I was driving past Queen Mary’s College yesterday and suddenly recollected what my friend Padma Athreya had texted me some time back. Kalaignar Maligai had indeed become Kalai Maligai, the ‘gnar’ no doubt removed on instructions from above. Whether that is really so I doubt for those above must surely be having many more things to occupy their minds, but then falling as it does on the daily route to and from Fort St George, I am sure ‘above’ must have made a note and issued a command. But even if the command did not come from above, those below would have reacted thus anyway, for it is best to be cautious and act with foresight in such matters, for hell hath no fury like … you know the rest.
But it set me thinking on ups and downs that this particular spot has witnessed in the last few years. Historic Capper’s House was of course one of the oldest buildings on the beach, a few decades younger to Ice House may be. It was the residence of Col.Capper and later became a hotel, known as Capper’s Hotel. Then in the early 1910s, when the idea of a college for women was mooted, this was the chosen building. The decision had much to do with the Madras Chamber of Commerce, for that august body had come to fear that unless Capper’s House was selected, the axe would fall on Egmore House, home to the Chairman of WA Beardsells, and one of the important Chamber members. And so QMC opened at Capper’s House in 1914 or thereabouts. Thanks to its dynamic Principal Ms de la Haye, it acquired the surrounding land, including two historic homes, Beach House, the residence of Sir S Subramania Iyer and Stone House, the residence of Sankara Iyer. Hostels and buildings came up on the property but Capper’s House continued to be in use for long. It fronted the gate and was the most visible part of the college.
In the 1990s, weather, poor maintenance and neglect having taken their toll, Capper’s House was considered unsafe and abandoned. The faculty and students moved to other parts of what has over time become a completely run down campus, matched in its slow decay only by the other great institution on the same road – Presidency College. Then in the 2000s, the Government declared that QMC would be relocated and the land would be used for building a new secretariat. The students put up a spirited protest, the DMK, having smelt a potential vote-gathering issue chipped in and finally the idea was given up. But all this was too much for poor Capper’s House which partially collapsed one night. Then, several nights later, the authorities no doubt by the simple act of leaning on the structure, demolished it, leaving a gaping hole in its place. Ironically, this was when everyone was celebrating the saving of a heritage precinct, the DMK of course taking all credit for it. But what is a heritage precinct without the oldest structure in it being saved?
Be that as it may. The Government changed. Our janata, in one of its five-yearly mood swings, voted out completely the ADMK and gifted everything to the DMK. The main issue had been that the ADMK Government had sacked some government staff for not doing any work. That had incensed the staff. How could be they sacked for simply doing what was expected of them – not doing anything? And there was also temptation of freebies – free gas, TV and several other things besides. That decided matters and the DMK swept to power. Among its first acts was to announce that it would rebuild Capper’s House (which in case you forgot, had been saved entirely due to DMK efforts but too bad the elements had taken matters in hand before anything could be done) and it duly did it. One thing you must say for the DMK – they are great builders – new Assembly, Library, flyovers, they are always building. There are some who feel they have also built their bank balances but I am not the one to comment on that.
Capper’s House was rebuilt in a fashion even if it was only the architect and the PWD who could see any similarity with what was originally there. On top came a strange dome (rather appropriately referred to as doom in Tanglish) which looked like a memorial to Harbhajan Singh. The structure was duly christened Kalaignar (what else?) Maligai and it flourished for a year or so. And then, the janata, having got upset over some G’s and several crores, and tempted by more freebies – laptops, gold, horse and two goats etc, had a mood swing once again.
The new administration is not taking kindly to any of the structures put up by the old one. And what if Kalaignar, sorry Kalai Maligai is re-designated as a hospital for girls? That must have no doubt gnawed at the vitals of those in charge at QMC. And so, one night, no doubt armed with ladders they went about their work and removed the ‘gnar’, thereby saving themselves the imperial ‘grrr’. But what if the janata has another mood swing in five years? I would save the ‘gnar’ and put it away carefully. We dont want the next lot to gnash their teeth at us do we? By which I mean the Tamil expression gnara gnara.