Missing the bus

November 18, 2012 03:35 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:40 pm IST - Chennai

The Tamil Nadu Archives and Historical Research. Photo: V. Ganesan

The Tamil Nadu Archives and Historical Research. Photo: V. Ganesan

A couple of news items in the past few weeks and a feature based on them that appeared in this paper recently, focussed on the merger of two of the world’s leading publishing houses – Penguin’s in Britain and Random House in the U.S. Strange as it may seem, the stories took me back to Pallavaram and the near brushes the two firms had with that southern suburb of Madras.

Random House itself had no connection with Pallavaram but its current owners, Bertelsmann of Germany, today one of the world’s biggest publishing houses, had very much to do with that town for about a decade. It was in 1965 that Bertelsmann, from a similar small town called Gutersloh, and at that time a modest family-owned business nurtured by Mohn and his former Army colleague and friend, the gentle, scholarly Wendorff, tied up with another modest family-owned group, TTK’s of Madras, to set up the country’s first focussed cartographic printing and publishing unit, TT MAPS and Atlases. By 1968 end, a large ‘factory’ was established for it in, it was never quite decided, Pallavaram or Chromepet or straddling the boundary between both, though Pallavaram appeared to have won judging from the letterhead. It was there that I arrived that September to tend the unit.

Mohn and Wendorff were kindred souls of the TTK brothers, Narasimhan and Vasu, cultured, tolerant, patient and willing to give TT.MAPS a long rope to pull itself out of the pit it had dug for itself with a target of several million atlases a year. Today, 40-odd years later, building on a foundation TT.MAPS laid, all atlas producers in the country are hard put to it to sell around three million atlases a year – so little do our schools value the Humanities. But that’s another story; to get back to today’s…

It was on this scene that there arrived from Gutersloh the young Wechsler, the archetypal modern business executive, brash, impatient and a man-in-a-hurry. He had no time for the tortoise he saw snailing in Pallavaram and so it was, “Keep all we’ve taught you and given you, but we’re off!” And off he went to the New World where Random House was one of his first acquisitions for Bertelsmann which he then helped build into the giant it is today from the book club and atlas and magazine publisher it was. Meanwhile, in Pallavaram, there came to an end one of the first Indo-German collaborations in the country. If TT.MAPS had remained in the fold, where might it not have gone with Bertelsmann’s growth!

With Bertelsmann no longer partners, TT.MAPS began to look for a new one. And it was at a Frankfurt Book Fair that I went to shortly after Wechsler’s visit with the scythe that I heard that Penguin’s was thinking of coming to India. Over the next couple of years, I persuaded their head of overseas business to visit Pallavaram. But after three visits, we couldn’t come to an agreement. It was some years later that Penguin’s tied up with a Calcutta publisher and set up shop in Delhi to become India’s No.1 book publishing house. And so, in Pallavaram, we missed the bus again. As for me, having not lived up to my alleged heritage of business acumen, I turned to writing a decade later. It was nice to have caught up with Bertelsmann and Penguin’s again far from the scene of action.

Two cockpits of the world

Curiously, two friends of mine with Madras roots have within the past year published entertaining thrillers set in two of the world’s most volatile cockpits about which little is known to most of the reading public anywhere. Timeri Murari, after living long in the U.K. and the U.S and now settled in Madras, wrote about Afghanistan in The Taliban Cricket Club. And now Aruna Gill, a former Head Girl of Lovedale, has written The Indus Intercept about Baluchistan. Tim, I know, spent a few weeks in Afghanistan in addition to doing all his reading on that strife-ridden nation. I don’t know whether Aruna spent any time in what is the ‘Jaffna’ of Pakistan, but there’s a heap of information in her book that she’s garnered on that embattled province and its traditions as well as on the Indus script that takes a bit of digesting, given the unfamiliar names and thought-processes.

In fact, it was a bit about the Indus script that grabbed my extra attention, given that she introduced a Madras link and had me wondering whether she knew about that home town connection. That link comes in a snatch of conversation about a scrap of intercepted paper on which three lines were written in what looked like the Indus script. The researcher Adiva says,

“You remember I explained the debate over whether or not the script represented a spoken language. A scholar named Iravatham Mahadevan compiled an Indus script concordance in 1977 that is still the go-to source for Indus scholars. But even he did not attempt a decipherment despite his belief that the signs were indeed a script for a spoken language.”

The investigator wonders, “What made Mahadevan believe it does represent a spoken language?”

And he gets this explanation: “Technical linguistic stuff, repeated sign combinations, and grammatical elements identifying suffixes etcetera…..”

Now I wonder what Mahadevan, who founded the Indus Research Centre at the Roja Muthiah Research Library in the city, has to say about that. As for me, I wonder when Aruna caught up with the Indus script sufficiently to want to make it the key element in her intriguing book. Certainly in all the years I’d known her, she’d never indicated any special interest in the script.

I would have thought her first book would have been an Army-based one. After all, she is the daughter of Lt.Gen. Inder Gill, who had an outstanding military record from Greece to Korea, and grand-daughter of Col. Gurdial Singh Gill, an IMS doctor who rose to head the Madras Province Prisons and who was responsible for settling over 5,000 Punjabis in the Province immediately after Partition. Both the Gill families settled in Madras after retirement. Aruna, who lives in Princeton, New Jersey, meticulously edited my biography of her father, Born to Dare, and that same close attention to detail is what she brings to her first book.

Madras in the olden time

One of my sources for this column is the three-volume book that provides its title for this item written to mark the 150th year of a weekly column published in 1861-62 in a journal titled The Indian Statesman. Madras in the Olden Time is subtitled “Being a History of the Presidency,” but narrates the story only from “the first foundation of Fort St. George to the occupation of Madras by the French 1639-1746”. The author, J. Talboys Wheeler, had written several other books, including Geography of Herodotus, The History of India from the Earliest Ages (in four volumes), and A Short History of India. Wheeler came to Madras in 1858, became Editor of the Madras Spectator , then Professor of Philosophy at the Presidency College before Government got him into the Archives, and then he moved on to Calcutta and Burma.

It’s revealing to discover how Wheeler got hooked on to writing about Old Madras. It had its genesis in 1859. And here we run into a third or a fourth generation Hudleston in Madras service; the first we met in these columns on May 21 and June 4, 2007, and again recently on November 5. The Hudleston referred to in 1859, who at the time was the Sub-Secretary of the Board of Revenue, read at a meeting of the Madras Literary Society – yes, in those days the Society had regular meetings, but appears to have surrendered that privilege to the Madras Book Club these days – a few extracts from the earliest volumes of the Madras Records. Writes Wheeler, “The extracts disclosed a state of society so curious and interesting, that all who heard them were anxious that they should be continued; but the pressure of official duties appears to have compelled Mr. Hudleston to abandon his task just as he had discovered the true value of the mine.”

His “curiosity was powerfully excited by the extracts selected by Hudleston,” narrates Wheeler who soon got the opportunity “to gratify it.” He was appointed in 1860 to examine the Madras records and advise on which of them should be preserved and which destroyed if they “were not worth preserving.” Going through the records of the first two hundred or so years of Madras he became as fascinated with the stories they told as had been Hudleston. And so he got down to sieving them and presenting the most interesting bits to a wider audience. His design, he says, was “to convey to the reader all the pleasure and interest to be derived from a perusal of the original records, without the painful labour of wading through a mass of commercial detail.” I’ve been the beneficiary of his labour; thank you, Mr. Wheeler.

More pertinently, will the Tamil Nadu Records Office (the State Archives) appoint someone to take Wheeler’s work forward and compile a similar history based on the official records for the period 1747 to 1947? If that is initiated this year, it would be a worthy tribute to Wheeler.

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