Literary Review

The story of Madras

Madras: Tracing the Growth of the City Since 1639; K.R.A. Narasiah, Palaniappa Brothers, Rs.300.  

Though much beyond its tercentenary, the city of Madras still evokes nostalgia.

Madras: Tracing the Growth of the City Since 1639, written by veteran chronicler K.R.A. Narasiah and published by Palaniappa Brothers, attempts to present the history of the city in an organised way to create interest among new readers. While the author’s earlier book in Tamil, Madarasapattinam, was well received as a first attempt in presenting the city’s history in that language, this enlarged English edition was necessitated by his discovery of new materials like Sarvadeva Vilasa (in Sanskrit — translated in English by eminent Sanskrit scholar Dr. V. Raghavan), which described the lives and times of the British in a conversational manner.

The book tracks the city’s evolution in a chronological order. The English first landed on the West coast of India and built a trading post at Surat under the protection of the Mughal Governor of Gujarat. In time, they realised the need to get access to the Coromandel Coast in view of the availability of spices and cotton on a large scale.

Starting from Francis Day’s exploration of a site at the Coromandel Coast to get a foothold for trade in 1639, Narasiah chronicles the city’s history up to 1947.

He has taken a searching look at issues in trade, religion and caste as well as at famines and the slave trade. More notably, the lead Madras gave to India in fields as wide-ranging as municipal governance, law, surveying, modern education, printing, astronomy, transport, banking, medicine and publishing, among a host of other contributions, are emphatically stressed in this book. As traders, the English started to dominate the resources, labour and the markets of the occupied territory.

Besides their growth in South India, the book vividly describes the British attempts to settle disputes among various castes to their advantage, thereby establishing a lasting confidence among the locals; dubashes who colluded with the colonialists to usurp resources and power and the resultant corruption; British efforts to expand the city and civic development, and the spread of English education among the masses.

This book presents many an effort by the British to improve infrastructure. Among them is Warren Hastings’ plan for a modern port in 1770. Then a member of the Madras Council, Hastings, who later became the first Governor General of India, sought a blueprint for the port, though work began almost a century later. Narasiah also writes of the many relief efforts during natural calamities.

Besides tracing the expansion of the city from a small square called Fort St. George, the book also chronicles various steps taken by the British in establishing infrastructure for civil aviation, observatories, museums, libraries etc. within the city. The book traces the history of printing and publishing in South India and also mentions the rarely known fact that the earliest book to be printed in India was in Tamil, printed in Quilon in 1578, for which the typefaces were developed in Goa. It also chronicles the history of newspaper journalism in the city both in English and Tamil over the years.

Following the growth of education and the development of a middle class, the city witnessed the setting up of the Theosophical Society (about which there are many anecdotes in the book), and the Home Rule movement which was clearly a forerunner to the Indian National Congress. It also traces the background of Kalakshetra, the school of arts.

The book is a worthy effort in presenting the history of this great city in a simple and lucid way by an avid chronicler to whom the lovers of the city, as well as students of History, will ever be grateful.

Madras: Tracing the Growth of the City Since 1639; K.R.A. Narasiah, Palaniappa Brothers, Rs.300.

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