While Chennai has never faced a threat such as the new corona virus, one cannot help smiling when newsreaders say that an exodus from Chennai was unheard of. Rewind to World War II. In the early years, the war seemed too distant to affect Madras, which continued its sedate existence, with the occasional thrill of a new film being released, or a new play being staged. When Sirikkaade — Ondril Aindu , a collection of five short comedies was released in Wellington theatre in December 1939, Madras flocked to see it, N.S. Krishnan and T.A. Madhuram being star attractions. Maali, Ananda Vikatan cartoonist, had set up carnival mirrors in the theatre lobby. Seeing their distorted images in mirrors was a new experience for Madrasis, and the mirrors created the mood for the comedy capers they were about to see on screen.
In April 1942, the Government asked the citizens of Madras to vacate the city, fearing an attack by the Japanese. Although the evacuation lasted for a short period, return to Madras did not make lives of Madrasis easy. When we lived in our ancestral house Lady Napier Villa, in Vepery, father used to tell us stories about the war days, and would take us to see places where there had once been famous shops like D.K. Nathan and S.T. Paldano. D.K. Nathan was the only seller of Huntley and Palmers biscuits in Purasawalkam, and Paldano sold imported chocolates. But their businesses took a hit during the war. Father showed us an advertisement by Peek Freans biscuits in an issue of Ananda Vikatan . It had a picture of two ships and the advertisement said: “These ships are sailing under dangerous circumstances. Peek Freans biscuits are being supplied to naval personnel. Once victory is ours, you will get your favourite biscuits like Glaxo, Vita and Crisp Bread.” Hoping to grab a share of the market, local manufacturers of biscuits took to aggressive advertising. “Buy Charley’s, the Indian milk biscuit, made in Usilampatti,” said an advertisement.
It was difficult to get even TSR’s sherbets from local stores. One had to go to Pushpavanam stores, Triplicane, who were the sole agents for Madras, and buy sherbets in bulk. Even essentials like milk and dhals were in short supply. It wasn’t easy to cope, and the harried womenfolk in our family unwound by reading Vikatan ’s hilarious takes on the situation. An illustration showed Vishnu reclining on Paarkadal, the milky ocean. A man goes up to him and says: “I am from Madras. The city is facing a shortage of milk. Can you divert your milky ocean to Madras?” The accompanying editorial criticised the Government’s suggestion that citizens of Madras should rear cows to beat the shortage, as an impractical one.
One of the women’s programmes on All India Radio (AIR) suggested that wheat be soaked, ground and the milk extracted be used for coffee. Vikatan dismissed this idea with the contempt it deserved. Devan, editor, was a gourmet and must have been aghast at the thought of adding wheat milk to his filter coffee. Hotels began to serve Mysore uppuma soon after the war began. Vikatan ruled that the name was a misnomer. The dish had nothing to do with Mysore. Nor was it a new kind of uppuma. It was nothing but good old idli uppuma.
The corona virus has shrunk Indian weddings, but this happened earlier too. During World War II, the government restricted the number of invitees at a wedding to fifty. Grandmother used to tell us about a distant relative, who wept buckets because her wedding in 1942 was a simple affair. The consolation offered to the girl was that once the war was over, she could have a grand reception. But that never happened, because by the time the war ended, she was the mother of two children!
Restricted train travel
Railway travel was not encouraged during the war. When the Mahamakham arrived in 1945, the department said that they would not sell tickets to Kumbakonam, a problem easily surmounted by buying tickets to Thanjavur, and getting off at Kumbakonam. Prepared for such an eventuality, the government had a huge posse of policemen at the Kumbakonam station. The people were told to go back to their hometowns, but they were warned not to take a train home! Since there was no other way of returning home, the people gladly stayed on in Kumbakonam, which was what the government had tried hard to avert.
Vikatan ran a hugely popular column called Thinnai pechu , a conversation between three imaginary characters — Sama, Sastri and Bhagavatar, the last one a vocalist. They would discuss everything — politics, films, music and food, with the Vikatan brand of humour. In one issue, the three friends discuss the government’s restrictions for Mahamakham. Bhagavatar says that he had travelled without any difficulty to Kasi a couple of years ago, but going to nearby Kumbakonam had become difficult now. Sama asks Bhagavatar what he had given up in Kasi, and Sastri says, “Bhagavatar gave up sruti.”
Municipal Corporations, including Madras, came up with a bizarre proposal to augment their income — every municipality should collect a dowry tax when a wedding took place in an area under its jurisdiction. The tax was to be 10 per cent of the dowry the groom received! Vikatan came down heavily on the Government. It said that while it might lead to an improvement in infrastructure, the government should not encourage the practice of giving dowry.
Among the many shortages faced by Madras, housing shortage was acutely felt by newcomers to the city. The problem arose because the government had taken over many houses for military purposes, and to build air raid precaution (ARP) shelters. To tackle this shortage, the government had an idea. In the case of a house fetching a rent of more than 15 rupees a month, the government would choose the tenants, from a register of those looking for rented accommodation. Needless to say, the proposal was dropped.
Devan’s novel Gomathiyin Kaadalan begins with an air raid precaution rehearsal. Even as people are being chivvied into shops and shelters by the ARP warden Cheenu, the hero Rangarajan arrives from Kumbakonam. He sees the heroine Gomathi, and falls in love with her. And it is during this blackout, that we are introduced to Vedarama Sastri, who always speaks with rhyming words! He tells the hero that life is nothing but soka (sorrow), and if one comes to Madras, one is sure to catch a roga (disease). And yet none is able to get rid of the Madras moha (infatuation)!
Vikatan’s Deepavali issue
Because of paper scarcity, Vikatan printed few copies of its Deepavali special in 1944. It cost two rupees. Vikatan apologised to its readers, and asked them to lend their copy to their friends. It was a great issue — it had essays by Rt Honourable Srinivasa Sastri, R.K. Shanmugam Chettiar, a poem by Desika Vinayakam Pilai, an essay by P. Sri and lots more.
Scarcity of goods continued even after Independence, and in 1949, when every family was offered one and a half kilograms of sugar for Deepavali, there were long queues outside ration shops. Vikatan said that what was offered by the government was not enough, because Madras with a population of 14 lakhs, consumed 1,600 tonnes of sugar a month! Clearly, the people of Madras were not eating healthy!
Vikatan with its humorous columns kept people chuckling during the war years. Surfing YouTube channels these days, one finds hilarious comments about recipes, and even about news! Meme producers are busy too. Humour, as always, keeps the spirit alive, when we are overwhelmed by anxiety.
Postscript: Opposite the clock tower in Vepery, stood an old building, which housed Wilfred Pereira, the famous chemists and druggists. In those days medicines were prepared by pharmacies according to instructions given in the prescription, and so the pharmacist had to be completely reliable. Johnston medallist doctor C.R. Krishnaswami, who was our family doctor (he was a student of the legendary Dr. S. Rangachari) and Dr. A. Vasudevan, swore by Wilfred Pereira. After Wilfred Pereira closed down, Indian Overseas Bank moved into the building, which with its Madras terracing and high ceiling, was cool even in summer. But some years ago, a false ceiling was installed, the building was modernised and air conditioned, and one began to feel claustrophobic inside it. And what is the bank going to do now, when the government wants ACs turned off? When are we going to learn that some things are best left untouched?