Yes, the great humorist did visit our city, even though it was for just a few hours. It happened in 1896 when the author (real name Samuel Taylor Clemens), his wife and daughter embarked on a world tour, an account of which was written by Mark Twain and published as More Tramps Abroad in England and Following the Equator in the USA. The trio spent the bulk of their time in India up north. Madras was en passant, between Calcutta and Colombo when SS Wardha, the British India Steamship Company vessel they were travelling by, docked at the harbour here for a day on 31 March. In his book, Mark Twain does not give any details about Madras, beyond mentioning that he had stopped here for a day. But we do know of what he did here from an interview he gave a reporter of the Madras Standard, one of the leading newspapers of the day. The conversation was published in the Madras Standard of 1 April and in the Rais and Rayyat of Calcutta on the 11th.

The interview did not go very well. Mark Twain did not measure up to the expectations of the reporter as to how a celebrated author and humorist ought to look. He was pale in countenance and did not give the impression of an eager tourist with “an active desire to know all about everything around him.” He was lounging in a deep cane-bottomed chair on the saloon deck, “buried behind the pages of a Madras paper.”

It did not help that Mark Twain was suffering from a bad cold and the conversation was repeatedly interrupted by bouts of coughing. At one stage, the author remarked that he “was killed with this cold since morning.” He and his family had gone ashore early that day and breakfasted “at the hotel near Spencer’s shop.” This must have been the Connemara, known even then by that name and acquired just five years previously by Spencers. They intended to drive around the city after that but Mark Twain “wasn’t equal to the heat with this cold” and left his wife and daughter to go by themselves around the city.

“By the way, who is that Roman General on horseback on one of your broad roads?” he asked of the reporter. On being told it was Munro, he remarked that had read about him. He also commented that unlike Munro, the most recent Governor, Lord Wenlock had not been a success, at least from what he had read in the newspapers. From where they sat, Mark Twain could see the old lighthouse (the Doric column in the High Court campus) and the then newly built High Court. He felt that it was a “telling structure, pleasant to see. It has a proper look, as if it belonged to the country.” Not so fortunate was the GPO, also visible from the harbour. He opined that it struck a false note, being “too European altogether.”

This article appeared in the Hindu’s Hidden Histories column

PS: I must have nodded off typing it. KV Ramanathan, my mentor called me to say Mark Twain was Samuel Langhorne Clemens and not Taylor. I was of course confusing him with Samuel Taylor Coleridge!