Three Britons in Stone Whom I Saw This Week

King George, Chennai

King George, Chennai

Thomas Munro was so kind to Indians under his jurisdiction here in South India, they worshipped him in mind and speech, and in temples. His kindest cut was on taxes, and gratitude overflowed on account of it, so much so that for years farmers in the south named their newborn Munrolappa, in honor of him. Besides rationalising tax, Munro campaigned for greater inclusion of Indians in civil administration, and in the juduciary— all big stuff in his time. Now, two centuries after his rule, worship of him lives on at least at one temple, in Cuddappah, Andhra Pradesh.

I’ve not been to that temple; I heard the story in the back seat of a car before the statue of Munro on Mount Road in Chennai. From Koushik of Story Trails: He challenged me: “Can you tell me what’s wrong with that statue?”

I’m never comfortable being quizzed, but I gave a try, staring at the tall figure sitting high and mighty on a matching horse.

“Is the symbolism of all legs planted on ground not right for Munro?” I ventured.

“No,” Koushik said. “See? There’s no saddle. And no stirrups!”

“Oh,” I said, not at all seeing the wrong in that.

Not all agree to retaining this statue on this roomy traffic-island middle of town. The last loud protest came at the Tamil conference in 2010, and in spite of an ensuing unfavourable resolution that hangs over the memorial, it stands. But somebody might yet give that weighty horse a rap on its rump and send it somewhere, someday soon.

Not far from this memorial, in the bazaar area, there’s another vestigial piece, this one of King George V, who was crowned emperor on Indian soil in a grand ceremony that came to be called the Dilli Durbar of 1911. A crown was made just for the occasion, and his majesty deigned to wear it just this once. Madras (Chennai) was the toehold of the dominion of India, it was the city the Raj spread out from, so it was altogether fitting for Madras to mark the durbar with a statue, and install it at the edge of the Black Town for natives to marvel at every day. It was altogether right to rename Black Town as Georgetown, and leave no doubt as to who was boss.

And now, a hundred years after, when all Chennai is black town, the statue—which never meant much to denizens for whose amazement it was put before them—is a forlorn affair. Its face has acquired an expression that reflects the abandonment it’s forever doomed to. It bears no hope of being claimed ever by his true subjects who erected it. Meaning no offence, but causing it nonetheless, the weakest citizens of free India have taken possession of the space round the monument, and have flung about it their rags, and rusty rickety wheelbarrows, and plastic water vessels that catch the light and glow in too-loud colours. Odd wooden structures lean on the high pedestal.

And on the ferocious stucco British lions round the base, scabs have broken out. The statue is jet black, and offers no contrast to the camera, concealing the rich royal texture its makers have given it. Whatever the face says, it stands strong and straight and very regal, even if condemned to a life of eternal neglect. I felt a fondness for it but Koushik wouldn’t allow me to linger there. “We can’t be parked here,” he urged, “this place is too busy!”

And he took me to Fort St. George, and gave me a quick glimpse of another Briton in stone. Cornwallis defeated Tipu Sultan in two wars, which are recorded as the Anglo-Mysore wars. In the first of them he took half Tipu’s kingdom; in the second he took Tipu’s life and what was left of the Kingdom. To celebrate this achievement, the Britons made a white marble statue and marked out a terrific location in Chennai for a cenotaph to the victor. They called the stretch Cenotaph Road. But the statue of Cornwallis suffers a jinx. It and its cupola have been wandering two centuries each to a different place, and now the statue is sheltered under a staircase in the modest museum in Fort St. George. Its cupola stands outside the museum on a corner under a tree. There’s argument that it is not even the corresponding cupola to the statue.

“But it’s all right,” Cornwallis might say from his afterlife. “I got what I wanted in my lifetime, leave aside the Washington bit.” As for Munro, he fell to cholera on a tour of duty bringing genuine grief to colonial subjects. And George, he died nine years before the jewel was freed from his crown.