Walking with books at Fort St. George

January 16, 2024 10:13 pm | Updated January 17, 2024 07:28 pm IST

The Hindu Lit Fest literary walk at Fort St George by V. Sriram on Saturday.

The Hindu Lit Fest literary walk at Fort St George by V. Sriram on Saturday. | Photo Credit: M. SRINATH

I have led heritage walks at Fort St. George numerous times but last week’s, thanks to The Hindu’s Lit Fest, was unique. Asked by the team at the newspaper as to what could be done by way of a curtain raiser for the Lit Fest, I suggested a heritage walk at Fort St. George, entirely dedicated to books written on it and to people who lived in it. This is, of course, not the first time I have led themed walks based on books. In earlier editions of the Lit Fest, I have done walks dedicated to books published by the College of Fort St. George and the rare collection of the Madras Literary Society, a literary trail at Mylapore (co-curated by Karthik Bhatt), and another at Thiruvallikeni.

This time, the difference was that I carried the books to the Fort. A total of eighteen works was selected. Volunteers from The Hindu held aloft the volumes when needed by me and I can only sympathise with them for carrying these tomes from place to place. A report has already been published on the event and I will restrict myself to the books that were brought. They, after all, were the stars of the show. Of course, I had to begin with S. Muthiah to whom the Fort was a hallowed ground. Most of his books begin with this precinct, but by way of visual appeal there is none better than his Madras, Its Past and Present, with plenty of black and white photos from the Vintage Vignettes collection, depicting how the Fort looked early in the 20th Century.

The author Muthiah venerated

If there was an author that Muthiah venerated when it came to city history, it was H.D. Love. Taking all four volumes of his Vestiges of Old Madras (1913) was impossible and so we had just the first volume. But before Love, there was J. Talboys Wheeler, who incidentally came from a great bibliographic tradition. His parents were book-sellers in London, and Wheeler himself was the editor of the Madras Spectator before entering government service. His Madras in the Olden Time (1882) was therefore included. The Church of St. Mary’s in the Fort has as many as three books on it and I had the Rev de la Bare’s 1921 account of it brought in.

What is a heritage walk if you cannot include fun elements in it? The Nabobs of Madras by Henry Dodwell (1926) is in a class by itself when it comes to the quirkier aspects of the British. Two others in that category, by themselves serious studies, are the Life of Thomas Pitt (Cornelius Neale Dalton, 1915) and Elihu Yale, The American Nabob of Queen Square (Hiram Bingham, 1939). And how could I not include Lt. Col. D.M. Reid’s Story of Fort St. George (1948), which is fashioned as a heritage walk at the place?

For the lives of the dubashes, we had the books of Sinnappah Arasaratnam (Merchants, Companies and Commerce on the Coromandel Coast,1650-1740) and Kanakalatha Mukund (The View from Below). The sole woman to be honoured with a book at Fort St. George, though plenty of others were mentioned, was Lady Elizabeth Gwillim, the pioneering ornithologist. She died in Madras in 1806 and her memorial stone is inside the Church of St. Mary’s. For her, we had Patrick Wheeler’s A Tale of Two Sisters.

There were some other books as well. The biggest challenge was taking them there and bringing them safely back. Most of these are of a venerable age and prefer a life of quiet retirement on a shelf.

(V. Sriram is a writer and historian.)

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