Appu Nedungadi

A gentleman banker, teacher, lawyer and novelist

It was in 1887 that this young man wrote a romantic short story in Malayalam and asked his friends to read it. In the Malabar of yore, only a select few were fortunate to have been educated formally and this young man was one of them. As the story goes, they encouraged him to publish it. In those days, Malayalam readings were mostly limited to poems and prose dealing with mythological topics. So any kind of fiction or for that matter, historic romantic fiction, was a novelty. The Novel in those early days was therefore, an even bigger novelty. Our man, the short story writer decided to try his hand at it, working off his short story. The rest is history. His name, was Appu Nedungadi.

Appu Nedungadi had by this time become a lawyer and was starting to hold his own in the British judicial system of the Queen’s presidency of Madras. But his journey through a varied life was not an easy one and took much hard work, dedication and when viewed today is highly illuminating. Such stalwarts like Appu Nedungadi were the ones who established foundations for lesser mortals like us to step on. So let us follow his passage and marvel at the story of this gentleman from Malabar who achieved much and earned a lot of respect from his peers and superiors. Calicut heritage forum had previously introduced him with a brief article and I thought it fit to provide an expanded version for those interested in the people who were instrumental in shaping Calicut’s future.

I still recall walking alone, down the road from Ambalakkat towards Tali, turning right and going past the Chalappuram post office, past the gates of the Achutan Girls school and drifting to the Ganapati School, during my younger days in Calicut. It was a time when there were horse driven jutkas, cycle rickshaws and hand pulled rickshaws on the road. On those serene mornings, an odd Ex-servicemen bus roared by, scattering the people on the road hither and thither, and people were sometimes witness to a man (people held their noses as the wheelbarrow like cart with the galvanized iron pots passed by) held in much disgust, the ‘thotti’ who would trundle by, head hung low, pushing his night soil cart. Horns were hardly heard, the rickshaw drivers yelled ‘kooyi’ or rang a bell to get a right of way.

I had frequently heard Nedungadi family name, for he was a relative through my paternal Zamorin links but I never knew anything about Appu Nedungadi. I had visited the Nedungadi brother’s textile shop at Sultanpet Palghat, but bothered not about the connections to Appu Nedungadi. I never stepped into any Nedungadi bank though I saw the branches here and there. I have passed Cherplassery often and visited relatives there and in Ottapalam, but knew no Nedungadi, all I knew was that it was an illustrious family. Now it is time to delve into the story of the doyen among them who was no ruler of Nedunganad, but who turned out to be much more.

The Nedungadi maternal Tharavadu is located at a place called Kothakurissi about 4 miles north of Ottapalam. The Talakoti madam Puthiyaparamb house, once established by an Eralpad (2nd in line and heir apparent to the position of Zamorin) witnessed the birth of Appu Nedungadi in 1862. Appu Nedungadi’s Grandmother Kunjikutty was the wife of the Eralpad. His mother with the same name, Kunjukutty Kovilamma was married to the Zamorin Kovilakom, a Moonalpaad (3rd in line) and to her was born five children, three sons and two daughters. He lost his parents early, and a brother succumbed to smallpox. As was the norm, their maternal uncle brought them up in strict Nair traditions as one can imagine, in this village near Palghat. But like in most families, there was a black sheep, for Appu Nedungadi’s brother Kunjunni, who studied to become a doctor in Madras, broke many of those traditions when he married an Englishwoman. Not much more is known about him though.

Appu Nedungadi was initially home educated, moved to Calicut and joined the Zamorin’s Kerala Vidyasala (now Zamorins college) Calicut for further studies, where he completed his intermediate before going on to the Christian college in Madras for his graduation in 1883. As was the tradition, he was married very young, at 17, but it is presumed that the young man still did not settle into any kind of domestic bliss, and struggled with studies, living alone and working many of those early years.

His initial forays were as a teacher, teaching at Cannanore and also at the BEM high school in Calicut, but he had much bigger ideas, moving on as tutor in the Madras Christian College, a more prestigious institution. While at Madras, he also studied and graduated in law in 1888, and dabbled with writing to write the aforesaid short story.

As Appu Nedungadi himself narrates, he decided to expand his short story and publish it as a novel after his friends who read it compelled him to. But his primary reason in doing it was to introduce the women of his land to the medium of romantic historic fiction in Malayalam, as compared to what they were used to, which was narrations and booklets covering stories from Nalacharitam, Ramayanam, Narayaneeyam and Mahabharatam. He complains that all they did was memorize them by heart, only to narrate it again and again to others, remarking that it was time that they, who were not proficient in English, got a feel of what a novel was all about. To him it was an experiment, and the novel he wrote, one about a faraway fictitious place with strange place names (Kalinga, Kunthalam), alien customs and people with even stranger names, like the heroine Kundhalatha (Kalinga’s princess), and men named Pratapachandran, Aghoranathan, Taranathan and so on. The book was titled Kundhalatha and it took its rightful place as the first Malayalam Novel (see notes) to be published, in Oct 1887 from Madras. In charming fashion beset with humility, he continues on, hoping that the bored housewife will be relived of her tedium in the kitchen and its environs, after perusing his book, even if it possessed little by way of excellence. Perhaps it could also be assumed that there was some contribution from somebody who is hardly mentioned, his wife Meenakshi Amma and mother to their 14 children, over the years in whatever he did.

It was not distinguished in quality according to some critics, though becoming a university text book (until then using texts such as Gundert’s Keralolpathi). During his tenure, he was also the chairman of the Malayalam examination board of the Madras University. But all this showed a varied mind at work, and the young man’s commitment to think beyond his own lot. This was to manifest in all his work later, demonstrating his keen commitment to the social upbringing of lesser privileged kinsfolk in Malabar.

Was the book not so good? Many compared it with Indulekha, a novel from Chandu Menon which followed later, itself a novel compared with Henrietta Temple by Benjamin Disraeli. Those people opined that Indulekha was a real novel, constantly denigrating the pioneering efforts of Appu Nedungadi. Some said it was modelled after Pamela of Walter Scott.

U Balakrishnanan Nair writing in the Calcutta review had this to say - Like the original romance writers, our ancient authors found no charm in simple prose; they showed an inordinate and exclusive preference for metre and rhyme. Nor was this their only fault. They chose for their themes wild and improbable events and paid no heed to time, place, or circumstance. And it was likewise the fashion amongst them to give colour to their writings by high-sounding Sanskrit words, foreign to the ordinary reader. Thus it is that the Malayalam language is sadly deficient in prose literature, and works of fiction, as we understand them now, have been hitherto unknown. Hence it was that when educated Malayalees like the author of Kamakshicharitam (Chitambara Vadyar), a version of Shakespeare's ‘As you like it’, and the clever writer of Kundalatha, essayed a new channel, their labours met with no small measure of interest and approval.

Dr Sankaran Ravindran is more detailed in his analysis and I will provide the reader only some bits Appu Nedungadi’s knowledge of Shakespeare and CV Raman Pillai’s reading of Walter Scott novels are speculated as the genesis of their narrative fiction. Such speculations have led to subordinating these writers, unnecessarily to English writers. Although there is no denial of the fact that English fiction and drama kindle din these two writers the desire to shape linguistic forms in their mother tongue, the kind of imagination and artistic skills that have shaped these early fictional narrative in Malayalam need no subordination. All writers of all ages and all nationalities are ultimately indebted to the resource of literary system.
(reference 4 may be perused for details). 

Ellen Ambrosone, a recent researcher had this to say - Literary critics have saturated scholarly discourse on Malayalam literature with a dutiful tone that offers Kundalata the chronological “pride of place” as the first Malayalam novel, only to subvert this position with extended discussions of its insufficiencies in comparison to Indulekha. Those interested in the literary merits of Kundalatha may peruse her paper for more detail.

It was a phase in his life, I guess, for he wrote no novels after that. He did write poems and articles sporadically, but a year later, he returned to Calicut, as a lawyer to start an eminent career, culminating in the lucrative position as the government pleader (public prosecutor) in 1906 under Judge Jaxon at the district court. During this period he was one of the luminous personalities of Calicut, among others like Kalyana Krishna Iyer, KP Raman Menon and TC Narayana Kurup, but his mind was forever skirting with new opportunities.

What made him open the first milk center and cattle farm near Annie Hall road is not clear, but that he did, bringing animals from Pollachi. He then started a readymade garments store Nedungadi brothers at Cochin and also set about arranging demonstrations of the first gramophone in Calicut, playing a song for an anna. It is also said that he was one of the first native motor car owners in Calicut. It was around this time (1899) that he started the Nedungadi bank operating from home, a bank which was later incorporated in 1913.

He associated himself with the West Coast spectator, The West Coast reformer and the Kerala Chandrika and wrote articles for them often. Mahakavi Ulloor S.Parameswara Iyer is of the opinion that Kerala Pathrika had an advantageous situation as if it got the blessings of the ‘trinity’ (the lords Brahma, Vishnu and Siva) by the blending in it the short and pleasant style of Kunhirama Menon, the serious type of sentences of Appu Nedungadi and the humour brimming articles of Kesari. Appu Nedungadi by assisting finance, contributing articles and participating in the shaping of policy was like the ‘Godfather’ of Kerala Pathrika right from the beginning. Many of the articles in Kerala Pathrika that enlightened the public in respect of political, social and cultural matters were contributed by him.

KP Kesava Menon, a friend and contemporary, but opposite in ideology when it came to the British rule in India, had this to reminiscence about Appu Nedungadi the person ‘Appu Nedungdi, a legal luminary spoke beautifully in English and Malayalam, His respect towards the bench, courtesy towards the advocate of the opposite party, the manner in which he cross examined the persons of the other side without making any threat etc., was quite admirable. The judge had shown high respect to him, his long practice’.

Many people rest on their laurels, once they have reached the summit, but Appu Nedungadi decided otherwise, for his next venture was to open a girl’s school, in Chalappuram. Prior to that he had worked with promoting SPEW - a society for promotion of education for women. It was a period when the two convent schools the St Joseph’s girl’s school and the German girl’s school in Calicut admitted mainly Christian girls. As Nedungadi wanted traditional education imparted also to girls from Hindu families, he started one in 1890 them in the same line with German teachers imparting classes in the school. This would continue until the First World War started after which those teachers were sent back home. The school itself faced many difficulties, for it was constructed in Chalappuram where a pond once existed. Superstitious beliefs helped start a rumor that girls studying in the school would develop rheumatism, but the school commenced, aided by other personalities such as Rarichan Moopan. Appu Nedungadi also had the girls in his own family and the kovilakom admitted to the school to set an example. It was the first school in Calicut sans caste barriers and initially prospered.

During this period, Appu Nedungadi was also the Calicut municipal councilor. The school was eventually handed over to the municipality after Appu Nedungadi left the municipality position, following which his friend Achuthan took charge and the school was named after him. Appu Nedungadi also presided over the Malabar provincial conference.

Articles and anecdotes about Appu Nedungadi indicate that he was pro colonial, that he had great regard for the British system of justice and was soon bestowed with the Rao Bahadur title by the British rulers. He was not one who was happy with the home rule and self-government agitations and thought little of anti-British mentality. Strict British style upbringing and education was the norm with his children, and it is not surprising that his nephew Kelu Nedungadi became the principal of Victoria College Palghat and Brennen’s in Tellicherry. His youngest daughter Subhadra Amma, wife of GK Chettur, was the principal of the Arts College in Mangalore and skilled in the game of tennis. Some of his other children excelled in careers they chose, such as banking, music and writing.

One sphere where Appu Nedungadi’s name is still remembered is in the banking industry. He was involved with the setting up of the first bank in Malabar, amid a number of unorganized and unregulated chit funds and hundi based money lenders. In those days, there used to be just one branch of the Imperial bank in Calicut. For a trading city, once a great entrepot of spices, it was nothing short of a disgrace.

Nedungadi started the first offices of the Nedungadi bank in 1899 after investing his savings of Rs 19,000 on the floor above his house, in Chalappuam. Growth was slow and difficult, but by 1913 it was formally registered, reopened in the Palayam area and they had a second branch at Cherplassery. The Bank being the first commercial bank to be set up in South India, at that point, was one among the five banking establishments in the whole of India (The other four banks being Allahabad Bank (1965), Oudh Commercial Bank (1881), Ayodhya bank (1884), and Punjab National Bank (1894))

Some of the earliest shareholders included Kunjukuttan Thanmpuran, PS Warrier (Arya Vaidya Sala), K Raman Nair, AVG Menon etc. The cheque books and safes came from Germany and armed guards were appointed for security. Appu Nedungadi was the managing director and he concentrated on the bank’s affairs after he left his position as public prosecutor during the depression years. In 1933, he had to resign and this was a devastating blow to an ailing 71 year old Appu Nedungadi, suffering from diabetes. On 6th Nov 1933, he passed away, leaving the reins of his business to others in his family.

In 1935, as the RBI act came into force, the bank was included in the second schedule. Some years later the Cochin national bank and the Coimbatore national bank merged into the Nedungadi bank. The bank grew, and with branches at all major metropolitan cities like New Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai, Mumbai, Ahmedabad etc., Nedungadi’s enterprise had broadened its operations far and wide. By 2001, it had grown to cover 175 branches and was poised to leap or fall. The latter was the unfortunate outcome, but that is a story of financial mismanagement by its so called professional non Nedungadi managers briefly explained in a note at the end.

Kundhalatha – Appu Nedungadi – 2nd edition
Malayalam literary survey, 2000- Appu Nedungadi – the novelist and banker – KKN Kurup, Sankaran Raveendran
The first great Malayalam Novel – U Balakrishnanan Nair Calcutta Review Vol 109, 1899
The Early Novels in the South Indian Languages – Sankaran Raveendran
Kozhikode Vamozhi Charitram – P Ganghadharan
Encyclopedia of the Madras presidency and the adjacent states 1920-21
Indian express - 125 Years and Still Going Strong, Anila Backer Published: 04th May 2015 06:01
Print and public sphere in Malabar: a study of early newspapers (1847-1930) – Stella Joseph
Reconsidering Genre: Questioning the First Malayalam Novel (abstract) - Ambrosone, Ellen

1.       Kundhalatha was the first novel conceived and published in Malayalam. Other works such as the translations of Catherine Mullen’s Bengali novel ‘Fulmoni O Korunar Biboron’ (1858, 1884), Ghatakavadham by Richard Collins (1877) a translation of the English ‘Slayer slain’ etc. appeared in the Malayalam published works domain. Chandu Menon set the standard, with his blockbuster ‘Indulekha’ two years later in 1889.

2.       A less stringent criticism of a prevalent form of female education is found in Kundalata in which it is remarked that such education may give "great familiarity with the Kavyams, Natakams and Alankurams", but is incapable of producing what is accepted as more important, "a blemishless and well-informed mind", However, it was sometimes explicitly stated that a Sanskrit-based education which gave importance to Kavyams, Natakams etc (poetries and Plays) etc, would only promote sensuality, and that by avoiding these and teaching the Dharmsastra (moral canon) instead, women could be made virtuous. Gendering individuals: a study of Gender and individualization in Reform Language in Modern Keralam – 1880’s – 1950’s - Devika, J

3.       Nedungadis and the Zamorin - Many of the Nedungadis are connected by marriage to the Zamorin kovilakoms of Calicut, starting from the Eralpad’s period in Cherplassery. The name Nedungadi is believed to be derived from the word "Nedunganadu" and the word ""aadi", meaning "to rule"."Nedunganadu" used to be a small region that now includes Shornur, Ottappalam, Kothakursi, Pattambi, Kootanad, Naduvattam, Karalmanna Cherpulasserry, Karimpuza, Nellaya, Vallapuzha, Manjeri, Kannur are the old seats of Eralpad Raja, the second Sthani of Zamorin. The original family name of the rulers of Nedunganad is unknown, but the members of the royal families are referred to as "the Nedungadis" in the later documents of the Samutiris of Kozhikode who conquered and ruled this territory. For more details read Rajendu’s book - Nedunganad Charitram 

4.       Those desirous of studying Appu Nedungadi’s legal mind at work may refer to ‘The Indian decision – Madras’ volumes available on google books

5.       The NBL bank’s debacle in 2000 resulted from the misuse of an arbitrage scheme approved by its directors in 1999. The joint committee report explains that this scheme envisaged purchase and sale of shares taking advantage of the price differential between NSE and BSE and other Stock Exchanges. The Board of the Bank included the former President of the BSE, M.G. Damani, who was instrumental in devising the scheme, and C.V. Nair, a former Executive Director of RBI. An amount of 94 crores was in question, of which Rs 73 crores were collected and Rs 21 crores remained outstanding. Board members it appears, used companies owned by their family members to do these transactions. The chairman AR Murthy was subsequently sacked. Read this articlefor more details

6.       A good amount of the information in this article comes from KKN Kurup’s essay about Appu Nedungadi from references 2 &4, I am indebted to him for this input, and is gratefully acknowledged.

pics – EOMP,,Kundalatha cover (Chinta publishers)