town. Were the two related?

* Two other persons who did “impressive work” on insects (Miscellany, January 6), according to D.B. James, were Col. A.D.Imms of the Indian Army and Prof. T.N. Ananthakrishnan of Loyola College and, later, the Zoological Survey of India (director), an “entomologist of international repute.”

* Writes L. Jacob, “You speak of Abraham Verghese as a writer, but you don’t mention at all the books he got known for. What are they?” Certainly remiss of me. The books are: My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story; The Tennis Partner: A Story of Friendship, and Cutting for Stone.