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City has won far tougher battles before

Chennai, now a city under siege from a deadly pandemic, has defied the odds many a time in history, be it the enemies’ threat from air and seas, drought, famine, epidemics, cyclones, floods or scarcities.

City has won far tougher battles before
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Chennai

Surviving tsunami

The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami travelled2.5 km at its maximum inland point at Karaikal. If the same had happenedin Chennai, it would have wiped off a swathe of its population thatfateful Sunday.

Chennai would have gone the way of Poompuhar, oneof the earlier Chola capitals of the State.What saved the city wasMarina Beach.

The tsunami waves rarely crossed the Marina whichacted as a buffer. The notable feature was Madras did not have a beach150 years ago. There was even a wall on the beach road that stopped hightide from entering the city called the Bulwark.

The beach wasformed by sand accretion due to the Port of Madras being establishedwhich makes us think "but for the Marina, what would have happened?"
 
Challenge from enemies

Madraswas on its road to prosperity almost on the word go. It attractedcapital, talent, migrants and most importantly enemies who viewed itsescalating affluence with covetousness. The Portuguese in Santhome andDutch in Pulicat were just a day’s forced march but the most seriouschallenge was in 1746 when Fort St. George was captured by the FrenchGeneral La Bourdonnais. Though most of his cannonballs fell amiss, apropitious shot fell on the liquor warehouse of Fort St. George and thebesieged population took on this opportunity to drown their sorrows.Most residents were dragged to Pondicherry to be ransomed. A few yearsdown the line, Britain got Madras back in a swap for Canadian townLouisburg as part of the treaty that ended the War of AustrianSuccession.

Madras has been several times under siege by HyderAli, Tipu, and Golconda kingdom. Some tried to sneak in and a wall wasbuilt around the city with public subscriptions. Some even tried topoison the water sources with animal carcasses. The city map is dottedwith battlefields long-forgotten and overgrown with buildings. But neveragain would Madras change hands till 1947.

Black Town demolished

Afterthe fall of the Fort, both the French and British decided the Fortneeded an esplanade, an empty area around the Fort walls to see theapproach of the enemy and a clear line of fire. So, in part, both ofthem demolished the Black Town, which constituted civilian Madras.

TheBlack Town (sometimes called as Gentu Town or Malabar Town) spreadsover two square mile area where the high court buildings stand today.People of several nationalities lived there. It was surrounded by anearthen wall and had the north river running to the west. The ChennaKesava Perumal temple built by Beri Thimmappa, one of the foundingfathers of the city, was the centrepiece of the inhabitation.

TheBritish demolished the town and planted obelisks at the outer edge ofthe esplanade (one survives outside Dare House in Parrys Corner) andforbade Indians from building within that. Having lost their houses,temples and workplaces, the entire civilian population of the city moveda mile up north and started all over again. The Chenna Kesava Perumaltemple was moved to Devaraja Mudali Street. And soon streets cropped upand Madras was on her feet again.

Tormented by drought

Ifthe city of Madras had to be abandoned at some point in time, it wasbecause of the water scarcity. The struggle for potable water to drinkhas plagued the city ever since its founding. Even today filling a fewpots of water from the water lorry leaves an average Chennaite puffedwith pride.

The city first depended on water from wells in theFort and then the seven wells in Peddanaickenpet. When the 1857 SepoyMutiny was raging in North India, Madras was planning its first dam. Twomasonry weirs across Kosasthalaiyar and the Cooum also came up toquench the thirst of the city. Not having enough, the resilient city haswater channelled from Krishna river (406 km away) and the ancient Cholatank of Veeranam (236 km away). Even the Bay of Bengal providesdesalinated water for 15 per cent of the population. Interestingly, whenthe LIC building caught fire in 1975 there was raging water scarcity.Fire engines were empty and officials watching helplessly decided to letthe building burn down. But the fire was finally put out by pumpingCooum water on the inferno.

Emden slips into Tamil lexicon

Thougha World War was raging in 1916, that an enemy from 7,500 kilometresaway would dare to bruise Madras was unthinkable. It was Navaratri timeand people ignored the blackout orders. A majority of the Britishdefenders were relaxing in clubs and parties. It was then that theGerman light cruiser SMS Emden hurled 130 shells on the unsuspectingcity from a safe distance of two kilometres offshore.

Shrapnelhit the court, General Hospital in Vepery, Poonamallee High Road, thegun battery in Royapuram, Casa Major Road, and George Town. The city wasscared out of its wits. The Governor was on a holiday in Ooty, but therumours had it that he had run away. Fearing more attacks, people leftand had to be reassured with special Gujili song books which werecomposed and distributed. The word Emden crept into the Tamil lexicon asan alter name for somebody who had to be feared.

But the Britishwere offended. Madras was a jewel in their crown and anyone who daredto tease her was enemy number one. The chase commenced from Madras andin a couple of months, Emden, which had bullied weaker ships all itslife, was outgunned and beached in the Cocos archipelago.

Exodus-induced upheaval

The1940s evacuation was the greatest upheaval that Madras ever faced andit shook the demographics of the city with a quarter of the populationdeserting it.

During the World War, a Japanese invasion seemedimminent. “The government has reason to believe that the danger toMadras is now more serious and would advise all whose presence in thecity is not essential, to leave within the next few days...” said theofficial announcement.

The next hour the exodus began. Trainsleaving Madras were packed. Highways were demarcated for slow trafficsuch as bullock carts and fast traffic like motor cars. Shops ran out oflocks to secure vacated homes and thieves started stealing locks forresale. Property prices crashed. Even the Collector shifted to what isnow Stella Maris College. Courts and government offices moved inland.Prisoners were shifted to Bellary district. Libraries frantically askedfor books to be returned. And schools tried to get their annual fees inadvance.People moved inland and those with native villages went there.

Nandambakkam,Nandivaram and Periyapalayam had camps for those with no place to go.Most of those who left came back in a year or so when the Japaneseplanes could make no significant damage to Madras.

Fearing the Jap

DuringWorld War II, Singapore fell to the Japanese and the allied land andairforces shifted camp to Avadi in Madras while the navy was shifted toCeylon. This turned the Japanese concentration toward this region.

Fortwo years, Madras was preparing itself for an aerial attack. Blackoutsin the nights were a daily occurrence. Even street lighting was put offand car lights had to be shaded and thus frequent automobile accidentswere reported.

Air raid sirens used to warn people of potentialJapanese planes in the neighbourhood. Twenty-two kilometres of trencheswere dug into which people had to hide on hearing them if they were notclose to their houses. People were given charts to see if the overflyingplane was enemy or friendly.

Planners came up with the fear ofwhat if a stray bomb inadvertently opened up the zoo? Nine lions, fourtigers, eight leopards and four bears were amongst the animals shot as aprecaution in Madras zoo within an hour.

There were several restricted areas and Marina was one. Those loitering on the beaches were fined.

Fortwo years, there was a perpetual fear of death from the skies. However,when a lone Japanese aircraft dropped a few bombs north of the Fort, itwasn’t even noticed by the people because the painstakingly done sirensystem and newspapers the next day both failed to deliver due to acyclone-induced power cut.

Plagued by epidemics


Diseasesas tuberculosis, plague, smallpox and cholera have stuck early Madraswith frequent visitations and millions of people succumbed to thesediseases. Even the Governor of Madras Munro died in a cholera epidemic.

Butthe city’s health mechanism always geared up. Sanatoriums, quarantines,vaccinations, medical education were some of the potent mechanisms thecity adopted to control disease and provide its citizens with a healthylife.

Quarantine rules were very strict in Madras and even SwamiVivekananda was stopped from entering Madras on his third visit becausethe ship he was on came from Calcutta which had the plague. He preachedfrom the ship and his disciples listened from surrounding boats.

Realisingthat 50 per cent of the population (the women) were feeling shy to goto a male doctor preferring to suffer and even die, Madras admittedwomen to medical education far ahead of most world medical colleges. (atthat time there was rioting in Europe and America to prevent girls fromattending medical colleges)

Francis Whyte Ellis, a collector ofMadras, was so convinced of the efficacy of vaccination that heintroduced it in 1810. His assistant Swamy Naik, though beaten up by thelocals for suspected witchcraft, persisted in vaccinating people.Madras is one of the very few towns in the world which has a statue inmemory of a vaccinator.

The King Institute in Guindy produced twomillion vaccines of smallpox during the First World War, thus savingnot only Madras but major parts of Africa and South Asia.

Ravaged by famines

Food security had always plagued thecity till freedom. Drought, crop failure, locust attack and grain exportto England made the region more vulnerable. Whenever famines stuck,charities and government would organise kanji thottis or gruel centres.The most famous of them was the Monegar Choultry (A hospital wasconstructed within the premises of the choultry in 1799 and would laterbecome the Stanley hospital but is still called by some locals as kanjithotti hospital). Hoarding and British export exposed the poorest of thepoor to death and disease. Economists estimate half of the Dalitfamilies suffered and were wiped out.

During 1877 and 1878, thepeople of Madras Presidency suffered from the great famine and more thansix million people perished. Famine relief work had to be taken up asdrought had shrivelled work opportunities. The 8-km stretch ofBuckingham Canal, linking the Adyar and Cooum rivers, was built at acost of 33,000 sterling pounds. The workers were paid in grain and thecanal was named after the then Governor, the Duke of Buckingham andChandos.

Cyclones and floods

Thecity has an uneasy relationship with the weather. Cyclones have beenknown to hit the city since its inception. Between the signing of thelease and the construction of the Fort, a cyclone hit Francis Day andparty destroying two important ships, Eagle and Unity.

Shipwreckswere the major casualty of the cyclones. Hundreds of ships have beensmashed to shore and foundation excavations of the Port of Madras havethrown up many of their remnants, including cannons.

As recent as 1966, Liberian ship Stamatis ran ashore in a cyclone. Its rusted remains were a death trap for many beach bathers.

Meddlingwith the city’s water bodies in the name of development have causedhavoc in the form of floods. The closing of the long tank to form TNagar and bridging the Adyar to extend an airport runway are examples.The need to conserve drinking water in reservoirs to the last drop leadsto delayed openings of the floodgates which flood the city.

Adapting to scarcities

Perpetualscarcities during the war were felt by the Madras population wheneverything from locomotives to matchboxes was in scarcity. Thegovernment identified weddings as a major usage of food materials. Itrestricted invitation lists to 30 and people had to advertise innewspapers asking relatives not to turn up for weddings.

Rice wasscarce and there was even thought of banning idlies. Governmentadvertised on wheat dishes and free cooking demonstrations were given.Rava idly and godhuma dosais were invented in this period.

Morecopper was in the coins circulating than extracted from the mines. Sohoarders realised the intrinsic value of the coin was higher than itsvalue. Coin hoarding caused serious repercussions in the market. Thegovernment had to introduce a coin with a hole to reduce its coppercontent.

Railways was advertising asking people not to travelmainly because they had a scarcity of engines which had been sent to theMesopotamian war front and used elephants for shunting the carriages.In 1943, the government imposed a raw film stock control and issued anorder that no film should exceed 11,000 feet. So Tamil films, which had50 songs on an average, had to learn the craft of telling a storycrisply and turn to prose and dialogue.

People adapted to scarcities and it added to the quality of living when normalcy returned.

—The author is a historian

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