I spent part of the weekend snooping around this colonial-era mansion near the Chennai waterfront. It's clearly seen better days. No one lives there, I was told, and it's in use as a laundry and dry cleaning establishment. Not that the workforce I came across appeared to be at full stretch. But what caught my attention was the inscription at the crest of the building.
It made me wonder - could this be Otti Castle?
I need to explain why I am so keen to trace Otti Castle. It's where a young Jewish woman from Baghdad, Toyah Sofaer, lived for the last few weeks of her life. And where she died, in uncertain but clearly harrowing circumstances, on 6 October 1943. I came across her gravestone last year in Chennai's tiny Jewish cemetery, and so chanced upon a powerful and unsettling story of transgressive love and tragic death.
The story I broadcast about Toyah engendered quite a response. New information emerged: a confirmed likeness of her was found ... and her death certificate was uncovered. The certificate doesn't give a cause of death, but it does give Toyah's address and place of death - both are recorded as 'Ooti Castle Street, Lazarus Street, Madras'.
With a bit of help from one of Chennai's leading historians (thanks Sriram!), I was able to deconstruct this address: Otti (not Ooti) Castle was a building not a street, and it was on Lazarus Church Street. But it had been demolished some time back, I was told. So when I got out of an auto rickshaw at the junction of San Thome High Road and Lazarus Church Street yesterday, I wasn't expecting to find much. Which is why the inscription so amazed me ,,,
Could 'O.T.C.' stand for Otti Castle - or perhaps 'O.T.' became corrupted as 'Otti'? The property is now known as Marine View and the name 'Otti Castle' meant nothing to those working there - but it wasn't unusual for these inter-war mansions to be called 'Castle', and there's still a Leith Castle Street nearby.
And then there's the Star of David which features so prominently. The Sofaer family had once had a trading base in Coral Merchant Street in George Town, one of the oldest parts of the city where the first synagogue was built. Was Toyah staying here because this was the home of a Jewish family which had put this religious emblem on the building when it was built?
The hexagram, of course, is not simply a Jewish motif: it appears in Hindu and Muslim design and architecture (on Humayun's Tomb in Delhi, for example), as well as in Theosophy and the occult. It's still the emblem of the Karnataka Bank. All the same, this is quite a coincidence.
A web search on Otti Castle throws up a couple of interesting snippets - this write-up on Flickr from a few years ago being the most substantial:
Otti Castle on Lazarus Church Road at Santhome, was owned by my uncle Mr O Radhakrishnan. This house was rented to many expatriates who lived in Madras upto early 60s. I made a reference to Otti Castle in a blog in "Chennai Metroblogging" on demolition of Hotel Oceanic which is adjacent to our home at Santhome. I received a mail some time last year from one Mr David Greenwood from England. To my surprise, he informed me that prior to coming on a holiday to India, he searched for Otti Castle in the net and he stumbled upon my blog and sent a mail asking whether I could meet him and take to the place where Otti Castle stood. Mr David Greenwood was a resident of Otti Castle when he was very young and his father used to be the Managing Director of Best & Crompton at Madras. He visited Chennai during November 2009. I met him and told him that Otti Castle is demolished and some residential apartments are there in the place where Otti Castle stood. I met him at Connemara and took him to the place where Otti Castle was once there. He gave a long stare possibly reminiscing about his younger days he spent at the place where Otti Castle once stood. He took some photos of the place and I dropped him back at Connemara. This is a photo of Otti Castle sent by Mr David Greenwood.
That suggests fairly definitvely that Otti Castle is no longer standing. Two old photos of Otti Castle were posted to accompany these comments.
This doesn't seem to be the same house as the one I came across yesterday. I didn't get a rear view, and while there are similarities in the front facade, there are several key differences in design.
So what's the story here? Was there a short row of properties which took the name Otti Castle and of which this is the last survivor? That would make more sense of the 'Ooti Castle Street' on the death certificate. What did O.T.C. stand for, and why the hexagram?
If you have any thoughts, please do share them!
UPDATED: I have had a very helpful message from Balasubramanian G. Velu, whose remarks on Flickr I quoted above. The building I came across is not Otti Castle, though it is nearby and was built by the same man. His maternal grandfather Ottilingam Thankikachalam Chettiar built both Otti Castle and Marine View. So the 'Otti' comes from his name - as do the initials OTC on Marine View. There's an article by Sriram V about the remarkable OTC here. The hexagram accompanying the initials is not, it seems, in any way Jewish.
Balasubramanian G Velu's maternal uncle inherited Otti Castle. It was rented out mainly to Europeans and in the 1950s was a bachelor 'chummery' for young English men working for Best & Co. The building was demolished some time after the 1970s and an apartment block put up on the site. Another member of the family lived in Marine View and indeed still lives on the first floor about the laundry and dry cleaning business. Balasubramanian doesn't believe that the houses built by his grandfather were ever known as Otti Castle Street.
So, where does that leave us with Toyah's story? While Toyah very probably didn't stay in the building which is still standing, it does hark back to her brief period in what was then Madras. How did she end up at Otti Castle? Quite possibly her parents rented the house for their short stay in the city.
By the way, another Chennai enthusiast got in touch to say that at the time Marine View was built there were no buildings on the foreshore, that is the beach side of San Thome High Road. So this building would have had a majestic and uninterrupted view of the Bay of Bengal.
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