Memories of Madras: Mystic aura of Mylapore

C.V. Krishnaswami on waking up at dawn for Margazhi bhajanai on mada streets, watching revered political leaders up and close and the no-nonsense Dr. Srinivasan

My earliest memory is of my family being hurriedly evacuated from Madras when it was bombed during World War II. We returned soon to our house in Palathope, a quaint blind alley, one of the oldest in Madras. It ends in Vedantadesikan Sannidhi, where the deity makes a bi-monthly vanabhojanam (picnic!) visit from the Chitrakulam neighbourhood. Mylapore was believed to be the haunt of the haute monde back then. A famous dialogue in an S.S. Vasan film has the heroine vowing, “I will become the daughter-in-law of a Mylapore vakkil!”

My Telugu family migrated to Kumbakonam from Nellore. Grandfather Raosaheb C.V. Krishnaswami Iyer was renowned both as district judge, and a radical champion of unpopular truths. He had the guts to applaud the musicianship of a woman, and a devadasi (Tiruvarur Rajayi) in a still-quoted article. He donated his Sanskrit library, with the old cupboards, to the Kuppuswami Sastri Research Institute.

Father was a leading criminal lawyer in Madras who defended M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar in the notorious Lakshmikanthan murder case. MKT was acquitted and came home to thank father.

Few knew the imposing name of my first, progressively co-educational Srikarpagambika Bala-balika Pathashala on Chenkazhuneer Pillayar Koil Street (the poetic “red lilies” now smothered under C.P. Koil Street). Everyone knew it as daadhi school, its bearded vadyar was a pioneer in pre-school training. We recited tables from 1 to 16, both straight and backwards. Those who mastered this feat may have ended up in the World Bank. I took Medicine to escape from such torture. Joining P.S. High School was to be inspired by its record of celebrity alumni — Silver Tongued Srinivasa Sastri and Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyer. The grounding came from the classroom, and egalitarian ambience. Whether we walked, cycled or arrived in Oldsmobile, Buick and Chevrolet, all wore khaki shorts and white shirt, carrying the same thayir sadam-vadumangai in ‘ever-silver' thookku. What inventive nicknames for teachers! Loud-voiced Kachabhesvara Sharma was Kaach-booch, the headmaster became Castor Oil (from his frequent oiling of eczema-affected legs), with Bulldog for his assistant chief.

I won a silver medal as a lance corporal in St. John's Brigade. Stationed next to the deity at temple festivals, our first-aid band had a direct view of gods and saints. Four years ago, how happy I was to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for 42 years of service from Governor Surjit Singh Barnala, a patron of the brigade! My uncle, C.K. Venkatapathy, was an international hockey coach. He took me and my brother to see the legendary Dhyan Chand. On the way we stopped at Uberoi Sports Shop on Mount Road, bought two hockey sticks, had them autographed by the Olympics champion. The next day, I swung that stick to scoop the ball a la Dhyan Chand, and broke my brother's teeth. Our infuriated mother grabbed both sticks and thrust them into the stove, lit by firewood back then. Our prized possessions! Gone!

A triple captain in Presidency College (cricket, hockey, football) father never forced us to excel in sports or studies. But values were another matter. He woke us up at dawn for Margazhi bhajanai on mada streets. Some 30-40 groups made the air resound with songs and cymbals, Papanasam Sivan and Tiruppugazh Mani among the leaders. He also took the family to Marina to hear Mahatma Gandhi.

We followed the motorcade to the Avadi Congress session and heard Nehru propound his socialist principles. My own street attracted politicians from Rajaji to Minoo Masani at the Swarajya office, with Khasa Subba Rao as editor.

I often served coffee to illustrious musician visitors — G.N. Balasubramanian, Palghat Mani Iyer, Chowdiah and Alathur Brothers. As son of the secretary of the Music Academy, I also punched tickets at the Academy's December festival at R.R Sabha. Morning discussions were held at Lady Sivaswami Iyer School and would witness acrimonious debates. Father could control even vociferous C.S. Iyer. And how venerable judges and lionised advocates stood in the canteen queue for Appasami Iyer's badam halwa and gulab jamun! The medical man who remains in my memory is Dr. A. Srinivasan. As eccentric as they come, he was a brilliant diagnostician and clinician, fearlessly criticising the British professors in medical college, or announcing, “Human beings are ungrateful, I'm leaving my property to dogs.” His strategy in contesting municipal elections was nothing more than to walk into friends' homes and shout, “Vote for me!” I loved his no-nonsense straightforwardness.

In today's hype-driven world, advertisements cast a spell even on the educated. We are unable to sift truth from falsehood. Remember Rajaji's relentless campaign against the myth of lifelong protection by BCG injections? He was proved right.

I think old Madras had fewer expectations, and therefore, perhaps, was less prone to being bamboozled by untruth.

BIO: Dr. C.V. KRISHNASWAMI (F.R.C.P (E), D.T.M & H, FAMS) Born in 1937, he was Honorary Professor, Stanley Medical College, is the Founder-Chairman, Healthtrack Info Solutions and Tele Health Portal ( and now, heads the diabetes department, Voluntary Health Services. A participant at international medical conferences, and contributor to leading medical books, he edits the medical journal Indian Subcontinent. A member of institutions including the Oxford Wound Healing Foundation, U.K, International Working Group on the Diabetic Foot and the UGC, he is married to leading gynaecologist Dr. Prema Krishnaswami. CVK is deeply interested in Carnatic music, counting artistes such as the late M.S. Subbulakshmi and M.L. Vasanthakumari among lifelong friends and patients.

I REMEMBER: At Chepauk, my friends and I managed to get into the stand right next to the pavilion. We had the privilege of watching the three great Ws — Worrell, Walcot and Weekes, not only bat and bowl, but catch the kamala oranges we threw at them — with the same effortless style, mind you, and eat them before our enthralled eyes!

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 5:43:25 AM |

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