March 9, 2003
The New Indian Express on Sunday

Shreekumar Varma

It’s a well-known fact that writers like Sidney Sheldon and Arthur Hailey employ their own panels of researchers to bolster their background material. While those poor mites sweat it out night and day digging up nuggets of authenticity to shore up Sheldon’s and Hailey’s waves of creativity, the millionaire writers themselves have an easy time of it, doing their basic job which is to tap their imagination and tell their tale.

Once you own a designer label like that the possibilities are endless. You could even get other writers to write your stories for you with proper quality checks, of course, so that you have not only research panels but also creative franchisees to keep your label alive. If toothbrush manufacturers can do so, why not writers?

Not blessed in such a manner I found myself against a blank wall when I needed to research into the background of my second novel. Maria’s Room is set in Goa. I had been to Goa exactly twice, for a week each time. Would that be enough to convey a “feel” of Goa to my readers? I needed to describe the present as well as a certain time in history. I approached former professor and writer-historian Abraham Eraly for some help. Being my friend, he was frank: “Let me tell you this, Shreekumar,” he said, “forget history and use your imagination!”

And that is what I did. People who have read the manuscript including my publishers have told me they could relive Goa through the novel. My love affair with Goa was strong enough to have translated itself on to the pages. But that’s okay with a novel. Not too many factual questions will be asked anyway. What about a work of non-fiction? Surely that’s a different ball-game altogether?

Some months ago I was unexpectedly contracted by my publishers to write a biography of my favourite city, Chennai. I was overjoyed. And weak with tension. Writing a novel is okay, you can sit before your monitor (and, in my case, a window opening out to a feast of greenery, tall trees and the sound of birds, squirrels and naughty breezes) and churn out whatever your feverish imagination conjures up.

But non-fiction? How do I begin writing about a city I’ve lived in for more than four decades as if I’ve suddenly woken up to it? You have to be true to your history and geography, you have to be true to the people you’re writing about. Your fictional characters may forgive you but not the ones of flesh and blood you’re planning to lure into your pages.

Having no recourse to the resources of a Sheldon or Hailey, I had none but myself to turn to. So the first step was a book-buying spree. Whenever I saw the word Madras or Chennai on the spine of a book, I bought. I was amazed by the number of books that were available. And as the scope of my project widened I was amazed by the number of books that were NOT available. Still I persisted. And that was how I came upon this book.

It is a novel by a woman named B M Croker who lived and wrote during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The publishers have provided little information about her and the novel itself is not dated. A little bit of detective work revealed that the story takes place around 1911. The author’s name rang a bell, harking back to conversations with my grandfather, and his collection of books. But I couldn’t, for the life of me, place this book. It was called In Old Madras. And it really is. But a white Madras. The Indians are either lowly servants or faintly disreputable heads of faintly disreputable companies right in the heart of Blacktown.

You have a mansion in Egmore set on a vast rolling compound and of an evening there are balls and dinners and terribly focussed card games, magnificent coaches and cars driving up the impressive driveway and white sahibs and memsahibs dancing and gossiping and flirting and putting one over the other. To chill out (of course they don’t say that) they drive down to the club near the Island, which must be today’s Madras Gymkhana, and a beautiful-but-bored wife may leave her husband in mid-sentence in the heat of a summer evening and drive off down the promenade with an alternate escort. You have punkhas and polo and prim protocol. Mount Road, Marmalong Bridge, the Neilgherries — except for a bit of gymnastics with the spelling — they’re all there and so different from how we know them today. At one point someone says, “It’s in Blacktown! I beg its pardon — Georgetown!”

I wasn’t in the mood for long Jane Austenish fare. In fact, I had to grit my teeth and wade through the first few pages. And then I was coasting along. I couldn’t stop! It is an exciting story. A young Englishman, Captain Mallender, newly discharged from the army, sets out to India to find the whereabouts of his uncle, missing and declared dead for the last thirty years. He thinks the man currently in control of his estate is impersonating his uncle and he wants to expose him. His adventures take him to interesting places and predicaments and he meets many strange people. The Madras we find in the book is a fascinating place of slow boulevards and leisurely life-styles. (Of course, you would have to be white and British.)

There is intrigue and deception, romance and love, excitement and adventure, physical pain and heartbreak. The ending is breath-stopping. The hero travels incognito and you are as tense as he is when he chances upon unexpected discoveries. When he arrives at a place named Panjeverram, I couldn’t help but exclaim: “Good Lord, are you talking about Kancheepuram, or have you misspelled some other name!”

It’s been a long time since I have read such a book. Robust and romantic and frankly unputdownable. It has its clichés and melodrama and pat situations, but what is life without those! And incidentally it gave me plenty of information about Madras in that sepia-tinted time. Madras according to Croker, that is. Research can be exciting! I wonder whether Sidney Sheldon and co. will ever experience half the excitement that moves a poor writer-researcher in good old Chennai.

The author can be contacted at

White Madras