Hidden Histories, after a hiatus has been revived and is now part of The Hindu’s Melange, which will come out every Saturday. The first article is on the May Day Park in Chintadripet.

May Day aka Napiers Park
May Day aka Napiers Park

Summers are best spent away from Chennai and if you are stuck here, it is best to remain indoors with a powerful air conditioner and a tall cooling drink by your elbow. But if you are the outdoors variety then May Day Park is probably one location that you could visit. Its tall shade-giving trees, green lawns and herbaceous borders are the most soothing sights on a hot day. You access it from Anna Salai, taking a left along Simpson & Co. And there, just opposite the Chintadripet MRTS station is the park, all 14.5 acres of it.

In 1849 or thereabouts, all of this area, Simpson, The Hindu, The Mail and P Orr & Sons included, was one large property, occupied by Burghall’s Stables, a firm that was into the hiring out of horse carriages and the manufacture of saddles and livery. In 1869, a part of its land was handed over to the Government for the creation of a park. It was named after the then Governor, Francis, 10 Lord Napier and 1 Baron Ettrick. Entrusted to the Municipality in 1879, it became in time a much-required green lung for the Chintadripet area.

It is quite likely that much of the lush greenery here is due to sewage. In the 1860s, when underground drains were yet to make their appearance, the largely organic sewage in various parts of the city was drained into specially designated farms. Napier Park received the sewage of entire South Madras. One of the first modern sewage pumping stations was set up here in 1932 and Pumping Station Road next to the park commemorates this.

There is very little apart from the greenery to see and admire in the park. At the extreme left, HT Boddam, a highly unpopular judge from the early 1900s glowers down at you from below an ornate canopy. At the opposite end is an elegant Ashok Pillar, unveiled in 1966 by actor S.S. Rajendran. In the middle is what is best avoided – a gruesome rockery, commemorating the change of name to May Day Park in 1990. Madras was the first city in India to observe May Day, way back in 1923 under the leadership of M. Singaravelar. The park itself had much to do with the city’s labour history, being next to what was one of the biggest employers before modernisation brought numbers down – Simpson & Co. Known for militant labour unionism in the 1960s and ’70s, it is here that the workers of the company meet even today, on May 1.

On January 25, 1965, thousands of students marched from Napier Park to Fort St George as part of the anti-Hindi agitation. The then Chief Minister M. Bhaktavatsalam refused to meet them and tear gas shells were exploded injuring many. That treatment of students is even now believed to be one of the reasons for the Congress defeat in 1967, after which it has never come to power in Tamil Nadu.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated April 19, 2014

Note: I have earlier written on May Day Park for this blog to protest against Metrorail taking it over. For some reason (and we must be thankful), only the playground was sacrificed. Metrorail has also promised to return the ground to its original state after the Metro becomes a reality.