Chennai has never had it so good as far as interest in its history goes. Numerous heritage walks, talks, discussion forums, photography and art groups are flooding us with information on our rich past. Most of it is wonderful, throwing up long-forgotten nuggets. Sadly, we also have some mischievous elements contributing what can be classified as plain tales.
Take for instance the story of Lord Labak Das. That phrase, for it cannot be qualified as a name, though an old one, became famous following a sequence involving comedian Vivek in a movie that I have long forgotten. But of late, there is a persistent WhatsApp forward, which claims that Lord Labak Das was in fact Lord Labough Dash, a kind-hearted Governor of Madras in the pre-Independence era. The message also has an image of the supposed person, which on closer inspection turns out to be Lord Curzon! And so, Lord Labough Dash is a figment of someone’s imagination. There was never any pre-Independence governor of that name and none of the incumbents could be termed kind-hearted, with the sole exception of Sir Thomas Munro.
As always in such cases, the tale of Lord Labak Das has a grain of truth. It draws inspiration from the Lodd family. These were wealthy and highly philanthropic Gujarati merchants of the late 19th and early 20th Century Madras, the patriarch being Lodd Krishnadoss Balamukundoss, who was a partner in the firm of Govindoss Giridhardoss & Co. His son Lodd Govindoss has been frequently written about in The Hindu . The family’s community prefix of Lodd gave rise to an interesting story even in the early 20th century — it was said that they got the name because they distributed laddus free to everyone in George Town! It also inspired humorists and the early Tamil magazine Ananda Bodhini carried stories of two warring businessmen, Gulab Jan Das and Kunja Ladu Das, both named after sweetmeats!
The Lodd family owned a vast area bounded by General Patters Road. This was known as Patters Gardens and in its heyday played host to the likes of Raja Ravi Varma, Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda and the Music Academy’s 1937 annual conference. The estate has long been divided among family members, some of whom still live within it. Lodd Govindoss has a memorial in a corner. One part of the erstwhile estate is now known as Border Thottam, most likely a corruption of Patter Thottam (Gardens). This was privately developed and sold by the Lodds even in the 1930s and L(odd) G(ovindoss) N(agar) Road, V(ijaya) N(arayana) Doss Road and Gopal Doss Road commemorate members of the family. Satyamurti Bhavan, the Chennai home of the Congress Party, fronts Patters Gardens and stands on land gifted by Lodd Govindoss.
It is time we stopped looking for anglicised props to support history in our backyard. If we at all want to search for the inspiration behind Lord Labak Das, let us give a kind-hearted Gujarati the credit.