Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Was it a woman who attracted agents of the East India Company?

Among a few of us, the catalysts, the Madras Week or Madras Day fever sets in early June. This year was no different with a meeting at Mr Muthiah’s home to discuss a broad outline of possible programmes. The small core group of catalysts hasn’t grown too much over the years we’ve been celebrating the founding of the city – Madras that is Chennai. So, within manageable confines, we together try our best to organise various programmes in the city, progarmmes that have to do with creating an awareness about the city’s heritage.

As usual, first off the blocks in my list was Suma Padmanabhan, principal of Asan Memorial Senior Secondary School. When I called her mid-June, she had already had a first meeting with the school heads to decide what to do this year. And it is Madras as a Coromandel trading post they chose as the subject. There will also be an exhibition on traditional occupations of Madras and its trade.

The subject was probably easy to choose, but to work out the theme in detail and decide how to go about, Suma sought my help and I in turn suggested she or her team meet Mr Muthiah. So, over a cup of milky tea at the historian’s home, three Asan Memorial School teachers and I listened to stories of old being recounted even as two students tried their best to keep pace with what was being said.

I may not be a storyteller but as much as I love reading stories of old, I love to hear them being told. It was therefore an afternoon well spent, listening to how Madras was in many ways instrumental in building today’s India, the “first city of modern India” as Mr Muthiah calls it always.

The English came initially to trade, and colonizing the country was the last thing on their minds then. It was only after trade and consolidation that around 1857 or so, after the Sepoy Mutiny, that the concept of Empire dawned. So, the British ruled India only for about a century, not from 1639 when the city was born after Francis Day and Andrew Cogan of the East India Company sank roots on “no man’s sand” thanks to Beri Thimmappa (Thimmanna), the Dubash who acted as an honest broker. The British rulers overseas were not too happy with the choice of land for a trading post, but they let go and that was how Madras came about.

Some of us still float in that spicy rumour of old – that Day had a mistress in these parts and it was the young lady who must have prompted him to choose the Madras sands. So, probably it was a woman after all who was instrumental in founding the city. One will never know for sure. But there’s no harm fantasising on a romance of old – some romance it must have been!

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