Funny that a city known to the outside world as conservative and orthodox should be founded by a hardened drinker and womaniser — an enterprising and emotional employee of the East India Company called Francis Day.
For the benefit of those who remain unaware of the origins of this great city, it was on this day — August 22 — in 1639 that Francis Day signed the lease for the tiny strip of beach he had obtained from the local chieftain of the disintegrating Vijayanagara Empire to build a permanent trading post of the East Coast.
And why did he choose that particular spot, three miles north of the erstwhile Portuguese settlement of San Thome? Because, during his previous expeditions to scout for land to build the post, Day happened to visit San Thome where he found a local lover. He wanted to stay close to her, and therefore he chose the spot where Fort St. George stands today.
Fort St. George, whose construction began in early 1640 under the supervision of Day and his boss Andrew Cogan, marked the birth of the city of Madras.
And since the agreement was signed on August 22, the year before, the day is now widely considered to be the birthday of Madras — that explains why the city, of late, celebrates Madras Week this time of the year.
So, today is Madras’ 373rd birthday. That makes it the oldest modern city in India. But look who is celebrating. It is the affluent south Madras that has been raising the toast to the city on its birthday each year whereas north Madras, where the city originated, remains largely indifferent to the occasion.
The reason being north Madras has larger preoccupations — crime and congestion being just two of them. The area is almost always overlooked whenever large-scale developmental projects are announced by the government of the day, as a result of which it continues to live, in terms of infrastructure, in the era of Francis Day.
At the time, north Madras — or Black Town — was the poor cousin of White Town, located inside Fort St. George. Today, it is the poor cousin of south Chennai, where the rich and the famous live. In terms of travel time, the two Chennais may be just 20 minutes away from each other but they live 200 years apart
A very large population of south Chennai has never set foot in the north even though they’ve lived in the city all their lives; and when people from there eventually come to the north to attend heritage walks that are held during this time of the year, they walk gingerly, their mouths wide open and their cameras ready, as if they are tourists in a remote village.
To appreciate the present and dream of the future, you must understand the past; and Chennai’s past lies in the north, beyond Central station. Wall Tax Road, Elephant Gate, Seven Wells, Esplanade — these are just some of the names you come across in newspapers whenever a murder or robbery takes place in such neighbourhoods, but ever wondered about the story behind such names?
Once you set out to find the story, you’ll find yourself piecing together the rich history of the city you’ve been living in; but before you set out, you will have to bridge the north-south divide, which exists mostly in our minds.