We have a guest post from Anuradha Shankar, blogger and traveller who blogs at ” A Wandering Mind.” Anu is a prolific reader and she confesses to be a voracious bookworm. Living in Mumbai, Anu’s visits to Madras are rare, yet she connects very strongly to her “madrasi roots.” Here she goes on a nostalgic trip around the city
Over to Anu..
When I tell people that I am a Tamilian, the most common reaction is, “Oh, you are a Madrasi!” Explaining to people that there is more to Tamilnadu, and indeed to the south, than the city of Madras, is an exercise in futility! Over the years, I have come to realize that it is the city of Madras which people associate with the south…
It was, after all, the home of the Madras Presidency, the first stronghold of the British in India, the place from where they spread to hold the entire subcontinent! No wonder it is still the name “Madras” which strikes the North Indian when he thinks of the South! My own introduction to Madras was late. I first visited the city when I was about 10 or 12. Till then, it was just a name! And the city itself – what a contrast it was, to Bombay! Huge, individual houses, with gardens all around, comparatively empty streets devoid of traffic jams (then!), the clean beach which simply went on and on, temples at every junction, the city was a surprise in every way!
Living as we did in the tiny flats in Bombay, the huge, individual houses were the major attraction of the city! This was where I saw the first coconuts growing on a tree, where I plucked flowers and pestered my mom and aunts to tie and entwine them in my tightly plaited hair! I spent most of my time outdoors, looking at the flowers and vegetables growing in the backyard, talking to the neighbours over the fence! This was where I happily wore all the pavadais (and later, davanis too) without anyone asking me what I was wearing! Indeed, my earliest memories of Madras are associated with women wearing shiny Kanjeevaram sarees, their thinning hair weighted down by the huge bunch of malli and kanakambaram flowers. I made the most of my short holidays in the city, especially with all the flowers! Looking back, I am sure I would have looked like a walking advertisement for a flower show!
However, my most treasured memories are neither of the houses, nor of the flowers – they are associated with another place in Madras, a landmark by itself – Higginbotham’s! The first time I entered the over-150 year old book store was when I was around 12 years old. A great-uncle living in madras had just learnt of my love for books, and since he was then confined to bed, he commanded my cousins to take me there and get me whatever book I chose! He couldn’t have given me a better gift!
Just walking into the shop was a thrill! In my eyes, it was nothing short of heaven! It was, after all filled with books, with ample space to walk around goggling at books of every genre and description! For someone who had only seen the name Higginbotham’s over the railway book stalls and visited tiny stores crammed with books in Bombay, the original store in Madras was a revelation! One step inside, and the huge book shelves laden with all kinds of books, the smell of paper permeating the air, the hordes of people leafing through the books seriously…. I was smitten!
The book I bought then, on my first visit is one I outgrew soon, but it is one I have treasured, for it is associated with so many wonderful memories – of the great uncle who bought it for me, of the store which kindled my love for simply browsing through shelf full of books…over the next few years, I collected more books from Higginbotham’s – most of them are still my treasured possessions and waiting for my son too grow a little more so that they can be passed on to him! At the time, the history of the store was of no interest to me. I was only interested in the books. I remember insisting on visiting the store on every trip, and getting me out of there must have been a big chore for my uncles and cousins who took me there! It was only when I grew up and wasn’t able to visit the city any more that I actually learnt about the interesting history of the store, or that it is the oldest book store in India!
I hadn’t even heard then of Abel Higginbotham, who rose from being a librarian at the Wesleyan Book Shop to owning it when the protestant missionaries running the shop decided to sell. It is his name under which the store attained glory and became a name forever to be associated with books in India. It has been years now since I walked into the shop, but my memories are as fresh as that day, so many years ago. I can only wait for my next visit to the city, so that I can take my son there! There are so many more book shops today, maybe larger and with better collections too, but the sense of history one gets there is something unique, that cannot be replicated!