Christmas in Madras 1987

As might have been expected, India burst in on me like a storm. Sometimes it’s the proverbial wall of heat when you’re coming off the plane, or the overwhelming chaos of rank and sweet smells and eye-jarring colours, but most often for me it’s the milling mass of humanity which ambushes you. 

Madras Map 1862


I’d read somewhere, (I think it was in Trevor Fishlock’s brilliant compendium of essays called India File), that the elephant god Ganesh, or the Taj Mahal in Agra are usually seen as emblematic of India, but the true motif of India is the crowd.


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You can go into the remotest village in Tamil Nadu or Uttar Pradesh, a quiet, bucolic seeming place, but within minutes you’ll have a hundred people around you, all offering various opinions to one another about this ‘event’, until sooner or latter some local bigwig or the village schoolteacher will elbow through the melee to offer a welcome and inquire if you need any assistance.

Sometimes this can seem very intimidating, but you have to make yourself remember that it’s you who is the weirdo here and you have to do something to dispel the natural fear of the unknown which starts to show in a few faces around you.

Curiously, It wasn’t the initial landing in New Delhi which prompted this scribbling, for I’d already become well accustomed to Delhi over numerous visits to Rajasthan and the north. No, the two days I’d been in Delhi this time had seemed peaceful after my last group had flown home, and the days passed in uneventful ease – if uneventful is a word that could truthfully be used about Delhi !

Varanasi holy man – a serene image of India
Busy street scene, India
The more usual street scene in India















No, what threw me was flying in to Madras (Chennai) on Christmas eve 1987. The early morning flight down from Delhi had been delayed, and a frustrating fuel stop somewhere had been marked by the opening of doors while we were on the tarmac, kerosene fumes wafting through the cabin, and the minor executive next to me had decided that now was a moment to light up a fag.

You do become inured to what seems inane reasoning here, but this was a step too far and he was hastily shouted at by all around us. Landing at Madras, we had no inkling of problems at the airport, or in the city. Only as I came out of arrivals could I see something was amiss – a curiously small number of people greeting relatives and friends, but no throng of taxi drivers wrestling over each other for business, not even motor rickshaw drivers outside. So how to cover the 15km to the hotel in the city ?

I ask around but no-one seems to know anything until I stride off with my bags to the main road, feeling sure I’d find a bus or something to get me into town. Some youths perched on a wall are clearly amused by my baffled indignation, but one volunteers the information that there is a bandh – a strike, something not uncommon in Southern India where the workforce are better organised. Even so, I had work to do; I had to get into town to meet people in my new group who would turn up at the hotel under their own steam. The only thing visible was a motor rickshaw with a flat boarded back, used for carrying goods.

A portly, sweating businessman was already perched on it with his bags and he called to me “Come, please, come on ! You will not find taxis today, you must take this chance !” I’m thinking, it will take forever to get into town on this but the driver and businessman press me to get on. The businessman speaks excellent English and had just flown down from Delhi himself. The story behind these inconveniences unfolds as the rickshaw put-puts in the darkness over the potholed road, giving my backside a hard time on the boards.

“The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has died this morning,” my rescuer says, “MGR was a very famous film star and he is being mourned” (Lots of people, notables or not, are known by initials only in India, in this case M.G.Ramachendran). I thought it a funny way to mourn his passing, and said so, but it seems the popular feeling was for folk to stop working out of respect. It transpired that there were, as ever, some more animated supporters of the bandh than others and they were sort of policing the action, making sure shopkeepers closed their shutters, stopping traffic and wandering about in groups, chanting slogans and waving sticks at all and sundry.

It seemed that MGR’s popularity as a film star had ballooned into populist politics with wide social benefits for the poorer people in society. (I later found a major source of his popularity stemmed from his instituting free midday meals for schoolchildren). Film idols can become incredibly popular to many groups in India who may have few other pleasures in life than a cheap cinema seat, and I thought there would be more difficulties before the day was out.

Travelling on, we came across knots of policemen and women twirling long sticks (lathis), observing the stream of pedestrians heading into the town, all displaying small scraps of cloth or even plastic, as long as it was black, pinned to their sleeve as a sign of mourning. The use of transport, public or private was seen as disrespectful, so all of the few cars were flying a black pennant from their aerials, even cyclists with black armbands proceeded rather nervously through the streets. Suddenly our driver veers off down a side street, at the start of what would prove to be a bone-jarring and at times chilling experience of some two and a half hours.

Scaffolding, Madras
Scaffolding with dummy on motorcycle to ward off the evil eye

We roamed along backstreets on the outskirts of the city looking for a way through to the centre. Hastily scrawled banners written in Tamil were everywhere, exhorting respect for MGR. My companion prepared me for the coming experience by telling me about the last time a similar event had occurred 7 years previously when a famous film director had died. This almost deified individual attracted such a large and devoted following in society that it seemed half the population of northern Tamil Nadu had converged on Madras to pay their respects, coming on vastly overcrowded trucks, trains with roofs almost buckling under the weight of passengers on top.

This amazing and spontaneous congregation of people coming to the funeral wasn’t enough for some fanatic individuals who always surface at these times. No, any ‘pilgrimage’ of this sort had to be done in the proper way for the beloved film director, and also, it seems for the film star turned politician today. Any pilgrimage worth its salt had to be done on foot – presumable the difficulty and often pain involved was a mark of the correct level of respect for the object of the journey.

In the Himalaya thousands of people, young, old, crippled, carried on litters if absolutely necessary, climb high into the mountains on narrowing paths beside foaming freezing torrents of rivers to reach Ammarnath, the site of an ice pillar in a cave, commonly revered as the lingam (phallus) of Lord Shiva. Similarly, at Pushkar in Rajasthan, villagers from all over NW India will be sure to cover at least the last 30km from Ajmer to Pushkar on foot, if they are at all capable of doing so. A level of semi-religious fervour became all too apparent on this Christmas Eve.

Pilgrims gather in their thousands at Pushkar

Most people were coming on foot, and were walking about the city in droves, becoming more volatile as they protested against the few taxis, private cars or even bicycle rickshaws moving through the throng. It was only a matter of time before some zealots decided it was the done thing to stop these remaining vehicles. Every shop was already closed, fearful of smashed windows or worse. Pretty soon, many drivers sought refuge, often leaving their vehicles parked on garage forecourts; the remaining vehicles were easy to find..

At first, there were small bands of local hooligans, forcing taxis to stop and passengers get out, cyclists forced to dismount by brandishing sticks. Those who carried on were followed by a trail of abuse, then stones and ultimately the transgressors’ vehicles were being turned over and set on fire. People were summarily knocked off bicycles and the threatening mobs began marauding the main streets of the city. We had just managed to reach the refuge of the hotel before the worst of it, but were forced to walk in some places, cajoled with sticks in others and spat on, but no lasting damage.

I managed to make contact with a few members of my new group, Aussies who had been in the city a day or two, and advised them to stay put. The fun really started when I had to get back to the airport to meet and pick up people flying in on a direct flight from London. I went for a walk around the immediate area around the area known as Egmore, but only a short one since all the main roads were crowded with a soundtrack of breaking glass, youths now flailing iron bars at almost any target, but thankfully personal violence was not widespread, though I did see a few bleeding casualties, people who had tried to question the wisdom of such wanton destruction.

I did actually visit the nearby office of the police commissioner who looked as if he’d stayed too long at a party he didn’t like, with a bored and frustrated look on his face. He was short tempered with subordinates who were bringing him fresh reports and queries that he dealt with in petulant fashion. I presented him with my problem, but he wouldn’t speak to me directly, only through a minion, although I was only across the desk.

I explained I was concerned for the safety of these group members who were unknowingly flying into a city that they would think was almost a war zone. He was unconcerned and said there was nothing he could do, as it was dangerous. I pointed out that a part of his duty was to protect people, but the appeal was futile.

Cruise advert, Madras
Aspirational advertising – hand painted

I eventually did find a cycle rickshaw driver willing to thread through the darkened back streets back out to the airport, and the nerve-wracking journey took another two hours. It’s difficult to explain how afraid it is possible to be when there is no way you can explain yourself, no police to turn to, and only crowds of ill-disposed and seemingly not very bright people to pass through, and believe me I have been through some hostile situations.

Finally reaching the airport I found people emerging from arrivals with my company’s luggage tags, so I gathered them and told them about the disturbances as undramatically as I could, and asked them to stay in the airport while I explored possibilities. After a 15 minute recce outside, I had discovered that there was a suburban electric rail link back in service from a station half a kilometre away.

Apart from emerging into the debilitating 35˚C heat with 80% humidity, my punters now had to walk with their baggage in the dark to the station. Thank god for that rail link, which took us all the way into the Egmore rail station, located a 15 minute walk from the hotel. Things seemed to have settled a little and there were a few brave souls who would venture out with cycle rickshaws, at exorbitant rates, but I loaded a couple with customers’ bags and we walked alongside to the hotel.

The dead man, MGR, was something of a curiosity, his image, complete with wraparound sunglasses and his trademark white Astrakhan hat, (possibly the most inappropriate headgear imaginable for Madras), was plastered all over town, so he had become very familiar.

He never lost that image, and his funeral was conducted with the look intact. He had in fact been living for some years on borrowed time, since he’d suffered a complete kidney collapse, requiring a transplant from a niece. Some later reports claimed the expense of this operation came to some 1.5 million Rupees, about £70,000 at the time, paid for by the Union Finance Ministry, a sum which could have bought a lot of basic treatments for the population of Tamil Nadu.

M G Ramachendran
M G Ramachendran

One of my customers later said she thought the drama of all these proceedings had brought an unexpected realism and excitement to her visit to India, having only ever seen such gatherings on the news ! (Ah, how wonderful to be a mere spectator). The truly memorable part of it all, she said having watched the funeral on TV, was “the sight of that poor little man in his hat and sunglasses being carted aloft by the crowd to his funeral”.

In all, the most embattled Christmas I have ever spent went rather smoothly, for on Christmas Day I walked my group up to the Connemara Hotel – one of the old colonial style institutions in Madras, to partake of a roast turkey buffet.

The chaotic and disturbed funeral procession trundled by only a few hundred metres away; 15 people were shot by police. I say smoothly for in the last similar situation 7 years ago, trains full of mourners heading for the city were set on fire and over 500 people burned to death in the ensuing hysteria.

I thought we came off lightly.

P.S. The wife of MG Ramachendram, on a wave of sympathy, won the nomination by a large margin from her party for the newly vacant post of Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. MGR had not lived with his wife for some years, having had a determined “attendant” in his 28 year old publicity manageress, . .

Breathing a sigh of relief, Bob Cranwell, Amateur Emigrant

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