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Colonial Chennai

You may remember the PBS series "The Jewel in the Crown" about British rule in India. Or you might think of EM Forester's , "A Passage to India" or the opening of the children's book, "A Little Princess," where the heroine begins life in what seems like an exotic existence in an English colonial family. Well, Judith Kampfner wanted to find out how much of her country's legacy still survives in India. She started by looking at buildings but found out there was more to the Anglo-Indian bond than bricks and mortar.

Can Colonial Culture Survive?
--A journey to Chennai, India

By Judith Kampfner

Listen with RealAudio: Colonial Chennai

Sunithi Narayan: Judith's guide
I chose as my destination, a manageable city, Madras, now renamed Chennai. I'd heard it was less congested, more spread out and that there were fewer high rises than in New Delhi, Calcutta or Bombay. It was also the first major British settlement in India. It was a natural port on the Bay of Bengal and so the traders of the British East India Company set up base here in 1640. On this trip, I'd be on my own. I'd never been to India before - how to get around, see as much as possible ? I stumbled on a solution - a private guide, air conditioned car and driver...all for $100 a day. Sunithi Narayan was my guide.

Sunithi is over sixty, her granddaughter was about to have an arranged marriage, she is a devout Hindu, but there was no obvious cultural gap - I immediately felt relaxed with her. Her English was precise. - she used words I'd only read in Victorian novels like hillock and thrice and auspicious. I introduced her to Sitaraman, the driver of my hired car who spoke mainly in Tamil. They chatted in their language.

Sunithi explained they were discussing the regional government policy of changing street names from English to Tamil. We started off from a main street, Mount Road ,which has a new identity. It's been renamed Anna Salai after a local official. Sunithi prefers the old name.

The Evening Bazaar area of Chennai
Sunithi's been working with tourists for most of her adult life. She was the first government accredited female guide in Madras, 40 years ago. Since I had contacted her in advance, she had time to work out an itinerary. We drove through cobbled streets of the business district in an area known from colonial times as the Evening Bazaar.

This one was the residence of a Mr Hall , nobody knows what he did, and it's on Halls road. Now it's home to state administration offices.

The building wasn't open to the public but Sunithi talked her way inside -- not difficult in this courteous and hospitable city. The offices were dimly lit with desks and manual typewriters and noisy fans and dusty floors. But the timbered teak ceilings caught my interest (Sinithi said they were termite proof).

We went out to the garden which was a mix of British flower beds and exotic jackfruit and custard apple trees. We looked at the facade of the house which though familiar in style was painted bright sea green and red.

Punkah, according to the Oxford English dictionary is Hindi in origin and the word dates back to 1807.

There was a photo of Punkahs in a church I visited.

The caretaker of St Andrews Kirk, the old Scottish name for church,explained they had been replaced by electric fans. The ceiling of the kirk is star spangled. The stars are in the constellations you'd see in the night sky in Scotland. So worshippers as they knelt down to pray wouldn't feel homesick.

The hymn obligingly sung by Sunithi along with a stonemason who got down a ladder to join in, and the church caretaker , is in Tamil butit's obviously in the tradition of Western ecclesiastical music. That's Anglo-Indian culture for you.

As is common in British churches, there were tombstones along the sides of the church.

Conrad Jameson with several garden sweeping ladies from his compound
An encounter with a tiger? Hunting tigers used to be a colonial nighttime sport -- officials were joined by local Indian aristocracy and they made this a grand social pastime.. Now,don't worry, tigers are all in reservations now -- although there is other exotic wildlife to be found even in a city.

Conrad Jamieson from New Zealand and his English wife live and work in a compound owned by a spiritual society which was established in the nineteenth century. It introduced Eastern religion to Victorian Britain. The property is on the outskirts of Chennai, and has a good deal of jungly vegetation. Conrad and his wife, both 80 are tanned and 6 foot tall.

The fishermen with their paddles, which they whack on the water to scare the fish into their nets.
They have a regal bearing as they march in flimsy sandals, down an overgrown path to the sea. This area is dangerous for swimmers.

At 5 am next day, the driver took me to find the fishermen.

Not all of colonial life was dangerous -- there was obvious luxury. I went to have a traditional breakfast of eggs and smoked kippers at the Connemara hotel named after a popular governor general at the turn of the century. The building has been altered but the entrance is still very grand -- it used to have a portico held up by twelve pillars so guests could arrive on elephants. There are sepia photos on display of British officials partying here with the Indian aristocracy. In those days from the founding of the hotel in 1889, to Indian independence in 1947, each guest was allotted a personal servant known as a bearer, who started work early in the day by bringing guests their morning tea.

The pool at the Connemara Hotel
Then you got the personal bearer thrown in with the daily tariff. Alas no longer, but the hotel still has some huge colonial style rooms from $160 a night. Because of those exceptionally hearty breakfasts, the British in India invented a new name for a light lunch -- tiffin. Sunithi took to me to an Anglo Indian school where I found kids having recess in a playground by the roadside. They had were running in rag tag uniform many were in bare feet. It was tiffin time as they told me in a cacophonous hodge podge of English and Tamil.

One of the many temples in Chennai, located behind a market stall in a street specializing in spices.
Though they sing Tamil movie songs,these children study British history -- there's a statue of Queen Victoria down the road from their school. Its not much different from when Sunithi went to school. She has a good memory especially for music and this song.

If you want to find colonial Madras, go soon, the name change to Chennai announces a new phase in the city's history and self definition. The city is modernizing and many of the old buildings are being pulled down for multi story apartments and offices. But if you look carefully the residue of colonial culture and the fascinating way that it has been grafted onto the fabric of South Indian life, will be there for you.

In Chennai, this is Judith Kampfner for the Savvy Traveler.


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