And so the Ambassador has said farewell. Undoubtedly, thousands will mourn it and see in its fading the passing of the Nehru era. Much has also been written about it, nostalgically but with a certain finality too; few have thought of its passing in terms of old soldiers never dying but just fading away. Much as I agree with that thought, I must confess I was never an Ambassador fan; I was always a Fiat man. But when the Ambassador began making a mark as an icon in the U.K. not so long ago, I was as proud of the achievement as the Enfield Bullet making a comeback.
That niche demand for the Ambassador in the home of its inspiration, the Morris Oxford, has found no mention in the numerous eulogies. And in only one did I find mention that “it was born from ‘Baby Morris’.” And that ‘baby, the Morris Minor, the British equivalent of the Ford Eight, was a long-time favourite of mine. I’m delighted that someone’s remembered it. But in remembering it no mention was made of the fact that Madras missed the bus with this ‘baby’. If Anatharamakrishnan of Amalgamations had dug his heels in — something he always avoided when it came to confrontation — the Group might well have made the Minor from Madras the success it has made the Massey Ferguson tractor.
The Minor in Madras story begins with J.V.P. Rao joining Addison’s in 1948 and, after training with Nuffield’s in the U.K. and Chrysler in the U.S., being appointed General Manager of Addison’s, one of Amalgamation’s first take-overs. Addison’s at the time was agent for Nuffield’s Morris, Wolseley and Riley cars and Chrysler’s Plymouth, Dodge and De Soto cars and trucks. As it was also assembling Dodge trucks from imported CKD (components) packs, it already had a trained assembly line. When Rao returned to Madras, he found to his fury that his British predecessor had written to the Secretary of the Industries Ministry, Government of India, that Addison’s was no longer interested in assembly operations using CKD packs.
How Rao convinced the Industries Ministry that Addison’s was certainly interested in assembly operations with CKD kits is another story, but convince both Minister and Secretary he did. However, the Ministry insisted that all equipment for assembly had to be locally made. And that Rao got done at fellow-Group company Simpson’s with the help of an outstanding engineer, Harry Stanford, and drawings he had brought with him from Nuffield’s.
The first Morris Minor assembled in India and the first car assembled in Madras was driven out from Addison’s twin-plants on Smith Road by Anantharamakrishnan on November 15, 1950. It was to retail at Rs. 5,200. Starting with two cars a day, Addison’s began producing 10 cars a day on two shifts and this went on for two years. It was then that Government decided to license progressive manufacture of cars. Hindustan Motors got the licence for the Hindustan 10 (the Morris 10) which evolved into the Ambassador and Addison’s the licence for the Morris Minor. Another Madras-based company, Ashok Motors (now Ashok Leyland), got the licence for the Austin A-40 — but later opted for Leyland trucks.
When one day, just when the Morris Minor was proving to be the bestselling-car in India and plans were being drawn up for indigenisation of proposed manufacture, there came a legal notice from Hindustan Motors. It pointed out that Nuffield’s had given Hindustan Motors the right of first refusal should Nuffield’s agree to the manufacture of any Nuffield vehicle in India. Addison’s should forthwith stop manufacturing the Minor, the notice said.
With Anantharamakrishnan shying away from a confrontation, Rao met G.D. Birla and even offered a £10 royalty on each Minor sold. With the Minor at the time outselling all other cars made in India put together, this was no enticement for Birla, considering the money he had sunk into the Hindustan 10 project. But as a commentator was to later wonder, “What is not understandable is why Hindustan Motors themselves did not take up the manufacture of the Minor.” He went on to add, “A fine, sturdy car, easy to maintain and with an exceptional fuel consumption, it would have put India on wheels, at a much cheaper price and at less cost to the country, long before Maruti began to do so.”
The Chulias of the Straits
It was at a recent screening of S. Anwar’s moving documentary on his search for his Tamil Muslim identity, I learnt that Yadhum (All one) was only the first part of a two-part film. The second part, on which he has just started working, is focused on the Tamil Muslim diaspora, particularly in South and Southeast Asia. That ethnic group I discovered the other day, from a book recently published in Penang, was called the Chulias for over a hundred years in what was once known as the Straits Settlements — the British possessions in Malaysia, namely Penang, Malacca and Singapore. Subsequent inter-marriage with Malays had them being called Jawi Peranakans. But with hardly any connections now left with Tamil Nadu’s southern Coromandel and Fisheries’ Coasts, they are Malays today, with only traces of their heritage visible in facial features and in their food.
When they first arrived in the Straits of Malacca, they were traders importing Madras Checks and other cottons from Pulicat and other coastal towns, pepper, and a host of goods from the Coromandel hinterland. By the 19th Century, they were rich enough to endow mosques, Sufi shrines, schools and other public amenities.
Tallest among them was Kader Mohideen Marakkayar, a merchant and a ship-owner. He was appointed the Kapitan Kling, the leader of, some say the Chulias, others say of the Indian community in Penang. Whatever the translation, the title granted by the East India Company was one to be respected by all. In turn, he built the Chulias a South Indian mosque and developed a cemetery, on land granted by the Company. Today, the Masjid Kapitan Kling is one of Penang’s landmarks, though repeated re-development has changed its architectural character considerably.
The descendants of the Chulias, for their part, have changed considerably too. Educated in English, Tamil and Malay, they have become government officials, entered businesses connected with shipping, and helped in the creation of the Tamil and Malay media in Penang. As a person who knows the community well says, they have became “a part of the cosmopolitan elite in Malaysia”. Since the 1950s, they have also been trying to find a place in the Malaysian political sun.
The good ship Madras
My reference last week to the hospital ship Madras has brought me a heap of mail, providing much information about the ship. Of particular note was the fact that a stamp was issued by the Government of India c.1915 honouring the vessel.
The ship, originally called the Tanda, named for no reason known after a small town near Faizabad in the United Provinces, was built in Scotland for the British India Steam Navigation Co. for its Calcutta-Far East route. The 7,000-ton vessel, with accommodation for 50 first class, 50 second class and 2,000 deck passengers, was launched in March 1914. It had cost £150,000. Before the end of the year, the Government of Madras had taken over the ship for Rs.1,00,000 — on what terms I have no idea — and converted it into the H.S. Madras on sailing which it spent Rs.125,000 a month, the public contributing about half of it.
Col. Giffard, Superintendent of the Madras Maternity Hospital, was the first medical superintendent of the ship. He was responsible for fitting out the ship as a hospital with 450 beds and 100 staff. After just a year’s tenure, Giffard fell ill and was succeeded by his deputy, Col. Symond of the Madras Medical College. A fellow professor at the College, Major Bradfield, became his deputy. An Indian doctor who served on the ship was D.G. Rai IMS. The Madras initially plied between East Africa and India ferrying the wounded to shore hospitals in India and taking back troops to the front. It later sailed between Mesopotamia (Iraq today) and India when the scene of action moved.
At the end of 1919, after serving a year or so as a troopship returning soldiers to Australia, the Madras was returned to B.I. and, as the Tanda, got back to the route it had been intended for. When B.I. got a newer vessel, it sold the Tanda to the Eastern & Australia SS Co. which used it as a passenger-cum-cargo carrier sailing in the waters its owner took its name from. When World War II broke out, the Tanda became a cargo-carrier shuttling between Australia and India. On a voyage from Melbourne to Bombay via Colombo in July 1944, it was torpedoed off Mangalore by a German U-boat and sank on the 15th with the loss of 19 lives: 197 crew, gunners and passengers were saved. It had been a long innings, aptly ending in the waters where it had sailed nursing many a person to life.