Modern India was made in Madras

Today TiE Chennai as part of their charter member dinner had invited  Madras Musings founder and writer Sri S.Muthiah for giving a talk. Muthiah as the favourite historian of Madras and tomorrow being Madras (Chennai) 375th Birthday (founded in 1639 by Francis Day and Andrew Cogan) the topic was easy to guess. It was about how The Beginnings of Modern India (was from Madras).

Having been to few of Madras day walks organized by Mr.Sriram V including Alwarpet, Old Fort Wall and Royapuram I was looking forward to hearing about Chennai’s history from the authority of the subject S.Muthiah in person. Lucky for me, after the event I got a chance to take a picture with the man himself along with my friend Pravin Sekhar.


With Sri S.Muthiah (in centre) of Madras Musings

Before the event  started Muthiah was chatting around with few of his friends. The moment,  master of ceremonies mentioned “Madras”, Muthiah transformed into a man half his age (he is 84 years old). Dates, Names, Places, Events started flowing with ease, from 2500 years back to present day.

Muthiah talked how the Arabs 2500 years back were trading between Europe and India through the high seas. Ships were frequenting from Muscat, Bahrain, Alexandra to West coast of South India (Kerala predominantly). This was the time when the Silk Route (land route) from Europe to India through present day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan was rifled with pirates. Vasco da Gama  then got his glory by discovering an alternate route over seas to India from Europe across African continent, who was guided from African east coast to India by an Arab navigator. If Arabs were to be credited of bringing in trade (they brought Islam from middle east much later) from Europe through seas, it was St.Thomas (The Apostle) in 1 AD who brought Christianity to India nearly 1500 years before Vasco da Gama and to this day San Thome Basilica stands in his remembrance.

Fast forward to 1639 when Francis Day bought a settlement for John’s Company (East India Company) in what is today Fort St.George, Chennai. That time this area had only villages (Mylapore, Poonamallee, Tiruvottiyor, Thiruvanmiyur), British built a small warehouse and for next hundred years were traders with no security forces or territory building ambitions. Around 1746 then French Governor of Pondicherry  François Dupleix attacked British in Madras (First Carnatic War). With Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle of 1748 happening in Europe, British and French exchanged between them Madras (India) for Louisbourg (Canada). Looking back now as a Madras Citizen, Muthiah joked that British got the best of the bargain :-)

Next 30 minutes Muthiah walked through this troves of Madras Photos. Each Photo showed a Madras landmark building including Chepauk Stadium, Government General Hospital (GH), Fort St.George, SBI Beach road branch (which got burned recently), General Post Office, Royapuram station, Raj Bhavan, St.Mary’s Church, Anderson Church, Ripon building, Armenian Church, St. George’s School and more. With each photo he talked how the modern institutions of India were born or influenced heavily in the Madras of British. Western Medicine in Asia, Postal Network, Railways, Imperial Bank (Fort St.George basement), Government, modern municipality (even before it got setup in Britain), Great Trigonometric Survey by Major Lambton in St.Thomas Mount (and Mount Everest getting its name) and British education system that Indians take for granted today owes its roots in India to Madras.

The Beginning of Modern India by S.Muthiah - 21 August 2014

The Beginning of Modern India by S.Muthiah – 21 August 2014

Muthiah had an interesting story of how Australian colonization propaganda by British owes dues to help from printing workers coming from Chennai St.George school trained on printing press techniques.

Bishwanath Ghosh has written a brief biography of S.Muthiah here.

India Budget 2014

For an aspiring nation with millions of youngsters its common to have lot of hopes on tomorrow (Achche Din). In India this year with a new government the expectations on the central budget were high which some say unrealistic.

In the preceding weeks when Prime Minister talked of bitter medicine to be given to the economy, I was looking forward to it so that the patient can be cured for good. Instead what we got yesterday was lot of rhetoric talk in the budget speech, 16,536-word to be precise but little of substance or anything new. We were given No medicines, only prayers on lips.

Following were the good points I could see in Budget 2014:

Brands can operate their own e-commerce portals. Hope this paves way for Apple, Dell & other branded products are sold from their own portals like rest of the world.
  1. Rs.500cr on developing 5 tourist circuits (feels like pittance but still welcome)
  2. Rs.10,000cr on a start-up venture fund (I wish to dream it be like Singapore’s Temasek)
  3. Rs.100cr each on  Solar park projects, execute ultra-mega solar projects
  4. Govt. move to ebiz portals for all clearances

I was disappointed on the following two being left out:

1. Though it was talked about no reversal of the Retrospective Tax act.  This infamous act was accused by UPA critics to have been brought in particular to target Vodafone

2. No tough measures. No labour law reforms or subsidy cuts. I hope it will not be status-quo for another 5 years

Electoral victory is a (political) capital with diminishing returns every day. The new Government will do good to remember it in coming months.

Update 15th July 2014:

Like previous years this too Indo-American Chamber Tamil Nadu branch has organized a post budget analysis event. The keynote speech was by Mr.Gopal Srinivasan, CMD of TVS Capital Funds Ltd.

Mr.Srinivasan summarised his take on the union budget eloquently as a Test Match, not a 20-20 cricket with Modi’s government playing for the long term 5-10 years. He felt the focus on government seems to be on job creation. He was appreciative of Modi government embracing lot of the policy initiatives started by the previous government, which is a welcome departure in India.


Mr.Rajat Mehta of HSBC Bank & Mr.N.Muralidharan of E & Y highlighted on the below points of budget:

  • Foreign fund managers if they reside in India doesn’t change the fund status which is a welcome move to attract best finance talent to India
  • Banks can issue Infrastructure bonds with lesser reserve restrictions
  • Disinvestment targets are double of last year which is ambitious and something previous government could never get it done
  • Advance tax ruling benefits extended for domestic companies for domestic transactions, rules of which are expected to be notified when finance bill gets passed

Nobody Can Love You More

Yesterday I begun to read this book “Nobody Can Love You More” by Mayank Austen Soofi. Its about the Life in Delhi’s Red Light District. Wait… It is not a directory of services at sale there. Its about the life of the working woman living there and people around them.

After watching me for an hour wife came near and snatched my Kindle that I was reading from. Reading the title she remarked that she understood now why I was absorbed on this book. Knowing better not to argue with wife I convinced myself the comment was unintentional and a joke.

When reading about Red Light Districts I always feel heavy hearted. For me this issue is never about morality, which I think is irrelevant and any talk of virtue here is nothing but hypocrisy. I feel sad imagining the forced labour and inhuman living conditions the girls/women are made to go through in these places. Adding salt to the wound is that in countries where the age old trade is illegal like in India, it pushes the trade to dark alleys which are beyond any governance. This makes even basic health care and safety that we take for granted being denied. 

Soofi first visits one of the Kotha’s (house of ill repute) to teach English to kids of a Kotha malik (owner). Intrigued about the lives of people there, why they choose to livehere,  he tries to talk to them to understand their story. Initially he encounters a thick wall of secrecy worn by each one of them.  Gradually he befriends them and he is able to peal one by one the layers of life in this district. The author clearly loves Delhi and its people, which comes across in his writings. He manages to transport us to the narrow staircases of G.B.Road buildings. Soofi guides us from the ground floor Sanitaryware shops to the Kotha’s in the upper floors, we are led to see that the life in the two floors are world’s apart. One is seen as a business and the other is shunned by society.

Soofi shows how divisions normally seen in society gets blurred when you enter this district. Here the real religion one follows is not relevant, a woman might follow Islam but have a Hindu name or vice-versa what ever that suits them for earning that day. In G.B. Road Soofi visits a Sufi saint temple and a Hindu Hanuman Temple, but being worshipped by people living here with equal reverence.

What I liked is that Soofi takes no sides, he never gets judgemental. Other than his dislike for the place being dirty and cramped he never projects his personal feelings of the place. Overall an engaging read!!!