Improbable Cargo

I am an early riser. During the dark winters of New England, I am up even before the sun, and that, you’ll agree, takes some doing. But though I am up, I am, usually, not about. Venturing out before the neighbors have had a chance to shovel the sidewalks is unwise, I’ve discovered, and I don’t bother getting out before 8 AM. In my South Indian hometown, Chennai, getting a head start on the day made practical sense because the sun could turn the outdoors into one giant oven, well before noon. Strangely enough, that land of three seasons – hot, hotter and hottest – once benefited directly from our frigid weather.

Late in the 19th century, ships carrying crystalline ice went from Boston to select tropical ports, including Chennai. The blocks were hewn out of the many frozen ponds that dot our landscape. Frederic Tudor, “Ice King,” had found the perfect insulating material for this precarious cargo: sawdust, a waste product of Maine’s timber mills. Later, he also sent apples with the ice. Sadly, no museum in New England exhibits the paraphernalia of the frozen water trade, ice-harvesting tools, as its centerpiece. Nor will you find prominent plaques by the sources of frozen water – some like the Fresh Pond Lake are reservoirs now – to remind us of the fantastic voyage of packed ice.

Except for a wedding cake of a building in Chennai called the Ice House, there is nothing at the other end either. The structure went up in 1842, when the city was called Madras. The British ruled India back then. The building has, of course, been remodeled extensively, but because of its location, right opposite the Marina Beach, you can easily picture loin-clothed workmen dragging ice across that wide road on wooden rollers. Currently, the building is a publishing office and is named Vivekanada House, after an illustrious Indian thinker. But ask the surliest of autorickshaw drivers to take you to Ice House and he will do it without a fuss. Chances are, he doesn’t speak English, has probably never heard of the frozen-water trade – local textbooks don’t mention it – but he won’t swear at you for giving him a hard-to-find address. That is a minor miracle: the place name lives on in the city’s collective memory, two centuries later.

Though I like to visit my hometown briefly in the winters, nothing will make me budge from New England during the summers. In those warm months when the sun doesn’t go down till late, I walk around Walden Pond, made famous by Henry David Thoreau. When he stayed in the log cabin as an experiment in simple living, the philosopher must’ve created his own water supply from thawed ice or by melting snow. Of the ice trade, he’d written: The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. To others it may be nothing more than a forgotten bit of commerce, but  the journey of ice does appear extraordinary to me, connecting as it does my two hometowns in such an unexpected way.


This essay is part of an anthology of essays inspired by New England. The book was published by Paige M. Gutenborg, the book-making robot/espresso book machine, at the Harvard Book Store. More details.

This essay is featured in The Drum Literary Magazine for your listening pleasure.
Photo Credit: Jaybee