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Literary Review

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The writings of another literary family

By C.S. Lakshmi

Eunice de Souza's recent book, The Satthianadhan Family Album, is an interesting attempt to understand the life of early Tamil Christians.

I HAD always thought that what bound me to Eunice de Souza was her poetry, which I never tire of. But she is also doing work in social history and doing it tirelessly, discovering materials that add so much to our understanding of women, social customs, values and the evolution of ideas and ideologies. Her recent book, The Satthianadhan Family Album, is an interesting attempt to understand the life of early Tamil Christians, stories of their conversion into Christianity and their dealing with a religion from Europe and Indian traditions.

Valuable material

The writings of the Sathianadhan family provide a lot of material to understand both the lives of early Christians and their passion for Christ. She is right when she says that literary families such as the Dutts have received a great deal of attention. Both the women and men of the Satthianadhan family wrote fiction and non-fiction, essays, diaries, short stories, "guide books" for women, folktales and translated from the Sanskrit and other languages like Tamil and German. Like the Dutts and many other well-known figures of the time, they were also active in many fields in India. They also travelled to England to study or take part in church councils or like Kamala Satthianadhan, accompany her son and were feted there. Even then, the writings of this family are not easily available, Eunice says. According to Eunice, an expert in the area denied that Kamla Satthianadhan existed! Eunice got the material for this book eventually from Partnership House in London and the British Library. Indian libraries, Eunice writes, tend not to answer letters. One is happy Eunice did not give up her efforts, for, the result is an interesting book of articles, notes and fiction which capture the state of Indian society at that time. The Satthianadhan family, in the words of Dr. Eleanor Jackson, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies in the University of Derby, "oscillated from generation to generation between Anglicisation and what they viewed as Indian tradition. In this they are a paradigm of many Indian families, Hindu and Christian." Their writings not only raise several issues like education for women, child marriage, social problems like caste but also reflect the dilemmas of the Indian Christians and missionaries and talk about the "Indianness" of the Church.

The book contains writings of Rev. W.T. Satthianadhan (1830-1892), his wife Anna Satthianadhan, son Samuel Satthianadhan, his first wife Krupabai Satthianadhan, second wife Kamala Satthianadhan and excerpts from his daughter Padmini Sen Gupta's book on her mother entitled The Portrait of an Indian Woman. The writings took me back to the days when, sitting in the Tamil Nadu archives and the Connemara Library, I spent hours reading Krubai Satthianadhan Ammal's well-known English novels in the translated Tamil versions and the original English version. There were also some interesting portraits in Tamil of early converts with line drawings in which there was a moving piece on Annal Arokiam (Anna Satthianadhan) and her work as an educationist. I remembered going through old issues of the Indian Ladies' Magazine edited by Kamala Satthianadhan. One advice she gave regarding attire for a bride somehow still lingers in my mind because to me it reflected the process of accepting and rejecting cultural elements from the West. Kamala had advised that the bride should certainly not wear socks and shoes with a sari and a veil. In the old Moore market there were several second-hand bookshops. The shopkeepers were not just dealers but they were collectors of good books. All researchers knew Jayavelu and his shop and many of us had also visited his home. It was during one of these visits that I had found Padmini Sen Gupta's Portrait of an Indian Woman, published in 1956. I had known Kamala Satthianadhan as the editor of Indian Ladies' Magazine. But Padmini Sen Gupta presented the complete Kamala Satthianadhan. It is a warm portrait of an extraordinary woman and Eunice's book captures the essence of Kamala's personality by choosing apt excerpts to draw her portrait.

Ambivalent attitude

When I recall the book now, I feel that Kamala's life reflected in many ways the dilemma of the Indian Christians regarding certain traditions and customs. Kamala became a widow at a very young age and wore only white, grey and dark red saris for many years. When her children grew up, they insisted that she wear other colours and only then she took to wearing other colours. Kamala was extremely fond of jasmine and liked wearing a string of jasmine on the knot of her hair. Although she decried the custom of denying a widow flowers and jewellery, she could not bring herself to wear flowers in her hair. Everyone who visited her house got a string of jasmine for her hair. Kamala's string almost always lay on her dressing table and at night after her final bath when she knew there would be no more visitors she wore it in her hair. Padmini Sen Gupta writes about these elements in her mother's life with such tenderness and admiration in her book.

Among other things, Eunice chooses Krupabai Satthianadhan's The Story of a Conversion, Anna Satthianadhan's The Good Mother and some fiction by Samuel Satthianadhan and Kamala Satthianadhan and finally Padmini Sen Gupta's portrait of her mother, making it a complete circle. She chooses from Padmini's book different excerpts than the one I have given above, for, her purpose is very clear. She feels that these materials are part of the social history of a period. Although conversion itself is not of interest to her, she is interested in knowing how people found the courage to leave family and friends to follow an idea in which they had come to believe. The Satthianadhan family members have been devout Christians but have also been very clear about what it is that they wanted to retain and reject from the culture they belonged to. And the book puts together materials from various family sources that capture almost a century of Christian life, giving details of this continuous search for an evolved self.

C.S. Lakshmi is an independent researcher and a writer. She writes in Tamil under the pseudonym Ambai. She is the founder-trustee and director of SPARROW (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women).

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