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Possible modernities

`Both Indulekha and Madhavan, English educated and reasonably comfortable with tradition and custom, are signposts to an emerging modernity.'

MANY kinds of translations, or adaptations, are at work in O. Chandumenon's Indulekha. The scripting of a community-specific modernity that is interesting for the strands it includes and excludes and the form of the truly new, in Malayalam, novel itself. When first published in December 1889, Chandumenon was trying to create in Indulekha "the experience" of the English novel in Malayalam and was a little apprehensive about how readers would take to it. As he says in his preface to the first edition, "I have no idea what my countrymen will think of a book like this. It is unlikely that those who do not know English will have ever read such a book. I doubt that those who are reading such stories for the first time will have the taste to appreciate them" (p. 238).

Instant hit

As it turned out, the book was a runaway bestseller. A second edition was brought out within three months, an English translation was made within a year and the novel has been continuously popular ever since. Critical acclaim matched this success. Within days of it being published, for instance, an editorial in The Hindu had glowing words of praise: "But if any of them have hitherto occupied the place which properly belongs to the creative genius he must vacate it now for Mr. Chandu Menon. The perfect originality in the plan of his book, the admirable perfection in the execution of his fiction, entitles Mr. Chandu Menon to be regarded as a creative genius of no ordinary kind" ("The latest in fiction", The Hindu, Saturday, January 25, 1890, p.4).

The novel has already been translated into English more than once. The necessity for yet another reading of the novel springs from the extraordinary way in which the novel confronts contemporary issues and the way the previous translators have glossed over these confrontations in the service of their own (colonial and postcolonial/ nationalistic) agendas. For, it was a time of upheaval for the Nair community and its cultural practices — specifically the Marumakkathayam law of inheritance whereby the property of the joint family belonged to the descendants of the female line of a taravad and which could not be disposed of without the unanimous consent of all the women and the "informal" nature of Nair alliances called Sambandams whereby the woman had as much right as the man to annul a "marriage" and take up another without much ado — were being reassessed from within and without in the light of a normative, western and rational, modernity.

Those wanting change from within were mostly the English-educated, young members of the taravad who were getting access to an economy outside of the taravad, mainly through jobs in government service, and who didn't want their personal earnings to go into a collective that didn't include their immediate "family". For the colonial administrators, the taravad economy which, in Anitha Devasia's words, "defined and took care of its members' personal needs", was incompatible with the larger market economy based on an individual's capacity to earn a "personal" income and consume products. Colonial representations of Nair community also tended to portray the relative freedom and independence of Nair women as morally "unnatural and loose".

Intervention in a debate

Chandumenon was a member of the Malabar Marriage Commission appointed by the government in 1891 to look at the necessity for legislation to "regularise" Nair marriages. Indulekha, at one level, is a quaint love story but it was also Chandumenon's intervention in the ongoing debate surrounding these issues. As the previously quoted editorial in The Hindu puts it, "It must remove once for all any doubt as to the possibility of expressing in that language [Malayalam] ideas and sentiments which are derived from our contact with a foreign civilization and acquaintance with a foreign language". He is neither with the traditionalists, who are either at a loss in the face of changes taking place in society, portrayed in a character like Panchumenon or who don't really have a clue about their own traditions, brought out in a character like the Nambuthiripad. Neither do his sympathies seem to lie with a demand for outright change, as someone in the novel like Govindankuttymenon would have it. Chandumenon's modernity occupies a space between these two extremes. Both Indulekha and Madhavan, English educated, rebellious when necessary, extremely poised in their dealings, and reasonably comfortable with tradition and custom, are signposts to an emerging, possible modernity. Chandumenon's emphasis however, seems to be on non-disruptive, harmonious change and issues like caste and minority identity are located outside the scope of such a change. And that is a space for further interventions in our ongoing dialogues on modernity.

Sensitive to the contexts

Anitha Devasia's translation is alive to the nuances of these contexts without eroding the narrative smoothness. Helpful additional material in the form of appendices include Chandumenon's prefaces to the first two editions, Dumergue's preface to his translation and Chandumenon's dissent note in the form of a memorandum to the Malabar Marriage Commission. The afterword puts the various issues involved in their contexts. Reading the afterword first would enable a greater appreciation of the novel though Susie Tharu, in the succinct foreword, does put the reader "on the scent of the momentous issues that are at stake".

Indulekha, O. Chandumenon, translated from Malayalam by Anitha Devasia, OUP, 2005, p.xix+287, Rs. 295.


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