Cycling into the future

When Tube Investments India Ltd. (TII) celebrated its Diamond Jubilee the other day, it was also a celebration marking the founding of one of the first large-scale, non-textile industrial units in South India, TI Cycles of India Ltd.

It was the brothers A.M.M. Murugappa Chettiar and A.M.M. Arunachalam — and their middle brother Vellayan who was tragically killed in Burma in 1946 — who had led the family out of the traditional Chettiar business practices of financing and, later, textile manufacture into new industrial fields.

When World War II put an end to their financing operations in Burma, the brothers moved into parachute manufacture in Bombay and abrasives and steel furniture manufacture in Madras, the first two benefitting from the War’s needs. And, this financial success they enhanced after the War with the buying and selling of War surplus.

Financially well-cushioned, Murugappa and Arunachalam went along with Nehru’s vision that India’s future lay in industry — and they began to look around for a large-scale manufacturing operation to get into. A product for the common man is what they should manufacture — and abrasives is not it, Murugappa was definite. Why not bicycles, Arunachalam suggested. And, they got down to seeing how that would be possible.

Curiously, the first bicycle to be manufactured in India was by a kinsman, turf enthusiast, civil aviation pioneer and debonair man-about-town S.A.A. Annamalai Chettiar. It was in 1925 that ‘SA’ started manufacturing the ‘Swan’.

The Birlas later started Hind Cycles in Bombay. Both were unable to compete with imported brands, the favourites being Raleigh and, not far behind it, Hercules. Swan closed and Hind was struggling along when the brothers approached Sir Arcot Ramaswami Mudaliar to whose benign paternal role their father had entrusted them in his last days.

AMM wanted a tie-up with Raleigh, but Mudaliar, with his host of British connections, discovered that Raleigh was bespoken to Sen and Pandit of Calcutta. Hercules, a family-owned company, was one of the many cycle companies in Britain the giant Tube Investments, their main supplier, had taken over after the War. Mudaliar’s approach to TI’s Chairman Sir Ivan Stedeford on Arunachalam’s urging proved successful, and Sir Ivan agreed to meet the brothers in Madras in July 1949.

It was at a small lunch at Arunachalam’s Chittaranjan Road house that, after days of hard bargaining, a deal was struck. The Hercules could be manufactured in India but under the name ‘Hercules India’ till TI was satisfied with the quality. It was in 1953-54, that the India went out of the name.

TI also refused to take a bigger stake in the project than the Rs. 30 lakh it wanted for know-how and engineering fees. Final agreement was reached at a dinner at the West End in Bangalore where Sir Ramaswami Mudaliar was present. That dinner, Arunachalam was later to say, was to enable the A.M.M. family business to grow into the Murugappa Group, one of the biggest conglomerates in South India.

Within days of the signing of the joint venture agreement, Arunachalam and his cousin M.K. Ramaswami discovered Manthope, a mango grove in rural Ambattur, which had an owner willing to sell the 56 acres. In September 1949, work started on building the factory. In 1951, the factory was ready to undertake the first stages of manufacture.

By 1956-57, the entire bicycle was being manufactured under the TI Cycles of India roof, a completely indigenised product. Urged by Sir Ivan, the Company then began to manufacture Phillip’s bicycles in 1959 and the BSA in 1964. It was to remain the leader in the field for many years even as it expanded into the manufacture of tubes and chains.

Bicycles may not today be the major contributor to what is a giant company, Tube Investments India, but bicycles remain something the company continues to innovate with and capture public attention. Also not to be forgotten is the Company's role in the development of Avadi, Ambattur and Tiruvottriyur.

British or American?

Given Women’s Christian College’s American connections with Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, I had for long thought its founder-Principal Eleanor McDougall was an American. But two publications that came my way recently told me that I had been wrong and had long gone uncorrected.

A quick glance through a little booklet by Prema Kasturi and her daughter Vinita Ramaswamy titled American Women – Madras Connections had, at first, with that titling, made me continue Americanising McDougall. But then came — courtesy reader Thomas Tharu — My Years at Alwaye by Hester Smith, which had me hastening back to check Dr. Kasturi’s contribution.

What Smith, who spent a year in Madras on her way to Alwaye, had written was: “Miss McDougall… was a Wesleyan with a strong serene personality and a deep concern for character development as well as for the higher education of the students. She brought from Westfield College in London the best traditions of a residential Christian College.” That mention of London had me scurrying to American Women, only to find McDougall was, indeed, British.

Eleanor McDougall was born in Manchester, England, and educated there as well as in Germany. She graduated from Royal Holloway College, London, and got her Master’s in Classics from the University of London. She then did postgraduate research work in Archaeology at Cambridge. This subject she introduced in Westfield College where she was appointed a Lecturer in 1902.

An old student recorded that animated group discussions in her rooms in the evenings were inevitably centered on “the origins and meanings of Greek myths and their influence on modern philosophy and creative thinking”. From Westfield, she came to Madras in 1915 to head WCC. During her tenure at WCC, she once said: “We can do no better service to India than to liberate the energies of wisdom and devotion which are latent in her women…”.

The McDougall Memorial Nursery School was founded in Madras in her honour when she retired in 1938. I wonder whether the school still survives.

The hub at Nagpur

I’ve referred to this before, but I can’t help but refer to it again on hearing that India Post now has three dedicated freight aircraft based in Kolkata, Mumbai and Bangalore to ensure 24-hour Speed Post and Parcel Service to the major metros.

All three will converge on Nagpur, at one time in the night, to exchange mail and freight.

This reminds me of those once-much-enjoyed Dakota services that reached Nagpur at midnight from Delhi, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, and exchanged not only mail and postal parcels but also intrepid passengers such as me who crowded Nagpur’s small airport and had a whale of a time till ‘boarding’ — a leisurely call — was announced and then you flew in to see dawn slowly lighting the skies as you neared your respective destinations.

It was sometime in the 1970s, if memory serves me right, that this service was withdrawn.

Now it’s back – but with a difference.

The aircraft will be bigger and faster. And, that will enable the Kolkata aircraft to serve both the Northeast and Delhi, the Bangalore aircraft to serve Chennai as well, and the Mumbai aircraft to offer a dedicated service.

History always repeats itself, even if there is a variation or two in flight plans.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 4:02:14 PM |

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