Close to a century ago, an 18-year old illiterate working as a priest in a local temple in Kerala was jolted out of his slumber by a 10-year old girl. That anecdote was illustrative of a community caught in a time warp that hardly made any sense when the larger society was witnessing transition from religious and social orthodoxy to modernity.
That youth was V.T. Bhattathiripad who was to become one of the leading lights of social reforms in Kerala, especially in the Namboodiri community, then reeling under the burden of orthodoxy. “I was absolutely thrilled as the veil of ignorance was torn to pieces and as I felt the smile of knowledge upon me”, he recalls in his celebrated memoir Kanneerum Kinavum to explain his excitement when he learnt to read from the little girl who had initiated him into the world of letters. His words resonate with the idea of Enlightenment succinctly summed up by Immanuel Kant in his famous opening sentence in his essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.”
As the memoir is now set to reach a wider audience with its English translation My Tears, My Dreams published by the Oxford University Press, one cannot but see it as an opportunity to revisit the Enlightenment legacy left by progressive-minded social reformers in Kerala. The Enlightenment modernity that drove the youth to play a key role in bringing radical social changes is today facing serious challenges in Kerala as elsewhere in the country.
This book covers the author’s early life from his birth in 1896 to 1916 and sheds light on a phase of the history of the Namboodiri community preceding the turbulence that brought about the changes and freed it from the manacles of religious rituals of Brahminism and decadent feudalism. As late Malayalam writer and poet G. Kumara Pillai observed, Kanneerum Kinavum is a narration of events that set the stage for the expression of Bhattathiripad’s intense sense of freedom that later led to a major turning point in his life and his community. It is the story of events and encounters that paved the way for the transformation of an ignorant Namboodiri youth born as an Apphan (the younger son in a Namboodiri household and also father’s younger brother) to a writer and social reformer.
Bhattathiripad’s writings as a storyteller and playwright cannot be distanced from the reformist Zeitgeist of the first few decades of Kerala in the 20th century that gave birth to what is known as Kerala renaissance which in essence represented the society’s encounter with modernity. Kanneerum Kinavum published in 1970 allows the reader to have a glimpse of the contours of a community’s engagement with modernity.
The author’s lucid but evocative and metaphorical Malayalam prose is a treat for Malayali readers. The memoir translated by Sindhu V. Nair and edited by Mini Krishnan has largely done justice to his rich and stylistic Malayalam replete with alliterations, metaphors, and community-specific words and expressions. Though translating his metaphorically-rich and winding passages into English is no easy task, My Tears, My Dreams retains the passion and poignancy in the original text. The translation also includes an interview with the author, a comprehensive introduction and his 1933 article “Ini Namukku Ambalam Thee Koluthtam” (Now let us set fire to temples). Some of the rare photographs published in the book give it an added flavour.
The memoir contains warm recollections of women who flipped by his life including his mother. The author likens the quintessential Namboodiri woman with the old stone-lamp in the west wing of a Namboodiri illam: “she burnt unsteadily for some decades until, oil dwindling and flaring one last time, she died out.” The author’s focus on the plight of ‘antharjanams’ (Namboodiri women) is emblematic of the concerns of the reformists in the community as expressed in plays such as his own Adukkalayil Ninnu Arangathekku (from the kitchen to the stage). Equally touching are his sketches of Apphans who were not allowed to marry from the community and had no rights over the family property.
The Namboodiri woman no longer hides behind her umbrella and the Namboodiri man today is a far cry from his ancestor in the early years of the 20th century, one who “didn’t wake up when the rays of science rose in the east.” The English translation could not have come at a more appropriate time when the spirit of Enlightenment upheld by reformers in Kerala such as V.T. Bhattathirippad and Sahodaran Ayyappan has been eclipsed, on one hand, by the onslaught of religious and casteist forces and, on the other, by fashionable cultural relativist critiques of science and modernity driven by a wild goose chase for an alternative epistemology.
(Mohamed Nazeer is The Hindu’s correspondent in Kannur)
My Tears, My Dreams Kannerum Kinaavum:
by V.T. Bhattathiripad;
Translated by Sindhu V. Nair;
Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 295.