Symbol of old business

Across the road from Spencer's are two business establishments with almost as old histories in the city — `The Bookpoint' which is more prominent than that of its owners, Orient Longman's, and Poppat Jamal, a symbol of the Gujarati Muslim presence in Madras for over a century


Symbol of old business

SYMBOLS OF Spencer's trying to get out of difficulties in the 1980s are the two Spencer Towers at the Binny Road-Mount Road junction. This foray of the retailer into real estate development saw Tarapore & Co. start work on the taller tower in 1978 and open it for occupation in 1982. Work on the second tower started that year, was delayed and finally opened in 1988 / 89. Driving past the hoardings-hidden towers, it was good to see, in the context of what I'd written during the last couple of weeks, Spencer's proclaiming itself once again as a `super store' and reminding passers-by, `Once Spencer's, Always Spencer's'. Indeed, the reminder was also of a Spencer speciality that had almost been forgotten: Spencer Furniture. Are these signs of Spencer's making a comeback in Madras, a city it never really left as it changed tracks in the 1990s?

Across the road from Spencer's are two business establishments with almost as old histories in the city, both symbols of particular types of activity.

On the first of them is the sign `The Bookpoint' rather more prominent than that of its owners, `Orient Longman's'. Generations in India have been brought up on the textbooks published by four old British publishing names. And all of them, Oxford University Press, Orient Longman's, Macmillan's and Blackie's, have long had Mount Road presences. All of them have also in post-Independence years Indianised in one way or another, first their publications and then their management and ownership. Orient Longman's was the first of them in this business transformation, Longman Green becoming Orient Longman in the 1950s after the late Raja Rameshwar Rao of Hyderabad, Madras and Delhi established the new business with such directors on his board as the Patwardhans of Pune and Khushwant Singh. Moving on from publishing, the firm, has, in recent years, set up a chain of bookshops that sport the name, `The Bookpoint'.

Next door is the Mount Road symbol of a firm that itself is a symbol of the Gujarati Muslim presence in Madras for over a century. Poppat Jamal's of Mount Road is a branch of the Broadway establishment dating to over a century ago. Perhaps the oldest of these Gujarati Muslim business houses in Madras is Ebrahim Currim & Sons, of NSC Bose Road, established in 1860 and who have made `Stag' brand umbrellas a part of South Indian history. Then there's Currimbhoy's of Evening Bazaar, for a century in glassware and cutlery. From 1905, there's been Joonus Sait & Sons of Rattan Bazaar, naming which Yunus Sait made a `Y' a `J' to make life easier for his European clientele. And more recently, there's been Mahomed Ebrahim Sait of Rattan Bazaar, who opened his `Gramophone House' in 1926 to distribute HMV records and retail others.

Starting with records, Mahomed Ebrahim moved into gramophones and Western musical instruments, then, in the 1930s into the `new sound' radio. The 1940s saw the firm establish a Mount Road branch, the first move out of George Town by a Gujarati Muslim. With this move, it also widened its distribution range beyond sound equipment. In 1970, it moved into its own headquarters building in Mount Road, by the Devi Complex, and become Meco Tronics - symbolising the move of Mahomed Ebrahim into the era of electronics and manufacture.

Joonus Sait remains firmly anchored in George Town, still the best place in town for woollens for that hill station holiday or to equip the student going abroad with what he'd need immediately. Established in 1905, with its focus on woollens for the sahibs headed for the hills, the firm expanded into a whole range of textiles and catered to all ages. Its tailoring department made a name for itself - particularly for the tailoring of warm clothes - and also for making judges' robes. And as long as the office of the Sheriff survived, Joonus Sait provided the Sheriffs of Madras with their ceremonial attire. The original business remains in Rattan Bazaar, but newer ventures have taken the family out of George Town.

Currimbhoys too, while anchored in George Town, have established the name in other parts of Madras, but focussing still to a great extent on household requirements. Poppat Jamal's too has, by and large, remained focussed on glassware, cutlery and household goods, but it made a pioneering move in the business when it set up the Jamal Glass works in Tondiarpet in 1930 to manufacture the `Stag' brand glass chimneys. This was a business that grew with exports to South and Southeast Asia from the earliest days.

Poppat Jamal, who came to Madras from Rajkot in the late 19th Century, worked here for Ebrahim Peermohamed & Co., before venturing out on his own in 1901. From wholesaling of glassware, crockery, cutlery and enamelware, Poppat Jamal's of Broadway became a virtual department store for household requirements. Growing business and the growth of the city southwards led to the establishment of the Mount Road branch in 1957. And here the retailing of music was added to the firm's business range.

As neighbours, Orient Longman's and Poppat Jamal's remain symbols of business organisations and businessmen with roots outside Madras - the British textbook publishers and the Gujarati Muslims - making the city their home.

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