Bishwanath Ghosh

How things can change in just a year. I joined The Hindu in April 2011, and during the first ten months when my working hours were more regular than they are today, I had a fixed evening routine. I would leave office around five-thirty and hang around on the pavement outside P. Orr & Sons next door for a while, before heading for a swim followed by an evening drink.

I would loiter on the pavement, even if for a few minutes, just for the feel of it: not everybody is fortunate to be working in the vicinity of some of India's oldest existing shops. At times I would walk into P. Orr & Sons and admire the watches, at times step into the adjacent Pioneer Sports and help myself to a yoga mat or a pair of swimming goggles. Not that I needed these things, but it was more of a romantic gesture — to make purchases from shops that smell of history.

Today the same pavement is strewn with debris. Pioneer Sports is gone, so are many of the surgical-equipment shops that lent this part of Mount Road a distinct character. All swallowed by the Metro Rail project. As for P. Orr & Sons, a question mark hangs over its future: Will it stay? Will it go? How much of it will go? Will it ever look the same again even if it stays? Will the new underground station that is being built here completely overshadow whatever little old-world charm this stretch of Mount Road retains?

Much of this charm has already been robbed by the giant structure that stands across the road — the dream building of Karunanidhi that is now waiting to be turned into a hospital. This building stands on the grave of heritage: among the many historical buildings razed to make way for his whim was the 250-year-old Government House, the home of the Governor of the Madras Presidency. In any civilised country, the government would have cringed to even drive a nail on the wall of a building of such historical value, but here it was demolished without a thought.

Chennai, or Madras, was born in 1639, the very year Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan shifted his capital from Agra to the newly-founded city of Shahjahanabad — the Old Delhi of today. Calcutta, for long the Imperial capital, was to be born only half a century later while Bombay was only a group of islands controlled by the Portuguese. That makes Madras, India's oldest modern city. The Indian Army was born in Madras, engineering and medical education originated in Madras, modern judiciary began in Madras — the list is long. By that virtue, many of the existing establishments and shops in the city are easily the oldest or one of the oldest in the country. But the city is notorious for its neglect of heritage — sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes out of indifference. Worse, there is no heritage law in place.

Express Avenue, Chennai's hippest mall today, happens to stand on the grave of the erstwhile Madras Club, which was founded in 1832 and once hailed as the ‘Ace of Clubs'. The club moved out of the premises after Independence. I have been fortunate enough to spend considerable time in the abandoned clubhouse — I watched many Tamil films being shot there — before it was razed in 2003.

There must be countless heritage structures in the city that would have been quietly laid to rest without people knowing about it. But the good news is that countless other heritage structures — such as P. Orr & Sons — still stand in various cosy corners of the city, and it is time we wake up to their existence and give them what they desperately need — a strong dose of preservation.

Bishwanath Ghosh is the City Editor of The Hindu. His portrait of Chennai, Tamarind City: Where Modern India Began, will be published shortly by Tranquebar Press.