As many who know me know, discussing politics is a subject I detest. They’ve heard me often enough say that having listened to politicians in Ceylon for thirty years on a daily basis, I’d had enough of it and from the day I landed in Madras I decided to ignore both. But much as I try to skip all those polls-related pages that seem to dominate my daily newspapers, there’s inevitably a headline that intrudes. And the latest one heads a news item that says that the Bharatiya Janata Party and three of its local allies are determined to bring Prohibition back to Tamil Nadu if they come to power. Not being politically savvy, as I’ve already indicated, I don’t know whether that will happen and whether if it does they will be prepared to forego about Rs. 25,000 crore in revenue, but I do know that Prohibition in India had its roots in what is today’s Tamil Nadu — when Prime Minister C. Rajagopalachari (CR) introduced it in 1937 in the Salem District. And thereby hangs a tale.

To enforce the rules in the District, CR surprised everyone by appointing an Englishman, A.F.W. Dixon of the ICS, as Collector and so much was his faith in his British officers he gave Dixon an official called Thompson as his Prohibition Officer. Neither was a teetotaller, but they faithfully followed the Premier’s dictum that they should not seek a permit in the District and should not drink while in it. He had no objection to them going to Bangalore for an evening out if they wished. Of Dixon, it was said, he didn’t even do that. Instead, he made a success of Prohibition in the District. With illicit tapping and distillation falling by almost half, with absenteeism reducing, and with the homes of the poor having more money to spend on necessities, Dixon was able to report after four months that “conditions have changed to a remarkable extent in thousands of homes”.

Where Dixon used his permit was at the Madras Cricket Club where he had first conceived the idea that cricket should be encouraged amongst Indians. He was Secretary of Education at the time and Salem was still in the future when he formed a team called Dixon’s XI, comprising good Indian and MCC — it was ‘Europeans Only’ at the time — cricketers, to play about a dozen matches a season against college teams and the few Indian clubs that had taken to the game. Dixon’s XI later became a club known as the Eccentrics and when he moved to Salem another liberal Englishman, R.D. Denniston, who was as passionate about the game, took over the affairs of the Club and had the Eccentrics continuing the tradition.

The lanky Dixon was a Cambridge Rowing Blue, but he was passionate about cricket, even though he was only a moderate player. Denniston too was a rather ordinary player, but he too loved cricket. But both were determined to spread the game amongst the Indians of Madras. The success they made of that rivals Dixon’s efforts in Salem.

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Is a memorial wall the best?

I caught up recently with Harry MacLure, of that international magazine for Anglo-Indians, Anglos In The Wind, that he publishes from Madras, and Nigel Foote, a businessman and film-maker from Melbourne with whom Harry had teamed to make that warm film on their community, Going Away. They are now planning to team together on another project, this time to raise a mural-filled heritage wall to mark the community’s contribution to India. St. George’s Anglo-Indian HSS, which celebrates the 300th anniversary of its roots, making it the oldest British-style school in Asia, has, they tell me, offered them the land for the monument, a most appropriate location. I, however, have my reservations — and suggested they think bigger.

A stand-alone wall commemorating anything — like the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. (USA), and the Great War Wall in the War Graves Cemetery in St. Thomas’s Mount — make most people think of it as a memorial to the dead. And the Anglo-Indian community is anything but dead; indeed, it is a vibrant one in India today, playing its part in many new fields, away from traditional ones like the railways, the military and other uniformed government services, not to mention teaching, secretarial assistance and nursing, besides doing very well for itself in countries like Australia, Canada, the U.K. and the US. What the community and its descendants need to be looking at is not commemoration in a variant of a tombstone but in an institution where there will always be some kind of activity or another that will remind the community, and other visitors of a community, not dying but vigorously moving from the past and into the future.

What I suggested against this background was building an Anglo-Indian Studies and Heritage Centre whose long front wall could sport the mural. Such a Centre would have archives, a library, a museum, facilities for research, space for seminars, a teaching centre for English, a hall that could double up as theatre space for performances and as a host for conferences, and a restaurant. Such a centre on the St. George’s campus would not only become a Madras landmark for tourists but provide the community the opportunity to showcase its past while at the same time bring its contributions alive through scholarship, discussion, performances and food.

With the contacts Nigel and Harry have with several successful Anglo-Indians abroad and with some Government and community support, it should not be too difficult to raise an elongated two-storey building to meet the requirements of what I have suggested. It’s a new dream I left with them both as we said our ‘see you agains’.

Nigel, who has been coming to India quite frequently in recent years, is Bandra (Bombay)-born, but his great-great-grandparents had settled in Madras in the 1840s. And that’s where he finds that the community still thrives — giving him greater hope of establishing such a centre here successfully. And apart from that, if anyone asks me why I wanted to establish such a centre in Madras, I’ll remind them that the Anglo in the community’s name had its beginnings in Fort St. George from the 1640s and St. George’s School was the first to be founded for Anglo-Indians in India, Nigel signs off.

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When the postman knocked…

* “One of India’s greatest Urdu critics lived in Madras sometime between 1857 and 1861 but appears to be unknown there, except perhaps in select circles. I wonder whether a reference by you will get those circles to provide me more information about the Madras years of the critic and poet Muhammad Hussain Azad of Delhi,” writes Simeon Mascarenhas from Melbourne. Azad, the son of Maulvi Muhammad Baqar, was 27 years old when the British sacked Delhi in September 1857 on entering the Mughal capital to put down the Great Revolt in the harshest possible manner. Azad managed to flee from his house while the soldiers were busy looting it and killing anyone in their way. From Delhi, Azad managed to find his way to Madras and then to the Nilgiris before reaching Lahore after sojourns in Bombay and Lucknow. In Lahore, he focused on “Oriental learning”, and in that cause he made several trips to Central Asia to buy rare books and documents for a library he established in his home. These journeys into the Asian heartland also had him providing the British information about the Russian presence in the region, it has been related. Where did he live in Madras and how did the city help him, wonders Mascarenhas.

* Several readers tell me that Ilamthamizhan (Miscellany, March 24) is now in its 13th year of publication by T.V. Meikandan. A couple of them add that the translation of Tagore’s tribute to U.Ve. Swaminathan that I had referred to last week had, given its date, probably appeared elsewhere earlier and was reproduced at a more recent date in Ilamthamizhan.

* I was right about that name Narayanan I deduced from the almost indecipherable letter I referred to last week. P.R. Krishna Narayanan, who shuttles between Madras and Cochin, sets me straight on this in a letter he has taken the trouble to write entirely in capital letters. Speaking of capital letters, I was recently with a group of doctors and when I asked them whether they had switched to capital letters they told me that almost all their prescriptions went to the pharmacy in the hospital where they practised and their writing was well recognised there, so they still hadn’t got around to capital letters. But what if patients sought supplies from other pharmacies? Old habits die hard, appeared to be the consensus.

E & O A

Tamil Nadu may in fact be the No.2 football team in the country (Miscellany, March 24) but not if you go by the Santosh Trophy results, points out D. Sekaran. Tamil Nadu lost in the semi-finals of the national championship where Mizoram had a tougher time beating it than it had Railways in the final. Conventionally, in such cases, it would be Railways that would be rated No. 2 and the losing semi-finalists 3 or 4, he writes. Now that was careless of me. Mea culpa.