Madras Miscellany Society

The memorial in the woods

How this little book of stories of Forest Families in the 1930s in British India landed up on my table, I have no idea. As it came from the UK, it might have been from Dr Richard Bingle of the India Office Library, who helped author Mary McDonald Currie with it, but he’d have put a message in it. Leaving that mystery aside, a word about the book. It tells of life in the forests of different parts of India for British District Forest Officers. Mary Currie’s father Donald served in the Madras Presidency and their life is narrated by his wife Diana.


Donald Currie, who served in Manatoddy, Palghat, Coimbatore, Nilambur and Ooty, was with the Forestry Department from 1921 to 1946. Today’s item doesn’t trace that story; it is based on a bit of serendipity. The Curries, Diana Currie records, had in 1933 buried, as requested in his will, retired Conservator Hugo Wood in the teak plantation he’d raised near Topslip and where he spent much of his life in a house he had built. She writes of the funeral, “All his old friends who could possibly make it came as well as other members of the Forest Department. I wonder if the rock marking and protecting his grave is still there.”

Apparently, Wood was a legend in the area – and this I discovered from a recent blog by Sanchari Pal forwarded to me by Pradeep Chakravarthy and where the mention of Wood’s name made me recall the Currie reference to him. The mail refers to a Hugo Wood tombstone that had obviously replaced the Curries’ rock. But it also tells of Wood’s contribution to the Anamalais.

The forests in the Anamalai Hills were once rich with teak and rosewood. Indiscriminate felling for the railways and ship-builders virtually denuded the forests between the 1820s and the 1880s. Wood arrived here as DFO in 1915 and stayed till retirement in 1926.

The memorial in the woods

Building a bamboo hut in the Mount Stuart forest, he lived a bachelor, wedded to regenerating the forest. Starting with personally planting teak in 25 acres, he saw the plantation expanded to over 160,000 acres by the time of his death. Today, teak flourishes in Topslip – a name derived from elephants once carrying teak logs to a river to float them downhill. Wood’s hut was later developed as a forest resthouse. Both his tomb and the resthouse are regularly visited today. A memorial here to the Scot who saved the Anamalai forests from Government’s fellers is now being talked about.


The Rajaji crusade

Back in 1929 the man to become the first Indian Governor-General of India and to twice head Governments in Madras, C Rajagopalachari, started a monthly magazine focused on bringing Prohibition to Madras. This Tamil journal was published by the former Salem lawyer from his Gandhi Ashraman in Tiruchengodu where he had retired after joining Gandhi.

Vimochanam, printed at the Hindi Prachar Press, Madras, was short-lived. In July 1937 Rajaji became Premier of Madras and started in his home district, Salem (Miscellany, July 15, 2002), the journey of Prohibition, one still unfinished.

“He (Rajaji) was 58,” grandson Rajmohan Gandhi once describes him and goes on, “five-foot-five and wholly bald at the back of his oval, bespectacled, eagle-nosed head. The eyes – if you saw them – were serious and sad-looking but were protected from scrutiny by the thick, dark glasses they demanded. The face was hard and austere except when it broke out in a grin which it did from time to time. The baritone voice was always calm, the speech always distinct, the words always interesting. Each day this Iyengar Brahmin widower wore exactly the same dress: a kurta, dhoti and folded shawl of clean white khadi, the fabric of revolt and reform…” To him alcohol was what Nobel Laureate C V Raman called “the deadliest of poisons.”

To make the masses realise the dangers of alcohol and accept Prohibition, Rajaji brought out Vimochanam, whose editorials clearly spelt out his advocacy. These were compiled in a little booklet, titled Prohibition, in 1931. A revised 1943 edition was reprinted in 2009, this edition reaching me recently from Mullai Pathipagam and triggering this item.

In his Foreword to its first edition, Jawaharlal Nehru writes, “C Rajagopalachari is the acknowledged expert in this domain and the unquestioned leader of the Prohibition movement in India. What he has to say about it must command attention… The evidence of the great religions is sometimes used as the principal argument in favour of Prohibition. This argument may and does go a long way with many people. But if Prohibition is going to triumph, it will do so because of the reasoned conviction that it is necessary for the well-being and progress of a nation…. The question must therefore be approached in a scientific spirit. Rajagopalachari has done so and has built up an unanswerable case for Prohibition.”

The memorial in the woods

Rajaji quotes profusely from leading British doctors, Sir C V Raman, sportsmen like Tilden and Dempsey (“I am a total abstainer”), and Lloyd George (“We are fighting Germany, Austria and Drink and as far as I can see the greatest of those deadly foes is Drink”), among others. He also discusses drugs like opium and ganja (today’s favourites were unknown then). And concludes, Prohibition “consists in making men and women… adopt Total Abstinence.”

Apart from news, editorials and serious articles on the subject, Rajaji also included message-carrying short stories and serials in Vimochanam, featuring such characters as villager Deivaanai, Parvati the destitute and Gopala Rao the banker. He even used cartoons. A reviewer of Vimochanam called Rajaji “a past master of propaganda.” But propaganda only too often fails.


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The chronicler of Madras that is Chennai tells stories of people, places, and events from the years gone by, and sometimes, from today

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 8:50:45 AM |

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