Those Clives again

November 19, 2016 05:01 pm | Updated November 21, 2016 12:40 pm IST

Sri Varadarajar Temple in Kaladipet

Sri Varadarajar Temple in Kaladipet

Yes, it’s those Clives of India and their Madras stints causing confusion again. And, it’s once again Dr. N. Sreedharan finding himself in the midst of the confusion they cause, especially in historical writing in Tamil. This time, he’s been reading a book about the Varadarajar Temple in Kancheepuram and finding that “a grand necklace” ( Makara kandigai ) gifted to the Lord by (“of all people”!) Robert Clive adorned Him on the third day of His annual festival, the day considered to be the holiest of the Brahmotsavam. Was it really gifted by Robert Clive, Dr, Sreedharan asks. The answer may be found in the temple records, but till someone quotes the records, let’s wonder whether this was likely in the context of Robert Clive’s life story.

Robert Clive arrived in Madras in May 1744 as a lowly Writer working for the Government of Fort St George. His salary was £5 a year! He left for England in 1753 after proving himself as a soldier in the rank of Captain during the Carnatic Wars and being rewarded with the Stewardship of Fort St, George, which would have enabled him to have earned some commission on the purchase of provisions. He returned to India in June 1756 as Deputy Governor of Fort St David and was within the year ordered to lead the expedition to Bengal — and Plassey. Then it was back to England in 1760 before returning to India as Governor of Bengal in 1765. He left India for good in 1767.

In his years in what is now Tamil Nadu, he had served in Madras and Cuddalore and fought in the Trichinopoly district and Arcot. No mention of Kancheepuram anywhere. In fact, he had got to the districts only because of the War. Few of the English stirred out of the bounds of the Madras of that day which reached out to Mylapore in the south, Ennore in the north and Perambur in the west, with the urban boundary being Triplicane, what is now the Buckingham Canal and the villages of Muthialpet and Peddanaickenpet.

Given this background — of rising from near poverty only briefly to a modest income, and the geographically restricted lives the English in Fort St. George led — I doubt Robert Clive being in a position to be generous to the Varadarajar Temple. Governor Edward Clive is a different kettle of fish. He inherited a fortune from his father and his domain, during his tenure 1799-1805, extended through much of South India, including Kancheepuram. He was certainly in a position to make a handsome gift to the Varadarajar Temple but that he did so — particularly considering the kind of life of pleasure he lived — is something extremely doubtful.

A British Governor who, however, has, at least in legend, been linked with the Kanchi Varadarajar Temple was Joseph Collett after whom Collettpet, better known today, unfortunately, as Kaladipet near Tiruvottriyur-Tondiarpet, was named. He had an efficient but ultra-religious Indian functionary who regularly visited the Kanchi temple and was sorely missed on such occasions by the Governor who perhaps found his absences highly disruptive of work . When Viraraghavan, the official, demonstrated to him a sign from Lord Varadarajar, the Governor ordered the Kalyana Varadarajar temple built in what became Collettpet and endowed it richly — possibly with a great chain or even one to Kanchi Varadarajar after whom it was named. Collett was Governor from 1717 to 1720, even before Robert Clive. Which period again makes the legend a most curious one.

Election memories

There was a time, as I’ve mentioned before, when the horses wouldn’t run if I was not at the racecourse placing a small bet. There was also a time when college (American) football and basketball matches wouldn’t be played if I hadn’t punted on the ‘score spreads’. That was when, placing a dollar or two with fellow-students giving odds, I picked up over $200 when Harry Truman stunned the world and made the Chicago Tribune eat its headline ‘Dewey defeats Truman’. There was no way the charismatic New York politician could be defeated, the press and the pundits had said, blithely ignoring the ‘Common Man’ who turned up in his thousands on that famous ‘whistle stop’ railway tour in 1948 the ‘Haberdasher from Missouri’ undertook over nearly 25,000 miles to make speeches which were virtually hometown homilies and town hall chats. Ratio brought them home to me.

The next time I picked up some small change was in Ceylon in 1956 when the brash and over-confident John Kotelawala was routed by S W R D Bandaranaike to the shock, once again, of the press, the pundits and the police with their ears to the ground — not to mention the Americans who had solidly backed Sir John the Laird of the Manor. Once again the experts had paid little heed to the people in the hundreds of villages whom SWRD had appealed to through the Buddhist monk, the school teacher and the ayurvedic physician of each village he campaigned in and who addressed his village square meetings with him.

By the time the next opportunity to pick up a rupee or two turned up, I’d given up every kind of betting. So, when Jayalalithaa literally blanked out Karunanidhi in 2011, I could only repeat to all my view that her victory would be a rout to those who had thought otherwise during our numerous conversations. Once again, the loser had been looking at major achievements and policies, not at what Amma, in the literal sense of the word, thought would appeal to persons in urban poverty or rural struggle. It was an appeal to the Common Person whose concerns were of the day.

And so, we come to the man who trumped Hillary. He too had sensed the mood of the redneck, blue-collar and storekeeper Whites, who remain as a class almost a majority in the United States. And he spoke to them in the language they understood best – their livelihoods were being threatened, he stated in every down-to-earth way possible… and found buyers. I had thought that Hillary would get more popular votes — and she got them, though it was just about so, as I had expected. But the curious American Electoral College system tripped me up; I had thought a few of the better-off northern States would vote more favourably for her than they did. And so a loser by the peoples’ vote lost to the winner of a much discussed system.

Be that as it may, was the ‘shock and awe’ reaction of the press and the pundits and the pollsters warranted? Right through to the end, they had stated often enough that Hillary’s lead was small, that it was worrying, that at times Trump was even slightly ahead. That considered, why the reaction that Trump Triumphant was an ‘earthquake’? An upset, not a particularly big one if you had followed the campaign throughout, ‘Yes’, but certainly not a cataclysm. My odds would have been evens for Hillary, 15 to 10 for Trump. And those are not odds to shock anyone, whatever the result, if you accepted the view that the Common Man has a loud voice when pushed hard enough.

A history of Tamil

Researching for factual accuracy in the course of editing a dissertation on Tamil language and literature I came across yet another 19th Century Jaffna Tamil scholar who had lived in what is now Tamil Nadu. Particularly noteworthy about his work was a book titled Dravida Prakasikai . Described as an encyclopaedic history of Tamil literature, grammar and thought, it was first published in 1899 by the Siddhanta Vidyanupalana Yanthirasalai in Kumbakonam. A second edition of this book on Tamil learning came out from the Sadhu Press, Madras, in 1927, published by a nephew of author Sabapathy Navalar. Whether the book is still in print, I have no idea, but the Roja Muthiah Research Library has a copy.

Arumuga Navalar was the first person to receive the title ‘Navalar’ from the Thiruvavadu Math in Thiruvaduthurai, Nagapattinam District, about 20 km from Kumbakonam. Like Arumuga Navalar, the second to receive the title ‘Navalar’, Sabapathy Navalar, was also from Jaffna. Sabapathy first came to Tamizhagam when he was appointed Head Teacher of the Saivaprakasa Vidyasalai in Chidambaram, a school started by Arumuga Navalar. From there Sabapathy moved to the Thiruvavadu Math and spent twelve years there, during the course of which he was awarded the title ‘Adheena Vidvan’.

Sabapathy Navalar had a host of works to his credit — not being listed here, because their scholarliness frightens me. But what is recorded is that during his 35 years in Madras, Madura and Chidambaram, till his death in the last-named in 1903, he translated numerous “learned works from Sanskrit into Tamil” and spoke “mellifluously on Saiva Siddhantha truths”.

For a person who published a book considered an encyclopaedia of Tamil learning, so little is known of him.

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