Andrew Whitehead writes on his travels in Chennai, capital of Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Whitehead was until recently Editor of BBC World Service News and has been the BBC’s Delhi correspondent. He has been teaching journalism in Chennai. He blogs at http://www.andrewwhitehead.net/blog
The Ice House
A pink, part-circular, wedding cake-like building on the Chennai sea front. It hasn’t stored ice for well over a century. But that’s how this extraordinary building is still generally known.
It was built in 1842 – one of three ice houses in India established by the Boston-based ‘ice king’ Frederic Tudor, and the only one of the three to survive. And yes, it really did store ice, transported all the way from New England.
Tudor hit on the idea of harvesting ice from the freshwater lakes of New England (it was after all free), using sawdust for insulation, and then sending the ice out from Boston where ships often travelled empty to the Caribbean and further afield. Yes, a lot of the ice melted – but enough made the journey, and was sufficiently prized, to earn a profit. A decent profit to judge by the splendour of this building.
The poet and essayist Henry David Thoreau saw ice being harvested for Tudor at Walden Pond in the winter of 1846-7. ‘The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well’, Thoreau wrote. ‘This pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.’
By the 1880s, the long-distance ice business declined as other ways of making ice came to prominence. The Ice House changed use. In 1897, Swami Vivekananda stayed in the building during a crucial period in his preaching, having just returned from the Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
The building is now known as Vivekananda House and houses an exhibition about the man. That’s cool! But then, this place is built to be cool.
Refreshing The Hindu
‘India’s national newspaper since 1878.’ For a journalist, Chennai means The Hindu. It’s the best of India’s English language dailies – trailing the Times of India in circulation, but not in prestige. And what a tribute to India’s federal-style political system that its foremost paper – the one that politicians, diplomats and top civil servants are likely to turn to first – is based 1,700 miles from the national capital.
The paper was established to champion the cause of the first Indian to be appointed a judge of the Madras High Court. From its inception, it was nationalist in viewpoint – though it’s seen as one of the more conservative and old-fashioned of Indian titles, it’s authoritative, balanced and broadly centre-left (until recently it had a tie-up with the Guardian).
Last week, the paper underwent a refresh: a redesign, new font, cleaner front-page, bigger Sunday edition and a sharp increase in the cover price, particularly at the weekend. It’s part of making what is a heritage brand – a bit like the Guardian – contemporary as well.
One part of the paper which isn’t currently getting more investment is the website. Online advertising just isn’t taking off here, and the income earned by the site is well under 1% of overall revenue. A sharp reminder of the huge difficulties in sustaining online journalism in India.
The paper has been based in the wonderful art deco Kasturi Building on Chennai’s main street since about 1940. It’s even more glorious inside. Full length oil paintings and black marble busts of the founding fathers, dark wooden panelling, stained glass and period appropriate fixtures and fittings.
It reminded me just a little of Bush House in central London, onetime home of the BBC World Service. The Hindu‘s editor, Mukund Padmanabhan, is an alumnus of the LSE. He told me that in the early 1980s he used to pop across the road to Bush House to have lunch. I must have queued up alongside him for a bowl of Hungarian Goulash back in the day.
Padmanabhan is only the second editor from outside the Kasturi family, which bought the paper way back in 1905 and maintains a firm controlling grip … enlivened by occasional bust-ups within the family.
Indian dailies haven’t faced the huge shake-out that the US and British press is going through. But there is an air of retrenchment across the industry.
Some newspapers are slimming down. The news magazines in particular are being squeezed by papers with more features and by new, and good, online sites. The latest much talked of impending online launch … cheekily, it’s calling itself ‘The Print.
A City Walloping
India is the world’s second most populous nation – but lies a dismal 130th in the FIFA world football rankings. That’s behind such mighty footballing nations as Antigua and Barbuda (population, 91,000), Kyrgyzstan, Surinam and Equatorial Guinea. So when I went along last night to see a game in India’s top competitive league, the I-League, I wasn’t expecting too much. And I wasn’t disappointed.
The good news – no shortage of goals. The bad news – the home team only scored one of them. The final score: Chennai City 1, Shillong Lajong 4. A convincing victory for the lads from the north-east.
As for the standard of play, don’t take my word for it. The match report in this morning’s New Indian Express, describes Chennai City as ‘looking every bit the relegation fodder they were.’ Ouch! Their consolation goal in the closing minutes was scored by Haroon Amiri from Afghanistan – one of the few nations to have a lower FIFA ranking than India. One of Shillong’s batch was scored by their Cameroonian star, Dipanda Dicka, and another by Brazilian Fabio Pena.
Each I-League club can include up to four foreign nationals in its squad – as well as Amiri, Chennai City has two Brazilians and a Nigerian. But this is hardly the most lucrative part of the world for African and Latin American players, and while their presence nudges up the overall standard that’s simply from ‘grim’ to ‘not very good at all’.
So, a wash-out of an evening? Not at all! It was good to see the Nehru stadium – capacity 40,000. And fun to be part of a lively crowd, officially put at just under 5,000, though that seems to me on the generous side.
About half those present were under twelve and I guess had free tickets. Hundreds more youngsters were in Chennai for an inter-state football tournament (including some women’s teams) and they too didn’t have to pay. Here’s the Kerala squad – who told me they were supporting Chennai City (a bad call).
I was given a complimentary ticket, though I would have been happy to pay. I wondered whether any of the crowd had shelled out good money to see the match. It was all very professional – floodlights, officials, PA announcements. But I can’t work out the business model.
Or the footballing model, for that matter!
Keeping Faith With the Colonel
Colonel Henry Steel Olcott died 111 years ago. Never heard of him? Never mind – keep reading. Olcott was a founder of the Theosophical Society and its first president. He died in the grounds of the Society’s global headquarters at Adyar in Chennai/Madras. And the day is still celebrated – here and by Theosophists worldwide – as Adyar day.
Never being one to miss out on the byways of global history, I went to the Theosophical Society’s wonderful, sprawling ashram at Adyar to join in the tributes to this pioneer of western engagement with the Orient.
On this day every year, the students of the Olcott Memorial Higher Secondary School in Adyar pay tribute to their founding father.
Henry Steel Olcott was an American, born in 1832, who lived a full and varied life. He wrote about agriculture for the New York Times, fought with the northern states in the American Civil War and in 1874, through his interest in spiritualism, met up with Helena P. Blavatsky.
The following year, in New York, they established the Theosophical Society. He was the founding president. And in the early 1880s, they travelled together to Bombay, and shortly after bought the land in Madras which remains the Theosophists’ global HQ.
Both Blavatsky and Olcott were Buddhists – allegiance to a mainstream religion not being a bar to Theosophy – and Olcott in particular was an important figure in the Buddhist revival in what was then Ceylon. He detested Christianity and Christian missionaries detested him.
The school which takes his name charges no fees and conducts its classes in Tamil – it serves the local community rather than the Tamil elite.
Once the school kids had sung their songs and the procession had moved on, a simple quasi-religious ceremony in memory of Olcott was held in the headquarters building.
There were about thirty-five people gathered – mainly women – largely Indian – and only a handful under fifty.
Songs were sung, speeches made, and then the faithful placed flowers under statues of Olcott and Blavatsky – likenesses all in white, with maroon garlands, the Mary and Joseph of Theosophy..
Onlooker though I was, I scattered a few petals too.
A short hop over the weekend to the temple town of Madurai in the south. The sprawling and entirely extraordinary Meenakshi Temple is the main attraction – more in a later post.
My students had told me to try Madurai’s local speciality drinkjigarthanda – it means cool heart. And as they are always (delete, sometimes) right – I did just that.
It was wonderful!
What is it? Well a very tasty and refreshing concoction – rather gloopy – of milk, almond gum, sasparilla, sugar and ice cream. You can get it at roadside kiosks and in the more traditional eating places for between 30 and 50 rupees. It reminded me a touch of horchata, the chilled Spanish ‘almond milk shake’-like drink. But the Madurai mixture is altogether better.
You want the recipe?
- Badam pisin – 1 tsp or 4-5 small pieces (almond gum)
- Milk – 4 1/2 cups, full fat milk.
- Nannari sharbat – 3 tbsps (sarsaparilla root syrup)
- Ice cream – 3 scoops
- Sugar – 3 tbsps
As you can see, it’s not exactly slimming – but if you want a cool heart on a hot day, then you can’t beat a Madurai jigarthanda!
Happy Birthday Ma’am
The Queen’s birthday – many happy returns Ma’am! – is on 21st April. Her official birthday is on 11th June. But those dates don’t work where I am. Too sodding hot. So Chennai celebrated Her Maj’s big day on 24 Feb.
Great to be there – but why was the beer on offer the lamentable (on the grounds of taste, however you define it) ‘British Empire’ – a brew which encapsulates British imperialism: strong, tasteless, and leaving an unfortunate aroma on the palate.
When I got the invite, I thought the evening might amount to a couple of dozen ex-pats round a swimming pool. Wrong! The British Deputy High Commission’s grounds here in Chennai are almost as big as Buckingham, Palace. Hundreds gathered … I spotted a former head of India’s Intelligence Bureau in the crowd. And in case you think this was just a huge jolly, there was touting for GB to be done …
A charming choir sang ‘Jana Mana Gana’ – India’s national anthem – with a touch more enthusiasm than anyone could raise for Lillibet’s song. Britain’s top dip here is Bharat Joshi – is he the only British diplomat to take the name of the country in which he is posted?
And as we all consumed a splendid Indian meal, the band started playing classic rock numbers dating back to an era beyond even my recall. Yeaaaaah!