The first issue

Some time ago (Miscellany, August 25, 2008), I wrote about a serendipitous discovery I had made, an early Madras magazine devoted to books. That volume of The Book World edited by S. Viswanathan was found by a nephew of mine digging through piles of ancestral papers.

Further digging has resulted in him presenting me an even more valuable find, the very first issue of this Madras journal, dated August 1937. Introducing ‘Ourselves', the publishers wrote, “Hundreds of books are published every day and thousands of writers there are. What are they (would-be readers) to choose? … It is here that The Book World proposes to be of service. It will be in touch with all the latest and the best in the world of books and will give every month brief surveys, sympathetic and accurate (present day book reviewers, please note!), of that world…. (We) propose to serve as a signpost to every book lover in the labyrinthine world of new books so that he may find for himself books for profit and delight.”

To provide that information, the journal lists a distinguished panel of contributors. Many among the following are names still remembered today: Dr. A. Appadurai, M. Jayabai, V.T. Lakshmi, Manjeri S. Iswaran, Dr. V. Raghavan, P. Spratt, C.S. Srinivasachary, A. Srinivasa Raghavan, Dr.H. Subramaniam, K. Suryanarayana, K. Swaminathan and S.V. Vijayaraghavachariar (SVV).

Among the 15 books paid attention to are: A work of fiction, Athawar House, by K. Nagarajan, published by Higginbotham's and priced Rs. 3, which tells the story of a Maratha Brahmin family in the Madras Presidency of the 1920s moving from orthodoxy to “a wider social outlook”. A comment by the reviewer that intrigued me was: “The author's command of the language is admirable. He has few Indianisms and where they do occur they are justified by the context. The vernacular idioms, while detracting nothing from the style, give a native appeal to the force of his arguments.”

Among the non-fiction titles is a 700-page one priced at Rs. 4, Prof. T.J. George's The Briton in India published by Higginbotham's.

In this study of racial relations, he looks at “the days when racial arrogance was entirely absent in the Briton and feelings of inferiority were as yet unborn in the Indian… when Indians were under the protecting light of their ancient civilisation and culture and could afford to look with equanimity on an alien civilisation so vitally different in many respects from theirs”.

The change came with Macaulay when “the English educated Indian who instead of communicating to his countrymen as Macaulay fondly believed he would ‘the treasures of knowledge' English opened to him became for a time a despicable parasite clinging to his ruler and yet finding nourishment from the people”.

And there's a translation into Tamil of the Autobiography of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru by V. Ramaswami Iyengar, published in two volumes by S. Ganesan of Triplicane for Rs. 6. The translator is described as being “the author of a new and popular style in Tamil”.

While stating that Nehru's work was “foreign to most of the Tamil reading public”, the reviewer comments, “But for the renaissance of vernacular literature born out of the freedom struggle, the Tamil public would still be groping in the dark without being able to understand or appreciate new ideas and movements going on around them and to make a proper estimate of them”.

In its short notes the journal talks of, among other things: Half-Caste (Secker and Warburg 10/6) by Cedric Dover, a Calcutta Anglo-Indian who pleads for a general policy of racial miscegenation. Described as the only member of his community to take to radical politics, he was a regular contributor to the Congress Socialist.

Two Indian authors who are published in England. Described as “a find”, M. Krishnamurti was the author of Love Sonnets and Other Poems (Basil Blackwell, 3/6), “achieving the remarkable feat of writing good poetry in a foreign language”. Suresh Vaidya's Kailas (Queensway Press, 7/6) was, on the other hand, a satirical look at the gradual Westernisation of Indian life. Blackie's had brought out a new sports series in a novel cinematic form. “A set of photographs is arranged on consecutive pages, so that by bending the book and letting the pages slip past the thumb, a cinema like effect is produced.”

Each book contains four ‘films' of such “heroes and heroines” as Sutcliffe, enabling viewers to see them “performing their classic manoeuvres and convolutions”.

That find that came my way is a treasure, fascinating as it is a read of the perspectives of the times.

Another facet of P. Orr's

Part of that fascinating read in The Book World's first issue was an ad that opened up for me a new facet of P.Orr's history. The firm, it would seem, had a subsidiary, ‘Orrs Columbia & Talkies, Ltd', that was agent for Columbia records and which prided itself on providing “all that is best in ancient and modern music in a form enjoyable to a large and representative public”.

The firm's offerings on this occasion were: “The first and only record of the one greatest man of India, conveying in a most appealing form, spiritual inspiration touching the very hearts of one and all, Mahatma Gandhi's record God is Truth … Rs. 3-8”. Kittappa “who, though not present in physical form, is still the idol of a grateful public.” Musiri Subramania Iyer “whose devotional music reminds us of the classics of the great composers and musicians of bygone ages”.

Palladam Sanjeeva Rao “the Flute-King”.

K.B. Sundarambal, “that embodiment of rare culture and charming entertainment”.

Veena Dhanam “who has, through the delicate strings, established inspirational contact between earth and heaven”.

The Laidlaw connection

My piece on the Laidlaw Memorial School had appeared on March 22 and I'd forgotten about it, as well as the questions I'd asked in it, till the other day when a Thomas Abraham sent me from the U.S. an e-mail out of the blue with some answers.

He writes that he caught up with my item when it was posted on “the Laidlaw network on Yahoo by our guy in Chennai, Sailendra Bhaskar”.

Abraham tells me that the School has always been ‘Laidlaw Memorial School of St. George's Homes' and that till the 1980s it was better known as St. George's Homes (SGH) and that after that the Laidlaw name “became more prominent in an attempt to reposition the school as the best school in the Nilgiris”.

Sir Robert Laidlaw's contribution towards getting commemorated in the School's name was Rs. 20,000 in the early 1900s and was to the fund started to raise the buildings of the School; that fund in 1913 stood at over £ 8,700. Laidlaw, as I suspected, was the Laidlaw of Whiteaway Laidlaw & Co., who started business with a small draper's store in Calcutta and developed it into a chain of Calcutta-headquartered department stores in India, Burma and Ceylon. (Whiteaway Laidlaw's in Madras built the magnificent building — see picture — that later became the Swadesamitran's property and is now, in transformation, VGP's on Mount Road.)

Early in 1918, the plans for six buildings — what were to be Blackburn, Preston, Lewis, Oakshott (in which Abraham was a resident in 1971-77) and Hesketh, student homes all, and the Principal's bungalow — were approved together with those for the main school, but all at Kodaikanal.

After much material was received at the site, it was decided to transfer the school to Ketti and the South Indian Railway came to the rescue, moving all the material to the new site free of cost.

There, in March 1923, the buildings were formally handed over to the Governing Board at a function presided over by Lord Willingdon.

The founder of the school was later remembered in Beeden Hall.

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