Madras

The Madras Book Club met yesterday for the re-launch of a well received book in the name of this glorious city.

The original book, written in Tamil, has been re-written in English by its author K.R.A.Narasiah. The meeting, true to Madras style middle class meetings, was more about Rava Upma. And sadly, the rather mediocre Upma quite easily won the contest — those who came to speak were either uninterested or uninteresting.

The author himself is an affable and slightly ageing man, who drops in trivia about the City’s history in the unlikeliest of conversations. He gives the impression of having researched his book very well and probably, the book is a very good read. The book, one is lead to believe, traces the history of Madras from the time Francis Day got a land grant from through the services of his dubash Beri Thimmappa from the local Nayak — “a strip of no man’s sand three miles long, one mile wide at its broadest[1]” — to set up a trading post for the East India Company in 1639. That land, as we know, was fortified soon into the magnificient Fort St. George.

Oft repeated history was repeated,

“It was in Madras that the first rules of governance and justice, and the red tape and record keeping that went with both, were introduced by Langhorne and Master, Yale and `Pirate’ Pitt. It was here that the oldest civic corporation was established outside Europe,” recounts the author, listing the many firsts.

St. Mary’s church was consecrated on October 28, 1680, and the marriage register records as the first entry the wedding of Elihu Yale, after who is named the Yale University in the U.S. “It was in Fort St. George that Robert Clive worked as a Writer in 1744 on a salary of £5 a year.” Clive was bored with his work; and was `on the verge of suicide on occasion’. He found his true vocation “on the battlefields around Fort St. David in Cuddalore.”

While these bits of random trivia is something every quiz loving adolescent in the city will know, Narasaiah has also taken pains to dig into various historical records — including the only written diary available from those times. The author cites a simple murder of a prostitute as the origin of the traders’ progression to being rulers. That he says, was a landmark event in terms of the local chieftains handing over judicial responsibilities to the British. This, much to the chagrin of the author, was the beginning of an empire won by default.

The subject of the book, no doubt, is something that all of us hold very dear. We don’t need to be sold on it — but what the event failed to do was, sell seriousness and purpose. S Muthiah, in his very own style, quips thus on a different occasion,

Perhaps, then, it was just the glamour of a successful author who is a big name in the Indian book world, a handsome face, a bit of stylish dressing and a St. Stephen’s eloquence. Pity the Madras Book Club can’t get that combination all the time. If it did, it might even regularly get such crowds, even a part of which would do its meagre coffers a world of good.

Sashi Tharoor and his ilk may deserve our contempt — however, that hardly absolves the rest for not even trying. The publisher of this book, a longtime blogger, gave the most insipid of speeches. The author rambled a bit and failed to tell us why he wrote this book. The journalist who was asked speak rambled some more.

Selling bad and badly selling hardly offer choice.

[1] — As read out from land records of the time with Muthiah’s inputs.

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