About 18 months ago, I had written about Vice President M.H. Ansari’s connection with Madras (Miscellany, February 11, 2008). More about that connection cropped up recently when I bumped into Ronald E. Smith-Ansari, former hotelier, actor, gardener and director managing the Maharajah of Mysore’s Fernhill properties in Ooty. But the additional details began with his pointing out that I had missed the visit of Gandhi to Madras in December 1927 when writing about Gandhiji’s sojourns in the Tamil areas of the Madras Presidency (Miscellany, August 24). That visit was to attend the annual Indian National Congress Sessions, being held that year in Avadi and presided over by that well-known Delhi physician, Dr. Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, grand-uncle of the Vice President.
Dr. Ansari, who studied at Madras Medical College, had, in his student days, lived in a house where the Anand Theatre came up and became a good friend of E.D. Smith who lived in a neighbouring house. Smith was the owner of Smith & Sons and Collingwood & Co. in Madras. The former was an outstanding tailoring and haberdashery establishment; the latter, also in the 163 Mount Road premises of Smith & Sons, was a chemist and druggist. A consequence of the Ansari-Smith friendship was that Smith’s fifth child, 17-year-old Phyllis Iolanthe Smith, was invited to attend the Sessions as Dr. Ansari’s guest, given a front row seat and put in the care of the doctor’s nephew, a medical student, Iqbal Ansari, named by his uncle after a great friend, the poet Iqbal. Nine years later Phyllis Smith married Dr. Iqbal Ansari after his return from the U.K. and became Begum Bibi Ansari. In June 1939 was born their only child, Shamir Ahmad Ansari, after their divorce to become Ronald Errol Smith who regales me with bits of local history every time we meet.
Back in Madras after her marriage broke up, Phyllis Smith became Ambulance Officer of the St. John Ambulances at the Royapettah Government Hospital where her eldest sister, Dr. (Miss) May Pamela Smith, was the Honorary Medical Officer of the Women’s Outpatients’ Section. It was to Dr. May Smith that E.D. Smith left in his Will his businesses and the care of her siblings. A fascinating document that Will, if for nothing else the value of some of the bequests — namely a Graham Paige car valued at Rs. 800 and an H.E. Car valued at Rs.100, besides Smith & Co stock-in-trade valued at Rs. 9,000 and Collingwood stock-in-trade at Rs. 3,000.
Another of Smith’s daughters, Ena Margaret Smith, was the first to join the Women’s Auxiliary Corps (WAC-I) in Madras during World War II and within two years rose to Company Sergeant Major. Sadly, she died in a car accident shortly after leading the unit’s second anniversary parade.
E.D. Smith, a Madras personality of the years before World War II, was a pioneer in advertising. Every day The Mail would carry a small advertisement from him (said to have been the predecessor of the ‘Personal’ advertisements of a later age) that was “looked forward to every evening , much the same way Count Curly Wee was in later years,” according to The Mail’s tribute to him.