Can't keep a good book (store) down.
Saturday, 25th February 2017, 6:30pm.
74, Mahatma Gandhi Road,
India's Literary Popstar
Nobody knows why Abel Joshua Higginbotham got on board a ship to Madras in the mid 1800’s without a ticket and papers. Luckily for the stowaway, his qualifications as a librarian got him a job at the Wesleyan Book Depository that primarily catered to local theologians, devout soldiers and Protestant evangelists. Despite hectic missionary activity in the Madras Presidency, the shop ran at a loss. Higginbotham bought it in 1844, set up his book shop on Mount Road, Madras and named it after himself. The Englishman was then appointed Sherriff of Madras in 1888 and 1889 while Messrs. Higginbothams&Co became India’s largest bookstore chain in the 19th century.
The East India Company had an extremely lucrative but turbulent run in India. It began when Sir Thomas Roe stepped off the boat at Surat in the 1600’s and ended when the British Parliament took the Company to task for alleged mismanagement of local affairs, corruption and of course, loss of face in the1857 Indian Rebellion (Sepoy Mutiny). The Company was liquidated following the `Government of India Act’ passed on August 2nd, 1858. Queen Victoria’s proclamation confirming this was read out at Fort St. George, Madras in November. English and Tamil copies were printed and distributed exclusively by Higginbothams across the Madras Presidency.
It didn’t take very long for Messrs. Higginbothams&Co. to become the preferred bookstore for the Madras Presidency. It was where you could buy everything from literary and scientific publications to the latest romantic novels. If it wasn’t on the shelves, you could order from a catalogue. In 1859, Sir Charles Trevelyan, Governor of Madras enthusiastically admitted in a letter to the noted educationist, historian and politician Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, that he was a fan of their philosophy, classical literature and Greek tragedy sections. He declared that it was “…altogether a delightful place for the casual browser and a serious book lover.”
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 provided Europe with direct access to Asia in record time. This short cut impacted shipping routes, world trade, passenger travel, information transmission and British colonisation of the region. With the introduction of steamships, the three month journey from England to India was reduced to three weeks. Ships arrived at Indian ports carrying foreign goods and unmarried young English ladies looking for prospects in the British Cantonments! Large crates were also offloaded at the Madras port for Messrs. Higginbothams&Co. They contained precious cargo; books and publications that were currently topping the bestseller lists in Europe.
History has it that the charming Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, was quite the connoisseur of all the good things in life. And though his discreet romantic liaisons provided much fodder for 19th century gossip, he was also known to love the company of a good book. Messrs. Higginbothams&Co. were called upon to provide him with appropriate reading material following his arrival at the Royapuram Station in Madras, while on a state visit to India. Not surprisingly, the Booksellers to HRH also went on to be listed as a `premier bookshop’ in John Murray’s famous travel guide `Handbook of the Madras Presidency’.
It is widely speculated that the Mulligatawny (Molagu thanni) Soup and Madras Curry Powder became legacies of the Raj only after Higginbothams first printed their recipes. Ladies also relied heavily on their publication ‘Sweet Dishes: A little Treatise on Confectionary and entrements sucrés’ for parties and special occasions. But the pseudonym of its author `Wyvern’, remained a mystery till it was revealed to be that of Colonel Arthur Robert Kenney-Herbert, a military man with a penchant for cooking. His ` Culinary Jottings for Madras’ was also published by Higginbothams&Co. in 1884. It swept Higginbothams into becoming a part of India’s print and publishing history.
A year after a young subaltern called Winston Churchill was stationed at the Bangalore Cantonment with the 4th Hussars, a graceful commercial building came up on South Parade. The two storeyed structure was built in 1897, around the same time as Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. The facade had distinct European Classical (also called Graeco-Roman or Palladian) elements including a Greek pediment, simple entablature and pilasters, plenty of arched windows on both floors and a swept head entrance with two leaved doors. Inside was a high ceiling and airy, well ventilated interiors. They would provide the necessary circulation for the Higginbothams books that would soon fill the building.
When Abel Joshua Higginbotham died in 1891, his son CH Higginbotham inherited and extended the bookstore business to holiday stations in the Madras Presidency. Higginbothams was contracted to manage the Southern Indian Railway bookstalls in the region. A new bookstore was also established at a prime location in the Bangalore Cantonment. The Palladian style building on swank South Parade opened its doors to eager readers in 1905. Back in the day, South Parade (now MG Road) was the place to see and be seen. Nothing much has changed since then. Higginbothams is still a popular hangout for the coolest bookworms in town.
The Madras Mail set a precedent in journalistic traditions. The pioneering publication had its own impartial reporters as well as correspondents in mofussil stations. It also included local and provincial news. But its history was a tale of mergers and takeovers that occurred at dizzy speeds; the bi-weekly The Madras Times (1835), initially published by Higginbothams rivals, the Gantz brothers in 1859-1860 was bought in 1913 by the Madras Times Printing and Publishing Co. It was sold in 1921 to John Oakshott Robinson who also took over The Madras Mail (1868). He named the company the Associated Printers and soon absorbed Higginbothams and its job printing department into it.
While the World War II dominated daily newsprint and Spitfires flew across our skies, Messrs. Higginbothams & Co. became publishers of note and the largest stockists of Penguin and Pelican paperbacks. They printed and sold almost everything from Edward Moore's "Hindu Pantheon" with illustrations in 1864 to even Adolf Hitler’s radical `Mein Kampf’, the royalties of which they immediately donated to the Red Cross Society for British WWII soldiers. Higginbothams, the Associated Printers and The Madras Mail (collectively called the Associated Publishers) were sold to Mr. Anantharamakrishnan of the Amalgamations Group in 1945. The bookstores continue to preserve and remain a part of India’s history even today.
74, Mahatma Gandhi Road,