I was in Chennai a couple of weekends ago, in the bosom of the wife’s extended family, celebrating Onam. Chennai has a colourful though abrupt history. As S Muthiah recounts in his interesting book on the history of Madras (Madras Discovered, East West Press) worldwide fascination with India’s Coromandel coast predates British colonisation by a long time. But Chennai itself came into being with the British East India company choosing the location for a settlement. Mystery surrounds the reason why Francis Day of the John Company chose this ‘barren & sandy site’ for a settlement – noted gossips of the day apparently ascribing it to the presence of Day’s mistress in the nearby Portugese San Thome! Of such causes is history effected.
Elihu Yale is a prominent character in the history of Madras. Yale, who was born in Boston in colonial America returned to England, his father’s home country and from there came to Madras as a 24 year old ‘Company writer’ . From that humble position, he rose to become the Governor of Madras in just 15 years. While in Madras, the good Elihu contributed a modest collection of his books & pictures to the Collegiate School in Connecticut, these gifts realising $560 for the school. In gratitude, the college named itself after him and grew up to become one of the modern world’s greatest centres of learning – Yale university.
Unfortunately, with the British moving their base to Calcutta, Madras soon lost its Colonial glory. But it was a good time while it lasted. And who is to say that Chennai, as Madras eventually found itself to be, is not on the threshold of recreating the wonder of a more ancient Coromandel heritage.
So, the next time Chennai-ites brag about their city, stop looking at them in stupefied wonder. They do have bragging-rights that extend beyond the Cooum river. They have history.
Actually, they also have a Miss Chennai.
Incidentally, wouldn’t all this make for a great tourism experience for Chennai?
(photo of the latest Miss Chennai – sorry, i have a parochial interest in her. The poor girl is most unlikely to know this, but the family grapevine suggests she is a second-niece of mine!)