Forgotten George Town

March 09, 2014 07:36 pm | Updated May 19, 2016 07:22 am IST - chennai

An aerial view of George town, Madras

An aerial view of George town, Madras

All this talk about banks in George Town during the past few weeks in this column should have made readers realise how important George Town was. With all these banks, under one name or another, still in George Town, it is obvious that this business district is still an important part of Madras. Yet it is the most neglected part of the city.

Government after government has drawn up plans for the city, ruling parties have issued manifestoes listing the needs of India, issued policy statements on making Tamil Nadu the leading State in the country, given promises of developing Madras as a beautiful and well-functioning metropolis. But not one of these utterances over the years has paid anything more than lip service to re-creating George Town as a modern financial and trading hub.

Madras was founded 375 years ago for trade and those beginnings in Fort St. George were dependent on what could be supplied by the first ‘Black Town’, where the High Court-Law College campus now is. After the French occupation and siege of Fort St. George, between 1746 and 1759 in two separate periods, this Black Town was razed and a new Black Town was developed north of Esplanade Road, now called N.S.C. Bose Road. This New Black Town continued to be the main supplier of goods to the merchants of the Fort, ‘White Town’, and, after being renamed George Town in 1911, a major importer of goods apart from prospering on exports. Till well after Independence, George Town remained the heart of business activities in South India — effectively the Madras Presidency — what The City is to London even today.

Befitting that importance, George Town grew at a hectic pace, becoming more and more congested, a trapezoid-shaped area criss-crossed with narrow parallel streets creating a gridiron-patterned area. And in these streets business flourishes on the ground floors of buildings nearly a century old and wealthy merchants live comfortably on the upper floors. All this causes congestion unbelievable on weekdays and life that throbs only a little less on late evenings and weekends.

Congestion, crowds, noise, filth and total indifference to urban laws make George Town an exotic Arabian Nights bazaar for the tourist but a nightmare for locals who have to visit or work in it. Yet no one, residents, shop-owners or the authorities ever speak of improving it. North Madras needs considerable improvement, but is ignored because it is today considered an impoverished part of the city. But that cannot be said of George Town, a vital nub in the prosperity of the city. In the city’s 375th year, why don’t the Authorities team with all who call George Town home or workplace to create a model financial and commercial district, a Wall Street, where there will also be a high quality of life?


A diasporic view

Back in 1946 when I landed in New York as a student — the only one with a Ceylon address — I discovered a Ceylon restaurant fit for a slum near the docks, run by a couple of Sinhalese lascars who had jumped ship, and a more up-market one called the Indo-Ceylon Restaurant on the first floor of a 49th Street building. It had been started in the 1930s, I learnt, by a Sinhalese ship’s cook who had married an American. Years later, it was being run by their daughter and about 15 years ago it was still running opposite that famous art theatre called The World where I first saw Bicycle Thieves and Bitter Rice and never forgot Silvana Mangano. And then I found myself having tea with Ananda Coomarasawamy, the famous art scholar in Boston, till he died in 1947 and then with his daughter and her family. I hadn’t heard of the word ‘diaspora’ then in connection with such settlers.

All these thoughts came to me not only when thinking about the Boat Mail years (Miscellany, February 17) but were also triggered by the arrival of a ‘copy cat’ book called The Encyclopedia of the Sri Lanka Diaspora (inspired by an OUP book on the Indian diaspora and another on the multinational settlers in Australia). Skimming through the book brought out by the National University of Singapore and others, I took more than a passing look on the sections on Australia, India, the U.K. and the U.S. and was disappointed to find that the bulk of these chapters were on the Tamil diaspora who had arrived in these countries as refugees post-1983. In fact, the Indian chapter was virtually all about the sad state of the refugees in the Tamil Nadu camps. Surely the Ceylonese diaspora has contributed to India more than refugees?

Among those this column has mentioned over the years have been Swami Vipulananda (who founded and headed the Annamalai University Tamil Department), Arumuga Navalar (whose press here did much to propagate his views) and Thamotharampillai (who contributed much to Tamil); Justice Elmar Mack of the Madras High Court and Major J.L. van Geyzel, the Chemical Examiner of the Madras Presidency; several I.C.S. officers including Alfred Tampoe, T.C.S. Jeyaratnam-Cooke (whose daughter Jahanara became a Minister of State in Delhi), M.J. Paul, P.C. Cooray and G.A.S. Peris among others; S.C. Anthonypillai (and his wife Caroline), one of the pioneering labour leaders in Madras and who went on to become a national labour leader, a host of Hensmans who served in Government Service (and one of whom became Dr. Naganathan, deputy leader of the Federal Party in Sri Lanka), a Tampoe who was in the Excise Department, Madras, one of whose sons still heads one of the biggest trade unions in Sri Lanka, and Balu Mahendra, the famed film director, and K. Thavamani Devi, a Tamil film siren of the 1940s. And I am sure there must have been many more who served in pre-Independence India and stayed on. Similarly, early Ceylon settlers in Australia and in the U.K. have been forgotten in the encyclopaedia’s tilt towards the ethnic issue and the resultant refugees. Surely the diaspora are more than refugees!


When the postman knocked

* My remarks about Roberto de Nobili (Miscellany, February 17) had Dr. N .Sreedharan responding with this information, particularly on the Jesuit sanyasi ’s Tamil work. He was called Thathva Bodhaka Swami, writes reader Sreedharan, who goes on to state that he wrote many books in Tamil, but with printing presses non-existent in his time, little of his work has survived, unlike Beschi’s who benefited from the Tranquebar Press and its broad-mindedness. Nobili’s works included Mantra Malai , Gnana Upadesham , Atma Nirnayam , Yesu Charitram, Punar Janma Akshepam and Tamil-Portuguese Akaradi , most of them on Christianity-related subjects. He used the manipravalam style with its “high-sounding Sanskrit words and long, meandering sentences”. Perhaps this was to lure the upper caste Hindus to Christianity, muses Sreedharan. He died in San Thomé, he concludes. But where is de Nobili buried?

* Several readers have kept the postman busy telling me that the Devkaran Nanjee Banking Company is still going strong in Madras with several branches in the city, including one in Mint Street, but all now under the name of the Bombay-headquartered Dena Bank. Dena Bank’s first South Indian branch was opened in Linghi Chetty Street in 1945, its first manager being S.Y. Swamy. The Bank’s roots are in Devkaran Nanjee & Co, a stock-broking firm founded in Bombay in 1879 by a Porbandar businessman with the eponymous name. After his death, his three sons grew the business into a major conglomerate that was into, apart from its first business, banking, insurance, futures, investments, and printing and publishing.

* A.M.V. Alagappan clarifies that the Banks of Bikaner and Jaipur merged as the State Bank of Bikaner & Jaipur, and the Travancore, Mysore and Hyderabad Banks all became State Banks of the respective territories and all such State Banks became subsidiaries of the State of Bank India. He adds, the Canara Industrial and Banking Syndicate became the Syndicate Bank. So all these banks survive, though under different names these days, but still with branches in George Town.

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