It took centuries for this day to arrive. The dawn of freedom was here finally. On August 15, 1947, as cries of Vande Mantaram soared in the sky, Alliance Company, a bookstore in Chennai, gave away a booklet called Desiya Geetam (which contained patriotic songs) and a sweet to whoever visited the store. After all, V Kuppuswamy Aiyar, its owner had been a witness to this long journey to freedom himself.
Way back in 1896, V Kuppuswamy Aiyar started a stationery store opposite to the Mylapore tank which became a bookstore in 1901. He also ran a general magazine called Viveka Bodhini for over 25 years. Right next to Alliance Company was the bungalow of Diwan Bahadur Raghunath Rao, which was frequented by many national leaders then. The nationalist movement for freedom gained steam after the return of Mahatma Gandhi from South Africa. “Gandhiji came in what can be considered the third stage of freedom struggle,” says Srinivasan, the third-generation owner of Alliance. Very soon, new leaders from Madras rose in prominence and became regular at the store.
“The verandah of our shop became the hangout spot for people like Salem Raghavachari, S Satyamurti and C Rajagopalachari and my grandfather got to know them. Later, he got the acquaintance of leaders like Dr Rajendra Prasad, Annie Besant, Subash Chandra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi. Every year, journalists from Madras would travel to cover the annual Congress sessions but it would just be a one-page report in the paper. My grandfather would publish all their unpublished reports as a book every year,” he says. Soon, Alliance began publishing the biographies of several leaders of the nationalist movement.
While in captivity, Subash Chandra Bose had written a series of letters to the youngsters of the Calcutta Sahitya Samaj. In 1937, Kuppuswamy wanted to publish these letters along with another book called Puthu Vazhi, which had a collection of his speeches. Netaji gave his approval for this project with a letter. “When Netaji came to Madras, he was put up at Royapettah. My grandfather went to take the final draft for his approval. But a huge crowd had gathered outside and was restless to see him. The moment he stepped outside, they got charged up. Chants of Vande Mataram in chorus unsettled the police stationed outside who began lathi charging those who had gathered there. Netaji was also badly injured in the scuffle that ensued.”
The government banned the books when they were published but not before Kuppuswamy shipped them to Ceylon, Singapore and Malaysia, where the Tamilians there read them with fervour. “Many years later, when Netaji went to Southeast Asia and formed the INA with the help of these very Indians, the Tamil books sent by my grandfather were reprinted and distributed freely. The impact of these books on the Tamilians was further verified by an INA veteran in the magazine Tughlaq many decades later,” says Srinivasan.
In 1946, when Mahatma Gandhi visited Madras, he made it a point to visit Alliance as well. Even a biography of Dr Rajendra Prasad had been published by Kuppuswamy, which was launched by Prasad in the railway station itself during a fleeting visit to the city.
When times were tough, help came from unexpected quarters, like it happened in 1933. “Somehow Rajaji got a whiff of the crisis we were facing and handed over the rights of five of his books to my grandfather and asked him to publish them.” In 1992, Cho Ramaswamy did the same to help the store. But in more than a century, Alliance only sold books which were published by them. The sole exception was the works of Bharatiyar. There is no connection to the politics of the country anymore but the history of Madras and its quest for freedom still reverberates here to this day.