A book in waiting

It was in the early 1970s that G.A. Natesan’s famed Indian Review was revived by T.T. Vasu at the behest of his father T.T. Krishnamachari who had decided he would contribute the editorials. Editing it was M.C. Subrahmanyam, a veteran journalist but better known for founding the Public Health Centre in West Mambalam. I used to drop in at M.C.’s office a couple of times a week, to hand in my column, a review of international affairs, chat about the state of the State and the nation, but more importantly to meet those who regularly dropped in there and benefit from the fund of knowledge those friends of his, like A.K. Chettiar and R.A. Padmanabhan (RAP) and many others, had of a country I was then new to.

A.K. Chettiar passed away a few years ago, but R.A. Padmanabhan said farewell to this world only a few days ago. From him I had learnt much about Bharati and others who had challenged the British, like VOC, VVS Iyer and Neelakanta Brahmachari, all of whom he had written about. But Bharati was his passion and he would talk about him and his work endlessly. My interest, however, was the column he wrote for Indian Review titled `The World of Tamil Journalism’ and as he handed in his copy. I’d ask to read it and then he’d add a wealth of information to what he had put down on paper. It is a column that this column has benefitted from immensely from time to time. It is also a column that deserves to be compiled into a history – and I hope someone out there makes its publication as a book possible.

R A Padmanabhan’s foray into journalism began when he was a 13-year-old in school in Pollachi. He and his elder brother were encouraged by their history teacher to start a manuscript magazine in 1930. Twelve issues of it came out before RAP left school. It was during that time that he first appeared in print, a humorous skit of his, ‘Charitram’, featuring in the Students’ Page of Ananda Vikatan on April 15, 1931. It was to lead him to joining Ananda Vikatan in 1933.

Recalling those first days, RAP once wrote in his column, “When I came ….. to join ‘Vikatan’… I was a ‘mofussilite’, totally new to the city. I looked my non-cosmopolitan part: a bundle of hair knotted on top, a frock coat over a tucked-in shirt, a four cubit dhoti, and loud caste marks on the forehead. All these vanished in less than a week of city life. Telling my people back home an atrocious lie, that I was finding it difficult to have oil baths because of the long hair, I quietly had it cropped. The frock coat was never again used. The shirt gave way to a jibba in khaddar, which was then the prevailing fashion amongst nationalists, particularly journalists. And the caste mark was given up as I thought it was an invidious distinction wearing it as also the sacred thread.”

The first job a new subeditor was given by ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurthy at Ananda Vikatan was to edit the ‘copy’ for the Jokes Page. And to be considered as having done that satisfactorily you would have to follow in the master’s footsteps, which process RAP once described as follows: “He was a past-master in trimming and pruning jokes to the barest essentials. Not an unnecessary word escaped his pen. It would be a delight to watch him edit and re-edit jokes until after several incisions the final joke would be pointed and have the brilliance of a diamond. He used to say that such tightening of written matter was the best exercise for any writer. Not a single unwanted word should escape into print.”

And with that training R A Padmanabhan moved on three years later into the world of Madras journalism, thereafter peregrinating through it with stops at several English and Tamil newspapers and journals. A compilation of that column of his into a history of Tamil journalism would be a worthy tribute to him.

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An auction for a Run

Eric Auzoux was back in town briefly a week or so ago. Some readers may remember him as the head of the Alliance Francaise in Madras, but I remember working with him to found Citizens’ Run, that run that raises funds once a year for a few charitable institutions. This time, Eric was in town to help Citizens’ Run again and did so to the extent of Rs.3,45,000 – matched with an equal amount from a large-hearted donor in the audience – that was raised in an auction of 20 photographs of life around the world that he had collected. As Eric said, at the conclusion of the bidding, the pictures were a lifetime of memories which were now helping to pay back for what India had done for him – mellowed him, among others things.

The pictures from India, Greece, France, Jerusalem and the West Bank, Afghanistan and Iraki Kurdistan had one from the last-named, a girl in a field, topping the bidding at Rs.56,000. But auctioneer Jean Francois Lesage’s and Eric’s banter had that bid topped by a thousand rupees – but for two pictures sold together: T S Nagarajan’s kitchen in an old home in Agume, Karnataka, and one of a grandmother in her kitchen in Greece. Other pictures from South India were an old couple on the thinnai in a house in George Town, an elderly hairdresser (no barber he!) with his bag proclaiming his gentrified occupation, and a statue in the temple overwhelming its gopuram in Madurai.

After joining Ranvir Shah, who now leads the trustees of Citizens’ Run, in greeting Sridhar of Maithri Charitable Trust, T. Nagar, who had for 14 years been participating in Citizens’ Run in his wheelchair – from that time when his organisation was a recipient of help from donations raised for one of the first runs – Eric headed back to Wayanad where for the last month or so he has been working on his biography of Roberto de Nobili, the Jesuit, whom he had got interested in during his Alliance Francaise days. After all the chats we’ve had about the man and the book, I’d like to see it in print before the year is out, Eric.

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The Aussies in Madras

When Australia celebrated its National Day a few days late in Madras, presumably not to clash with India’s Republic Day, it took the opportunity to also highlight the fast-growing Indo-Australian links in trade and education, to host the release of a book on Sister Mary Theodore Asmar who spent most of her life in Madras, and to introduce its new Consul-General in South India, Sean Kelly.

Indo-Australian links we all know are growing and will continue to grow, so let me not dwell on the obvious. The book on Sr.Mary Theodore, on the other hand, had an out of the book story. It has been written by Prof. Peter Gale from the University of South Australia and the link with the good Sister goes back thirty years and more when his father came out to Madras with 200 head of cattle, probably heading inland. So impressed was Gale Sr. with the work she was doing, he set up a trust that still helps MITHRA, the Madras Institute to Habilitate Retarded Afflicted in Anna Nagar.

Sr. Mary Theodore, Brisbane-born of Lebanese stock, came out to India in 1951 as a Franciscan nun to teach at St Raphael’s Girls’ High School in Mylapore. She moved on to convents in Cochin and Coimbatore where, though she had degrees in Commerce and Law, she worked in their nursing and administration sections. But feeling that the afflicted needed more attention than those in the institutions that she had been working with, she moved out of her formal relationship with the Church and set up `Mithra’ in 1977 to rehabilitate less abled poor children. From small beginnings, MITHRA has grown into a large, well-equipped campus where annually young students from abroad, mainly from Australia, come out to help as volunteers. The word they spread when they go back home has ensured a steady flow of donations that has made MITHRA the centre of excellence it is. Helping too was the $40,000 Sr. Mary Theodore received from the Australian Government in 1994 – her long-delayed pension for work before she joined the Order.

Much honoured in Australia and India, Sr. Mary Thoedore, called by many the Mother Teresa of South India, passed away in 2012. To the end she believed she was “God’s Donkey”, as she described herself, serving, submitting and being stubborn. That description is what Gale has titled his book.

As for the new Consul General, Sean Kelly introduced himself mentioning that he was the fourth generation to be associated with South India. His great-grandfather jumped ship in Madras and later worked in Coimbatore, his grandfather worked in the PWD, and died in Bangalore, his father grew up in India and served in the Indian Army and migrated to Australia, and here was Sean Kelly following his forefathers into South India. Tracing that ancestral trail is what he plans to spend some time on during his stint in Madras. Perhaps those who have access to old PWD and Church records could help.