Friday Review

A memoir set in princely Mysore

Navaratna Rama Rao had a rich and significant career in the princely state of Mysore during the first few decades of the twentieth century. He started his career as an Amildar (this corresponds to the role of a tahsildar in current bureaucracy) and worked in the secretariat in Bangalore before becoming the director of the Department of Sericulture in Mysore state. C. Rajagopalachari, the last governor-general of India, was his close friend and Rao had a significant part in the retelling, in English, of two prominent epics attributed to Rajagopalachari: the Mahabharata and Ramayana. (This is a claim made in the introduction of the book and could not be verified independently).

It is common to hear senior Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers to reminisce fondly of their initial posting in distant districts in the early part of their careers. Their eyes light up and a smile plays on their lips as they share their interesting and quirky experiences. Rao’s memoir is similar in its scope, but it is made invaluable because it takes us back by more than 100 years. The memoir covers the period between 1904 and 1909 with relevant forays into earlier and later periods. This was the time when the young Rao was the Amildar of two taluks: Yedatore and T. Narsipur, both in the erstwhile Mysore district.

Rao was born in 1877 and had descended from a distinguished family of Madhva-Deshasta Brahmins. He finished his education at Central College, Bangalore, where he was greatly influenced by a Scottish teacher, John Guthrie Tait, who taught English and History. His bureaucratic career in Mysore was preceded by a brief stint as a lawyer in Salem where he worked after acquiring a law degree in Madras. He retired after a rich and varied career in the Mysore state. In 1951, Rao began to serialise his memoir in a Kannada literary magazine edited by Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, whom he counted as a close friend. The English version that we have here is a rendition of this Kannada memoir by two of his grandchildren: Navaratna Rajaram and Rajeshwari Rao, who have added background notes and embellished the text to make it more comprehensible to current readers.

Rao’s memoir is valuable for many reasons: First, it makes for enjoyable reading as the author excels as a raconteur. The book is filled with several interesting anecdotes: there are criminal investigations, communal riots, royal encounters, conscientious dilemmas, festive celebrations and other wacky incidents. A particular vignette that was enjoyable was the longish story of how Rao apprehends the master thief Tandrey Linga who steals jewellery from a wedding party. There is another incident where he describes how he defuses a possibly flagrant situation when members of a particular caste object to a lower caste taking a procession through the main street.

Second, Rao excels in his descriptions of society. This is incidental perhaps as the descriptive elements are accoutrements to his stories but nonetheless, as readers we learn about caste, community and gender relations in parts of old Mysore. How powerful were various castes and communities in the area and how were their relations? Some answers can be found in Rao’s memoir. For the anthropologically inclined, there are descriptions of religious rituals. Third, as a bureaucratic record of life in Mysore state, the book will be constantly valued.

The title of the memoir is misleading though. The title and the cover gives a sense of the loss of grandeur and leads the reader to conclude that the memoir will be an inside view of the Mysore royal court. Most of the incidents of the book are set in the rural hinterland and have little to do with the majesty of the ‘Vanished Raj’. Some meticulous proof reading and sharper editing would have also helped.

The Vanished Raj: A Memoir of Princely India By Navaratna Rama Rao

(Retold in English by Navaratna Rajaram with Rajeshwari Rao)

Prism Books, Rs. 395

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 9:54:28 AM |

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