Term's over! For me at least. I've had a good time here in Chennai - but all things must pass, as George Harrison once said.
In my 'a term in Chennai' blogs, I've said very little about why I am here. What term am I talking about? A jail term? A school term? A college semester? And studying or teaching?
So - I've spent the last eight weeks teaching TV journalism at the Asian College of Journalism. I've enjoyed it ... the students seem to have too ... we may even have learnt a few things.
Having the Sasikala drama (if that means nothing to you, look at some of my earlier blogs) on our doorstep helped us get off to a lively start. And there's been an emphasis on the practical - going out filming news packages, interviews and pieces to camera, and latterly working in the college's spacious TV studios.
The climax to the term was an hour long 'as live' news and current affairs programme - complete with website round up, film preview, sport and business news and ... what about this! ... live music in the studio. Newsnight, eat your heart out!
And a special word for the scooter brigade - who head off in pursuit of stories on two wheels, with camera, tripod and equipment somehow stashed away.
And how did the students do? Well, to quote George Harrison again: 'all things must pass'. Good luck to all in the class - and cheerio Chennai!
This was the queue at half-past-nine this morning - thirty minutes before opening time - outside the Chennai offices of the Reserve Bank of India, the county's central bank. Several hundred people were waiting patiently in stifling temperatures clutching bags full of worthless pieces of paper.
Back in November, the government ordered the just-about-immediate cancellation of 86% by value of all the bank notes in circulation. Notes for 500 Rupees (£6.25) and 1,000 Rupees (£12.50) were declared invalid - and new notes of 500 and 2,000 Rupees issued in their place,
The boldness of the move - intended to drive out 'black' and counterfeit money and boost cashless transactions - was matched by the clumsiness of its execution.
There was a very brief window in which people could take the old notes to a bank and exchange for the new notes ... in theory. Initially there was nowhere near enough of the new notes to meet demand. It was all a bit of a mess. Economic activity flattened - hundreds of millions of Indians were hugely inconvenienced - but the recent state elections have shown that 'demonetisation' has done the BJP government no political harm.
But if you are an Indian living abroad, or were travelling when the high denomination notes were consigned to the rubbish bin, you may well still have a lot of old notes which no one will accept. The RBI is now redeeming the invalid notes of those outside India late last years and so unable to exchange them - and that's what's drawn the crowds on a sweltering March morning.
There was not much shade or water for those in line beyond what they brought with them. Nevertheless the mood was stoic - buoyant even. This group below had already been waiting an hour by the time I came across them, it was another half-hour before the office opened, and my guess is they would be lucky to emerge with their new notes before lunchtime.
How much were they changing? Only one volunteered a figure: 10,000 Rupees (£125) ... so not the sort of sum that anyone wants to write off.
Fifty yards or so away at the end of the queue, people were still falling into line. But I wasn't at all sure that they would make it to the counter by the time the office was due to close - at 2:30pm.
There's a word in Tamil that derives from the name of a German warship. An 'Emden' is someone who is bold and works with precision. Just as Karl von Muller, the captain of the SMS Emden, was when he launched the only enemy attack on Indian soil of the First World War.
The stone above stands on the sea-facing wall of Madras (not Chennai, note) High Court. The Emden was based at Tsingtao, a German concession in China. It slipped unnoticed into the Bay of Bengal. And on the late evening of 22nd September 1914, the German cruiser anchored a couple of miles off Chennai/Madras and let loose 130 shells in half-an-hour.
Muller's aim was to hit at commercial targets and to cause alarm. In the latter goal in particular he was successful. Shrabani Basu's excellent For King and Another Country - the relevant section is serialised here - states: 'Panic spread in [Madras] and nearly 20,000 left every day. Crowds went out of control and the railways had to summon special police. Those who could not get the train took the road, leaving on carts and on foot. Prices of commodities shot up. The Times newspaper estimated that the Emden’s raid at the mouth of the Hooghly and down the Coromandel coast had left the province of Burma isolated for a fortnight, paralysed the trade of Calcutta, pushed up the cost of insurance on the seas and cost the country over a million pounds. There were fears that the Emden would return.'
The port's field guns eventually managed to fire some shells in the general direction of the Emden - nine in all, none found their target.
A few weeks later, the Emden was involved in an even more daring attack - on Penang in Malaya. It sank a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer. But in November, it came off the worse in a clash with an Australian naval ship near the Cocos Islands.
The Emden's captain deliberately ran the ship aground to prevent it sinking - more than a hundred of those on board lost their lives, but two-hundred others survived.
Some of the guns of the Emden were salvaged - three of them are in display in Australia. The one featured here is a 10.5 cm gun which is now in Hyde Park in Sydney.
Military experts says this was indeed one of the guns that opened fire on Madras.
As for the High Court building, the damage was superficial. So one of the gems of Indo-Saracenic architecture - built in the 1890s - survived, and still stands.
I wasn't allowed in with my camera, and from the road you get only a peep of some of the astonishing towers and domes. So to give proper measure of the marvellous court complex that escaped the Emden's artillery rounds, here's a picture from the internet that does the Madras High Court (if you will forgive the pun, or even if you won't) 'full justice'.
200 years ago, the Church of Scotland petitioned for a place of worship to be built in Madras to serve Scottish soldiers stationed in and around the city. The foundation stone was laid in 1818 and it was consecrated three years later. The design is sumptuous - inside and out - and the church stands in spacious grounds which add to its imposing presence.
This looks to be much more than a squaddies' church. But then the Scots' role in Empire was much more than 'poor bloody infantry' - they were often the officers, doctors and administrators ... and the missionaries too.
St Andrew's is still universally known as the Kirk - indeed its website address is http://www.thekirk.in/ - and insists that it remains in the Scottish Presbyterian tradition. The Scottish church is famous for its schisms. The Kirk does not seem to be affiliated with the Church of South India, with which the Church of Scotland has an association. Nor does it appear to have links with the 'Wee Frees', as the Free Church in Scotland is sometimes known.
The Kirk's first Indian pastor was appointed as recently as 1983. There's clearly a large and active congregation and the building seems to be splendidly cared for.
Amid the memorials, there's one from the 1850s that particularly caught my attention. The sculptor was Scottish, Sir John Steell, and it was crafted in Edinburgh. The likeness is not that of the man in whose memory the monument was erected, Lt Col Robert Gordon, but of an Indian soldier mourning him - as this very useful article explains.
And another, much simpler, memorial also made me reflect on the lives of those who worked and died here during British rule. I've been able to find out nothing more about Charlotte Andrews from Glasgow - she must have made quite an impression to be so memorialised.
If you want to know more how the European presence and influence is reflected in the buildings and urban landscape of Chennai, then do take a look at this excellent article. The Kirk is among the buildings featured.
The Kitchen opened a couple of years ago and at lunchtime today it was close to full - when I left all but one of the half-dozen tables were taken. A lot of the customers come from India's remote (and from Chennai very distant) north-east. Keishing says he also gets a few Japanese and Korean diners. And today there was certainly at least one table taken by curious Chennai-ites.
What did I have? Well, I left it to the proprietor to choose - I simply said I wanted to taste good Manipuri cooking. I got roast pork, with lots of fat attached, which is rolled in what are much like cabbage leaves and dipped in a spicy sauce ... fried rice with chicken and beef ... a clear vegetable soup ... and a selection of cold dishes, including wilted spinach and an aubergine and potato mash.
The food wasn't cheap by Chennai standards. With a coke and a couple of slices of water melon, it came to Rs 700/- (£8.50). But then again, the portions were large - and this was quite enough for two to feast on.
There's a huge range of 'international' restaurants in Chennai - Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai and even Ethiopian and Latin American - as well as all the dosa and idli places and those offering north Indian cuisine and dishes from Chettinad, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.
But how nice to have a rare chance to sample Manipuri food. It may not be one of the world's great cuisines - and this is very much home cooked rather than cordon bleu - but if the test of a restaurant is whether you'd be happy to go back, then North East Kitchen passes.
The grandest house on TTK Road, by quite a way. This is 'Mithila'. Built in 1931 by a Maharashtrian family that had settled in Chennai, when this was known as Mowbray's Road. It's amazing that this stately residence has survived. There once must have been many such grand buildings in this part of the city. On TTK Road, this is the last one standing.
The house is set well back from the road and at a jaunty angle to it. The world 'Mithila' appears in Devanagri - not Tamil - script at the crest of the frontage.
Inside, as far as I can tell from a peep through the window, it feels as it little has changed since the building was first lived in more than eighty years ago. Long may it last!
This story has it all: tragedy, piety, property, mystery - and a few ghosts for good luck. Oh, and a Portuguese knight from Pondicherry who wasn't a knight at all.
An hour south of Chennai/Madras lies the fishing village of Kovalam (initially Covelong) which, as well as having a wonderful resort hotel, is also home to an array of church institutions - a Portuguese-style chapel dating back more than 200 years, a recently-built shrine and bell tower, a convent, a girls' orphanage, and a home for elderly women.
It's all the legacy of a trader of Portuguese origin, Sir John D'Monte - the 'sir' was simply a courtesy title - who owned a huge amount of land here and in Madras, and was an important benefactor of the Roman Catholic church.
John D'Monte was clearly one of the most important and successful merchants along the Coromandel coast in the early nineteenth century. He married a woman of German descent, Mary Bilderbeck. Her family were involved in both the pearl and indigo trade. They had a son, Christopher, who travelled to Europe - whether he was brought up there by his grandparents, or simply went on a visit, is unclear.
Christopher died in Germany in 1816 as he was preparing to return to India. The old chapel of Kovalam which John d'Monte founded and houses his memorial is also home to the remains of - and memorial to - his son.
The account the Catholic church gives of D'Monte and his role in the building of the chapel - devoted to Our Lady of Mount Carmel - is worth quoting at length.
Annals of history would leave us astonished by the miracles involved in the way Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church & Shrine was initiated and built. ... Apparently between 1770 AD - 1780, Rev. Fr. Carmelita a missionary from the Madras-Mylapore Archdiocese had started building a church in Kovalam. The foundation was laid and the walls were built. But Fr. Carmelita's untimely demise stalled the completion of the Church's construction for about 20 long years. During the same period, a Portuguese merchant by the name of Sir John D' Monte was merchandising in a Madras Mylapore coastal settlement called "Dumeen Kuppam” exporting silk handkerchiefs to other countries from India. He lived with his wife Mary Bilderbeck and only son Christopher D' Monte. Christopher, their son while on his way back to join his parents after pursuing higher education in Germany, fell ill and died at the young age of 22 in a place called “Rodgau”. Shattered and heartbroken by the news she went into a state of dismay and dejection. She left Madras-Mylapore and was desolately roaming along the shores of Bay of Bengal in Kovalam.
Agonized by this tragedy, D' Monte started searching for his wife frenetically. At a point, when he reached Kovalam, Our Lady of Mount Carmel appeared to him and promised, “My dear son D' Monte, the church Fr. Carmelita started building is still not completed. You take it up and complete and I shall cure your wife”. Bearing Our Lady's words in his mind and soul, D' Monte built a magnificent church reflecting Portuguese architecture and his wife Mary was liberated from her illness and distress. The church was built and established as a parish church during the period 1800 – 1808 AD. Commemorating Fr. Carmelita's initation of the church and mother Mary's appearance to him, De Monte named the Church, “Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church”.
Now, even by the evidence on public display in the chapel, this account doesn't hold water. The chapel was completed in 1808 - Christopher died eight years later. What seems to be true is that John D'Monte founded the Kovalam chapel ... that this may have been linked to his wife's mental health issues ... and that their son died tragically young and his remains were brought back to India.
What is also evident is that when John d'Monte died in 1821, his extensive properties in Kovalam and in Mylapore (the latter now one of the most fashionable districts in central Chennai) were left largely to the church - with binding restrictions on their further disposal,
The land D'Monte owned included the current locations of the Madras Club (also blogged about) and the Boat Club. Among the area bequeathed to the church was a large block on the east side of T.T.K. Road, much of it now taken up by church buildings, and an adjoining area which is still known as D'Monte or Demandi Colony.
Several of the residential buildings in this area - rather smart old-style bungalows - fell into disrepair. The church perhaps had little interest in doing them up. There's also been quite a lot of legal argy-bargy. And the handful of streets at the heart of Demandi Colony became rather desolate and deserted. What you might call a ghost town.
The story spread that the area was haunted. The buildings themselves now seem to have been mainly demolished. Some of the land is in use as a park - much is tumbledown, and a few plots have been given over to car and coach parks.
Ladies and gentlemen, take a look round what was once D'Monte's Mylapore heartland:
The only element of spectral menace I could detect is this abandoned vehicle which - with a generous imagination - you could divine to be the ghostly likeness of a hearse.
OK, so it's not pretty - but is it haunted? Well, ask anyone here and they will say: yes. Why? Well, because of this ...
Two years back, a Tamil horror movie was released with the title 'Demonte Colony'. Building on all the tales about the paranormal in D'Monte's old stomping ground, they added a few new elements to the mix. The plot? Here it is! It did rather well. And old Sir John, once associated with good deeds, is now forever tagged with things that go bump in the night.
Up very early this morning for a walk round the old Madras Club - and then by chance, a visit to the new Madras Club (which is older than the old one). Confused? Read on - I'll explain.
The heritage walk - which included an excellent breakfast - was conducted by Sriram V, whose expertise on Madras/Chennai's history is matched by his enthusiasm. It took us round the original twenty acre site of the Madras Club, founded in 1832 as a men-only Europeans-only club and the oldest in India after Calcutta's Bengal Club.
The club has long gone from this city centre site, which is now occupied by the vast Express Avenue shopping mall. Only the faintest traces survive. On independence in 1947, when it became clear that many of the club's members were leaving India never to return, the club sold the site to R.N. Goenka, also owner of the Indian Express, and moved to (slightly) more modest premises.
This laundry facing the site of the club - and set up to serve its members - is one of the few institutions left which bear witness to what was known as the 'Ace of Clubs'. The British Library has some photos of the club from 1901-02 which give some idea of its grandeur.
These magnificent colonnaded pavilions have gone, but the Madras Club goes on - and very much in the old style. In the early 1960s, it merged with a similar institution, the Adyar Club - this was when Indians became eligible for full membership for the first time - and is housed in premises every bit as magnificent as the original buildings.
Indeed, the club's new premises are older than the old ones. The building is known as Mowbray's Cupola and was built in around 1792 by George Mowbray, an English trader who was variously sheriff and mayor of Madras. It's overlooking the Adyar river and in nine acres of grounds.
This is the troubling story of Toyah Sofaer. She died aged just 22 and lies in the tiny Jewish cemetery in Chennai in south India. Until a few weeks ago her family did not know that she had a marked grave.
Toyah's life story has been pieced together with the help of her niece, Lydia Saleh, who lives in Toronto; and - through Lydia - of her father and Toyah's half-brother, Abraham Sofaer, now aged 94. For Abraham in particular, my discovery of Toyah's grave has allowed him an opportunity to recall a sister for whom he had a special affection. 'It has' - Lydia told me - 'brought Toyah back to life for my father after so many years'.
This story has never before been made public. I am sharing it now with the family's blessing.
There was a hint of mystery in this solitary gravestone - who was Victoria Sofaer, how did she end up in Chennai, how did she meet her death so young?
An internet search took me to a splendidly comprehensive genealogy of the Sephardic Jewish diaspora in what was the Ottoman empire - and this told me that Victoria had been born in Baghdad and was known as Toyah. It also revealed that while her family knew that she had died in India within a year of arriving there, they didn't know exactly where and when. Through Alain Farhi, the impetus behind the family history site, I made contact with Lydia, who has been generous in sharing her knowledge of the Sofaer family history and contacting others in the family to check details.
The story begins in Baghdad - and opens a window on the history of the Jewish community in that city, among them trading families with commercial links spreading across Asia to all the key ports of the British Empire in India and further east.
Toyah's father, Menashi, was the main importer of food and drink in inter-war Baghdad. He ran the British General Supply Store (after 1941 Baghdad supplanted British in the company's name) which shipped in via Basra supplies of French brandy, English biscuits, Dutch beer, American cigarettes, Belgian chocolates, Swiss cheese, Ceylon tea, that sort of thing. Menashi had learnt about the import business in Rangoon, where the Sofaers were one of the principal trading families. He spent twenty years in Burma - but after his father's death in 1916, the family moved back to Baghdad (though an uncle remained in Rangoon).
Toyah was the second child of Menashi's marriage to Dina Shamash - her mother died while giving birth to her. Menashi went on to marry Dina's sister, Naima, and had three more children, of whom Abraham - just two years younger than Toyah - is the oldest and the only one still living.
The Sofaers had several prime properties in Baghdad. One of them was on the main shopping street, Rashid Street. On the other side of the road was an Armenian-run ladies' wear shop.
Somewhere around 1939 or 1940, Toyah fell in love with an Armenian man from that family. The two met in secret. They were from different communities and different religions, and when Toyah's family found out about the relationship they were determined to put a stop to it. They sought to marry her to a suitable Jewish boy - but when Toyah rejected these suitors, they shipped her out to India.
In the early 1940s, Abraham Sofaer was living in Bombay - along with his older step-brother and an uncle. He had gone there to avoid military service in the Iraqi army. While in Bombay, the family traded in textiles which were shipped back to Baghdad.
Towards the close of 1942, Menashi and his wife turned up in Bombay with Toyah in tow. 'I felt there was something in Toyah, in her face and demeanour, that was very perplexing to me', Abraham recalls from the Toronto nursing home where he now lives.
'I was very bewildered to see her so transformed and I wondered what had happened to her. Her silence gave the impression that she was in complete shock. I felt there was something mysterious and unusual that I could not understand. She didn't utter a word to me and this saddened me greatly.'
After a while, Toyah and her parents moved on to another Indian city - Abraham didn't know which one. He never saw Toyah again. He was told she had died. Her parents returned to Baghdad.
Abraham knew nothing about Toyah's romance until - seeing his grief - he was told the full story by 'grand mere', the maternal grandmother he shared with Toyah. 'I happened to be the closest to Toyah among the whole family. I still wondered about the details which led to her demise and I still don't know all the facts.'
'I heard that the doctor who looked after Toyah in India felt the urge to tell the authorities about the serious decline of her health and the role her parents played in this matter. The doctor apparently did not pursue this idea. The Armenian lover also felt the need to alert the authorities in Baghdad about Toyah's deplorable condition and the role that her parents played in her health and incarceration. But for whatever reason, he did not go through with this idea either.'
So there was no public scandal or fall-out - even within the Jewish community in Baghdad, the romance was hushed up - no one talked of how Toyah had died, as her brother sees it, from a broken heart.
And there is another tragic aspect to this tale. I asked if the family had any photographs of Toyah. This is the photo that her niece, Lydia, sent me -
It shows three of the Sofaer boys - Elias, the oldest and tallest, Abraham, standing next to him and Jack, the toddler. It was taken in around 1927. Toyah would then have been 7. Why doesn't she feature in this professionally taken family photo?
Well, she did - she was standing on Elias's left. After her death, the photo was retouched to excise her likeness - you can still make out where her right arm overlapped with Elias's left arm - so that, in Lydia's words, 'there would be no reminder of the scandal and tragedy of her life'.
It was apparently a custom in Baghdad - a superstition - that when people died all the photos of them were disposed of. That may be why - much to Abraham's regret- there is no confirmed likeness of his sister.
But Lydia did come across this wonderful photo taken in Baghdad probably in the early 1930s. The elderly woman with the stick is 'grand mere' Farha Shamash; the man on the extreme right is her husband Saleh Shamash. The woman leaning against a tree is Khatoun Meir, Toyah's aunt ... and the girl with wavy hair peeping out above her aunt's head may, just may, be Toyah Sofaer.
'We have been given the rare chance to honour Toyah's memory by thinking and talking about her now', Lydia told me by email. 'We are truly grateful for that. Bringing back memories of his sister is incredibly important and moving for my father.'
'It is also comforting to know that a gravestone was built for her with such care, love and respect.'
LATER (August 2017): this photo is not of Toyah Sofaer - but click here to see her aged about 14
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