A sure sign of growing old is that you start developing an interest in the past. You wish you had paid better attention to all those stories, those reminiscences, that your parents repeated countless times over; you find yourself turning into your parents, pushing past the rolled eyes and glazed expressions as you tell your own children, yet again and only minimally embellished, about how hard you had it as a child and how your great-aunt’s father-in-law brought glory to the family by securing the 57th rank in the ICS examinations; there is a longing that begins to stir awake, to thaw to life from the cavernous deep freeze of the brain’s memory vault, to visit old childhood haunts. By these standards, I am assuredly on the path to doddering dotage.
When I was a child, my Sundays had a set routine. After breakfast, my parents, brother and I drove to my (paternal) grandparents’ home and spent the day with them. They lived in a place called Monegar Choultry, which was across from Stanley Medical College in one of the older neighborhoods of Madras. It was about half an hour’s drive from our home in Perambur, but seemed to exist in another universe altogether, with the strangest cast of characters, a terrifying bathroom and a belligerent buffalo named Lakshmi.
Their house was set in a very large plot of land that was full of trees. At the entrance to the house was a board with my grandfather’s name and qualifications (he was a doctor); it proclaimed him Superintendent of the place, a word I could barely get my tongue around and whose meaning was delightfully hazy to my childish imagination. In addition to the main house, there were several other buildings, occupied by very old people who always seemed very happy to see us. I had no idea who they were, or why they were there. The main house, in which my grandparents lived, consisted of a front waiting room that led into a living room, in which I remember a large cane reclining chair on which my grandfather sat, and two rooms on either side of the living room. One was my grandparents’ bedroom; next to it was his office; next to that was the terrifying bathroom that I used when only matters reached a state of dire urgency. It was a dark, damp space with cockroaches that rustled about. A dim light barely illuminated it; the corners were in the shadowed darkness, where I imagined the cockroaches congregated and plotted their nefarious activities.
The two rooms on the other side of the living room were, I think, bedrooms for family members who always seemed to be dropping by or staying there. Right after the living room was a room that served as an eating area. There was a refrigerator there, and a bim-bam clock that chimed on the hour. It was bare of furniture - we ate our meals seated on the floor. Past the dining room was a passageway that led to a large room that was my grandmother’s kitchen. I don’t remember much about it except that there were several smooth-walled pits at floor level that were filled with hot coals; there must have been a grate - or perhaps not - on which the cooking vessels, heavy-duty ones made of stone, bell-metal or iron, were placed. My grandmother squatted on the floor and did her cooking.
And what food she produced, from that simple, humble kitchen! She had a vast repertoire of dishes, both traditional as well as dishes she created from a sensational culinary imagination. My brother and I, however, insisted upon a set menu for our Sunday lunches. It had to be identical, unvarying from week to week, and my grandmother obliged with delight. There was a vegetable korma, the likes of which I have never tasted elsewhere, and whose particular flavor I have not succeeding in replicating no matter how many times I have tried; perfectly spiced and roasted baby potatoes, crispy without and succulent within; rasam and papadam. The baby potatoes would be distributed, one by one, to me and my brother to ensure that we received the same number. My grandmother had to also make sure that there was a fair distribution by size as well. The meal ended with a bowlful of yogurt, deliciously creamy and thick enough to stand a spoon in, made from the milk fresh from Lakshmi the buffalo. We sat on the floor in the dining area, in front of large, gleaming stainless steel plates, and enjoyed the delectable meal, sucking dry our fingers and slurping down every last drop of the rasam. I think nothing made our grandparents happier - I remember the indulgent smiles on their faces as they delighted in our delight.
Post-lunch, my grandfather and father collapsed into a food-sated afternoon nap while my grandmother and mother chatted quietly in the living room. I pottered about, lending a keen ear to any gossip that might be of interest; if the womanly chatter bored me, I wandered into the bedroom where the men snored away in blissful oblivion and pestered my father awake to amuse me with Thennali Raman stories of which he had an inexhaustible supply. If my father remained stubbornly (and suspiciously) oblivious to my efforts to awaken him I drifted through the tree-laden grounds of Monegar Choultry where I would be accosted by some of the old people living there. There was one I remember vividly, a bent, toothless old woman who was always either chewing on or smoking a beedi. She would grab hold of my hand and pepper me with questions about my life while around her gathered several of her mates who watched and listened in smiling silence.
If I felt particularly bold, I went behind the house to a shed that stood adjacent to the kitchen. Here, in glowering, ill-tempered solitude lived Lakshmi the buffalo. Fearsomely muscular, spectacularly hideous, every aspect of the nastiness of her personality converged in her eyes that glowed with a malevolent discontent. Only one person was allowed near her, her caretaker and milker; the two shared a bond that seemed to exclude the need for anything joyful or pleasant in their lives. I once attempted, foolishly, to milk her and was rewarded with a sharp kick in the shins and luckily managed to narrowly escape being gored by her horns. For all the hatred she seemed to harbor against the world, her milk was sweet, rich and delectably creamy.
We returned home in the early evening, comforted and contented by the routine’s constancy. And like all things, this, too, had to end. I remember it vividly, through the dense mass of over forty years of life and living. My mother, shaking me awake in the darkness of the wee hours of the night, telling me that my Thatha had passed away. Me, startled out of a deep slumber, commencing right away to a shrill bawling, because that was the only reaction that seemed even remotely appropriate, adequate. Driving with her to Monegar Choultry, walking into my grandparents’ room. My Thatha, lifeless, on the bed, my Paati, on the floor next to him, beating her chest and wailing.
I smiled broadly at my Paati thinking that my presence would cheer her up. She was always delighted to see me. But she merely looked blankly at me and continued to wail, and to lament, over and over again, through the rest of the night, till the stars faded and the dawn cacophony of the crows broke the night’s lull and the sun came up, “Enna vittitu poitaare.....he left me and went away...”
Over the next few weeks, the Monegar Choultry establishment was wound up and my Paati came to stay with us. We never went that side again; there was no occasion to do so. Now and then, Paati would make me my beloved kurma and rasam with roasted baby potatoes but they never tasted the same.
The years went by. I got married, had my first child, moved abroad. My Paati passed away. I had another child, we moved around, I lived the immigrant’s life of trying to grow roots in one land while remaining grounded in another. New relationships, experiences, memories, jostled for place alongside and sometimes shouldered aside the old ones. My children grew up; I entered middle-age and thought and said those things I swore I never would. Old age crept up on my parents; its tentacles are creeping towards me and before long will envelop me and tug me into its lair.
I visit Madras at least twice a year and this January, a dear friend, Sumi, and I decided to go on an early morning wander around Madras’s oldest neighborhoods: “Town” (George Town), Parry’s Corner, Flower Bazaar, Royapuram. These are the parts of the city that sprang up around the British settlement at Fort St. George, the infamous Black Town where the “natives” who served their colonial masters lived. This is a densely crowded, bustling part of town that once formed the city’s commercial core with its streets that were a beehive of activity crammed with merchants selling everything from pens to flowers to jewelry to metal to vessels. The language of trade and business was what was spoken and understood here and was what drew people of all communities from both India and abroad. There was a small but thriving community of Armenians who settled down here, attracted by the promising commercial possibilities. A street named for them, Armenian Street, and a church, the Armenian Church, are testament to the presence of these gritty people who have faced unspeakable brutality, the victims of the vagaries of history’s dice rolls.
Today, the Town area’s reputation and desirability have fallen by the wayside as the city of Madras has mushroomed southwards with air-conditioned malls and multi-storeyed apartment complexes springing up on the graveyards of old homes with gardens blooming with flowers, birds and butterflies on shady, tree-lined streets. Town and its environs and its businesses and merchants have been elbowed into the sidelines as the reins of Matters of Importance moved into the hands of people who operated in a very different world on a vastly grander scale. Its world and world view shrank, to the local, the small-scale. It’s sad, but that’s how the world goes.
My father is in his late eighties and yet spirit of adventure is undiminished. When he heard about our early morning walk he was eager to come along as well, to revisit the places and memories of his childhood and working years. And so, early one gloriously pleasant January morning, we set out, the three of us. Sumi had a vague notion of wandering around Flower Bazaar and the market streets, but on our way there, and as we approached Linghi Chetty Street, a flood of reminiscences burst forth from my palpably excited father. To our amazement, he remembered, in vivid detail, every landmark, every shop, every street name, from his wandering around there in his early childhood years, well over seven decades ago. What a memory! Sumi and I listened in silent awe as he recreated for us this part of Madras of the 1930s, bustling and vibrant, the robust commercial heart of the city. Many buildings that were in their proud prime all those years ago still stand, often sadly dilapidated and neglected. Slowly, our morning ramble took on a new life and meaning as my father led us through the bylanes of memories and nostalgia.
So many people conduct walking tours of different neighborhoods of Madras. The one Sumi and I got that day, with my father, was exceptional because of the intensely personal nature of what was revealed to us. I’ll bet that very few, perhaps none, of the walks have this unique blend of the personal and the historical, recalled and related by someone blessed with a photographic memory, who has been a sharp-eyed, perceptive and thoughtful witness to a neighborhood and its evolution over many decades. I told my father that if he could lead a walking tour, it would be a priceless one, deeply appreciated. “I’m too old,” he told me, ruefully, “when I was younger and fit to do such things, nobody was interested in these matters”.
We saw some treasures that even Sumi, a veteran wanderer about Town, was unaware of. The 17th century Chennakesava Perumal Temple, the first to be built in the city after it was founded by the British, and home of the patron god of Chennai. The temple itself had some beautiful carvings but the entrance was a shameful mess, full of litter and grime. The peaceful haven of the 18th century Armenian Church, built by and for the once-thriving Armenian trader community. The old YMCA and Pachaiappa’s buildings whose beauty became evident once you stared at them hard enough to see past and through the dilapidation, the muck and decrepitude of decades of neglect.
Inside Chennakesava Perumal Temple
The sun was fully up and the day was getting warmer. We were well sated after a yummy breakfast at a Saravana Bhavan and were ready to return home when my father spoke up, excitement, threaded through with just a sliver of disquiet, in his voice. ‘Monegar Choultry is so close by”, he said, “let’s just drive past it”.
We were there within minutes. There was the gate, with the sign, just as I remembered it. Monegar Choultry. Estd. 1782. Home for Destitutes Disabled Persons.
It’s time now for a little history lesson. 18th century India was a turbulent corpus of wars, conflicts and power struggles. Partnerships and rivalries formed and dissolved with kaleidoscopic capriciousness. In a critical period of crisis and siege, Hyder Ali seized the reigns of power of the kingdom of Mysore and became one of the toughest and most troublesome rivals of the British. Depending on whose version of history you read, you will get a different version of events, outcomes and dramatis personae. History books love to present matters in black and white - good versus evil, bad cop-good cop. My history texts while growing up were all like that. They uniformly portrayed Hyder as a ruthless villain who wrecked the noble designs of the British. I don’t know what the text books of today have to say about Hyder. At least, of late, there have been articles giving a nuanced picture of Hyder and his son Tipu. Through much of history, nobody made any bones about using whatever means it took to gain whatever end they wanted. It was raw, naked ambition and greed. Nothing much has changed today, except that the means and ends are sometimes cloaked in diplomatic and legal protocols that mask and shroud the ambition and greed smoldering behind them.
Back to Hyder Ali. He was a brilliant administrator, gifted with military acumen, and a great political strategist, teaming up with the French to strengthen his position against the British. He was ruthlessly ambitious and his reign was full of wars and rebellions against neighboring territories. Madras and its surrounding territories were drawn into the conflict, to devastating effect. In 1877, F.C. Danvers, the Registrar and Superintendent of Records, India Office, London wrote, in a report on agriculture and famines in India: 1781-83 - Famine in the Carnatic and the Madras Settlement. The Carnatic had been devastated by Hyder Ali’s incursions in 1780-81 and the settlement of Madras was reduced to great straits for food, as the whole country in its vicinity was suffering from a general scarcity. Early in 1781 the Government of Madras took steps to regulate the supply of grain; and the distress continuing, in January 1782 a public subscription was raised for the relief of the poor, to which the Government contributed. This was the origin of the institution for the relief of the native poor, known as Monegar Choultry.
In 1782, while Hyder’s troops attacked and famine raged, a “maniakarar” or local village headman, established established a gruel center in Royapuram. This gruel center became a choultry for the sick and the poor. It came to be called Monegar Choultry, its name derived from the “maniakarar” who established it. In 1799, a hospital was constructed on the site of this choultry. It was dubbed “Kanji Thotti” (Gruel Pot) hospital by the locals; later, it became the Stanley Medical Hospital. The choultry was moved across the street to the premises of the Rajah of Venkatagiri Choultry, and additional rooms were built. It stands there to this day, and still bears the name Monegar Choultry. It is a home for destitute old people, a little haven where they can live out their twilight years with care and comfort.
Now it all made sense to me. The old people, with only my grandparents and their fellow residents for nurture and companionship. My grandfather, carrying on a tradition of ministering to those had very little to call their own. And a tie, tenuous and oblique, but a tie nonetheless, to an epic figure from history, Hyder Ali.
We stood outside Monegar Choultry and gazed at it, my father and I, each of us lost in our thoughts and memories. Sumi stood aside, watching, waiting. The powerful magnetic pull of memory took control of our feet and led us to the gate and then, inside. It all looked so familiar, so little changed, and yet so very different. I saw everything in double vision - the old overlaid with nudgings of the new, the present blurring into the past, memories being remade, reorganized and transformed on the spot. Our footsteps took us to the house, my grandparents’ abode, my father’s childhood home. It looked smaller, run down. Where my grandfather’s blue Hillman car stood, a ramshackle asbestos roof with a torn tarpaulin covering drooped crookedly, housing a wheelchair, a motorcycle, drying clothes, a charpoy and a large stainless steel urn of water. A feeling of great sadness came over me. I looked over at my father. He too looked sad, smaller, somehow. Nobody spoke a word. Overhead, the trees rustled in the breeze and birds called out to each other.
Our reverie was broken with the appearance of a smiling woman who came out from inside the house. She told us that her name was Bhavani, that she was the superintendent of Monegar Choultry. I introduced ourselves, told her that my father had spent many of his growing up and young adult years here, that my grandfather had been the medical superintendent. A warm smile broke out on her face and she insisted that we come inside and see the house. I accepted at once but then I looked over at my father. His smile had frozen, and I could see that he was torn, pulled between not wanting to turn down the lady’s hospitality and the churning, contradictory mix of emotions that must have had him in their grip. Things were happening too quickly. There wasn’t enough time to think, reflect, weigh options. Bhavani thought our hesitation stemmed merely from politeness, from a desire to not disturb her and that served to redouble her eagerness to invite us in.
It was too late to turn back. We entered, and I saw everything with the same double vision again. The house looked shrunken and withered, and surely it was only because of the sickly fluorescent lighting and the hospital-green walls. We saw my grandparents’ room, where my father had told me all those Thennali Raman stories, where my grandfather’s body had lain, lifeless, the last time I was there more than 40 years ago. The old dining room with the bim-bam clock was now the kitchen; the room in the back that used to be my grandmother’s kitchen was now a storage space, locked up with a rusty padlock. Even though I longed to look into every room, my grandfather’s office, the terrifying bathroom, I didn’t, mindful of my father’s emotions and of propriety.
Finally we stepped out of the house, back into the sunshine and our minds and steps felt lighter, the shroud of sadness not sitting so weightily on us.
Bhavani took us around the grounds. Along the way we met a bent old lady. Bhavani told her that my father used to live there many years back and upon hearing that and seeing him, a wide smile spread across the old lady’s face. She clutched my father’s hands and then out poured forth a stream of reminiscences! This lady had been living there ever since she was a child - she was a child widow - and she had vivid and oh-so-fond memories of my grandparents and father! As a widow, she had lived in shadows and corners, invisible, but all-seeing. She had watched him grow up, she said, her voice shaking with pride and affection, from the days he used to cycle to school to when he used to visit with his beautiful wife (my mother!) and children. She remembered so many little details, so many people and incidents that my father had locked up into memory’s vault. Monegar Choultry had been her entire universe, almost the sum total of everything her life was about and she cherished every memory, every little detail, like a precious collection of jewels, for that was all that she had. The bond that my father and this old lady discovered, of a life lived, together, yet so far apart, was very moving to see.
The old lady joined us on our tour of the premises. For someone so old and so bent, she moved with remarkable speed. She was bright-eyed and full of life and an absolute delight.
We were taken to the Choultry’s kitchen, a small building at the back. There were several women in front, with headscarves for hygiene, and they were thrilled to see us. They were Monegar Choultry residents and they were on kitchen duty. Proudly, they showed us the day’s preparations: a huge vat of sambhar, brimming with vegetables; a delectable looking potato roast; freshly fried papadams; cabbage poriyal; rasam and rice. Five huge burners at the back provided more than adequate firepower to cook for the nearly 60 residents who live here. The kitchen was spotlessly clean, the food looked really mouthwatering and it was so heartening to know that everybody there got hot, freshly cooked, delicious and nutritious food. The ladies at the kitchen were eager to share their food with us. We were seriously tempted, but we had just eaten, and were full.
We wandered around the compound. There was a large hall which is a gathering place where they occasionally get together and sing, or pray. A garden area, overgrown with vegetation. My father told me that he and his cousins used to play cricket there as boys; he said that that area had been a battleground during Hyder’s time and that human bones have been found there.
Next Bhavani showed us the rooms where the residents lived. These are new rooms, she said, the old ones (that I remembered, long rows of them, cage-like and dark) were demolished and the land they stood on is no longer part of the Choultry. There are 4 wings, surrounding a sun-drenched courtyard which was planted with flowering bushes. Corridors lined the rooms and everything was spotless. Men and women have separate wings. We took a peek into one of the rooms; everybody had their own cubicle with a bed and small storage cupboard. Each bed had a fan overhead, and privacy was provided with a dividing wall. All the beds were neatly made; a gleaming plate sat atop each of them, awaiting the day’s meal. The bathrooms were also very clean and in good condition. We were greeted warmly by everybody we met; there was much smiling and camaraderie.
Finally, Bhavani took us to her office and offered us coffee and biscuits. She told us that she started working at Monegar Choultry over 30 years ago, as a typist. Her hard work and dedication led her to be promoted to superintendent. She is now in charge of the nearly 60 people who live here and she has succeeded in maintaining it like a large, happy family.
I was extremely impressed with Bhavani. She possesses a rare combination of warm, cheerful compassion and cool-headed practicality and efficiency. It was very evident that she cared for the residents of the Choultry; the affection and ease with which they interacted with each other was genuine and heartwarming to behold. She works hard, probably for very little monetary reward, in an obscure, largely forgotten institution, but she puts her entire being into her work to ensure that the people she is responsible for are well cared for and happy. She took time out of her day and treated us, complete strangers, with great warmth and hospitality, understanding how much being here meant to my father and me. The world is a better place for her, one of so many unsung heroes and heroines.
Along with the Season and the theater and literary festivals, the heritage walks and so much more, here is something else that must be celebrated about Madras. That in a quiet, leafy corner of the city's oldest, busiest quarter, a handful of destitute old people have a place they can call home where they can live out the final years of their lives with grace, friendship and laughter.