CHENNAI: Madras has always been on the tourist itineraries of many historical figures and the well-reported stopovers among them offer valuable insights into social history.
There are many press reports and if one is lucky, the dignitary himself makes an entry in his diary or writes a book on his visits. Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, though a close relative of the British royal family was not in the limelight at all, for being of German descent (they had to change his German name Battenberg to English equivalent).
During the Second World War, Mountbatten was appointed Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia Command and his Asian experience got him the plum job of the viceroy of India. But what many did not expect was how close he got with India and her people.
Mountbatten as the last colonial administrator was involved in the finalising of India’s independence. But while Mountbatten landed in all pomp and glory in 1946, he had visited India much earlier as well in very different circumstances of hostility.
The first visit had the wrong timing to visit Madras. The heir to the empire’s throne, Edward was dating a married woman and the royal family keen to avoid a scandal sent him on an empire trip.
When the royal family picked Mountbatten as aide de camp to the future king on his colonial visit he jumped at the offer However, Indians had a new leader, one who they accepted as Mahatma and he asked for Indians to welcome their future king with silence, empty streets and closed shops.
And Edward faced a whopping boycott, one the British royalty never faced before. When Dickie and Edward landed in the Madras harbour and drove straight to the government house, an unprecedented hartal paralysed the town. The government had enlisted children from 50 schools who stood waving the British flag.
The royal visit was sure to become a farce. Soon the non-violent hartal malformed into hostility and chaos. Mountbatten in a letter to his future wife Edwina, whom he was dedicatedly courting then wrote, “Policemen were stoned, cars and buildings vandalized, British flags torn and stamped into the mud.
Protestors’ bodies lay outside the vandalized Wellington theatre for a day.” For the first time, Mountbatten felt the distressing welcome of Gandhi. Mountbatten summed it up when he said the future king Edward nearly had a nervous breakdown in Madras. This visit must have imprinted on his young mind the anger of a chained civilization.
When he returned as the viceroy a quarter century later, Indians honoured him by asking him to be their first governor general as well. Later, Mountbatten returned to madras with Edwina.
He arrived with his wife and daughter from Nagpur in January 1948 and landed at the St Thomas Mount airport. The Madras cabinet and the governor welcomed him. The Royal Gurkha rifles presented a guard of honour. Madras was not new to either of them.
Edwina had visited Madras twice before this trip mainly because the previous Madras governor Erskine was her cousin. Louis had come on his warship from Colombo during wartime. The couple motored to the government house in Guindy (today’s Raj Bhavan) and there was a tea party in his honour in the banquet hall in the evening.
A grand rally of scouts and guides was hosted in the City Corporation Stadium. The Mountbattens participated and surprised everyone by speaking in Tamil. When the governor-general concluded his speech by saying ungalukku enathu aasirvatham and Edwina piped in and said ungalluku santhosham, the excited children screamed in joy.
As one who was even blamed for his vanity, Louis loved being photographed. Twenty-five photographers vied with each when he posed on the porch of the Ripon building. The governor general dressed in the uniform of a rear admiral spoke his mind in the civic reception.
He complimented the south for the peace it maintained during independence. “You have set a magnificent example of the happy state of affairs and I am confident that eventually will result all over India.” There was a British warship berthed in the Madras harbour. Mountbatten, who has a long tradition in the navy, visited the ship. He went to fort St George where he saw the St Mary’s Church and the archaeological museum.
On January 30, Mountbatten left for Delhi on governor general’s plane not knowing what a fateful day it was for Indian history. Gandhi was shot on that day at 5 pm. Edwina had moved to Vellore to visit hospitals and charities. She was devastated when she heard the news.
Later, Edwina visited Madras alone in 1953 and Rajaji planned a hectic program for her. Nehru informed him that it was too taxing for Edwina who was not keeping well. Here’s a piece of trivia from the 1948 visit. When Dickie and Edwina visited the Governor’s house for a meal, a team of Indian cooks was asked to make a south Indian meal.
A young brahmin cook from Harikesanallur delivered 25 dishes for him and from then on the cook was called Mountbatten Mani Iyer and catered to thousands of Tambram weddings and Carnatic sabhas.
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