The special correspondent of Madras Musings (who he?) wrote this report on my conversation with Dr AR Venkatachalapathy during the The Hindu’s Lit for Life 2015:

As part of The Hindu’s Lit for Life festival, Dr. A. R. Venkatachalapathy and Sriram V. participated in a session discussing ‘Writings on Chennai’. The discussion, presented to a near full house, centred chiefly on the way the city has been presented in writings over the centuries.

The speakers agreed that Madras has been lucky as far as documented history since 1639 is concerned. We have had J Talboys Wheeler (Madras in the Olden Time), HD Love (Vestiges of Old Madras) and S. Muthiah (several works, of which Madras Rediscovered is the most popular) who between them have covered over three centuries. But what is interesting is that there is still much more to be done. Both Calcutta and Delhi, for instance, have benefited from a plethora of subaltern studies with the former city even having a detailed street-wise history.

Despite having been a bit of a backwater for most of the British era, what is surprising is the number of interesting tales that keep cropping up in the history of the city. The early skirmishes between Protestant Madras and Catholic San Thomé were highlighted by Sriram in this context and he narrated a tale of how a chaplain from the Fort was kidnapped by the Portuguese when he set out for an evening walk. Agent Greenhill of the East India Company retaliated by apprehending a Catholic priest of San Thomé and had him confined to Fort St George. But such were the fortifications that the prisoner managed to scale them and escape. Not so lucky was the British chaplain who was sent off to Goa to face the Inquisition and came back many years later.

Dr. Venkatachalapathy in turn spoke of how the tramways of Madras would be an excellent documentation of the city’s history. In this context he narrated a couple of anecdotes. The first concerned the patriot VO Chidambaram Pillai’s meeting with Gandhi. In the letter that he wrote to the latter, Pillai stated that he could come only by tram to meet him and then fixed the time accordingly. It is an indication, said Dr Venkatachalapathy, of how much Pillai had come down in life. A man who once operated ships and threatened British hegemony was reduced to travelling by tram. In the context of the trams, Dr Venkatachalapathy also narrated the circumstances in which the Poonamalle High Road shed of the tramways was transformed into Periyar Thidal. It was in the 1950s when the tramways were wound up and the sheds were being auctioned. Periyar, who always had difficulty in finding a suitable public space for his speeches, given their fiery content, decided on the advice of friends to buy a part of the shed space. He then converted it into a public arena, granting permission for anyone and everyone to use it, including those who wanted to hold meetings there to condemn his rationalist outlook!

Sriram then spoke of how the medical history of Madras would be another suitable subject. He narrated in brief the life of Mary Ann Dacomb Scharlieb, the first qualified woman doctor of Madras who later became one of the earliest women MDs of the world. In 1885, she, at the express desire of Queen Victoria, began the Royal Victoria Caste and Gosha Hospital, which later moved to Triplicane. Today it is the Kasturba Gandhi Hospital and is doing pioneering work in women’s health. If Dr Scharlieb was to rewrite the fate of several women through her medical practice, she was to inadvertently play an important role in another aspect – widow rehabilitation. This came about thanks to her employing the forceps for perhaps the first time in the city, to help in the birth of a baby girl. Such was the force applied that it left a couple of depressions in the skull which remained right through the delivered baby’s life. That girl would grow up to be Sister R S Subbalakshmi!

The conversation then veered towards press freedom and the freedom of expression. In this context, Dr Venkatachalapathy spoke of how the Madras Dramatic Performance Act of 1954 was legislated to suppress just one man – M R Radha. He, of course, was not in any way deterred by it and he fought it tooth and nail, first by demanding that the notices sent to him be in Tamil and not English, and later by stating that everyone who came to his plays thoroughly enjoyed them and so those who did not like them or considered them offensive were best advised to stay away!

Radha was not the first to be suppressed. One of the earliest instances of the Indian Penal Code being used for suppressing a book on grounds of obscenity was in 1910 when Bangalore Nagarathnamma published Muddu Palani’s 17th Century erotic classic, Radhika Santwanamu. After Sriram had finished narrating the tale behind this, Dr Venkatachalapathy took up the thread and spoke of how even chapbooks were suppressed the same way for seditious content. Both speakers agreed that the content in many of these cheap publications were important sources of the city’s history. The topics largely centred on murders, dacoities and other sensations but there were others such as the People’s Park Vazhi Nadai Chindu that traces the route from George Town to Mylapore in the early 1900s. Sriram then disclosed as to how he has walked the entire stretch as depicted in the chindu and during the four-hour journey discovered that a large part of what was described in the song was still standing!

Dr Venkatachalapathy related how the chapbooks survived despite being printed on cheap paper. When the information contained in them were no longer current, they were bound together and sold as compilations. These were painstakingly bought by the Government, which seriously studied them for harmful content and then filed them away. Several of these are in British archives now, though the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Chennai also has a good selection. Both speakers suggested that researchers should go through these in detail to unearth more nuggets on Chennai.

The time allotted for the talk being just about 20 minutes, it ended even before it began. A ten-minute question-answer session followed wherein many reminisced about the city they had grown up with and how it had changed. Perhaps that too would make for a good history!