An invaluable treasure

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It is commonly believed that Indians have no awareness of history and there is not much of Indian historical literature. But Ananda Ranga Pillai dispels such beliefs by recording as an eyewitness the manners of the court and of society. As a record of matters political, social and personal the DIARY of Pillai is an invaluable treasure. While reading the DIARY, we feel as if the diarist himself were speaking to us, for Ranga Pillai wrote as he spoke. There is no pundit pomposity in his writings. His charming prose style is rich, racy with the colloquial idioms of the day, and is a boon to linguistic researchers.

When Pillai began writing his DIARY on September 6, 1736 he could have neither dreamt that his DIARY was destined to be read by the public and researched by historians and scholars nor known that he was enriching Tamil literature with a prose classic. A reading of the DIARY shows that the idea of publishing it was far from his mind, though his intention was to “preserve and perpetuate in his family a souvenir of the events of his time”. Since the DIARY was not written for perusal by others, except perhaps the immediate members of his own family, it would have wasted its sweetness on the desert air and worms would have tried its long-preserved virginity, had not a Gallois Montbru come to its timely rescue in 1846. Montbru who learnt the Tamil language and took the deepest interest in old vernacular writings, discovered the volumes along with the diarist’s sword and pistol, hidden under dust and cobwebs in Pillai’s house. He made a copy of the original for his own use and later translated it into French. Much later Edouarde Ariel, a minister in the French Government at Pondicherry, had a copy made and deposited the original for safe keeping in the National Library of Paris. A complete English translation was undertaken in the early 20th century under the guidance of H. Dodwell, Curator, Madras Records office and was published in 12 volumes (1917-1928). The French Consulate in Pondicherry bore the expense of publishing the DIARY in the original Tamil and the work began in 1948.

The DIARY opens to us vistas of bygone times. We are introduced to the customs and manners of the natives in the 18th century. When Dupleix came to Pondicherry to assume office as Governor, the natives welcomed him and the rich men and merchants gave him a lot of presents. The following few lines are what the diarist entered in his notebook on July 14, 1747: “With the presents given to Dupleix by the people, he got up and entered his coach. As he passed the gate 15 guns were fired from the walls and the soldiers formed a lane from the gate up to the grass market. First went a white banner, then men carrying tufts of peacock feathers, then horses with kettledrums and elephants with flags. Then came the troop of horse, and last of all the Mahe sepoys and horsemen. Besides these were the dancing-girls and various instruments, drums and so forth. This procession left the tent with great pomp and splendour at half-past seven. It went as far as the painters’ bazaar, then turning South-West down Muttayya Pillai Street passed the Vedapuri Iswaran Temple, skirted the South rampart and reached the East Gate. Then 21 guns were fired. At last it reached the South entrance to the Governor’s House and he went in and sat down, on which there was another salute of 21 guns. In the course of the procession bundles of crackers were fired 7 or 8 times. It was a grand sight. At last all took leave of the Governor and went home”. The brutal punishments exercised on culprits are described. The culprit, be he officer or thug, was tied to a neem tree and flogged, the number of strokes depending on the nature of the crime, and salt and vinegar were daubed on the wounds before he was thrown into the godowns of the Fort. Intoxicating drinks were prohibited and bootleggers were fined heavily and put behind bars for a year. It is very interesting to read in the DIARY dated June 11, 1739, the following account: “Chevalier Dumas, the Governor of Pondicherry, has issued the following proclamation by beat of tom-tom: ‘No person shall commit a nuisance within the limits of the town either on the beach, or on the banks of the Upparu river running to the South of St. Paul’s Church, or in the public roads.

Anyone offending in this respect will be liable to a fine of six Panams (3/4 of a rupee), two of which will be paid to the person who seizes the delinquent in the act, the remaining four being credited to the funds of the court.’ The foregoing rule is being reinforced. The number of citizens who have taken to heart the severity of this measure is beyond calculation”.

A lover of his mother tongue, Pillai always signed his letters, both official and personal, and even documents, in Tamil and was proud to do so. Though well versed in French, Portuguese, English and Persian, he preferred to write his DIARY in Tamil.

Pillai jotted down his impression of events in bound volumes of the size of large account notebooks. The DIARY was begun on September 6, 1736 and continued till September 6, 1760. He died shortly after, on January 11, 1761. The DIARY gives for 25 years a continuous record of what the Chief Dubash did, of the people whom he saw and what he thought of those people. His keen observation, fostered by his status in society, made his DIARY a source book of history.

P. Raja




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