Pongal decoration

I’ve attended funerals, carried boxes and watched as they’re lowered into the ground, returned later to check the headstone, looked around, some scrawny rose bushes, a desolate winter tree, more often at neighbouring graves, wondering ‘what is it that’s  here?’. In the end certain only that whoever I was looking for, nothing much of them was to be found, sometimes not even their name. But perhaps that’s a matter of taste.


Station as concrete temple
Marina beach

So I was surprised to find myself scanning headstones and slabs looking for Anselm Soares in Quibble Island Catholic cemetery in Chennai. If he’d seen me he might have said ‘who on earth are you?’ My reply?  I’m from the future and I’m rooting around in the past.

An old burial site, fronted by a brick arch, Syrian Catholics are to the left, Roman Catholics to the right. Thirty yards up, turn right, half way down the aisle, just in the shade of a tree. These, then, were the instructions passed on from Aunty Edna, one of two of Tash’s surviving aunties, and despite being well into her nineties the only one to make any sense. However, space being the precious resource it always is, especially in rapidly growing urban India, a local newspaper report had mentioned the doubling up of graves where ever possible, sort of like having a loft conversion but without having to worry about the plumbing. If they couldn’t contact the family, places would be lost. No one had visited since Edna seven years ago. Was there going to be anything to find?


Quibble Island Cemetery


Anselm, the father of six girls and two boys, died in Madras aged 63 in 1951. Anthony, Tash’s dad and the youngest, was 23. Edna was soon to be married. Twelve years later, and the entire family were living in England. We were here in Chennai visiting ghosts and exploring the past.

By accident our first port of call was the publications department and bookshop of the Theosophical Society. Our slightly manky hotel was located in Besant Nagar, part of Adyar, a southern suburb of Chennai. The sea and Eliot’s beach lay a twenty minute walk east, large green parks abutted the river to the north. It was across this river that lay Santome, site of a cathedral built over a disciple’s tomb, and the old home of the Soares family.

An early foray to the beach, dazzling light, burning sun, abandoned food outlets on wheels lining the sand, sleeping dogs half buried, a churning sea, had us making a speculative detour through a web of tiny streets, where large women squatted in front of plates of tiny fish whilst listening to their neighbours and potential customers bid them down, dwellings wedged between crumbling walls were made of tarpaulin and decaying thatch, people with not much were making do, and we blundered through on our way somewhere else, lured by the promise of a park.

The largest urban beach in Asia
Theosophical publications

We found it, that great swathe of green on our map, at least the road that bisected it, either side walled and remote, and walked along the remains of the pavement until gated entrances appeared on either side. To the left, the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society, set in acres of memorial gardens, was closed until 2. With an hour to kill we crossed over to explore the publications department, itself set in acres of land. It was lunch here too, but a very kind gentleman showed us around the cabinets, cupboards, racks and remainders, the catalogues, pamphlets and desks, and invited us to explore as we liked, although not the gardens. These were only accessible to members. He, also, couldn’t take our money, that would have to wait until lunch was over. Photographs of the founders, Blavatsky, Besant, Leadbetter lined the walls and looked down in their formal gloomy way. Titles pinged into focus like a psychedelic word game; Occult Chemistry, The Snake and the Rope, Social Roots of Gender Injustice, Isis Rising.

The real ghost here is Krishnamurti, discovered as an eleven year old on the beach by Leadbetter, groomed as the New World Teacher, his third annual address in 1929 to assembled acolytes was to step down as leader and disband the organisation, ‘truth is a pathless land’.

We had based our initial plans on working at a Krishnamurti school in Bangalore, but this had fallen through at the last minute, road closed so to speak. But I’d done my research, and the story of his early life and it’s entanglement with the Theosophical Society was in the forefront of my mind as my hands wandered the shelves. K, what do they have under K? Just the one slim volume, nestled between The Nature of Nature, on the left and The Astral Plane on the right. Education as Service by J Krishnamurti stayed in its place on the shelf.

Every home needs one

The work of the society goes on, with members all over the world, ‘from any religion or none’, encouraging the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science, and investigating the laws of nature. We left with some great reading.

Banyon tree

By now lunch was over, and so we crossed the road, signed ourselves in and strolled around the incredibly beautiful park and grounds of the society. It was quiet, a few people trundled giant gardening trolleys along the paths. There was no litter. We passed the samples of temples and churches,  Hindu, Zoroastrian, Sikh, Buddhist, Liberal Catholic, set in pretty planted vignettes, peering in where we could beyond the locked doors. An enormous banyon tree with its extraordinary self made supports covered two acres, still making its super slow motion way across the landscape, a legacy of a time when Chennai was Fort St George.

Old Chennai

A true ghost, one whose presence, despite being visible only to the sensitive, permeates much of our world, is the great Indian mathematician Ramanujan. Born locally just outside Madras, his devotion to the goddess Namagiri was equalled only by his devotion to maths. She suggested formulae in his dreams, he followed through in the day. He died aged 32. His papers are still plumbed for their secrets and his ideas are being applied across many fields: polymer chemistry, computers, astrophysics, molecular physics. A visit to a splendid science and technology park had a wonderful exhibition of his story and some fantastic hands on experiments. He is a great Indian hero.

A rangoli celebrating Pongal
Old Chennai temple
Pongal celebrations

Looking amongst the De Silva’s, the Carvalho’s, the Edward’s, the clustered slabs of the Sisters lying in little groups of five or six, I began to think we might be unlucky. Our circle widened, but a timely intervention, perhaps an intercession, by a caretaker and there it was, slightly collapsing and overgrown as a tree emerged from the generous soil beside it. We wiped away the dust, made out the inscriptions, saw the tribute to an earlier, short lived son, Noel,  pulled up a few weeds, picked up some litter. It was hot.


A few days later, we returned with water and flowers, to clean and decorate the grave. It seemed an obvious thing to do, but I’m not sure why. A tribute to a stream from further inland, perhaps.

Santhome district

Santhome cathedral

Unhand that dosa!