Jane Austin

Author of Renegade and News From Nowhere

Last month I promised news from Chennai where I went in search of the early life of Eliza Raine. I met my wonderful guide, Seetharam, whose driver, Nandeeshwara, expertly drove us through zigzagging traffic and a blizzard of honking horns. His name, Nandhi, is after the bull found at every Shiva shrine, personifying strength, devotion and calm. 


We visited temples, museums, Fort St George and St Mary’s Church from the British era, as well as the market and a vast fabric emporium bursting with cottons and silks. We saw gorgeous lotus mandalas chalked on pavements, also found outside people’s homes. In Hinduism the lotus mandala became a precious symbol due to its ability to thrive in deepest mud, representing purity and rebirth. There’s one outside St Thomas Catholic Basilica and a reminder of how cultures blend and influence each other. 


We visited Kapaleeshwara Temple, bustling with devotees. The temple site is filled with statues to different gods festooned with flowers, votive offerings at their feet. Bilva leaves are proffered, also used in ayurvedic medicine. When we passed the stable of sacred cows I noticed a young worshipper petting a calf. Next, we visited the Rama Krishna Mission and Meditation hall, run by an order of Hindu monks. In the courtyard were Banyan trees with pale winding trunks and a Flame of the Forest tree bursting with bright red blooms. 


I’d been looking forward to visiting St Mary’s Church in the hope of finding baptismal records for William Raine’s girls, Eliza and Jane. We were directed to the archives department and met with interest and courtesy at my unusual request. It turned out there were no records before about 1815 and Eliza was born in 1791. I would learn later that their births wouldn’t have been recorded anyway as the parents weren’t formally married. Actually getting into St Mary’s Church was quite a challenge as the site is on government property and guarded by armed soldiers. I was briefly elevated to ‘visiting professor’ in the process of negotiation and grateful to Seetharam for navigating the bureaucratic obstacles as well as the road blocks!

Chennai is in the State of Tamil Nadu in the south east of India, and as Seetharam explained, very different from the rest of the country. It is the home of the Tamil people and Tamil is the official State language. It’s one of the longest surviving classical languages of the world. I was struck by the fact that we saw very little begging or signs of extreme poverty in the State capital, unlike in Whitechapel, London where I live. 


Towards the end of my visit, Aishwarya came to see me at the hotel with her two delightful little girls. I’d met Aishwarya in York before she moved with her husband and children back to Chennai after years as an academic in the UK. They moved in August only a month before my visit, but she still made time to email me with contacts and reassure me about the trip in the preceding months. We bid farewell with a fond embrace and hope to meet one day in York.


The people I met showed me great warmth and friendliness and were intrigued by my research. I left with vivid images of yellow auto-rickshaws, whole families on mopeds, the brilliant colours of saris, the spicy aromas from food stalls and the bustle and noise of the city as people got on with their daily lives. 

If you’d like to know more, do sign up to my monthly newsletter. And if you live near York, please come to my illustrated talk at York Explore Libraries and Archives on 22 October 2pm. I’ll also talk about my recent novel, Renegade, available to buy, or indeed borrow from the library. I hope to see you there!