Champaka Raman Pillai – The forgotten freedom fighter

Some years ago, I had introduced him in a blog ‘Emden and Pillai’. Then I alluded to him in the blog about ACN Nambiar. I think it will do justice to provide details on this gentleman from Trivandrum (I have heard many a Tamilian clamor – he is not a Malayali, he is Tamilian) , for he was at the forefront in the fight for Indian Independence, even before Gandhiji, NSC Bose and many other luminaries stepped in and wrote their names in the records of history. I don’t think many in Trivandrum or Kerala will recall this character, Oh! Forget it; most of India would not know the man behind the usage ‘Jai Hind’ that we hear uttered every now and then…

But I still wonder, how would Hitler or Goebells or Himmler have addressed him? Herr Schampak, or Herr Pillai? Pillai as it turns out was a mysterious figure, flitting in and out of different accounts and locations, without being in any of them to the end. Here below I plan to record his known life, and portray a brave soul and an interesting man, who left his mater land & its friendly shores to fight from afar.

Early days

He was born on Sept 15th, 1891 in Trivandrum to police constable (One relative mentions that the father was the Travancore royal physician) Chinnaswamy Pillai and Nagammal of the Vellala community. Pillai was greatly influenced by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and his journal, Kesari, and when Tilak was arrested and sentenced to transportation, Pillai pledged lifelong dedication to the cause of India's liberation. It was at this time that Pillai came into contact with an Englishman, Strickland, and with the latter's help left India bound for Italy when he was seventeen years old. Even from his younger days there was spirit of revolution in his blood. His thirst for freedom was so great, that during his student days in Maharaja’s College, Trivandrum, he greeted all his friends with ‘Jai Hind’ coined by him”. (See note at the end)

In the course of his short life abroad he was to meet many famous and infamous people, including Gandhiji, Nehru, ACN Nambiar, Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru, MN Roy, Chatto, Kaiser, Hindenberg, Hitler and many others in the Nazi party. He purportedly served aboard the Emden during its voyage and probably partook in its shelling of Madras living his last years in Germany, dying before the world war. All through this period, he worked for India’s freedom, though ending up choosing the wrong route and some wrong friends in the process. Some even say that he was the inspiration behind NSC Bose.

His overseas trip & scholarship He sailed out in 1908 (probably staying two years in Ceylon in exile as some put it) with Strickland, studied in Italy and Switzerland before proceeding to Germany which would then become his home for the rest of his life. He was proficient in English, French German and other languages and spearheaded the fight against the British from Germany.

He reached Italy and was able to study in the Berlin School of Languages there, and also enrolled for engineering studies. He continued education in Switzerland and finished it in Germany, securing doctorates in Engineering and Economics. An engineer armed with a dual doctorate (some have mentioned wrongly that he was a Doctor of Medicine and as Emden’s surgeon) in Political science & economics, he found employment in the German foreign office.

Anti-British activities
As a student in Berlin, he formed the Aid India International Committee that campaigned for India’s liberation. When World War I (1914-1918) broke out, he established the Indian Independence Committee and the Indian Voluntary Corps. He also set up an army camp at Mesopotamia from where he established secret contacts with Indian nationalist leaders.

Dr Champakaraman Pillai then helped set up an organization called International Pro-India Committee at Zurich before the outbreak of the World War I. During the war, Dr Champakaraman Pillai intensified his revolutionary activities. By 1914 Pillai had organized and created a revolution movement in Zurich (with the support of the German Counsel for his activities). The other members of his group were Chatto, Prabhakar & Hafiz, later joined by Har Dayal & Thara Chandar Das. All these people reached Berlin either through USA or Switzerland, two neutral states.

During the World War I in 1914, an organization was established in Germany, namely the Berlin Committee. After 1915, it was renamed the Indian Independence Committee. The organization was formed by Indian students and political activists who resided in Germany. The organization was established with the aim to promote the cause of Indian Independence. In the beginning, the organization was called the Berlin-Indian Committee. Later, this Berlin-Indian Committee played an instrumental part in the Hindu-German Conspiracy. Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, Champakaraman Pillai and Abinash Bhattacharya were the key members of the committee.

During the First World War, he is said to have printed & dropped pamphlets from airplanes among the Indian soldiers in France, exhorting them to turn against the English

Responding to “Fourteen Points” of the then President of the United States Woodrow Wilson, Chempakaraman came up with an Eight Point proposal for Indian independence. His proposal demanded the French and the Portuguese also to leave the country.

In 1919, he and American author Edwin Emerson established the League of the Oppressed People to fight for the right of every person to shape his own domestic institutions and determine their relations with others.

Chempakaraman launched Pro-India, a monthly published in German and English from Zurich, Switzerland, through which he highlighted the glorious past of India.

Another institution founded by him at Berlin was the “Orient Club.”

Post world war I After the war, Champak became a Member of the nationalist party of Germany. Champakraman Pillai was not pro-Nazi as some said, but was apparently murdered (poisoned or beaten to death) by Hitler’s goons. In the Pan German Nationalist party, he was the only non-white man to have the honor and with his shiny black complexion, was proud of the distinction. Having met Kaiser Wilhelm and claming close friendship with two important Generals, Hindenberg and Ludendorf, he was considered something of a dandy with perfect drawing room manners. Pillai was then active in the German Fatherland Party. In later years in Berlin, where he died, he remained one of the very few Indians in Germany.

After the world war when Hitler came to power, Dr Champakaraman Pillai developed a working relationship with Hitler with a hope of getting military assistance to end the British rule in India. Though he had a friendly relation with Hitler, he could not tolerate a derogatory remark made by the latter against India. This led to discordance between them and an enraged Hitler ordered the confiscation of Champakaraman Pillai’s property. This incident hurt him deeply and it turned out to be the cause of his death on May 13, 1934.

By 1930’s he had become upset with Hitlers attitude about Indians, comments about color and other principles, especially those expressed in speeches and his book. Hitler had stated that Indians deserved to be ruled by the British and stated that they were not Aryans due to the color. Finally he chose to protest, in 1931, writing a complaint to him with a deadline for an answer. While many say the letter was addressed to the fuehrer, it was actually sent to the secretary. The reply of apology apparently came one day later than Pillai required. Pillai first wanted to send the letter dated 10/12/1931 to Hitler direct, after listening to his press conference words at otel Hotel Kaiserhof in Dec 1931, but then changed his mind and sent it to the Reich Chancellor

His secret name

Many of the Indians were on the English secret service watch lists, they were all entrusted with special tasks and Pillai worked under the assumed German East African name Abdullah Bin Manzur.

Swadeshi movement
In 1924, Dr Champakaraman Pillai organized the first exhibition of Indian Swadeshi goods at the international fair held at Leipzig.

Free government of India 1915
He had the privilege of being the Prime Minister of the Provisional Government of India set up in Afghanistan in December 1915, with Raja Mahendra Pratap of Kabul as President. However, the defeat of the Germans in the war shattered the hopes of the revolutionaries. On the other hand, some documents list him actually as Foreign minister

Pillai and the INA Pillai was a forerunner of Rash Behari Bose and Subhas Chandra Bose in planning an Indian Army abroad to strike against the enemies at home. 

Marriage to Lakshmi
In 1933, Pillai met Lakshmi Bai, from Manipuri living in Berlin and they decided to get married. After a short married life, Pillai fell ill due to apparent poisoning and went to Italy for treatment. They came back to Germany but he died on May 28th, 1934. The body was cremated by Lakshmi Bai. Immediately before his death, he asked his wife to sprinkle his ashes in “Nanjilnadu” (Kanyakumari district) and the Karamana River in Thiruvananthapuram. His wish was fulfilled in September 1966. Let us now see what she has to say about her husband.

' My husband's ashes have been kept in the drawing room of my flat in Bombay, awaiting the honor commensurate with the bold, noble and self-sacrificing life led by Dr. Pillai for the sake of his motherland. When he was alive he had taken a vow that he would return to the land of his birth in a powerful warship flying the flag of the Indian Republic. But cruel fate willed otherwise and he died an untimely death on foreign soil of suspected slow poisoning. He died a crushed and wounded man in the service of his country though he was the only man in Germany who had the moral courage to challenge Adolf Hitler when the latter made disparaging remarks about India. It was because of this that both he and I suffered numerous troubles and difficulties in Germany including the loss of our flat and belongings.

'Now that India is free, independent and a republic, it is time that it carried out the cherished desire of Dr. Pillai as a mark of respect to the memory of a man who gave all his time, energy and thought for the liberation of his country. I feel it would be a most significant and noble gesture on the part of the Government if his ashes are taken from Bombay in a warship of the Indian Navy to Cochin, the biggest port in Kerala and the land of his birth and where he once landed during World War I from the German Naval Ship Emden.........

'For the past thirty years, I have preserved the ashes as the symbol of the partriot who gave his all and who gained nothing. I have lived a lone life.....I only want the dream of Dr. Pillai to be honored with me accompanying the ashes.'

'When the country becomes independent, it is not possible to forget those who achieved it. Dr. Pillai was the greatest of revolutionaries, who really carried the torch of freedom to other countries.'

After independence, she wanted to keep the memory of Dr. Pillai alive and to spread his views. She was also supported by a nephew of Dr Pillai to petition the Government of Tamil Nadu, in order to rename Fort St. George to Fort Chembakaraman but that did not seem to have gone well with the government. They erected a statue there as you can see in the picture.

Sethu Seshan, the grand-nephew of Dr. Chembakaraman Pillai adds a final note to the Chembakaraman Pillai saga by retailing the story of the doctor's `last journey.' She Lakshmi Bai, traveled with her husbands ashes from Bombay to Trivandrum aboard INS Delhi some years after Independence and immersed them in the River Karamana during a Government-sponsored function. The Dr in Emden was finally laid to rest — in Kerala.

Curiously LakshmiBai confirms the visit of Pillai to Cochin on the Emden. That Emden called on Cochin is clear and is well documented in the book Ruby Daniel of Cochin (a very interesting story of German sailors landing up for supper in a Jewish house in Cochin and the men folk of Cochin forcing the Germans to eat with their hands). Lakshmi Bai died in Bombay in 1972..

Famous ornithologist the late Salim Ali recalled “Pillai was an excellent cook and gave us delicious Indian meals prepared from ersatz masalas.”

Pillai figures in famed ornithologist Salim Ali’s autobiography, The Fall of a Sparrow. Salim Ali spent 1929-30 in Germany, during which time, in August 1929, he ran into Champakaraman Pillai who, he says, was “one of the prominent Indians settled in Berlin since before and all through World War I.” Pillai, a “fugitive” from India, was a member of what called itself the Provisional Government of India. This revolutionary group was recognised in a sort of a fashion by the Kaiser. In fact, Salim Ali writes, “Pillai claimed to have had frequent meetings with the Kaiser during the progress of the War in Europe to apprise him of the subversive propaganda (anti-British) conducted vicariously by the Provisional Government in India.” I wonder whether the story of the Emden and Pillai was part of this propaganda, a hero-building exercise. The President of the Provisional Government was Raja Mahendra Pratap from the United Provinces, a sincere but naive idealist; Pillai, on the other hand, according to Salim Ali, was “a more practical and pragmatic revolutionary.”

TC Sankara Menon writes, To Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Pillai appeared to be somewhat pompous.

Rohini another relative of Pillai says - Chempaka Raman alias Venkat had a sister named " Papathi ammal" who married a sculptor named Chetrapatha Pillai. His "Koravan Korathi statue is still available in the Trivandrum Museum. Papathi ammal had four daughters and one daughter Sarojini is still alive in Trivandrum. I'm a great great grand niece of Chempakka raman.

Strangely during Champakjaraman’s stay in Zurich, Padmanabhan Pillay was also around and partaking in the activities, but he seems to have quietly faded into the annals of history without leaving a trace. Bhupendra Nath Datta, brother of Swami Vivekananda was also a member of the movement, just as Sarojini Naidu’s brother Chatto and sister Suhasini Nambiar were members.

Emden & Pillai

A summary - Although the war had been going on for eight weeks, Müller found the city of Madras lit up like a carnival. Already aware of reports of German atrocities on the Western Front, he took pains to angle his 25 salvos of 130 shells against the fuel tanks with a minimum of error. As a result, only five people were killed and 12 injured in the destruction of 346,000 gallons of fuel worth about 8,000 pounds. The destruction was less than it might have been, but its psychological effect on the British was devastating. For days, trains were packed with people fleeing before the "mystery ship" could return; the economy of the city was affected for weeks; the raid was the talk of the bazaars for months; and the word "Emden" took its place in the Madras dialect of the Tamil language to signify "an enterprising and ingenious person."

That was the time, as rumor mills state, when the Iyer’s of Madras started to learn German, spending valuable midnight oil..

It is stated that Pillai was directing the attack from Emden -Now after so many comments for and against, I started to delve deeper into the mystery, was Pillai indeed aboard the Emden? I saw pictures & lists of survivors after the Emden was sunk, there was no Pillai. Finally I saw one reference documenting the names. The list of individual crew members does include Herr Pillai. Pillai, Dr., D., Chembakaraman, however, the linked details about Pillai are from Hindu articles. 

Update - April 2021 - I can conclude now that Pillai had nothing to do with Emden, he was still in Switzerland and there was no reason he would be on Emden. Similarly, he never met Subhas Chandra Bose after Bose arrived in Berlin in 1941 ( they met in 1933 at Vienna though) and Pillai had passed away in 1934. There are many other legends associated with Pillai which are not quite true, I will get to more details another day. Pillai's association with Strickland is an important part of the young man's life, again part of a bigger story.

Update Oct 21- Many more aspects of his life slowly emerge and we can see that some parts of widely reported sides are not quite true. For example, he was a dropout and not a double doctorate holder,  His connection with Jai Hind, also stands on thin ground. While a Manorama report ( Indugopan) and a Vande Mataram article, credit him with it, there is not much else. Germany's Asia-Pacific Empire: Colonialism and Naval Policy, 1885-1914 by Charles Stephenson also says so but I doubt if he had any corroboration. Maj Abid Hasan Zafrani is also credited with the coinage, but much more research is required to prove who was behind it. 

Chennai memorial - In July 2008, a memorial in his honor was unveiled in Chennai

Essays on freedom movement – Raj Kumar
Article by N Daniel Rose “A Forgotten Fighter” ,The New Indian express Dec 4,2007
Intelligence and imperial defense - Richard James Popplewell ( Pg 222,223)
Pillars of modern India, 1757-1947 - Sayed Jafar Mahmud (Pg 72)
The story of Emden
Wiki article
Vande article
Hindu article & this second article
India in Axis strategy - Milan Hauner
Curt Prüfer, German diplomat from the Kaiser to Hitler - Donald M. McKale
Madras Presidency in Pre-Gandhian Era - Saroja Sundararajan

Note: Not much could be learned about this Strickland. He is variously named in books as John Strickland, Walter William Strickland, with a knighthood or being an Earl at times and is claimed to be different things such as a wealthy landlord, zoologist and even a German spy in Trivandrum. 

Added comment - I have since the original posting acquired considerable information on Pillai's life, including his connections with Strickland.

Kuriyedathu Thathriyude SmartaVicharam

(Tatri’s trial of Chastity)

There are two Malayalam books written on this historical subject, one being the book with the above name by Alankode Leelakrishnan and the other titled Kuriyedathu Thathri by VT Nandakumar. Then there is the book written by Mathampu Kunjukuttan (Brashtu) and its translation by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan (Outcaste) based on the same theme. There is also the famous story Goddess of revenge (Pratikara Devata) by Lalithambika Antherjanam about this Tathrikutty. Some aspects have been serialized in the Mathrubhumi weekly in the 1998-99 time frame. Look around India today, every now and then there is some place or the other which hosts a ballet or a play based on this story in one language or the other. A good Malayalam movie came out some years ago with this ex-communication trial as the basis, named ‘Parinayam’. So much is said and written about this topic, so what is this all about?

Even today the mention of Thathri sets the nerves jangling in Kerala, for it has all the elements needed, sordidness, inequality, religion, caste, illicit sex, guilt, drama, emotion, anger, helplessness….the list goes on. The story is still alive and the above mentioned books have been sold out like hot cakes, even my own search over continents have not yielded a single spare copy of the first two books, including entreaties to authors & book sellers. Nevertheless, I have managed to put together a plausible account of what happened after extensive searches and will outline it for those who have not had a chance to read the above books.

But first a general commentary on the times and the rigors imposed by the caste system in Malabar. Between the 1200-1900 time frame, the Nambuthiris held sway in Kerala on top of the caste hierarchy. They were wealthy landowners and had many rights over people of the other lower castes including the Nayars. With the firm intent to hold title to the lands in their possessions and ensure that they are not diluted, the caste practicing a patriarchal system (rest of Malabar was typically matrilineal) decided that only the eldest son of a family should marry. This meant that the younger brothers could not have wives, but to offset it were allowed to have formal Sambandhams with Illath Nair women. 

But that left one group of people isolated, the Namboothiri women (Also the eldest Namboothiri could marry more than one Namboothiri woman, and they did so, until a ripe age). So some of these Antherjanams (people inside the house) as Namoothiri women are called, married, but some had very unsatisfactory lives or in some cases did not marry at all. Antherjanams were usually sequestered in their homes and always went around fully shrouded & escorted. Should an Antherjanam be suspected of unchaste behavior, the punishment was severe, for after a trial, they were excommunicated and cast out into the roads. Some of these outcastes were picked up by the Mannanars or Chakiyars of North Malabar (See my blog on this subject) and provided asylum. Some married lower caste people and settled down in anonymity. Some went crazy and wandered the streets like beggars. The trial that was conducted according to the Sankarasmriti or Laghudharma Prakashika was generally weighted heavily against the woman and she had little chance of winning. The witnesses were always against her and the caste system rigors ensured this went on for ages, in fact close to a thousand years.

As such, the entire Namboothiri life was patterned to ensure the virginity of the Antherjanam. In those times, the morning ritual bath, chanting of hyms and work in the kitchen were the only activities of the Antherjanam was allowed. Their travel was limited to the temples or to the house of their immediate relatives, but that too had to be accompanied by a maidservant. Thus, Namboodiri Brahmin women of Kerala were surrounded by an entire screen carried by female servants. "Namboothiri women carry with them an umbrella wherever they go out, to prevent them from being seen by men. They also should be covered with a cloth from head to foot, and should not wear jewels. A Nayar woman should precede her and watch her movements. All these were rules laid down by Parasu Rama." [Thurston]

Namboothiri men were allowed to take many wives or consorts, leaving many women to the sorrow of sharing in grief her undivided devotion to the husband, for women must be strictly monogamous. The evil consequence of the practice that only the eldest son marries from the same community directly affected the Antherjanam. Many women remained unmarried and died without experiencing the bliss of motherhood. As the marriage of widows was forbidden, there were many young widows who were the prey of a husband's old-age marriage. The widows were objects of contempt in the community. The women were an absolutely neglected group in the Namboothiri community; the men treated them as creatures whose limited needs were believed to be only dressing, bathing and sleeping
{Fr. Pallath J. Joseph – Women and caste Discrimination}

It was finally in 1905 that the shackles were broken by one woman. Call her brave, cunning, callous, whatever, but she was the first to rebel. This is the story of that beautiful Namboothiri Antherjanam who decided to use her body to lash out at society. She was Thathri. Let us now see what happened.

One fine day, a wealthy and aged but promiscuous Namboothiri man, reaches the bedroom of a well known and desirable prostitute. After a very satisfactory session, he finally gets to see her face and recoils in utter shock when he realizes that this was none other than his own young wife. The man flees the place and raises a hue and cry (as narrated in one Lalithambika's fictional retelling, but the real story of how the husband made a formal complaint of adultery is quite convoluted ). Soon the antherjanam known as Kuriyedathu Thathri is secluded according to the norms and a Smartavicharam trial (at the end of the story is a small description of the Smartavicharm) is launched. The Cochin King as required sanctions it. The public interest was huge, for rumor had it that the lady was a very clever and apparently popular person with much ammunition up her sleeve.

This sensational Smaartha Vichaaram involved Savithry (Thaathri) the wife of Chemmanthatta Kuriyedathu Raman Namboodiri, and daughter of Kalpakasseri Ashtamoorthi Namboodiri of Mukundapuram Taluk. The Smartan who administers Vedic laws is none other than the famed Jathavedan Namboothiri of the Perumannan gramam. Thathri is sitting in a special outhouse (Achanpura or pacholapura) built for seclusion and imprisonment during the trail. She has no problems at all and seems serene and ready to face the questioning. Unlike other timid prisoners, this is a proud and beautiful lady who had controlled many weak men above her for the last few years. She was not intimidated. Savithri was known for her beauty and she had been married off at the age of 18 to a 60 year old man .

The smarthan (prosecutor) and three Namboothiri scholars questioned Thaathri, who accepted all the charges but stated that the rule of law has to be administered equally. If she had to be pronounced guilty, so should the people who slept with her. They were people of supposedly high moral standing, and with that basis Thathri revealed the names of well-known scholars, musicians, kathakali artists and many other prominent people of that time, not only of the Kochi state but also the entire Malabar belt, who had slept with her. She also presented strong evidence to substantiate her charges including visual and written evidence (letters written by lovers, prominent marks on genital areas etc).

The pillars of the caste system started trembling. The King was in trouble and the public uproar severe. So against norms where only Thathri would have been implicated, the King agreed to administer equal justice. The reader must note here that a normal Smartavicharam involved only the lady and not the men. However, based on the Kings ruling, the Smartan questioned the involved men as well and convicted the guilty. It was thus a landmark case. As the names started coming out, the number of nervous men increased. Many ran away, escaped to other nations even, many others conducted poojas so that Thathri would forgot their names & features (for she had to provide proof of physical characteristics of the men too). It is said that the lady was finally made to stop at man # 64. Salacious gossip to the effect that the 65th was probably going to the king himself went around like wildfire. It is said in jest that she could in theory have named not just 65, but 60,000, but the case was finally curtailed,

The verdict was pronounced on the night of July 13, 1905, indicting all the accused and of course Thaathri. They included 30 Namboothiris, 10 Iyers (Pattars or Tamil Brahmanans), 13 Ambalavaasis and 11 Nairs. Thaathri was sent to Chalakudy and settled as an intern in a riverside home, under tight security. The 64 victims left their homes humiliated, some living on bare subsistence allowance and some, begging. Another two ("Ambalavaasis") had died and hence not proceeded against.

The long list of victims of smartha vicharam had a disastrous effect on the cultural scene in Kerala. Celebrated kathakali artists like Kavungal Sankara Panikkar, Kaattalathu Madhavan Nair, Panangavil Govindan Nambiar, Achytha Poduval and many others had to leave their fields & professions. Following this event the Cochin Raja mentioned that future ‘SmarthaVicharanam’s’ required a large deposit in the state treasury for the reason that such public embarrassments (naming of prominent men) do not take place arbitrarily.

In the ‘Pratikaradevata’ rendition, Thathri’s husband brings home a prostitute after a few days of married life, shaming her and asks her deprecatingly & mockingly to become one herself. She becomes one, becomes rich & infamous and eventually has a paid liaison with her husband one day when he comes to her as a client, but not knowing who she is. He congratulates her for the excellent performance, cleverness and manners, wanting to live with her forever and when she removes her veil, flees in shock to later start the process of the trial and subsequent Smartavicharam. Pavitran in his book states that she was sexually exploited by her father and brother in law and thus she had all the reasons for revenge.

One could always dwell on Thathri’s actions and discuss at length the morality behind them. It is for this reason that it continues to be an enigma, discussed for many decades after the happenings. Did she lash out at society to decry the norms? Was it revenge or vendetta? Was she a nymphomaniac? One can never conclude due to the fact that Thathri herself never talked about her actions other than making a clear demand for equal justice and admitting guilt. One could also question how she had the courage to do what she did and if she acted alone or with support from certain quarters. Nevertheless, the intrigue remains. Three things still confound me, the promiscuity of this 60 year old Aphan Namboothiri, tathri’s husband, secondly did Thathri get paid or demand compensation for her acts and how and where Thathri conducted the secret liaisons given the strict situation in the Illams and even temples in those times.

And whatever happened to Thathri? Thaathri was sent to Chalakkudy and settled as an intern in a riverside home, under tight security, at least for some time. However, Pavithran in his book British Commission to India states that she married an Anglo Indian gangman from the Indian Railways and settled down in Coimbatore. Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, the translator of the book Outcaste, believes Thathri lived to the ripe old age of 80, somewhere in Tamil Nadu.

As Alalcode Leelakrishnan narrates “In this wasteland, near Arangotkara opposite the Kartiyayani temple, stood once upon a time, the famous Kalpakassery Illam, where Thathri grew up. She was born at an inauspicious hour; her father had stated then that she would grow up to be the curse of the family. She talked to the flowers here. She saw butterflies here and learnt to dream. A century has passed. But no one still lives here anymore. Villagers see it as a cursed piece of land.”

Thathri grew up as a bold and outspoken but vivacious girl, who spoiled the sleep, but enriched the dreams of many a man, old and young. Bewitchingly beautiful, she argued and revolted often against traditions e.g. such as women were not allowed to get educated, talk back etc. And so that was Kuriyedathu Thathri, a multifaceted personality who had in-depth knowledge of literature and was an ardent adorer of Kathakali, a woman who played with destiny. Did she win or did she lose? You decide.

Notes – Mathambu Kunjukuttan, the author of Brashtu is the grandson of the Smartan Jatavedan Namboothiri, the Smartan who tried Thathri. Two of his brothers were among the 64 men who had been excommunicated. “It’s such an irony,” he says. “My grandfather was the judge, and a woman who is accused, stands before him and tells him to look into the records of his own brothers.”

A second Thathri case took place in 1918. Here again another Savithri (Thatri) was involved, but was from the Pazhur paduthol Illam and12 men were involved. The same Jathavedan Nambuthiri was the Smarthan involved. This Savithri Thathri married a Muslim after excommunication but did not live long, and her daughter from this union married a Chakiar….

Following the Thathri case, a few revolutionary Namboothiri men formed a council called Yogakhsemam where they promoted ideas such as abolishing of Sambandham and the relaxation of marriage rules for all Namboothiri men.

T Vasudevan in his report on SamrtaVicharam (Sri Venkateswara Univ Oriental Journal – XLIV) states –

Jatavedan was the smarta and the trial took place in three different places in Cemmantitta, Pallimanna and Irinjalakuda. After the customary trial he gave a report to the king of Kochi. Meanwhile the Sabha of the sajjana had met together and requested the king that since time had changed a hearing for men also should be conducted. The king was convinced of this argument and ordered the smarta to conduct a trial of the men involved in the case. It is interesting to note that the High Court of Madras had clearly ordered that the declaration of men involved in illicit intercourse as outcaste was illegal since the men were not properly charge sheeted or nor had the opportunity to cross examine the woman or argue in defense. The report of Jatavedan as mentioned above indicates that it was not customary to record the minutes of the trial containing information obtained form the 'sadhana' and also in the case of Kuriyetattu Tatri such a procedure was followed in the traditional way. But since it become necessary to hear the accused men by the royal order he had to write down briefly the matters regarding the men involved also. In the same manner the smarta heard what the accused men had to say about the lady's allegations. Some documents were also submitted by the men accused. After the trial the smarta reported that sixty-four men were involved in the scandal and two of them were dead. As a result sixty two men were excommunicated from the society along with the accused lady.But the smartavicara trials were not always conducted with so much fairness and justice as found in the case of Tatri which was an exceptional one. In the patriarchical society all powers were with the men and the co-accused men easily influenced the smarta with money and material and often arranged escape. According to William Logan several cruel punishments were inflicted upon the accused woman by the doubting menfolk in order to compel her to admit the crime

The relevant records kept in the Central Archives in Ernakulam contain the names of all the 66 males indicted in that case, listed and certified by Smaarthan Pattachomayarath Jathavedan Namboodiri dated Mithunam 32, 1080 ME (mid-July, 1905).

Further reading

Thathrikuttiyude Smarthavicharam - Alankode Leelakrishnan
Kuriyedathu Thathri, Nandan -VT Nandakumar
Cast me out if you will – Lalithambika Antherjanam
Brashtu by Madampu Kunhukuttan
Outcaste – M Kunhukuttan, translation by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan
Parinayam – Malayalam Movie
The British Commission – Pavithran

Picture – I am grateful for the painting ‘Smarthavicharam’ by Namboothiri made available in Google images.

No disrespect is meant in any comment or statement made. Should any reader feel so please send a specific note with suggested corrections to the author for review. As such the article is based on historic events, with an effort put in to make it readable and provide brevity.

SmartaVicharam - A brief description

Whenever a Namboothiri Antherjanam’s chastity is doubted, she is handed over to her society for enquiry, no considerations for personal affections or public policy intervening. The suspect is transferred to an isolation shed (Achampura or Pacholapura). First a ‘Desivicharam’ is conducted where her maid is cross examined. Then a formal request for Smartavicharam is filed with the required monetary deposits made and the local king rules if one should be conducted. The maharaja then appoints a Smartan (Vedic arbitrator) and names his assistants for the case. A couple of observers (Akakkkoyimma and Purakoyimma) are also appointed. The enquiry & questioning is very ritualistic and goes on for days and sometimes weeks or months. During this period the entire group has to be maintained by the affected girl’s father. Finally a verdict is reached (if guilty) and the girl is evicted from her caste and funeral rites are conducted for her. Until then she is considered inanimate or as a ‘Sadhanam’. After trial she is considered dead, her umbrella and white coverings are removed, and she is cast of into the streets.

For further details, refer

Books mentioned in Para#1

Malabar Manual – Logan
Castes & tribes of Southern India – E Thruston
Nambuthiris – Fred Fawcett

The Alfonso mango & Albuquerque

It is mango season again and we had Raji talk to us about that some days ago in her blog. Here in California, we get the Manila and Mexican varieties, especially the ‘Kilimookan’ or Kilichundan mampazham (Totapuri) breed. They are reasonably priced and usually sweet. Indian varieties are exorbitant and you really balk at spending so much and not being sure of what you get eventually when you sink your teeth into a $3 mango wrapped in some plastic padded sheaths. But then of course, there is no harm or expense in talking about our heavenly varieties, of that I am sure and so here is a short note on the Alphonso mango, with a mention of the Malgoa as well.

In Kerala we are more used to the Malgova (Malgoa or Mulgoba). Some of you may remember the 1967 song ‘mampazha thotathil, malgova aanu nee, masangalil nalla kanni masam’. It means, you are the Malgova in the mango orchard and you are the Kanni month of the year. Today it would not be too amusing to any girl if you address her as a mango (and if you listen to the rest of the song, you will agree not to sing it at all for she is equated to the kariveeti tree and a sindhi cow), but during yester year’s times with buxom, dark & and well endowed actresses, especially in Malayalam movies, it was probably a great compliment (or so I assume). Anyway the song was popular and we have all grown up eating the Malgoa mango. For the curious here is a link to the song, give it a good listen…

Then again, we find fault with the Portuguese every now and then and any student in history would term the turning point of Malabar history as the landing of Gama in Kappad near Calicut in 1498. They did make a mess of many a thing, but they did one or two good things. While bringing tobacco to Malabar was not so nice, bringing the cashew was a great thing and their experiments with mangoes resulted in the Malgoa and of course, the Affonso variety or the Alphonso (Affonso is Alphonso in English)

That takes me on a tangent; I still remember our trip to Edison’s house in Fort Myer’s in Florida (Oh! No, I am not that old, but I did visit his house a few years ago, which is the Ford Edison museum. Ford lived across Edison’s house). Among the tasks given to the inventor during the great wars was to find a substitute for rubber as the seas were being patrolled by German ships and were being mined here & there. So Edison went about systematically collecting all kinds of tropical tress and planting them in Florida, to check the prospects of getting a crop that will provide the required rubbery sap. Obviously all that was left after his death was the lab and a beautiful house with all kinds of tress. It has a fascinating banyan plant and many mango trees. As we walked by, we saw plenty of mangoes lying on the ground, which we picked up much to the consternation of our younger son who was alarmed, and who thought it was a crime. They tasted OK, not great anyway. We also had a fun time explaining to the public what the jack fruit was all about (see an earlier blog).

Anyway let us now get back to the Portuguese and mangoes. As the Portuguese found increasing resistance at Malabar, they established base at Goa and settled down into creating a little colony. Somehow they seemed to take to the local fruit, the Mango, which is a native to India and was many thousands of years old (it is mentioned from Vedic times). A clever friar who was also an avid gardener started trying out grafting experiments with various varieties and as the Portuguese went back & forth between colonies, took some saplings to Brazil. One of the experimental grafts in Brazil provided a perfect fruit, the variety eventually baptized Affonse. This came back to India in the 16th or 17th century and is the revered version of Alphonso that we know today. That is the gist of the story. But then again, there are some people who may have a deeper interest and many questions. For those people, here is some more meat, or as they say some more flesh around the seed, just like a juicy Alphonso.

But before going there, let us first bless and thank the friar who grafted & bred the Alphonso mango to perfection and gifted it to us mortals, as his compatriots and Cassados were making merry, breeding and cross breeding with our local populace. That was a long time after Alexander’s experience, now some of you may recall my mention in an earlier blog that Alexander’s troops got thoroughly sick (dysentery) eating large numbers of mangoes, he even banned them from eating the fruit to stay healthy.

First the popular write up about the Alphonso - It is named after Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese administrator of Goa & Malabar & admiral. The locals took to calling it Aphoos in Konkani and in Maharashtra the pronunciation got further transformed to Hapoos. This variety was then taken to the Konkan region of Maharashtra and other parts of India. In one of the famous journeys undertaken, the Brazilian graft found its way during Alphonso D’Albuquerque’s voyage when he brought his famous namesake fruit to India. So, the Alphonso mango found home along the verdant shores of the Konkan in Maharshtra India.
Is that really how it was? Did it have any connection to the Albuquerque? Was it a Brazilian breed? In reality, it is all due to Niculao Alfonso or Niculao Affonso, not Albuquerque. So the connection to the governor is fictional. But considering a number of other names given to mangoes, it must have been after St Alphonso Rodriguez of Spain, another Jesuit. Niccolo Manucci writing in the 17th century (Pg 169) is clear that the names were given after the people who created them and so credits the Alphons to Niccolo Alphonso. Goan mangoes eventually turned out to be excellent breeds.

Botanically the fruit is from the Mangifera Indica species. It was ‘Mankay’ or ‘mampazham’ and in the North it was called Am or Amba, but the Portuguese were the first to call it Mangay which became mango,. It is not that the Indians did not know grafting; it was just that the Portuguese in Goa perfected it based on European methods. The Chinese had taken it with them in the 7th Century – Huwen Tsang records the event. Either the Portuguese (15th-16th Century) or the Arabs traders (as early as 7th-10th century) transported the fruit & seeds to Africa, from India. The Portuguese took it to South America and their African colonies later.

Some fun trivia

Ammini – She has her base obliquely flattened, without any cavities; apex rounded, the neck conspicuous and surface smooth, deep in color, overspread with dull scarlet particularly around the base, skin thick and firm; flesh bright orange-yellow in color, melting in the mouth, very juicy, strongly aromatic, free from fiber, and of sweet unusually spicy flavor; quality excellent. With so many Ammini’s now grown in Florida, no wonder so many Malayalees have also taken root in Florida, at last count there were over many tens of thousands of Mallus there. Incidentally Ammini is from the Alphonso family. BTW Alphonso is more vigorous than the Mulgoa and bears fruits frequently.

British actor Terence Stamp who recently acted in Valkyrie, says that his favorite food is Alfonso mangos. Stamp once told an interviewer that he liked to eat them in the bath. "Eating a mango is like having sex," he said. "It has to be dirty to be good." And adds " I always say unless you've had an Alfonso mango you've never had a mango."

Mango trick – In the 16th to 18th century, Yogis and magicians used to perform the mango trick, of planting a seed in the ground and in minutes showing the plant springing up, becoming a tree, bearing fruit and then vanishing, much to the amazement of the onlooker. Now don’t ask me more about this, all I can say is that it is well reported and documented by the ‘firangis’.

Mango diplomacy – See the cartoon? It is Zia Ul haq advising his ambassador ‘deliver the mangoes first and the bomb later’.Mango box gifts have been a standard feature in Indo Pak discussions.

Of recent, it is part of India - US diplomacy as well; US prohibited mango import from India for many long years. To tell you an interesting story, in 1960, during a state visit by Nehru, Alphonso mangoes imported from Bombay were served for Nehru’s state dinner with JF Kennedy by BK Nehru, the Indian ambassador. There was a caveat, after dinner, all seeds were to be collected & handed over to the USDA for incineration. May 2007, heralded the lifting of the US ban and the ushering of the mango madness as they call it out here in USA….

Legend has it that it was Hanuman who brought the sacred tree to India from Lanka. As his theft was discovered he was given a trial of fire, which he extinguished, but got his face scarred black, by the flames. But that story cannot be quite right as there is another story that as a child he saw the sun and thought it was a ripe mango and jumped at it, getting singed. So he did know about mangoes before he grew up and went to Lanka in support of Rama!

My mother always made us eat a green (not ripe) mango or take at least a bite from mango pickles for luck before going for exams. Whether that or my studies brought me loads of good results, I can’t be sure of. Mango leaves are part of many Hindu religious activities.

The varieties
Fernando do Rego states - The following is an alphabetical list including many of the one hundred and six varieties that existed or still exist in Goa and are of Goan origin, as particularly after 1961, many varieties from other Indian States were introduced in Goa: Abreu, Afonsa, Afonsinha, Amini, Anands, Araujo, Araup, Areca, Aruda, Aurea, Babio, Barasmasi, Barreto, Bastarda, Bemcorada, Bispo, Bolo, Bombio, Brindão, Burgó, Camões, Carreira, Carreira Branca, Chimut, Cidrão, Colaço, ColaçoBranca, Conde, Costa, Cola, Custodio, Derrubada, Diniz, Dom Bernardo, Dom Fernando, Dom Filipe, Dom João, Doura­do, Dourada, Dulce, Durbate, Fernandina, Ferrão, Figueiredo, Filipina, Fottio, Frederico, Frias, Furtado; Gargó, Godgó, Hilário, Japão, Jerónimo, Jesuíta, Joanni-Parreira, José, Kapri, Madame, Malaia, Mainato, Malgessa (Eccondó Malgessa and Pocddó Malgessa), Malcorada, Malgoa, Marichenan, Marchon, Matekin, Mateus, Matutina, Máxima, Miranda, Mirió, Mogri, Mon­serrate de Bardez orMonserrate Branco), Monserrate de Salsete (orMonserrate Vermel­ho),Monteiro, Mozambique, Mrina; Naik, Nicolau-Afonso, Nossa Senhora Agua-de-Lupe; Oliveira; Papel, Papel Bela, Papel Branco, Pires, Porto, Reário, Rebello, Reinol, Rosa, Rosário, Sacarina, Salgada, Salgadinha, Santana, Santiago. Santo António, Secretina, Severino, Sonar, Tanque, Temudo, Timor, Timoteo, Toranja, Tokio; Undurli, Xavier.
There were evidently no established criteria for attributing the names, as they adopted surnames and the Christ­ian names of saints and kings. They were also influenced by questions of size, flavor, scent and other qualities.

While all the Portuguese names are male, the Indian names (recent breeds) are always female – Amarapalli, Ammini, Neelam, Mallika, Neeleshwari, Ratna, Hussenara, Sofia, Laila Majnu….There are of course famous varieties like the Badshahbhog, Rani-Pasand , Langra, Gopal Bhog , Fazli Brindamani, Satiar, Suryapuri, Satiar, Mohan Bhog, Kishan Bhog, Himshagar and Ashina. Another brilliant variety is the Kesar from Gujarat, a personal favorite. It is considered the queen of mangoes. My brother however maintains that the ‘Banganapalli’ is king.

Hopefully all of you will bite into some good mangoes this season...


The Mango - Richard E Litz
Storia do Mogor - Niccolaò Manucci, William Irvine
Hobson Jobson dictionary
Manual of tropical and subtropical fruits - Wilson Popenoe
Portuguese Vocables in Asiatic Languages - Xavier S Anthony, Sebastiao R Dalgado
Mangoes - Fernando do Rego
A good article

Pic – Cartoon extracted from the book ‘A tryst with mango - By Om Prakash, R. M. Khan’

Amity & Enmity – Part II

The Case of Calicut

I still remember that day, many years ago, as we were returning from Italy (my friend KP & I had gone to Rome and Genoa on business) when we heard about the plague outbreak in Surat. We were destined for Riyadh. The last plane allowed in from Bombay had landed ahead of us. We were confident that we would not have issues as our plane was coming from Rome, but the immigration officer spent ages checking all the passport stamps to see if we had connected from Bombay via Rome, which of course would be the most stupid thing to do (Obviously he had no inkling of Geography or knowledge of ticket fares) but well some of these guys are probably of different intellect, so we left it at that and waited patiently.

At the customs line, a Malayali laborer was standing ahead of me. The Saudi Customs officer took his meager belongings, an air bag with AIR INDIA or something like that painted across it and dumped the whole bag on the inspection platform., Out tumbled some old clothes and not much else. The moron of an inspector looked disgusted, then wrinkled his nose & eyes and asked with the usual arrogant air

Naam, Hindi ? (Hey - Are you Indian?)
Obviously our friend has only a general idea what the question is
He replies nonchalantly in English ‘No, Kerala, Malayalam’
The officer gets irate; he asks now ‘Kallam Arabi? Kallam Urdu?’
Translation – ‘do you speak Arabic or Urdu?’
Again our friend looks confused, but replies firmly – ‘No Urdu, not Arabi, I am Malayali, I speak Malayalam, English’.
The exasperated officer rolled his eyes and asked him to pack up and move on..

I smiled, as you could see, for our man in the queue; it was a simple world, his Kerala, his Malayalam. That was his life & identity.

Now what, a Malayali identity? Well, let us leave it here for a moment and get back to that later.

I have often studied the Calicut Moplah (Muslim). As a history enthusiast, especially Malabar history, I read quite a bit about this community of Malabar, their ways of life, their history and to a certain extent have a decent understanding of some of the reasons behind their frustrations and disappointment. Though many say that even today, Vasco D agama won’t get lost in Calicut, but for the Mappilas, it has been a long time since the days when Malabar shores hosted Islam as a new religion, probably the first place in the Indian shores where Islam was introduced side by side with the other cultures like Jews, Armenians, Turks, Arabs, Syrian Nestorians, Parsis and the Roman Yavanas.

The Arab traders had a habit of moving troubled spots soon, like they moved from Quilon to Cranganaore to Calicut. Noting this, the rulers were careful to ensure that they stayed and were not affected by stringent taxes or rules. The Arab seafarers who settled down in the Malabar shores married lower caste Hindu’s and later created the Moplah Community (they were also allowed to marry excommunicated women from various upper caste Hindu communities). Nobody was persecuted in the name of religion and it will be interesting for many to note that to this date Anjuvanam is recorded as the only place in the world that was formally decreed to a Jewish community and Malabar was probably the only place they were never persecuted (more on that another day) The children or the Moplah community were never persecuted and lived side by side with the other communities of Malabar. It is said that some even participated as Chavers in the Zamorin wars, giving their own lives in the process. The amity extended to the lords as well, look at the story of Lord Ayappan and Vavar that I wrote about some months ago.

As I studied the subject, I was surprised to note that there was segregation between the Paradesi Muslim traders and the local Moplah’s in the medieval times (Kerala Pazhama – Gundert). It was news to me that the local Moplah’s were kept out of the Indian Ocean trade while some rich Tharavadi Muslim families and the Marakkars kept at it. The minority that was by now composed of Moplah’s started to surge in population with the Rowther’s who came with Tipu and Hyder and concentrated on local, petty trade. Towards the 18th century the community had grown to about 25% of the population of Malabar. By the turn of the 19th century, the British had cast anchor in the Malabar administration and the last of the Paradesi traders and Yonka’s (i.e.the Yavana category of westerners e.g. Venetians, Spaniards…) were gone. A wedge that had been thrust into the Nair Moplah relationship during the Kunjali Marakkar fiasco was pushed deeper in but a number of succeeding actions. What were those actions?

I traced their fortunes from the good old trading times in Kayalpatanam (Tuticorin) & Quilon, their free reign in Malabar and movements through Caranganore, Ponnani and Calicut and the times friction first started between the Hindu & Muslim communities in owing to the death of Kunhali. The first was Zainuddin’s introduction of the concepts of Shahid’s and Jihad in Malabar as a method of community retaliation. Zainuddin Mukkadam of course made it amply clear that the Jihad should be directed at the Portuguese and not at the Zamorin and his people. Fortunately no misdirected actions took place, but the concept took roots. As the Portuguese rose in power and brought in quotas, fixed prices and Cartezas (permits) the Muslim trader felt his livelihood threatened. Some moved to the Far East and Ceylon, some went to northern ports.

However further marginalization by the entry of state organizations (both at Malabar & Travancore) into trade during the Dutch time, resulted in a dire threat to the trading community of Moplah’s. Small fracas and discontentment between them continued through the Dutch period and then it all got exacerbated during the Mysore Sultan’s march into Malabar when the Moplah’s initially sided with the Sultans in the name of religion.

The ‘nattunadappu’ was that land could be owned primarily by Nairs &Namboothiris. This resulted in the Muslims concentrating on the sea shore areas and never owning cultivable land. It was around this time (16th century) that rumors of Hyder’s aggressive move into Malabar started. Many Moplahs immediately felt that their savior was on the way. As the ‘padayottakkalam’ continued during the regime of Hyder and his tyrant son Tipu, many landowners fled Nediyiruppu – Malappuram areas of Malabar and took refuge in Travancore, selling or gifting their land to the Moplahs. This seemed good for the Moplah in the beginning, but when Hyder and later Tipu demanded that Moplah’s also pay land taxes, many Moplah’s found reason to rebel.

Soon the British took over the reins of governance and much to the consternation of the ill educated Moplah, found them siding with the ruling aristocracy. Without representation for their own castes, things went from bad to worse. British policies and land tenancy conflicts made it worse and the relationship soured further. Rebellions and various riots sprung up through the dark days of the late 19th century and early 20th Century, culminating in the famous Moplah rebellion of 1921.A small number of Moplah’s even migrated to Pakistan as Mujahir’s though most remained in Malabar joined hands in the fight against British rule.

Continuing into the 20th century, the Moplah’s had their representative political party, the Muslim league. Though the system of Madrassas and Arabic education continued, a minority stood up, got well educated and went on to become scholars, writers and representatives of their community in the mainstream life of Kerala. Once the oil boom and the exodus of the youngsters of the Muslim community to the Gulf started, the apparent ingress of wealth kept the community contended. The priorities had by now changed from trading to other matters. Muslim land ownership, spread into the city away from the earlier settlements at the beach, integration continued with other communities, intermingling and participation in each others festivities increased, the cuisine and language started to blend. Slowly Calicut as a focal city was starting to get back to its multi cultural and adaptive roots. Look at the customs of Calicut, nowhere else would you see so much intermingling of customs between the religions. Clothes, cuisine, celebration of festivals, marriages, inheritance rules…

So this was how the distinct Malayali or Keralite identity evolved, based on a common language, which unites the Hindus, Muslims and Christians of Kerala and sets them apart from other Indians. This also explains why in Kerala, unlike in large parts of north India, there are no separate Muslim ghettos. Muslims and others live, by and large, in the same mixed localities.

With the mismatch in the wealth status as well as education between the Hindus and Muslims of Kerala brought back on even keel by the 21st century, the situation should have started to look even brighter except for two things. The first was related to the status of Muslims in other parts of India and the touting of brotherhood & jihad. The second was the growing influx of Wahabism & Middle Eastern brands of Shariya rule channeled through some Gulf returnees. Many a youngster loitered around, away from the mainstream, and some got misguided by the talk of purported atrocities in Kashmir, Bosnia, Iraq and so on. The manipulators were at work and getting busier by the minute.

Well meaning people started to wonder and mutter, will we continue to have amity or are we going to have religious enmity & animosity in Kerala? Will we really handle religious diversity effectively? Will we have home grown terrorists? Though a small number of such termites and worms came out of the woodwork, and though there were rumors of ISI plotters in Malappuram towns, hiding amongst the populace, nothing dire happened. Many wondered why Ayodhya smoldered and Calicut did not. Many wondered why Ahmedabad smoked and cried but Calicut did not.

A brilliant scholar studied all this in depth (close to a decade) and wrote a book covering such matters and a layman like me laid hands on it. The scholar’s name is Ashutosh Varshney and the book is titled ‘Ethnic Conflict and Civic life’. In researching for 10 years before writing the book he visited certain towns and cities with high Muslim concentration and studied the reasons behind relative communal harmony between Muslims and Hindus of Calicut (in the book he compares Aligarh with Calicut, Hyderabad with Lucknow and Ahmedabad with Surat). While Varshney has not given the historic relations deep thought for they were instrumental in the original bond & relationship, he has also not explored the firm knot of the relations to the Moplah honesty in trade. Varshney has however focused on modern day pointers like education, communal relations, good politics, civic engagement etc.

In the otherwise fine analysis, he missed focus on two aspects, the original and deep rooted historic amity spanning many centuries (unlike Aligarh), and the second aspect of relations of religion & caste in trade. While in North Indian cities, the Muslims competed with Hindu Vaisyas for mastery in domestic trade, the trade in Malabar was always handled by the Pardesi Muslims and local Moplahs. Though there were minority communities of Tamil Chettys & Gujarati Banias, it was mostly in Moplah hands, until the Portuguese came. So as you can see there was no trade animosity as such.

I do not plan to get into great details of the thesis by Varshney, but will explain some basic conclusions in his comparison between riot hit Aligarh with peaceful Calicut. While there are ‘community splitters’ in Aligarh, there are ‘community joiners’ in Calicut. Calicut has an inter-communal structure whereas Aligarh has an intra-communal and segregated structure. In Calicut not only do inter-communal links exist, they also flourish. Calicut’s inter-communal civic engagement makes it hard for polarizing politics to emerge and thus checks political violence. Even though the exogenous shocks of the Malabar riots could have destroyed the relations, clamor for land reform and social justice repaired much of the damage later, if not all. Though there are still termites biting away at the base, the wall might stand the test of time. In the end the demand for social justice, civil rights for lower castes and education for all, became more important in places like Calicut as part of people’s life struggles and happiness. That was the victory of Calicut.

It is this special identity that is borne out in Varshneys figure – At Calicut, 83% of the community ate with members of the other, 90% reported that their children played with the other, and 84% reported that they visited each other on a regular basis. And that friends, is what amity is all about. Brotherhood or not, burning your house is not the answer to the world’s problems.

Reading it made me immensely happy, for I have never believed that one religion is in anyway better or worse compared to another. You are after all, born into a religion, respect it just like you should respect others. We are after all, small fry in the creator’s business of universe and there is much to be done, done just to lead a normal life, which by itself is a complex undertaking. Focusing on other things would only lead you into wrong & meaningless directions. Sometimes, mind you, but not always, I feel that the average Moplah boy also believes in the same, and I do not really believe that he wants to die a Shahid. I guess he also wants to live a stress free life without conflicts around himself and wants to remain focused on his own dreams. This brings me to the point, the Malayali identity.

The clear knowledge & belief of a Malayalee is that he has a purpose in life, that he has a place in this world and that he has a right to be himself is the basis of this concept. Today his primary interest would be running his nuclear family, making sure that he and his family are well educated, and in some small way becoming a contributing community member. He has a healthy interest in politics and participates in politics. I have even felt that if we had a Hyde Park like speakers corner in India; it will be full of Malayali’s talking. This quintessentially is the Kerala model.

Richard W. Franke, Professor of Anthropology states about the Kerala model - The key word is participation. In Kerala, more than in most parts of the underdeveloped world, large numbers of people participate in activities to better their lives. Malayalees are not just literate. More people in Kerala read the newspapers and discuss them. They also write letters to complain about problems and demand solutions. Malayalees do not just have the right to vote. In Kerala people vote in far higher percentages than in most of the rest of India - and more so than in the United States. Malayalees do not just benefit from the advances of modern science. In Kerala there is a mass organization called the People's Science Movement (KSSP) that tries to bring science education to the compound gates even in the villages. While science movements exist in other parts of India, none is as highly developed as in Kerala.

But I will definitely admit that there is communalism which waxes and wanes with the times, though we are now learning to adjust and live with it, becoming more objective and less reactive. We do make snide comments now & then about a religious practice, we may even jest about it in the open, but by and far we understand and live to let others live…This I believe comes from the many thousands of years of living together and understanding, that in the end, we all have identical goals, which is simply to better our own and possibly the lives of those around.

My friends tell me that there is increased stirring of religious fundamentalism in the Malabar region these days, fomented possibly by the brainwashed Wahabist’s and forces from across the border. I would like to believe however, that if some bright guy calls for Jihad from Kashmir, the Muslim in Kerala would at least will cast a wary eye at it and think ‘now what?’, instead of jumping out of his chair in frenzy, knife in hand, like some fanatics did during the Moplah riots. Those days are gone and I believe with confidence that such people cannot be found easily in Calicut.

And thus we come back to the belief our laborer at the airport queue had – the Kerala identity. I hope this survives many more generations and is broadly replicated as an Indian identity. For that to have a chance, politicians have to be responsible. Politics by nature is compulsive. One who enters it has to stay in the limelight. And to do that sometimes a wrong or mistaken utterance made in the heat of the moment is continually repeated for populism and never wisely retracted. Many a politician has fallen into this trap, it is not that he personally believes in harming people, but these political wheels once set to motion are difficult to stop. So the driver has to be a responsible person, and it is thus the duty of the people to select such responsible drivers.

Alas! That won’t happen if we tend to vote for the guy who buys you a bottle of booze.


Excerpt from Varshney’s interview by the Carnegie Council

The media plays a horrible role in violent cities. It's very divided itself. It can print rumors as news stories. When we were doing our research there, the illegal media printed a headline story that Harvard University, Ford Foundation, and the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, which was also supporting my work, were interested in spreading riots all over India under the instructions of the CIA.

The police, however, fully supported us and said, "If you believe the things that these rags write, you will never be able to do research." The police commissioner, the SSP of the city, stood by us, as did the district managers. So we continued, but we were interrupted because everyone was shaken by this news.

Whereas in the city of Calicut, which has twenty-six newspapers and magazines, for a city the size of about 600,000 at this point, when I went to interview one of the leading lights of the freedom struggle who was still alive in 1992, I found newspapers and photographers all around.

I said, "No, no, I came for a one-on-one interview. I don't think this will be a good interview if the press is there."

They said, "No, no. The newspapers say it's our beat to report on whoever comes to see him or interview him."

The guy said, "No, no. What I am going to tell you will not be affected by the presence of the newspaper reporters and photographers because I learned politics at a time when candor was practiced as a principle and I haven't given up on that."

So he gave me an interview. And the next day, what was the news item in the newspapers in Calicut? "A student of history interviews a maker of history." These newspapermen never believed that I was in Calicut to spread riots.

Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life - Ashutosh Varshney
A critique – Financial express
Shahsi Tharoor’s take on Varshney’s book
Crossed Wires in Calicut – An article
An interview with Varshney

The immaculately attired Moplah – Ranganath Eunny (Google images - irfca)
Moplah from Medieval times – natural history series –