CHENNAI AND THE BRITISH EMPIRE - April 2023 (broadcast June 2023)
The vibrant port city of Chennai in South India – once known as Madras – has an association with Britain dating back to the 1640s. It was at one time the hub of the British presence in India, which later developed into the Raj or imperial rule. Andrew Whitehead knows the city well, and he was prompted to reflect recently on Chennai’s attitude towards its colonial past while having a beer:
This city’s take on the Raj could best be described as ‘chilled’. I choose that word with care. Because the most popular Chennai-brewed beer is called – British Empire. This must be the only place in the world where that empire is still routinely labelled as ‘super strong’.
British Empire is sold in posh hotel bars and at the sometimes squalid state government-run beer shops. Quite often, it’s the only beer you can be sure to get.
In other parts of India, there would be limited tolerance for naming a beer after what many regard as a racist and unjust regime of colonial rule. But when I tackle friends in Chennai about this curious nomenclature, they shrug and say: so what … never really thought about it … how does it matter. ‘It what’s in the bottle that’s important’, one told me, ‘not what’s on the label’.
British Empire beer itself is not an imperial hangover. The company that brews it was set up decades after India gained independence. No one seems to know why the name was chosen, but there was perhaps a touch of gentle mischief at play – beer, in the judgement of one bar-room wit, was the only benefit the British Empire brought India.
It’s not Chennai’s only indulgence towards the Raj. The city’s leading bookshop is still known as Higginbotham’s after its founder, an English man who is said to have travelled to India as a stowaway – though the business has been Indian-owned for eighty years.
Chennai has resisted the wholesale replacing of colonial era street names evident in several other Indian cities. The British diplomatic mission here is on Anderson Road; I stay just off Murray’s Gate Road; there’s a Turnbull Road - Greenways Road - Elliot Road – Peters Road – Moores Road – Haddows Road – Lloyds Road – Pycrofts Road.
This is not nostalgia for the era of British rule, but – in the words of a Chennai-based academic I was chatting to – a simple acceptance that it happened, it’s over. No need to wipe the traces clean.
Chennai’s links to Britain stretch back longer than for India’s other main cities. It’s home to St Mary’s, which describes itself as the oldest Anglican church in Asia. This is in a district called Fort, the initial British fortress – still enclosed by substantial walls and a moat. In a remarkable thread of historical continuity, the local state assembly of Tamil Nadu – governing more than seventy-million people – continues to meet here.
The Kirk, Egmore, Chennai
Not far away, there’s another spectacularly beautiful church built two-hundred years ago to serve Scottish soldiers and administrators. The Kirk, as it’s known, is still full to capacity every Sunday and still declares itself as in the Scottish presbyterian tradition.
For centuries, Chennai has been a global city. Millions of South Indians have passed through the port heading east across the Bay of Bengal to what were then Burma and Malaya – many returned after a generation or two bringing with them a touch of south-east Asia. The lively electronics and gadgets market by Chennai’s main beach is still known as Burma Bazaar, and at food stalls nearby you can get a brimful plate of atho, Burmese noodles. Migrants from across South India have been attracted to the city, once because it was a commercial centre now as an IT hub.
All this has shaped the cultural breadth and tolerance of the place. Chennai’s residents are confident about who they are and comfortable with their past.
There’s something else as well. The Partition that accompanied India’s independence from Britain in 1947 – a rupture of mind-numbing brutality – was much less grievously felt here. Chennai is a long way from the two provinces torn apart at independence, Punjab and Bengal. The vast columns of refugees, the communal massacres, the abduction of the ‘other’ community’s women – they weren’t anything like as evident here in the South. So the wounds of the independence era are not as deep. That doesn’t mean that those in Chennai knocking back bottles of British Empire have any affection for the institution the beverage takes its name from; but there’s no unease about saying – thanks, I’ll have another British Empire!