It’s yesterday once more

Chennai turned 373 a couple of days ago. This is enormously historic for a city that had turned Chennai itself only in 1996.

Hahaha. No, I am not joking as ever. I am just stating the facts.

But talking of facts, how many of you actually know how Chennai, the city that you live in, came into being? Put your hand down. Yeah, I am only telling you. No cheating here. Don’t ask me how I found out? It’s easy. Only historians know history (that is why it is so poorly written). The rest watch TV.

But we can’t let the situation remain like this. We need to save history from the vice-like grip of historians and present in a manner that people like you will read without skipping large chunks of paragraphs.

So, on the occasion of the ongoing Chennai Week, we give here, in a simple and easy to understand format, the story of Chennai, and answer the very many questions that you may have on: how exactly the East India Company took roots here, what precisely were the early problems they encountered here, when truly those events happened here, how administratively capable were those English officers and, pertinently, will at all this paragraph end here.

Before you read on, just one formal disclosure: This is a work of deep research. And like all works of such research and erudition, this one too is deeply dubious.

Right at the outset the East India Company quite smartly understood that if it had to firmly establish itself in South India, it could do so only from the strategically located Chennai. And the company also equally smartly deduced that for this to happen it had to first establish, well, Chennai.

Yes, there was no Chennai, as we know it, before the arrival of East India Company. It was just a flat, indescribable mass of land. But soon after the East India Company bought this land from a local chieftain, it, however, transformed into a flat, indescribable mass of land named Chennai.

But buying the land itself was not such an easy task for the East India Company. Right off the bat, the company’s legal division, which scrutinized the deal papers, put its foot down saying that India did not allow foreign companies to directly invest in real estate sector. And like other many other projects before and after, this one too looked set to die prematurely, cruelly garroted by the red tape of bureaucracy.

At this juncture stepped in the clever and canny Francis Day, the man who is credited as being the ‘founder’ of Chennai. A dapper young man, Francis Day was East India Company’s Chief Director (Expansion and Acquisition — Off Shore).

After arriving in India, Day burned the midnight oil in assiduously acquainting himself with the local laws. So when it was pointed out that the East India Company might not be allowed to make any investment by the Indian government, Day, using his knowledge of local legal formalities, quickly allayed everyone’s fears by astutely pointing out: ‘Guys, India does not have a government yet’. It is a historical quote, and there are people out there who believe the words of Day’s have a ring of truth even today.

With that one hurdle was crossed. But a few others were still waiting.

When the deal was being worked out, the legal department ran into another potential wall over how to word the sale document. The locals did not know English, whereas the English did not know the local language Again it was left to Francis Day to come to the rescue of his panicky colleagues with another of his pertinent observations. ‘No legal document ever makes sense to any normal person. So why fret over its language?’ It’s a fact that has transcended centuries and stands valid till today.

Eventually, on the epochal morning of August 22, 1639, the local chieftain and the representatives of East India Company turned up at the local Registrar Office to formalise the deal, only to be coldly told that the Registrar was still to be appointed for that branch and the deal could not be registered that day.

An infuriated Day, however, decided that there was no point in continuing to put up with such extreme official apathy and negligence, and tore down the registration papers then and there itself. This is why there is no written (deed) proof for one of the biggest land transactions in the history of South India.

However, Day (on behalf of his company) and the local chieftain quickly hammered out a simple agreement and went ahead with the transaction. And with that Chennai was born? No, with that born was the custom of private arrangements, which, then again, continues to be the norm in many cases even now.

Acquisition of land was just one aspect, the East India Company now had the onerous task of building a city from scratch. Make a livable domain out of unpaved land. Create a realm out of grime and garbage. Chisel a world out of dust and darkness.

Alas, on the evidence of what Chennai looks like today, I guess, they never got down to even attempt it.