The Portuguese may have brought Western medicare to India in the 16th Century on the Malabar and Konkan Coasts, but today's vast — yet totally inadequate — hospital system in India had its beginnings in Fort St. George. With a major new medicare facility being promised just across the Cooum from those beginnings, it would be but meet to recall what Agent Edward Winter got started in 1664.

Taking note of the frequency with which his soldiers — a motley, aging group retired out of the army and recruited from the taverns of London — fell ill in the Madras clime and how their illnesses worsened because of improper supervision, particularly of their prescribed diet, Winter sought the Courts of Directors' sanction to set up a hospital in Fort St. George where the sick soldiers could be lodged and special orderlies would ensure they followed the doctor's — usually a visiting ship's ‘surgeon' — instructions. Winter being the man he was, waited not for permission and rented the house a founder of Madras, Andrew Cogan, owned and got the first British hospital in India started. Bombay and Calcutta were still a few years away.

With the consecration of St. Mary's in the Fort in 1680 the next step was taken with Streynsham Master and his successor, Gyfford, teaming together with the Vestry to raise funding for a better hospital. The 838 pagodas collected were spent on building a two-storeyed hospital near the Church by 1688. This hospital, still only for the residents of the Fort, was administered by the Church and Vestry. Elihu Yale who became Governor in 1688 felt from the first that this facility was inadequate for the Fort and, sanctioning 2,500 pagodas, built a handsome Tuscan-style building on James Street, by the barracks at the northern end of the Fort (about where that tasteless tower block was built some years ago as additional accommodation for the Secretariat). Here the hospital remained for the next sixty years or so, moving out of the Fort only after the French occupation ended in 1749 and then becoming a hospital in search of space before it put down roots where the General Hospital now is just west of the fort. To its south is where the new public hospital facility is to be developed in the shell of a building raised for a totally different purpose.

Madras, my dear

The function wasn't part of the Madras Week celebrations, but the release of two books by Prof. K. Srilata organised by the Association of British Scholars during that period did provide several echoes of Madras, one of which particularly gladdened me.

Srilata, an Associate Professor in IIT-Madras's Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, which seems to be flourishing to judge by the number of students present, mainly girls, released her first novel, Table for Four, on the occasion as well as a book of poetry, Arriving Shortly, which was one of the last works accepted for publication by that Indian publishing legend, Prof. P. Lal of Writers' Workshop, Kolkata, and one of the first works edited and published by his son, Prof. Anand Lal, after the former passed away some months ago.

It was during the poetry reading that I heard Srilata herself read the poem, ‘Bionote', which to me appeared to strike the right note for the Week I was immersed in at the time. I hope readers will enjoy reading it below as much as I enjoyed hearing it. It's great to find others, especially young persons, saying ‘Madras, my dear'.

Very briefly then,

I am middle class

and very Madras.

Born and raised in

West Mambalam —

the other side of the railway tracks

where fabled mosquitoes turn people into


Went to college in

Khushboo sarees stripped

right off the absurdly voluptuous mannequins at

Saravana Stores T. Nagar Chennai 17.

To weddings I wore,

in deference to my mother,

silk kanjeevarams with temple borders.

Every other girl

was a designer-sequined shimmer.

I thought nothing of

throwing away

my dreaming hours on

MTC's 47 A,

sitting beside women who ruined my


leaning casually across to

spit or


through the grime of windows

spinach stems they didn't fancy

in their evening Kuzhambu,

hurling motherly advice at

young men who dared death by



from other women's windows.

My idea of a holiday

was rolling down the hillsides

of Ooty,

dressed in white

like Sridevi.

Objects of love-hate:

the auto annas.

And of course it is coffee that defines

the limits of my imagination.

I never could think of it as

cappuccino or mocha or

anything other than

decoction coffee,

deep brown like my own Dravidian skin.


10.30 sharp: sambhar rasam curry


5 sharp: idli dosa vada

My idea of arctic winter:

twenty six degree centigrade.

And so on and so forth

as they don't say in Tamil.

Never mind this new upstart Chennai.

Madras, my dear, here I come!

About me, rest assured,

there is

no Bombay, no Delhi, no London

and certainly no New York.

I am all yours,

Madras, my dear,

wrap and filling!

Footnote: Declaring one's affection for Madras that is Chennai in song and verse has been a trend this year. At Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan, K.K. Nagar, Tamil songs eulogised Madras and Happy Birthday Madras was sung in Sanskrit. Elsewhere Anil Srinivasan composed an Anthem for Madras for INTACH and it was sung by students of Brhaddhvani.


MetroplusJune 28, 2012