It was a century ago to the day that Gandhi embraced the idea of a non-violent non-cooperation movement to achieve India's freedom - and he did so at a house just a five minutes stroll from where I am staying in Chennai.
India hasn't woken up to this anniversary, and I wouldn't have either but for a friend and fellow journalist Krishna Prasad, whose blog about the anniversary I would encourage you to read. The Rowlatt Act which prompted Gandhi's call to action was one of the most repressive measures introduced by the British - and set the scene for the egregious massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh in Amritsar on 13 April 1919.
The leading historian of the city, S, Muthiah, describes Gandhi's decision taken exactly a hundred years ago to launch a non-violent protest movement as 'virtually the start of the freedom struggle'. Gandhi had used a similar strategy in South Africa - in India, it developed to be the hallmark of his style of leadership, moral and political.
On March 18th 1919, M.K. Gandhi visited a house on Cathedral Road owned by Kasturi Rangan Iyengar, the proprietor and editor of the Hindu - and indeed the founder of the paper in its modern guise as a leading liberal, nationalist daily. There Gandhi met C. Rajagopalachari, 'Rajaji' - a key figure in the nationalist movement. Their discussions left his head spinning - and he went to sleep in the house that night pondering the political way ahead.
“I was still in that twilight condition between sleep and consciousness when suddenly the idea broke upon me that we should call upon the country to observe a general hartal", he later wrote. 'Hartal' is one of those words that defies simple translation - it implies strike, mass protest and civil disobedience, an all-encompassing act of defiance .
Tilak Bhavan, the site of this meeting and moment of political enlightenment, was demolished decades ago. An anonymous-looking hotel stands on the site - when I asked the receptionist last week whether she knew this key centenary was imminent, she didn't ... though she said, not entirely convincingly, that she would see if some manner of marking the anniversary could be arranged.
There is however a rather splendid plaque in English and Tamil, erected fifty years ago, which marks the spot and tells the story,
Sadly, Cathedral Road is one of those soulless arteries which hardly anyone traverses on foot - and if you are dropped off by car at the hotel you will never see this roadside plaque. So while it is well kept, it's also little read.
I can't find any photo of Tilak Bhavan online. I looked around for any buildings which could have borne silent testimony to Gandhi's visit a century ago. There's just one, across the road, that might just have been standing back in March 1919 - though my guess is it came up a few years later.
And sadly, the bold assertion of this memorial - 'THE NATION REMEMBERS' - is no longer true.
At the weekend, I went on a heritage walk around Triplicane, an inner-city area of Chennai. It was organised by Madras Inherited, an impressively energetic group engaged in heritage education and management. Our guide was Roshini Ganesh, an architect.
The focus was on the few remaining agraharams - a south Indian custom of homes linked to, and often owned by, a Hindu mandir - in the area around the Parthasarathy temple.
The buildings are often managed by a temple trust and were built for religious purposes to house brahmins, the caste from which priests traditionally came. There are some common aspects of design - often a raised seating platform area by the door and a small central courtyard.
Agraharams don't have to be single storey but in this area of Triplicane, those that survive are mainly from the late nineteenth century and are very simple in design. Indeed, they are often poorly maintained and distinctly modest compared to the buildings that have been replacing them - and they are disappearing fast
We had the privilege of being invited into one agraharam and up on to the roof space, looking down on a courtyard which would once have served several of these small homes.
As always with heritage walks here, we set off early - really early! By 8:30 our two-hour stroll was over.
One of the delights of walking around at such an early hour is seeing women decorating their doorsteps and approaches with kolam - an abstract design believed to bring good fortune.
Shankar is the watchman at one of the most remarkable and forlorn of the colonial piles that are dotted around Chennai (once Madras). This is his territory.
More prosaically, this is the Victoria Hostel - on the very appropriately named Victoria Hostel Road. It's a wonderfully imposing set of buildings, built from 1880 - though the opening ceremony was some twenty years later - to provide accommodation for students at the college of engineering.
The hostel was built by Thaticonda Namberumal Chetty, who was responsible for several of the city's more imposing buildings of the late nineteenth century. This was once part of the expansive gardens of the Nawab of Arcot - the current-day prince lives nearby in Amir Mahal.
In 1920, the engineering college moved from inner-city Triplicane and the hostel was handed over to Presidency College. The buildings have a distinguished history and have been listed as a heritage site, but their current condition is pitiable. A recent news report has suggested that the hostel is to be repaired and a new wing built - and there were signs, though not very encouraging signs, of building activity.
But there's a long, long way to go!
A shout-out for Madras Inherited, an impressive group of architects and historians who organised the walk round Triplicane today (more in a later post from that early morning stroll) which introduced me to the Victoria Hostel.
One day, maybe, it will bear more than a shadow of its original grandeur. For the time being, it remains Shankar's castle.
I went back today to the political wall painting I saw a couple of weeks back in the throes of composition. It show M.K. Stalin - leader of a key local party, the DMK - and his late father and party patriarch, M. Karunanidhi.
One of the photos I took of the artist at work was - to my intense surprise (and joy) - published by the Guardian. That's a first for me! Perhaps a last as well - but who knows ...
I wanted to see who else and what else had been included in the mural which, as you can see, is a fair old size. There are no more portraits. And the slogans? Well apart from the large script which could be translated as 'Hero Stalin', there aren't any.
The text of the painting consists almost entirely a list of the ward office bearers of the party - a roll-call of the local activists, who wish to bask in the reflected glory of their party leader.
One curious aspect of political protocol here - rival parties put up posters around the edges of the wall painting, but were careful not to obscure it. There's a strong informal code here - you don't deface your rivals murals but that could well lead to quite a dust-up.
Both India's main national parties - the Congress and the BJP - have a foothold in this corner of south India. But the main parties are regional - and indeed Dravidian ... an expression of southern pride, a championing of the Tamil language and culture and (by and large) anti-Brahmin with an emphasis, notionally at least, on caste equality.
So as well as Stalin's DMK and the late Jayalalithaa's AIADMK (the governing party in the state) there's the DK, the AMMK, the MDMK, the PMK ... you get the picture.
And the DMK has just agreed a seat-sharing agreement for the imminent elections with, among others, the Congress and India's two main Communist Parties ... which have been described as, yes, tinged with Stalinism!
It's taken four years of work - but at last my biography of Freda Bedi is out. The Lives of Freda: the political, spiritual and personal journeys of Freda Bedi was launched at the Oxford Bookstore in Calcutta over the weekend. Jawhar Sarcar, a former head of India's public broadcasting corporation, presided - and Ami Bedi, Freda's granddaughter, also spoke..
Who was Freda Bedi? An English woman who made her life in India - the first Oxford woman undergraduate to marry an Indian fellow student, that was in 1933, and who was jailed in Lahore during the Second World War for championing India's national cause over that of her mother country. She later was an active Kashmiri nationalist, a Tibetan Buddhist - and towards the end of her life she became a Buddhist nun.
You can find out more about Freda Bedi and my biography here and I've posted below a reading from the introduction to the book -
There are lots of ways to get the book - which is also available on kindle ... and if you order direct from the publishers, Speaking Tiger, then if you are in India you get a discount and there's no delivery charge. What about that!
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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