Monday, December 19, 2016

What's in a name?

You have to be a dubashi to figure out what's awkward with this street's name. Leading off from NSC Bose Road, across the road from the High Court complex, it is quite possible that it could lead to some kind of barracks. No awkwardness, for sure, if you know only English. If you know only Tamizh, you wouldn't be too worried about sign saying "Baker Theru". After all, there are quite a few streets in the city whose Tamizh names sound quite different from their English versions. The big question in this case, however, is about which version is correct. Is it Baker, or Barracks? Or was there a Baker in the Barracks?

Chennai's early history has a few candidates for the 'Baker' in this street; Henry Davidson Love's "Vestiges of Old Madras 1640-1800" lists eleven Bakers in its index. Of those, six are merely name entries, and two are related to one of the more storied Bakers. The first of the remaining three was also the first on another list - in 1652, Aaron Baker took over as the first President of Fort St George - an early attempt at creating a Madras Presidency. The second, Charles Baker, is listed as a 'Civil Servant', with some mention of "his pursuits". But it is the third one who is the likeliest candidate to be the eponym for this street.

That man was Captain George Baker, whose first visit to Madras seems to have been as the captain of the sloop Cuddalore, arriving in the city in 1756. For some reason, this Baker seems to have had a run of stop-gap appointments: his captaincy of the sloop seems to have been because of a heavy death toll at Negrais, Burma and the sloop sailed out of Madras with a new captain (John Howes). Baker seems to have been within a whisker's breadth of being appointed as the Ambassador to the King of Burma before his return from Negrais. The listing of Chennai's mayors lists a Captain George Baker for less than a year (1765-1765) and then again as an interim bearer of the office in 1773. But the reason for his being memorialized in the city is better explained by Sriram here!

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