Portrait of the Novelist as Social Reformer

Book review by S. Viswanathan, Frontline, August 13-26, 2005

A. Madhaviah: A Biography by Sita Anantha Raman and a Novella translated from the Tamil by Vasantha Surya; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005; pages 190, Rs.295.

THE novel as a genre of literature arrived in Tamil in the third quarter of 19th century, more than a century after it became popular with English writers. Mayuram Vedanayakam Pillai's Pratapa Mudaliar Charitram (1879), the first Tamil novel, was followed by Kamalambal Charitram by B.R. Rajam Iyer in 1893 and Padmavathi Charitram by A. Madhaviah in 1898. The first is a semi-puranic romance with a moral theme and an assortment of fables, folk tales and even Greek and Roman stories, written with the entertainment of the reader as the principal motive. The other two portray the life of Brahmins in 19th century rural Tamil Nadu, capturing their customs and habits, beliefs and rituals. Although it was primarily a powerful narration of the common man's life in a realistic style spiced with natural humour, Rajam Iyer's novel has a spiritual and philosophical undertone. Madhaviah tells the story in a more realistic way with a searching criticism of the upper caste society, particularly the sexual exploitation of girls by older men. His stories generally end on an optimistic note, reaffirming his reformist zeal and impatient cry for a solution "here and now".

Another work of Madhaviah, Savitri Charitram, a realistic expose of injustices against women, was serialised in a periodical long before the publication of Padmavathi Charitram. "The twenty-year-old radical," observes Sita Ananth Raman, "was a college graduate with a profound distaste for the irrational, pseudo-religious customs prevalent in upper caste society. Although the young author wrote English poetry and prose, it is significant that he had already chosen the novel as the ideal medium to articulate his views on humanism and gender equity." He wrote over 30 books on Indian themes in a variety of forms - prose, poetry, essays and so on. Writing both in English and Tamil, he was perhaps a pioneer in this respect. "Madhaviah was a literary pioneer who helped define the blueprint of the Indian novel in both Tamil and English. Later writers would emulate his effective use of dialogue, and his precise delineation of female and male characters," writes the biographer.

The emergence of the novel as a powerful literary genre in Tamil, based on the English model, was perhaps facilitated by the provision of education in English to sections of Indians since 1835. This educational paradigm was based on the "Minute of 2 February 1835 on Indian Education" prepared by T.B. Macaulay (1800-1859), a member of the Supreme Council of the East India Company, for the colonial government on a directive from the Governor-General of India, Lord William Bentinck, in March 1835. Bentinck said in his Declaration that the objective of the British government ought to be the promotion of European literature and science among the natives of India and that all the funds appropriated for the purpose of education would be best employed on English education alone. This led to the introduction of the novels of Charles Dickens, Walter Scott, Oliver Goldsmith and George Eliot as textbooks in Indian educational institutions. In addition, the success of Tamil scholar U.V. Swaminatha Iyer in unearthing treasures of ancient and medieval Tamil literature generated a lot of interest among the intellectuals of the period in literature (Frontline, March 11). The work of Christian missionaries such as Bishop Robert Caldwell and G.U. Pope in India's educational sector and their knowledge of Tamil made literary explorations from both sides possible. Both reading and writing novels received encouragement. The reformists began to realise the importance of fiction as a convenient and effective tool for social mobilisation. Novelists with a reformist zeal such as Madhaviah became the forerunners of K.S. Venkatramani, Pudumaippithan and many more who emerged in the next few decades.

BORN on August 16, 1872 at Perunkulam in the then Tirunelveli district, Madhaviah had his school education in a Hindu school in Tirunelveli, and stayed at a boarding house in the nearby missionary town of Palayamkottai. His acquaintance with Christian missionaries began here and it continued when he joined the Madras Christian College for higher education. Although he lived in the vicinity of the Palayamkottai Mission, his introduction to Western thought occurred in the protected environment of a Hindu school, observes the biographer. This, she states, gave him the cultural confidence to examine the impact of Christianity on Tamil society without losing his own identity. Later, at Madras Christian College, Madhaviah got a deeper understanding of Christian perceptions about Hindu society. This seems to have influenced his writings to a considerable extent. Although he was appreciative of their activities in the field of education and health, he apparently had reservations about their religious motives.

Madhaviah's career as a writer started while at college and he was a regular contributor to the college magazine. Many of his essays and poems appeared in it. Married, at the age of 15, to 11-year-old Meenakshi, he had five daughters and three sons. He took premature retirement from government service as a salt inspector and edited some magazines at the fag end of his life. He died in 1925. His last act was to press for the introduction of Tamil as a compulsory subject of study at the college level at a meeting of the Senate of the University of Madras.

Madhaviah's writings include eight novels, four in English and four in Tamil, and scores of poems, besides essays and plays. Muthumeenakshi and Vijayamarthandam are among his Tamil novels. He penned a number of stories for The Hindu, which also carried many of his essays. In Thillai Govindan, an English novel, he makes a scathing attack on social and moral degeneration, discrimination against the downtrodden sections, child marriage, disfigurement and ill-treatment of widows, superstition, caning and other forms of cruel punishment in schools. Clarinda, another English novel, tells the story of a Brahmin woman who is saved from sati by a former British soldier and her ultimate conversion to Christianity on the death of her British lover.

Madhaviah's life-long tirade against child marriage and the ill-treatment of widows in the Brahmin community is attributed to the traumatic impact on him of the death of his sister, 10 years older than him, at the age of 16 while being delivered of her first child. Among those who influenced him were the novelists Samuel Vedanayakam Pillai, Rev. William Miller, who was the Principal of the Madras Christian College for 30 years, and poet Subramanya Bharati.

MORE than a conventional biography of the celebrated Tamil writer, what Sita Anantha Raman offers is an elaborate study of the prolific writings of the novelist in their historical context. Madhaviah's reformist zeal is evident in his strong indictment of the 19th century Tamil Brahmin society for heaping miseries and indignities to its people by encouraging obnoxious practices in the name of tradition and religion. The biographer, a historian based in the United States, declares in her preface that her objective in writing the work is "to reclaim for this humanist [Madhaviah] a space that is rightfully his in Tamil Nadu". Even as Sita Anantha Raman welcomes the process that has been set in motion for "the demythification of Indian history", she cautions against "a disturbing counter trend of denigrating those individuals who aspired for freedom, and who awoke in Indians a consciousness of their human rights". "His [Madhaviah's] fame," the biographer writes in her introduction, "rests more surely on his innovative redesigning of Western genres for modern Tamil use and for his use of Tamil and English fiction to reform society. Therefore, in many ways, Madhaviah, the reformer defined the artist." Clearly, the biographer has probed into the reformer's ideological motivations, with a view to finding out "why the writer presented himself and his culture in specific ways".

Another stated objective of Sita Anantha Raman is "to recover Indian history from those historians who often falsely credit the social reform movement, with all its myriad regional diversities, to the foreign impetus of an apparently benign colonial presence". In her view, the social reform movement in India could not have maintained its authenticity or its momentum if it was inspired entirely or largely as a response to Western criticism. "The Orientalist rediscovery of ancient texts fuelled the search by Indians for parallel indigenous paradigms on justice, gender equity, and rationalism, in their own scriptures as well as in Western texts," writes the biographer. "Madhaviah," Sita Anantha Raman writes, "looked for such homologies, as did some other reformers, and they thrived in their discovery of a pre-Western tradition of humanism in South India." This guaranteed the strength of their framework for modern Tamil-Indian humanism. Many ordinary people have unconsciously absorbed such ideas and some long-standing traditions have been rejected, she points out and states: "Surely, Madhaviah's fame even in his lifetime informs us of his success in spreading such views."

When Madhaviah's novella, Muthumeenakshi, was published first in 1903, many voiced outrage at the novelist's outspoken condemnation of the Brahmin community's mores through the columns of The Hindu. The book, however, saw its second edition in 1923. In his foreword, Madhaviah recalled the protest 20 years earlier and declared that his views had since been vindicated. "I rejoice at having been a goad, however small, to turn society's juggernaut away from its worn old ruts and to launch it zestfully into a new path... " he writes, noting the significant change in the attitude of the people in the intervening period.

In Muthumeenakshi, Madhaviah criticises the social evils such as early marriage, disfigurement of widows and denial of education to women. The story, which tells the plight of a child widow, has a happy ending with the girl opting for remarriage. Madhaviah makes out a strong case for women's education and widow remarriage. The English version of the novella comes as an add-on to the biography in Vasantha Surya's eminently readable translation.


Posted August 16, 2005