Indian history interwoven with Chennai

Over a cuppa

Indian history interwoven with Chennai


To what would you ascribe your passion for writing- early education and upbringing or the circumstances of life?

It was entirely due to my early schooling in Colombo . There was an Englishman called W T Keble, who started a preparatory school, leading up to one of the major Public Schools in the Island (now Sri Lanka ). And I was eight years old when the school started and one of the first 40 students there. No sooner he started the school, he encouraged us to write for a monthly journal he brought out. So from the age of eight, I have been writing. Keble was a major influence in my life. He was also passionately interested in history. Much of the Sri Lankan history I learnt was through the stories he would tell. He made History interesting by making it story telling.  

You went to the US for higher studies but returned to Sri Lanka for a journalistic career. Why? Some high-points on that road.

Look, I was in that first batch of students from India and Ceylon to go to the US immediately after World War-II was over. We are talking of 1946. At that time, there were no more than 300 students from India and I was the only one from Ceylon . More students from Ceylon went to the UK but my father who had visited the US in 1930 had always been enamoured

Of that country, especially its technical skills; and as he ran an engineering business, he wanted me to go to the U S to do engineering.

Those days, we didn’t question what our father said. So, I went and did engineering though I was not particularly interested in it. After I did engineering, I studied International Affairs in the U S (Clarke and Columbia Universities ), planning for a career in the foreign service. But when I came back to Ceylon , there were two independent countries – Ceylon and India.

I had gone at a time when both of them were British and I went as a British subject. So with a citizenship issue facing me then, the question of foreign service did not arise. But right through my college career in the US. I had been working at the campus newspapers…..So when the Foreign Service (option) was closed, I got into journalism, in which I got interested while in US quite by chance.

For nearly 20 years, I was with the Times of Ceylon in Colombo till this whole citizenship issue made me come back to India .

After you returned to India what took you towards focusing more Intensely on the history of old Madras ?

…..I had to leave Sri Lanka because of the Citizenship issue. Most of my colleagues (in Times of Ceylon) had gone to Australia to join newspapers there. …But with the family in India- my father and mother had left Ceylon long before- family pressures brought me to India and I joined the TTK Group (in Chennai). I was in charge of their Printing and Publishing unit, which they were starting. It was called at that time ‘TT Maps and Atlases’. I had, while in Ceylon, done a lot of work for Ceylon Tourist Board…That’s how I got interested in ‘TT Maps’ and I was in charge of the company. The first publication we brought out was a map of Madras with an introductory text to the city.

Working for that text on Madras, I discovered many well-known names in history, Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, Arthur Wellesley, Thomas Pitt, had all started their careers in Madras and went on make fame, fortune and notoriety. Moreover, I have always been interested in history in Sri Lanka….once I discovered this material, I got fascinated with this concept that so many important people in Indian history had started their lives in Madras, and I began to read up more on the subject as a hobby. And as I read more, I discovered that almost every Institution in Modern India – whether it is engineering, medicine, municipal governance or record keeping-, all had their beginnings in Madras . … I was with the TTKs’ from 1968 to 1990. Once I retired, I began to focus on journalistic as well as historical writing.

Journalism is often termed ‘instant literature’, but ‘book writing’ is just the opposite. How did you manage to marry the two?

To me, all my books are journalistic writings. I don’t agree with this term ‘instant literature’; for I object to the word literature, maybe instant writing but not instant literature.

The point is though many people describe me as a historian, I am not a historian. Historian involves not only original research but analytical research, a study of the materials found. I am merely a chronicler of history. I just state the facts as they are, as I have found them and all the facts are always there. It is in archives, magazines, journals, newspapers and in accounts of other people. It is a case of collating these facts to make an interesting story.

I have always stressed the interest element of being part of good journalism. I have no literary flourishes. I write in the simplest way possible. My basic skills are the ability to digest a lot of facts and compile them in a coherent
manner

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