The place I stay in Chennai is just a few yards from Murrays Gate Road. Needless to say, there is no gate on Murrays Gate Road. But there is an old gatepost. It's often obscured by the stand of a press wallah (no, not a journalist - a guy who does ironing on the street). But there's still a single, solitary hinge. And if there was a gate attached to the post, it wouldn't be across one of the entrances to the smart houses and blocks of flats along here, but would restrict access to one of the roads on what's now known as Venus Colony.
So was this once 'Murray's Gate'? Well, there's is no conclusive proof - but this may be the last remnant of one of Madras's grander colonial-era houses, the home of a leading British barrister who supported Indian nationalism. More particularly this was where one of the leading poets of the turn of the century - nineteenth-into-twentieth that is - took her own life: Laurence Hope aka Violet Nicolson aka Adela Florence Cory, about whom I have blogged before.
And in a later incarnation this was the home of the Venus film studios, which played a crucial role in the development of Tamil cinema.
So, let's start at the beginning - unconventional as that may now be.
According to S. Muthiah's compendious and authoritative Madras Rediscovered, Murrays Gate Road led from Mowbrays (now TTK) Road to Dunmore House. This was where Leveson Keith Murray lived when he was Collector of Madras between 1822 and 1831.. He was born in Dunmor in Scotland; his father was the Earl of Dunmore and his brother succeeded to the title. Whether Murray had the house built or acquired it, we don't know.
No trace of the house - and, it seems, no picture or drawing of it - survives ... apart, perhaps, for this solitary gatepost. It's not unreasonable to assume that this once marked the entrance to Murray's home, Dunmore House - but it's not proveable beyond reasonable doubt.
By the end of the century, this was the home of Eardley Norton. He was born in India in 1852, educated at Oxford and returned to Madras to practise law in the High Court. Norton was not a conventional servant of Empire. He was a friend of the family which ran the Hindu and for a while wrote a column in the paper under a pseudonym. He was also aligned with the Indian National Congress and was reputed to have solicited the support for the Congress of the radical, atheist and republican MP for Northampton, Charles Bradlaugh.
Eardley rose to the position of Advocate-General of Madras - but his membership of the Imperial Legislative Council was short-lived ... he was obliged to step down after allegations of adultery. A two-volume biography of Norton has recently been published which will no doubt offer chapter and verse.
It seems that Eardley Norton was back in England on a visit when the poet Violet Nicolson - who wrote under the pseudonym of Laurence Hope - stayed here in 1904. Her husband, a retired general, required a routine prostate operation. He died. She was left bereft.
A new book about Hope - or rather the search for her elusive trail - tells us a little more about her stay in Madras. It's called Rapture's Roadway and the author is an Australian writer, Virginia Jealous. She records that Norton noted how the servants were alarmed by the manner in which Hope - after her husband's death - wandered around the grounds at night. 'In the garden, on the bark of many trees, she had written mysterious initials, and the end was terribly painful.'
A few weeks after her husband's death, Laurence Hope died by drinking corrosive poison. It was suicide. Her young son - then in England being cared for by relatives - was left an orphan. I don't believe in ghosts or anything of that sort, but I am tempted to wonder whether on any of my night-time walks around this part of Chennai I have communed with her restless spirit.
The Nicolsons, husband and wife, are buried in the large and haunting overspill cemetery of St Mary's Anglican church on Island, not far from Chennai's Central Station. I visited the grave a year ago, When I went back recently it was once more completely shrouded by grass and shrubs which I had to kick away before taking these photos.
Hope is best known for her beguilingly erotic, orientalist poetry - much of it about suffering, harm and loss. The best known is 'Kashmiri Song' - "pale hands I loved, beside the Shalimar". It was set to music and while now it seems incredibly dated, a century ago this was one of the most popular songs of the era.
She was in many ways a transgressive figure - a woman who loved India, its culture and customs, and initially published as a man presenting her writings as translations from poems written (by others) in Pashto and Persian. Hope's renown as a poet increased in the years after her death - she was one of the best-selling poets of the Edwardian era, and although she was not well regarded by the literary elite, Thomas Hardy was among those who admired her work.
As for Dunmore House, Eardley Norton sold it in 1933 to the Maharajah of Pithapuram. Within another decade, and following another tragic death at this address, he had sold it on; the house was pulled down and much of the site developed with part of it becoming Venus film studios - as S. Muthiah has recorded.
By the early 1990s, the studios had closed and that site too was developed. The area remains known as Venus Colony, and 'Venus' still survives in the names of streets and blocks of flats.
Now most of the first generation of post-Dunmore House properties have themselves given way to newer, bigger buildings.
And as for that gatepost, it's about the last remnant - if remnant it is - of one of colonial Madras's great houses ... and more particularly of a tragic death of a poet who deserves to be remembered.
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