When a widow’s petition triggered angry letters and explanations

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)

A flippant comment and its aftermath — a tale over 200 years old, from 1803, has many layers. On one hand, a widow questions an administrative head on an apparent order. On the other, many others are seen scrambling to save their face. At the root are seemingly thoughtless words and a situation out of control.

As it happened

The matter unfolds with the translation of a petition from Vellai, the widow of Rama Swamy Pillay to James Drummond, then the Assistant Collector of Cochin. She gives a recap of her life after her husband’s death. The husband’s nephew Naranen has been “administering the estate of my husband,” she writes. “One night without the least provocation turned me out of the house of my late husband and used to me very insulting language; as it was night and being a woman, I slept outside of the house and next morning I went to my mother’s. From that day until now, no subsistence whatever has been given to me,” she recounts.

Vellai, however, returns for a ceremony related to her husband’s death. On seeing her, she says, “Naranen, who is protected by Mr. Vanshall, ran immediately to that gentleman; a few minutes after Naranen returned and brought a peon of Mr. Vanshall with him.” Vellai apparently doesn’t want to leave anything to chance and to authenticate the scene gives a description of the peon as one with a red coat, belt and badge and whose name is Vychen.

The peon apparently instructs Vellai to quit the house as “such is Mr. Drummond’s order.”

Vellai writes she could not believe Drummond would give such an order. She says she is entitled to her husband’s “considerable property” and suitable maintenance and that the peon’s behaviour was a great grievance to her person. She prays for justice and protection and requests Naranen be chastised.

The petition triggers an angry response from Drummond. He writes to Vanshall who appears to be an affluent foreigner in the region, ordering him to appear before him in the Police Office the next day “to make answer to the charge of unwarrantable interference.” A worried Vanshall immediately writes back saying he is bedridden with “two wounds on my legs.” Instead he chooses to detail the case from his point of view.

He calls the petition “the greatest falsehood” and asserts he has never used his people to use violence “under pretext of your name.” According to Vanshall, Naranen who works for him and lives in the neighbourhood, had come with the complaint that his relatives were hindering him from performing commemorative ceremony for his uncle.

His story

According to Vanshall he sent his peon to “request the people in friendly terms” to let Naranen continue the ceremony and that if they had any complaints to “carry it out the other day before you.” He writes that the peon had returned and told him that the relatives were insolent towards him. Vanshall declares on his honour that he has given no other order.

The letter, though, does not pacify Drummond. He sticks to his guns and orders Vanshall to appear before him once he is healthy. From the next letter one understands that Vanshall had sent his son Hendrik to meet Drummond. The letter is from Hendrik to Drummond and begins with, “On my return home, I told my father what you have said.”

Vanshall calls a session at home with the peon called in to give his statement. There are also witnesses to the proceedings — men who know the languages being spoken there. In front of Vanshall, his wife and son and two witnesses, the peon narrates his part, as Vanshall had written to Drummond.

But, he adds a few details more. On his visit to Naranen's place, the peon realised the relatives were not listening to him. “He, from his own, used your name to stop further quarrel (consequently not by order or authority of my father),” writes Hendrik.

One understands that both the peon and Naranen Pillay had deposed officially too. Hendrik says the peon had given the same declaration which was “written and re-copied” on another ola and given to him to sign. He did so in good faith as he did not write or read.

Apparently, Naranen Pillay had deposed that Vanshall had given the order about Drummond to his peon. On knowing this, Vanshall asks how Pillay could say so as he knew only “Tamil and Malabar language.”

The letter is appended with that of the witness Johannes Bos who seconds all that Hendrik says. That is the last we hear on the matter. Despite the explanations, the truth appears hazy. Was it really a slip, though well-intentioned, from the peon? We may not know. Neither do we know Drummond’s final call on the matter. Nor what happened to Vellai. History leaves its gaps.

(Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode)

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