Friday, August 31, 2012

Proud employer

Imagine you are the foremost mathematician of your time, living in Cambridge, England. Imagine you get a letter from Madras, postmarked January 16, 1913, which starts off,

"Dear Sir, 

I beg to introduce myself to you as a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust Office at Madras on a salary of only £20 per annum. I am now about 23 years of age. I have had no University education but I have undergone the ordinary school course...."

What would you do?

G.H. Hardy was intrigued by the letter and the 9 pages of theorems appended with it. Some were familiar, many were not. At the end of it, Hardy concludes, "They must be true because, if they were not true, no one would have the imagination to invent them"Thus began a great collaboration in the world of mathematics, one that has been described several times over (most brilliantly by Robert Kanigel in 'The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan'). 

Ramanujan was encouraged to write that letter by Sir Francis Spring, the Chairman of the Madras Port Trust and S. Narayana Iyer, the Chief Accountant. That they had taken such an interest in the non-official activities of a Class III Grade IV clerk was because that post was a sinecure, procured by the efforts of R. Ramachandra Rao, the district collector of Nellore and secretary of the Indian Mathematical Society. Ramanujan had been introduced to Ramachandra Rao in 1910 and had requested Rao for "leisure" to work on his mathematics. Rao arranged to bear his expenses, at the same time looking out for a more stable arrangement.

That arrangement was worked out in early 1912. Ramanujan joined the Madras Port Trust on March 1 that year. His tenure at the Port Trust was short; but it was the only formal employment he ever had. So it is that this bust is placed in the foyer of the Port Trust's Conference Hall - a proud employer honouring its most famous employee!

Thursday, August 30, 2012


It is certainly not a very 'descript' building. Like hundreds of others in Chennai, this one too is a just a regularly shaped block of concrete. Being right across the road from the LIC Building on Mount Road, it would have been completely ignored, had it not been for the arresting geometrical pattern on its facade. 

For a few years, that pattern made sure the DBS Bank faced up to its taller neighbour across the road. It could have become an instantly recognisable landmark itself, but apart from the facade, there was little else of interest in the building. One was startled, but one moved on. 

This picture was taken a couple of years ago. Today, you will not be able to get this view. And once the Chennai Metro comes up, those across the street will probably no longer have their eyes jerked towards this colourful structure!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

South-west sentinel

That is how this statue, at the south-west corner of the Madras High Court campus, was described by a Judge of the Madras High Court. Like its counterpart at the north-east corner (that of Rajaji), this statue too honours a barrister who gave up his practice to participate in the freedom struggle. The road this statute looks on to, known earlier as Broadway, was renamed in his honour as "Prakasam Salai".

It was not because Tanguturi Prakasam Pantulu lived on Broadway. It was on that road, in 1928 that a black flag demonstration was being held against the visiting Simon Commission. A nervous police force watched the demonstration gathering strength as they marched south on Broadway; finally, when it reached the China Bazaar junction of the Esplanade (what is now NSC Bose Road), the police opened fire. The shots sent the crowd back - except Parthasarathy, one of the demonstrators, who had been killed by the bullets. His body lay at the junction. The police swore to shoot anyone who approached the body. Enraged by that attitude, it was Prakasam, who ripped open his shirt and, daring the policemen to target his chest, walked up to lift Parthasarathy's body and continue on the march. It was this courage which brought him the sobriquet "Andhra Kesari" (the Lion of Andhra). The courage was demonstrated again when, heedless of his personal safety, he visited the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1948 to convince him to join the Indian Union, at a time when the Razakars were out to get him.

The plaque on the statue also calls him 'Andhra Kesari'. That he was the Premier of the Madras Presidency (1946-47) is mentioned in much smaller letters. This sentinel can be better cared for, surely!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sugarcane saint

As temples go, this doesn't look like much. After having been neglected for a couple of decades, the Pattinathar Thirukkoil at Tiruvottiyur has had some clean up done around it in the last year or so. After all, what is a few years here and there when we are talking about a legend that has been in the making for over five hundred years?

A native of Kaviripoompattinam, Thiruvenkadar was a leading merchant of his time. Lord Shiva appeared in his dream and advised him to adopt Marudavanar; it was much later that Thiruvenkadar learnt that Marudavanar was the Lord Himself. After one of his apprenticeship trading trips, Marudavanar disappeared, leaving behind a box of his 'earnings' from the trip. Thiruvenkadar opened the box to find cowdung, husk and an 'olai' (ஓலை) with the phrase "not even an eyeless needle will accompany the soul on its last journey". Realising it was a message from Shiva, Thiruvenkadar renounced his material comforts and turned an ascetic, travelling to various parts of the land, going as far north as Kailas before heading back to south India. No longer Thiruvenkadar, he was now known as Pattinathar - the man from Pattinam. During these journeys, Pattinathar had a vision of Lord Shiva telling him that he would gain salvation at a spot where sugarcane tastes sweet. It was finally at Tiruvottiyur that he came across "pei karumbu" (பேய் கரும்பு) - wild sugarcane that nobody would touch, for it was viciously bitter. Pattinathar however found it sweet; and it was here that he attained samadhi. 

The ascetic's temple is also spartan. Though there are the routine pujas and festivals, it is believed that Pattinathar rejects pomp, and anything more than simple offerings or prayers would result in a negative reaction!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Mill Hill Church

I don't think that's really true, calling this a "Mill Hill Church". Although it was the Mill Hill Missionaries who took charge of the parishes of Nungambakkam and Vepery sometime in the early 20th century, their hold on it remained only for about 20 years or so. In 1930, the control of these parishes was passed on to the Padroado Portugues do Oriente  (the protection of the King of Portugal). 

St Teresa's Church, which is the one being discussed, stands on Nungambakkam High Road. It is said this was originally a small chapel within the Bishop of Madras' house and that it began to grow only after the Mill Hill-ers took charge. The chapel was elevated to the level of a parish church in 1912 (and a centenary celebration is called for?) and has continued its growth since.

The Mill Hill-ers handed over the church to the Padroado in 1930. By that time, however, the Padroado was itself in the wane, what with the Padroado Real having given way to the Padroado Portugues do Oriente. The last vestiges of the Padroado disappeared in 1999 when Macau was handed over to China; but in Nungambakkam, this church (and the parish) was moved to the Archdiocese of Madras-Mylapore sometime in the 1950s itself!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Urban renewal

There was a time when Chennai had a green lung along one side of Mount Road. Most of the eastern boundary between the Cenotaph Road and Chamiers Road junctions was taken up by the Poultry Research Station (PRS) of the Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (TANUVAS). The PRS campus had a few scattered buildings amidst the greenery on its nine-acre campus. The rest of the space was taken up by raintrees, gulmohurs, neem trees and a thick spread of underbrush all around. 

It was a space where herds of chital roamed. Where rat snakes played a daily game of slithering away from a family of mongoose. Where koels, flycatchers, kingfishers, mynahs, woodpeckers and at least 25 other species of birds built nests for generations. Almost all of them have disappeared over the past couple of years, after the land was turned over to the Chennai Metro Rail for its headquarters. 

Once, poultry breeds like the Nandanam Chicken and the Nandanam Broiler were developed here, for use by breeders all over the state (if not all over the country). Now steel rods are being shaped into frames for spans that will carry the metro rail over many parts of the city. Truly a case of urban renewal! 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Doll building?

It is not often that government offices or buildings bring up nostalgic memories of childhood. But Kuralagam is one such. Children of the 1970s might remember this as the go-to place for golu dolls and by all accounts, it continues to host the annual doll sale that might attract kids to visit it even in this day and age. 

In an area of Chennai that is filled several buildings that are over a hundred years old, this one is a kid itself. A little over 40 years old, Kuralagam (a rough translation would be "the essence of the kural) was built to house several government departments that were being crammed into the Chepauk offices. These included the Commercial Taxes Department, the Commissionerate of Handlooms and Textiles, and the Khadi and Village Industries Board. The last named continues its practice of putting up golu dolls for display during the Navaratri season.

Those dolls were the big reason for children to go to Kuralagam - and maybe to imagine government offices as being colourful places. What with flavoured milk from the Aavin counter in the building, you can't fault a kid for thinking this must be one of the "Best Places to Work"!

Friday, August 24, 2012


Everything about this board is from another era, starting with the white-on-blue lettering. It has been at least sixteen years since the city's name was officially changed from 'Madras' to 'Chennai', but this board still has not been updated. 

It has been even longer - I forget when, but I'm willing to bet that it was at least twenty years ago - that the telephone numbers in the city were moved to seven digits. Maybe nobody has tried calling them for a while. 

But somebody did tell them that their address had to be changed. Mount Road - on which this shop stands - was renamed Anna Salai sometime in the early 1970s; with that clue, we can conclude this has't yet gone into the 'antique' category, but remains merely at the 'classic' stage!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Lawyer's Chamber

How many lawyers does it take to change a light bulb? One possible answer to that could be "All of them". Have been trying to find out how many lawyers practice in Chennai, but that seems to be something even the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu is having a hard time estimating. 

The streets around the Madras High Court are festooned with boards naming advocates and their services. Given the scarcity of real estate in the streets of George Town, it is understandable that their offices are usually one-room affairs, where even a loophole will find it difficult to twist  itself. 

In the midst of such cramped settings, the law office of Advocate A. Nagarajan seems to be luxurious. With a cafeteria attached, his clients would also find waiting more pleasant!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Madras Day!

Much of the last 373 years, since Francis Day and Andrew Cogan received their firman, has been forgotten. But there is much that is remembered. Passing on those memories from the earliest days of Madras to the citizens of today's Chennai is something that V. Sriram does with panache. And when it comes to the Madras Day heritage walks, he is in his element, weaving one story into another, conjuring up images of the early days of the city all the while. 

The Madras Day celebrations are now eight years old. A tribute to this city's founding day, begun by Mr. S.Muthiah, Vincent D'Souza and Sashi Nair now covers many events, spread out across two weeks. While the celebrations get bigger and better with each passing year, there are still several folks who remain incurious - and incredulous about this city. 

The best cure - one of these walks! If you've missed them this year, they'll be back in 2013!!