A fascinating account of a woman who dared to go against the fold twice…

In 1895, conservative Madras was convulsed over the conversion of a 16-year-old Brahmin woman to Christianity. At the centre of the controversy was Subbunagam Ammal, the youngest daughter of A.L. Venkataramana Pantulu, M.A., B.L., the first double graduate of Madras University and an enormously wealthy man who had retired as a sub-judge in Madurai. The family was among the most respected ones of Madras. The women in particular, Subbunagam included, were known for their piety and adherence to rituals.

Subbunagam, being the youngest daughter and having had the misfortune to lose her father when she was 10, was the apple of everyone's eye. She had been allowed to stay at her paternal home even after her wedding, an event that was celebrated with pomp and circumstance, at an expenditure of over 10,000 rupees. When she expressed a desire to learn Tamil, her uncle and guardian approached Ms. Grace Stephens, Superintendent of the Methodist Episcopal Mission which had laid roots in Madras in 1878. The women's wing of Zenana Mission which Ms. Stephens headed had over 500 members whose duty it was to go out and educate women. The curriculum included the pointing out of how Hindu women were victims of superstition and idolatry and telling them the benefits of Christianity. Subbunagam was given a copy of the Tamil Bible and soon became absorbed in it.

Restrictions

Subbunagam's neglect of her daily rituals soon alerted her relatives. The mission workers were warned not to come home and restrictions were placed on her movements. But she managed to escape on Christmas Day 1895. Rushing into Ms. Stephens' chamber she dramatically declared that she was the Christmas gift to the Mission. A bitter battle ensued with her powerful family calling in the police. But Subbunagam clarified that she had left home on her own free will. The police declined to intervene. The family then tried offering money to Ms. Stephens who sternly rebuffed them. Madras society was cleaved over the issue, with caste Hindus taking it as an affront while the Methodists and their sympathisers viewed it as an instance of Brahmins becoming disillusioned with their religion. Newspapers debated at length on the matter.

Subbunagam was publicly baptised on February 3, 1896 at a ceremony held under police bandobust. Her family immediately conducted a public funeral for her, cremating an effigy with due ceremony. Her mother and grandmother departed for Kashi, walking the entire distance by way of expiation for her sins. The husband promptly married again. Subbunagam, though distressed by all this, spent her time in prayer and began working for the Zenana Mission. Ms. Stephens wrote a book on the conversion for circulation in the United States.

Ms. Stephens and Subbunagam were invited to the US to participate in the Ecumenical Congress. On April 27, 1900, The Evening Times, Washington, reported her arrival by the SS Germanic in New York. All kinds of wild stories circulated about her. It was said that her father was an Indian prince and that since her conversion she had been chased with “relentless malignity by her people”. She was portrayed as a fugitive fleeing the Satanic black magic of caste Hindus and Ms. Stephens was quoted as stating that Subbunagam was being slowly poisoned. She survived nevertheless to tour the length and breadth of the United States for over a year, lecturing at churches on her conversion and the plight of women in India. This ensured sizeable donations to the Mission.

Startling turn

The two women returned home in 1901 and life continued as usual till on August 19, 1905, The New York Times reported the kidnapping of Subbunagam by Hindu fanatics. It was alleged by Bishop WF Oldham of Madras that on July 18, Subbunagam had been kidnapped by her family members. He feared that she had been subsequently murdered and proclaimed her the latest martyr to the cause. A couple of months later, the Bishop retracted his statement. He once again wrote to the newspapers and said that Subbunagam had not been kidnapped. Incredibly, she had reverted “to the religion of her fathers”. He also requested everyone to pray for “dear Miss Stephens who is in all kinds of trouble”.

What had happened? Had Subbunagam, having gone back to Hinduism, alleged that Ms. Stephens had forcibly converted her? And what happened to her after this? Did her family forgive, forget and take her back? Ms. Stephens never spoke of her again. It was said that Subbunagam maintained a diary. If only it had survived, it would have provided a fascinating insight into the life of a woman who had dared, not once, but twice.

The author thanks the heritage enthusiast Karthik Bhat for alerting him on this story.

The author can be contacted at srirambts@gmail.com