Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVII No. 8, August 1-15, 2017

Madras’ tryst with destiny

by N.S. Parthasarathy

Nostalgia on the eve of Independence Day

The country’s freedom struggle was already in full swing in the 1930s amidst world events foretelling War. In India, the freedom fight and World War involvement combined into a potent force that shook every walk of life, household and individual.

People were so overwhelmed by sensational news of defeats and victories in battle and of strikes and satyagrahas nearer home that even children could not remain unaware of these happenings. We went to Gandhiji’s public meeting in T’Nagar near Hindi Prachar Sabha where he was staying. As part of a huge but orderly crowd, we waited in the sun for hours to get a glimpse of him. The entire gathering sang Ram Dhun with one voice at the start of the meeting and got ready to listen to the Mahatma. When he appeared, there seemed to be an aura about him that was magnetic and inexplicable. (Incidentally, note that boys of those days wandered about and went on outdoor escapades without undue restriction. We had no money, only legs. This freedom carried no risk, nor was it abused.)

In 1942, answering the Quit India call, we struck classes. These were flash strikes called at short notice responding to signals from apex student bodies affiliated to the local leadership. Children up to the third form were exempt from participation; fourth form and above and university students were free to participate. Teachers were also keen to express their patriotism but were bound by directions from the Education Department to discourage student movements in every possible way. When we went to school in the morning with books and tiffin boxes we were not sure whether or not we would be attending classes.

V.V. Subramania Iyer – VVS to us – of P.S. High School was a kind of hero for students. They had a healthy fear and respect for him. His personality had something to do with his popularity. He was tall, well built, head held high, hair cropped – no tuft – and dressed immaculately in a well pressed Tussore (a fabric made by Binny’s) suit, complete with neck tie. The traditional suffix to his name belied his commanding Western personality to the point of pleasant incongruence. VVS would stand tall among us at the entrance gate and tell us in his firm voice to ‘Get In’. We defied reluctantly. There was something in him that seemed to signal, without words, that he empathised with our aspiration.

We went in procession to the Triplicane beach, carrying flags and shouting Vande Mataram, to join similar processions converging there from several city schools and colleges for a public meeting to hear fiery speeches from local leaders. By then, because of the promise of cooperation in the war effort, perhaps, peaceful demonstrations were not disturbed by the Police unless provoked by over-exuberant demonstrators. The more adventurous amongst us did not mind getting involved in scuffles with the Police and getting back home in torn clothes nursing a lathi bruise or two.

In college students union elections, contestants imitated national leaders. My friend M.V. Krishnan, who became a senior lawyer later in life, dressed in achkan and waistcoat like Nehru and made speeches in the college campus exhorting students to vote for him. He was a good speaker too. I do not know why he did not take to politics in later life.

Talking of local leaders, there was one Mr. Subramaniam. He came home seeking collections to fund freedom activity expenses; he would enjoy mother’s filtered coffee, home-roasted and ground peaberry, served in a silver tumbler, and would update father on the latest moves on the freedom front. He wore a khadi shirt and veshti, the heavy coarse fabric hanging baggily on his dark rotund frame. He was always chewing betel and always smiling. His large shirt pocket was stuffed with papers and a leaky fountain pen. Wearing khadi was a matter of pride to express commitment to Gandhi’s movement. He led large processions from the front, shouting Kottada, Kottada, Jaya Berigai, Kottada! – in Tamil, meaning Beat the drum, Beat the drum, Beat for Victory! He was known to us as Kottada Subramaniam.

Another personality that our household came across at that time was a Madhava Rao who would easily qualify for Reader’s Digest’s The Most Unforgettable Character I Have Ever Met. He was working in Willingdon Estate as a clerk. That modest position of his might lead you to infer that he would not have been highly educated. Appearance was truly deceptive. He was widely read in English literature and Sanskrit. He could recite Chaucer and Shakespeare and the Upanishads with equal ease. He was a Maratha settled in Madras. A bachelor at 50 or so when we came across him, he was a little over 5′, fair, paunchy, wrinkled face, wearing a shirt, cotton jacket, dhoti wrapped high above the ankles, sporting a typical Marathi brown topi, and walked with a heavy limp.

R.K. Laxman must have modelled his Common Man on Madhava Rao. He came home every day in the morning to read our newspaper and seated himself under the portico type of covering at the entrance to our house of several rooms but only one latrine and bathroom – incidentally, the rent for this was Rs. 25 a month! He would tell us stories of the Independence struggle, interesting bits of history and spoke of great patriots like Ranade, Gokhale and Veer Savarkar. Madhava Rao’s story of Savarkar held us spell bound – how he escaped arrest by jumping off the ship in the Mediterranean, how he was subsequently incarcerated in the Andamans Jail and so on. Madhava Rao was a good counsellor for young minds. He exhorted us to work hard and remember always the mantra – Mathru Devo Bhava, Pithru Devo Bhava, Atithi Devo Bhava. After 1943 he disappeared from our lives – his role was over.

The Press played a big role. The Tamil daily, Swadesamitran – meaning, Friend of the Country and established in the 1870s was amongst the oldest newspapers of India, and was perhaps the oldest vernacular daily in Asia. It was owned, at the time of this story, by C.R. Srinivasan. Under him the paper continued the tradition, set by illustrious earlier editors, of espousing the cause of total freedom from British rule. Language papers, he said, were the most powerful means of reaching the masses. He introduced modern printing technology to enable the paper to save enormous time and come out with the most up-to-date news and events.

The paper spread the aspiration for freedom to the Tamil people of Ceylon, Malaya and Burma. The celebrated poet Subramania Bharathiar was a sub-editor with Swadesamitran not once but twice and wrote fiery articles in the quest for India’s freedom.

The patriotic songs of D.K. Pattammal and K.B. Sundarambal were very popular. At the height of the freedom struggle, the Press was gagged and free expression was not easy; graphite records of their patriotic songs were played within the walls of private homes.

Sundarambal won popular appreciation for her courage. Clad in white khadi saree, she sang with a powerful voice that carried, unsupported by microphone. She would sing songs with lyrics that carried latent meanings concerning the freedom struggle and evoked thunderous applause from the audience. Once she sang, impromptu, a song the lead line of which ran like this – Siraichaalai enna seyyum? – meaning, What can imprisonment do? She taunted the rulers with that song.

The day Independence was declared – August 15, 1947 – All India Radio at 4.30 a.m. broadcast D.K. Pattammal singing Aaduvomey Pallu Paaduvomey, Ananda Sudhandhiram Adaidhuvittomenru. We had tears of joy, not knowing why freedom should have moved us children so much. Outside, the city was a mass of moving people expressing their joy in public.

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