What an alluring street name - Coral Merchant Street. And resonant of so much of Chennai's early history. It was once one of the most important trading streets in the city. A long time back. Things have changed ...
This is George Town - one of the oldest corners of the city, just north of Fort St. George. It's where the traders not allowed to live in the British fort gathered. It was initially known as Black Town, as opposed to the White or Christian Town where the Europeans lived.
The first Black Town was cleared when the British military decided it needed a 400 yards clear zone round the Fort to prevent a stealth attack (that's the land the Madras High Court is built on).
This second, slightly further out from Fort, Black Town took the formal name George Town just over a century ago when George V became King-Emperor.
And the coral merchants? Well, yes, there was in the eighteenth century a small community of Sephardic Jews living on this street trading in rough coral, coral beads, diamonds and precious stones. This was where Chennai's first synagogue was built. The community prospered - but only briefly. By 1800, the trade had moved elsewhere and the traders with it. There's now nothing at all beyond the street name that harks back to that era ... apart from a solitary signboard -
But this was a well situated street, and new trading communities moved in - particularly Chettiars, among the most prominent of South Indian merchant castes. I suspect the handful of once grand but now largely dilapidated mansions along Coral Merchant Street were built for Chettiar families. They still display some wonderful design flourishes - and one at least remains imposing in appearance.
Between the world wars, the sea route between India's east coast and Burma, Malaya and Singapore was the busiest migration axis on the globe. War and then the insular state socialism introduced in Burma choked off much of that movement.
Chettiar traders were particularly affected and many returned to South India. Some set up what became one of the city's principal markets, Burma Market (it's still there, though no longer flourishing) - and on Coral Merchant Street there is silent testimony to those old trading links across the Bay of Bengal.
Coral Merchant Street has a number of fine Hindu temples, including one of the few in Chennai in which Krishna is the main deity. Chettiars have a reputation for philanthropy and patronage of religious institutions - whether there's a link here, I haven't yet found out.
Another entrepreneurially minded community is still evident on Coral Merchant Street - the Jains, members of an ancient Indian religion which has perhaps four million followers around the world.
There's a small, fairly new, Jain temple and a Jain Bhavan. A bit like Quakers and Parsees, Jains have a reputation for commercial acumen.
Jainism is much stronger, relatively, in North India than in the South. I was told that while there are a significant number of Jains in other parts of Chennai, in George Town there are not more than two-hundred families, and the attendance at this temple is rarely higher than fifty.
And one of the pleasures of walking city streets - anywhere, but especially here in India - is the serendipity factor. It's a long time since I've come across an itinerant knife grinder. You might expect them to be grizzled veterans of a dying trade - but the grinder I chanced upon on Coral Merchant Street is probably barely in his teens. He had a pedal and cycle wheel which kept the grinding disc in motion, and when meat cleavers and knives were being honed, a shower of sparks erupted - alas that's not caught in these photos.
I'm just back in Chennai for another term teaching at the Asian College of Journalism. It's 28 degrees here - gorgeous! I had a wander this afternoon to reacquaint myself with the Alwarpet neighbourhood where I stay - I took a stroll round neighbouring 'TamBrahm' Mylapore - and I did a bit of household shopping.
And where else would people shop in the fashionable parts of Chennai but - just as in the posher bits of north London - at Waitrose. Not that there's much in common between Britain's upmarket supermarket chain and the perfectly pleasant but pedestrian store just down the road (no delicatessen, no meat, no fish, no freshly baked bread, no tapenade, no organic hummous ... ).
Except coffee, that is -
If there's one grocery item I can't live without it's Waitrose's Monsooned Malabar coffee. I love the stuff. Every time I open a new packet, I inhale deeply just like a glue sniffer - the wonderful, rich aroma reminds me pungently of the Senior Service cigarettes I used to smoke surreptitiously all those decades ago. It's a smell that takes me right back to adolescence.
Monsooned Malabar is, of course, South Indian coffee - though from the other, western, seabord. Waitrose Chennai-style doesn't stock Monsooned Malabar. But it does have a very handy, friendly, open-air coffee stall (yes, I know it's called 'Tea2Go' but coffee is its speciality) right by the entrance.
This serves excellent South Indian filter coffee at 17 rupees (20 pence) a cup. It's a brew using freshly ground coffee, with a just-about-compulsory dollop of sugar, topped up with boiling milk ladled out from a big pan.
It's served in a metal beaker or tumbler which comes with an outsize metal saucer. Aficionados pour the coffee to and from the tumbler and saucer (it's called a dabarah) - that mixes the coffee, milk and sugar; it cools the drink; and it also aerates the coffee, a bit like the steam wand in a cappuccino. This is what the coffee looks like when ready to consume (photo from Wikipedia - I forgot to take a photo of my own drink).
At this stall, the woman serving does the pouring - a key part of the ritual of South Indian filter coffee.
Now, that's what I call coffee!
I popped in today to the Bridget Riley exhibition at the David Zwirner gallery in Mayfair - warmly recommended, it's free and on until March 10th - and was thrilled to see that the artist herself was there. She is something of a hero of mine, and my father's. And I went up and thanked her for the pleasure and stimulation her work has given to the Whitehead family. She smiled broadly and seemed pleased. I was glad I seized the opportunity.
My father was a West Yorkshire businessman, but one of his main interests - at least for part of his adult life - was painting. He loved 'op art', where slight variations in shape or colour give movement to a canvas. He was much influenced by Victor Vasarely and by Bridget Riley. Sadly, he destroyed almost all his paintings - he was frustrated that they didn't quite achieve, visually and aesthetically, all he hoped for. But later in his life, he took to tapestry and returned to themes and designs which were very much in the op art tradition.
I was never much of an artist, but I like Bridget Riley's work and have sought out some of her exhibitions. She's now in her late eighties and still working. My son has a strong visual and design eye and he occasionally does what I would call op art, designed on the computer screen. It's the staple of his birthday and Christmas cards.
So that thread stretches through three generations. Thanks Bridget!
Fermin Rocker on Hornsey Lane
This lovely watercolour was painted on 'suicide bridge' looking west on Hornsey Lane, with the dome of St Joseph's Catholic church prominent. On the right, you can see the bank of the covered reservoir.
It's by Fermin Rocker (whose obituary I wrote for the Guardian) and dates from 1976. He lived in Tufnell Park for many years, and while he didn't paint many local streetscapes, his depiction of the newspaper kiosk outside Tufnell Park tube being an exception, he did on occasions venture out with watercolours and easel.
I like this a lot!
It's a while since I've done this - bought a book for its cover. But you have to admit, this is a nice one.
Jack Keroauc's second-best-known novel and the high watermark of the Beats' dalliance with Buddhism. The Dharma Bums came out in the US in 1958 (the year after On the Road) - this is the cover of the first UK edition, published by Andre Deutsch the following year.
The novel is the story of the search, spiritual and otherwise, of Kerouac and his mate Gary Snyder (Japhy Ryder in the pages of the novel). This cover design is by Bernard Blatch, who very happily is still around.
I picked this up, for rather more than a pittance, from my local Oxfam bookshop - it only went on display this morning.
A Tom Mann Testimonial
What a wonderful piece of political ephemera! Tom Mann was a hero of the British Communist movement - an activist who was a living link from the socialist revival of the 1880s, the 'new unionism' movement which sought to organised the semi-skilled and unskilled and the renowned 1889 Dock Strike through into the Popular Front period fifty years later. He was also a good, brave and decent man, who was loved as well as respected.
I've just been reading the (as yet unpublished) memoirs of the novelist Alexander Baron, who was an influential communist in the late 1930s. He says:
By this time, like my grandfather Levinson, I had shaken hands with Mr. Tom Mann, the old trade union pioneer. [John] Gollan had introduced me to him and told him something about me. True to his Victorian origins - he had taught in a chapel Sunday School when he was young - the old man clasped my hand and told me, in the words of the Christian hymn, to fight the good fight with all my might. ... Mann was small and bent when I met him, but he looked hale, with a leathery, unblemished skin, sprouting moustache and clear, merry eyes. When he cracked a joke he skipped in a little three-step dance to celebrate it. I revered him for the great deeds of his younger days and he still seems to me to have been one of the few early socialists who remained pure souls to the end. He had belonged to the Communist Party since its foundation, seeing it as the home for a revolutionary trade unionist. I believe that he lived insulated by his own goodness from knowledge of the dark side of communism and that to the end of his life in 1941 he cherished the same innocent dreams and illusions that my friends and I had when we were sixteen.
The menu shows how conventional was this 80th birthday testimonial dinner for a comrade: at a Bloomsbury hotel, with roast lamb and roast potatoes, toasts (I wonder if there was alcohol?) and classical-style singers (all male). It is the hallmark of revolutionary conformity.
The menu is signed by Mann, and it's a nice thing to have.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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