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

Vol. XXVIII No. 13, October 16-31, 2018

Life around Jagdish’s shop

by N.S. Parthasarathy

Another lost landmark

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In the block of buildings on right in the main picture was Jagdish’s shop on Royapettah High Road. In the inset ,the block is seen on the left with the new buildings of the Indian Officers’ Association complex on the right (Photos: R. Raja Pandiyan).

It was September 1939. To us, it was Jagdish’s shop that broke the news of declaration of the War that later came to be called the Second World War. Almost every street corner had, what would pass off today as, a paan shop or potti kadai. Jagdish’s shop offered a wider range of necessities than a potti kadai – soda, Spencer’s soft drinks like Orange Crush and Lemonade, Vimto, cigarettes, bananas, Parry’s sweets, biscuits, betel leaves and chunam, small packs of Ashoka scented crushed betel nuts, small household needs, English and Tamil newspapers and magazines. The newspapers were stacked on one side and the magazines displayed overhead as a garland on a string tied from one side of the shop to the other. His shop was popular for the variety of publications he offered. Displayed, on that day, more prominently than usual, was a large poster of The Madras Mail evening paper crying out: War Declared! – in huge black letters.

Residents around Jagdish’s bunk picked up their newspaper from him every day. Not many subscribed with the publisher to receive direct door delivery. Among readers, there was a much higher percentage of multiple household readership of each copy of a single newspaper than now. These days we have exclusive single household readership of multiple papers. Every newspaper had posters for display outside the shops to give the day’s news. That is how they were Breaking News! Events waited for the morrow for the “breaking”; it was a leisurely world. The slight sign of competition, to “break the news earlier” than the competitor, was evident when the Nizam passed away. One newspaper announced his demise a day earlier than its occurrence, adding predictive value to their news. Another newspaper exhibited its uncompromising devotion to accuracy and truth and “broke” the same news long after it had occurred, taking time, perhaps, after ensuring corroboration of eye witnesses.

Jagdish’s shop commanded respect more than others of the category. He had the advantage of location of the tram stop, and, later, the bus stop, in front of his shop. Jagdish’s shop front had become a standing loiterers’ club comprising the waiting commuters who came every day, different groups at different times of the day. Jagdish and his captive customers exchanged views on the state of the Union. Among such customers was one who resided in the ground floor of the two-storeyed building just behind Jagdish’s shop which was on Royapettah High Road opposite to the Indian Officers’ Association’s extensive premises called Mohana Vilas. He was a lawyer who espoused the cause of industrial labour and, in due course, headed the labour wing of the then leading political party. He earned a stature over time as a constructive labour union leader defying the prevalent trend of negotiation through flash strikes and flash lock-outs. All this and perhaps a little benefit of the exchanges with Jagdish, while waiting for the tram, must have played a part in this lawyer rising in time to be the President of India.

In another way, Jagdish’s shop front became what would today be known as a centre for participative democracy. Simple things were done then not knowing that they would become fancy jargon later. The nearby Lakshmipuram Young Men’s Association (LYMA) was then run by two brothers – not young by age but by their untiring energy. They brought eminent personalities to talk on burning issues of the day to the LYMA shed in front of the temple. Gatherings at these meetings once every 2-3 weeks or so would spill about the shed that could hold only about hundred people. Announcements of meetings were written in chalk on a large blackboard in a beautiful hand. Display of this Board by Jagdish in front of his shop was his contribution to participative democracy. The display lent respect to Jagdish’s shop. And Jagdish helped to fill the hall and much more for LYMA. It was sheer synergy.

Rajaji, Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, Sir Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar, S. Varadachariar, Ma Po Si, A.V. Raman, Khasa Subba Rao, Annadurai, Karunanidhi (then emerging in political arena), and many such illustrious personalities of the time adorned the dais in LYMA. Statesmen, doctors, constitutional experts, lawyers, judges, vice chancellors, ministers were there to speak to an enlightened audience. Speeches were followed by questions and answers. Invariably, it was K.S. Ramaswami Sastri, retired Judge and Sanskrit scholar, who, as President of LYMA, gave the vote of thanks. The erudition that he brought to bear upon such a routine task was remarkable, at times, overshadowing the main speech. It was a pity that newspapers invariably concluded the reports of the meetings with these words: K.S. Ramaswami Sastri also spoke. Perhaps, the “brand value” of the main speakers robbed KSR of a more honourable mention as was his due. That was like reporting the cricket match saying that Sachin Tendulkar also batted.

Mylapore was not a geographical spot. It was a social phenomenon. It was India’s legal brain and centre of culture comprising music, dance, temples, colourful festivals, early morning marghazhi bhajans and a school of considerable repute that produced India’s senior civil servants. Mylapore also provided constitutional architects, Supreme Court judges, great jurists, a silver-tongued orator reputed to have known all the words in the Oxford Dictionary, freedom fighters, musicologists, composers, poets. Mastery of Law was the speciality. If you were born in Mylapore you could not have helped being an eminent lawyer. Every girl of marriageable age aspired to marry into a Mylapore lawyer’s family. The heroine, Miss Malini, in a movie of that title, sang the lyrics composed by Kothamangalam Subbu, also a Mylaporean: Mylapore Vakkeelaatthu Maattuponnaavaen!

Edward Elliot’s Road marked the northern boundary of Mylapore. This one road could boast of many luminaries -T.R. Venkatrama Sastri (jurist), Rt. Hon. Srinivasa Sastri (whose mastery of the English language astonished the British), Sir P.S. Sivaswamy Iyer (lawyer), E.V. Srinivasan (opthamologist, who was seen in his Rolls Royce), C. Rajam (founder of Madras Institute of Technology) and lesser known, but no less distinguished, Chief Engineer Ramasundaram who made a name for himself for building several airstrips in the country in record time to prepare India against possible external attack during the Second World War. Rajam lived in a palatial house called India House, at the junction of Mowbray’s Road. Bus conductors would shout India House! with extra gusto perhaps to express their awe of the imposing bungalow, to alert passengers desiring to disembark in that area. India House was later acquired by S.S. Vasan, celebrated as India’s Cecil B. de Mille as he was the forerunner in producing movies with spectacular settings at costs running to several lakhs at the then value. Somewhat diagonally opposite, on Mowbray’s Road, was Farm House, the residence of Kasturi Gopalan and Kasturi Srinivasan, owners of India’s premier newspaper, The Hindu. Also adjacent was the spacious compound called Dare House that was residence of the Butchi Babu family that produced some of the naturally gifted sports persons in tennis, cricket and golf.

Jagdish’s shop was outside the charmed Mylapore boundary, lying, as it did, on the wrong side of the dividing Edward Elliot’s Road (now Radhakrishnan Saalai). This fringe was the last outpost of Mylaporeanism. As if Mylapore was at a loss to find space for all its famous citizens, the surplus eminence overflowed on to southern part of Royapettah which accounts for the importance of Jagdish’s location. Around Jagdish’s shop, within a mile radius, were Raja Iyer, Advocate General, A.V. Raman, civil servant of the English era and close associate of Rajaji, and C.R. Srinivasan and Khasa Subba Rao, both nationally known Journalists. And there was Mahalingam, a pioneer by his own right, living in his modest apartment. He was a sales executive of George Oakes, an English company that imported luxury cars. Almost all cars then owned by the elite of south Madras were bought through Mali who used to bring different models to the door-step of the high and the mighty for them to try before buying. In motor car marketing, Mali was much ahead of his time. He made owning a second-hand car respectable and put this status symbol within reach of the emerging professional upper middle class. In the automobile business, Mali is still a name recalled with respect; the company in his name, even today, dominates the car market presided over successfully by another Mali, grandson of the original.

It is difficult to overlook mention of Rangachari Home and Ranga Nursing Home both in this area run by Dr. Narayanaswamy and Dr. Sankaran, respectively. They were senior physicians who worked with the legendary Dr. Rangachari whose statue stands in front of the General Hospital. Dr. Rangachari was known for his compassion and treatment of the poor. Doctors of repute, such as Narayanaswamy and Sankaran, would make home visits at request. They would come, dressed in spotless white, in a Morris Minor or Standard Eight with their kit carried by an accompanying assistant. Prescriptions, that were recipes for a liquid mixture of appropriate drugs in required proportion, would be compounded by qualified pharmacists in a nearby medical shop. Ready-made patented and branded tablets, capsules and liquids had not come in to vogue. The mixtures, however, did the trick.

Although this stretch around Jagdish’s shop in south Royapettah had enough to boast about, the residents still preferred the prestigious Mylapore badge. No one in the area would want to call oneself a Royapettan. The shadow of Mylapore was enough to claim pedigree. Mylapore had its aura and magic and willingly cast its embrace over the southern fringe of Royapettah. But, over the decades, the uniqueness, leisure and simple charm are gone and with them the sprightly little social symbols like Jagdish’s shop.

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