Gover's sketch for transforming the Royapuram slum
Gover’s sketch for transforming the Royapuram slum

If at all a book on the hundred greats of Chennai is ever written, I hope to find Charles E. Gover in it. A Sanitary Inspector with the Corporation, perhaps his most heart-warming work was in the slums. In 1869, he identified that although “drainage and the provision of pure water are the great requirements of the city, neither can exert more than a portion of their true power while their influence is neutralised by (the) filthy and uncleanable collections of thatched huts, hitherto deemed beyond the pale of all public effort or expenditure.”

Gover enumerated the slums to be one hundred within city limits and noted that they had neither road nor drain and no scavenger cart could enter them. “Language fails me to describe fully the abominations and conditions of these places,” he wrote.

The worst of these according to him were at Royapuram and Choolai and he noted that smallpox, cholera and fevers of every kind were always present. At his first inspection of the Royapuram slum he found “one woman lying dead and eight other persons in various stages of smallpox. Pigs wandered everywhere and found their chief food in the adjacent latrine. Filth abounded.”

Gover convinced the slum-dwellers to pull down the shanties in stages and rebuild them, on the commitment that the Corporation would construct the mud walls up to four feet and also give a bonus of Rs. 2 for every house rebuilt according to the civic body’s directives. At the end of the “weary task to all concerned” the success gained “was worth waiting and working for”. There arose a neat little settlement that could accommodate 1,000 people. Gover then took on the task of reorganising 17 other slums. But sadly, he was dead within two years, having contracted typhoid from the very slums he sought to transform.

There was more to this man. His spare time was spent reading and translating South Indian poetry, the Tirukkural or ‘Cural’ as he writes of it, being among them.

In 1871, the year he died, Higginbothams published his The Folk Songs of Southern India, in which an entire section is reserved for the Kural besides giving details of Tiruvalluvar’s life, which by then had gained heavily mythical overtones. “A collection of these odes would give a very elevated idea not only of the poetical power of the Dravidian people, but of their appreciation of the beneficent operations of nature, and of their perception of the dignity and beauty of the physical world,” was how he summarised the Kural.

No portrait of Gover has survived, but a plan drawn by him for the reconstruction of the Roypuram slum is published alongside.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 26, 2014 under the Hidden Histories column