Where is Aal Thottam, a journalist had asked a year ago. I had never heard of the place, I said. But it is in a movie song, he riposted. Perhaps a figment of a lyricist’s imagination, I hazarded. No, he insisted, it must be somewhere around, and there the matter rested.

The question would periodically resurface and I would half-heartedly search for it, occasionally cursing the journo for having planted it in my mind. Youtube revealed the song to be from a Vijay-Simran starrer titled ‘Youth’, and it was a raucous dance number. The first line went: Aal Thotta Bhoopathi Nanada (I am the king of Aal Garden). Now what or who was Aal?

I looked in several books about Madras. There was not a single area named Aal’s Garden or Al’s Garden. Finally, I found the answer in a 1933 streetwise directory of Madras. It was Hall’s Garden! I had been searching under the wrong letter. Hall’s Garden Street said the directory, connected Peter’s Road and Rasool Oomer Bahadur Street. It also added that the thoroughfare was 415 feet in length and 15 feet wide.

Both garden and street have now vanished. But the name still persists. Rasool Oomer Bahadur (now sadly ROB), that defiant scion of the Arcot line, has five streets named after him. The area around ROB Street, which is now a rabbit’s warren of houses and offices, is still referred to as Hall’s Garden or Aal Thottam. As to the garden, I can only speculate that the YMCA grounds and the Wesleyan church and school must all have once been Hall’s Garden.

Of Hall, there were three in Madras. The first was Joseph, a commissioner of the East India Company who came from England in 1668, to sort out differences between Sir Edward Winter and George Foxcroft, both of whom fancied themselves governor of the place. Winter had jailed Foxcroft. Hall made peace and having instated Foxcroft as governor, he withdrew. He did not stay long enough to own property here.

The second was James Stuart Hall, who arriving in Madras in 1775, became advocate, attorney and proctor at the Mayor’s Court. He later bought the city’s first newspaper – The Madras Courier, and became its editor. Among his first acts was to publish a story describing a mythical kingdom run by despotic officials. Unfortunately, several government officials of Madras saw themselves mirrored in the story and forced Hall to publish an apology.

The third was Hamilton Hall, who entered the service in 1781, and rose to become a general in the Army, dying in charge of the southern command in1827 in Tiruchi. Gen. Hall owned extensive properties in Madras. He had garden houses in Egmore and Kilpauk, and two roads in the city, one in each locality, are still named after him. Interestingly, there existed a Hall’s Garden in Nungambakkam too. It is likely that Gen. Hall owned gardens in Royapettah as well, making him the original Aal Thotta Bhoopathi.

From there to a movie song is a long journey.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column