Indulekha (A Novel Which Helps You Understand the Culture of Kerala)

Item Code: IDF251
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Author: Anitha Devasia, O. Chandumenon
Language: English
Edition: 2005
ISBN: 9780195678772
Pages: 305
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.3" X 5.4"
Weight 300 gm
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Book Description

About the Book:

Indulekha (1889) is widely held to be the first Malayalam novel. Often called an 'accidental' and 'flawed' work, at its core lies a love story. Written by a Nair, Indulekha achieves certain social goals: firstly, it creates a novel much like those of English authors read by Chandumenon, and secondly, it illustrates Nair society at that time.

This novel will appeal to general readers interested in Indian writings in translation. Students of literature, history and culture, political and legal theory, and gender studies, will also find it useful.

About the Authors:

Chandumenon (1847-99) was Sub-Judge of the Madras Presidency, a post which he occupied until his death.

Anitha Devasia is Lecturer, Department of English, St Teresa's College, Ernakulam, Kochi.


Even today, Indulekha would be considered a runaway success. Much to the author's surprise, the first edition sold out in three months; an English translation of the complete novel was ready and out the very next year; and by its 1989 publication centenary it had gone into an estimated 72 reprints. The novel fell on bad times in the middle years of the twentieth century, dominated as they were by canonical modes of reading and disciplinarian aesthetic that trivialized its scope. But Indulekha has found fresh life over the last two decades as questions of region, gender and minority engage us anew and we search out a history that will illuminate our discussions. Today-and critics of all persuasions would agree- this foundational work holds pride of place in the canon of Malayalam literature. And what you are now holding in your hands, dear reader, is a new translation, one that is alert to the history as well as the current vitality of this extraordinary work. Like Chandumenon's contemporary, Krupabai Satthianadhan's Saguna (1887-8), it is also, in all seriousness and in more senses than one, a book that makes a bid for the heart.

The focus on feeling and taste is all the more compelling since the novel took shape in a vortex of social and jurisprudential upheavals. I will annotate these briefly-just to put the reader on the scent of the momentous issues that are at stake in the labour of this text. In 1792 the British captured Malabar, the centre of the legendary trade in spices, ousting the Portuguese (who had in turn ousted the Arab traders) and bringing the region into their map of India. Meanwhile, changes taking place in agriculture (increasingly tuned to export and the money economy) and land ownership/tenure had increased the wealth and standing of the Nairs (a martial group, Sudra by caste) in relation to that of the Nambuthiris (Brahmins and principal owners of temple and private lands). Open to the new rulers and to learning English, the Nair men also found employment in the government, often rising to hold important positions-Chandumenon himself being an example of this. More immediately relevant to our discussion here is the common cause found by two groups-British administrators and some of the new Nairs. They put forward a principled and vociferous critique of Nair marriage and inheritance practices and, in 1879, set afoot initiatives for changes in marriage laws that would polarize this society for the next half a century.

The Nairs in the forefront of the movement were disturbed by two things: the joint nature of family (taravad) life and property which made it impossible for individuals to claim or alienate property, and the fact that Nambuthiri men could claim access to Nair women. British administrators were also invested in the issue of individual ownership which for them connected up with the promotion of enterprise and undermining the power of the taravad. But administrative discussion tended to foreground 'abnormal' matrilineal inheritance practices and the 'sanctioned polyandry' of Nair culture-since Nair women were as free as the men to dissolve an alliance and enter another. The discussion centred on three points. One, the suffering of the junior men in the family (anandravan) who had no right to separate property and were victims of taravads that would not even pay for their education. Two, the informal and temporary nature of Nair alliances as reflected in the contractual, non-sacramental sambandam ceremony. This made it possible, they claimed, for Nambuthiri men to enter into a sambandam with a Nair woman and treat it neither as a marriage nor as binding under Nambuthiri custom. The idea that Nair alliances were actually 'concubinage' also gave rise to the perception that Nair women were unchaste and 'polyandrous'. Three, the strange (to the British) practice of inheritance through the female line and the relative unimportance of the father in everyday family life. Of the major players in the discussion were those arguing from universalist principles, traditionalists who wanted no change, and those, like the author of Indulekha, who fought to create a third space.

It is evident from the long note of dissent that he had appended to the 1891 report of the Malabar Marriage Commission that Chandumenon opposed the new legislation. He wrote that it was always difficult to 'defend or justify the social and religious customs of Oriental nations according to the European notions of morality and theology. Many customs, sanctioned by our law and usage and observed by us daily, appear to Europeans extremely immoral and quite unjust'. However, he pointed out, laws relating to marriage have their root in 'the very deepest feelings and the whole history of a nation'. They cannot simply be forced into 'harmony' with those of other nations 'whose institutions and characters had been cast in a totally different mould'. Nair marriage, he argued, may not contain Vedic elements (since as Sudras, Nairs were not allowed to read the Vedas), but it was a solemn rite and in normal practice the bond was respected as lifelong. He feared that 10-15 years after the bill became law, the taravad system and Nair culture would be destroyed altogether. One cannot but note that a substantive part of Chandumenon's anxiety related to that aspect of the bill that sought to make legal the bonds between Nairs and other (lower) castes. By no means, however, is he a no- changer.

His arguments are compelling. All the same, Chandumenon's most significant contribution to this debate and to the shaping of Indian modernity, is the fictional world that he was able to establish in Indulekha. It is a world in which the Nair household-its history, its everyday life, its current crisis, and its spoken tongue, its strong women-is the setting for the seduction of the reader. And if readers fall in love with its unusual and charming protagonist-equipped with a classical education as well as English, independent, witty, open-minded, and just, in addition to being beautiful in a Nair (as against Sanskritic) way-it is also because she is a rebel. When Indulekha uses the first-person singular as she rejects the advances of Surinambuthiri, the attitude reverberates across Nair society, much as the door Nora would slam a few years later when she leaves her 'doll's house', echoes through Europe. This is not modernity by fiat; it is a modernity muscled and shaped in combat with its immediate antagonists (among them those who depict Nair society as perverse and Nair women as victim to their strange customs). This book should interest all serious students, not just of literature or culture, but also of political theory, history, legal theory, and gender studies. With the wider readership that this translation makes possible, I believe Indulekha will find life and place in many new terrains.



All good translation,' writes Talal Asad, 'seeks to reproduce the structure of an alien discourse within the translator's own language. How that structure (or 'coherence') is reproduced will of course depend on the genre concerned ("poetry", "scientific analysis", "narrative", etc.), on the resources of the translator's language, as well as on the interests of the translator and/or his readership. Asad's influential formulation of what is involved in the activity of translation reflects a break in translation studies generally. This break involves a shift from a framework where the issues are those of faithfulness to the meaning of the original and readability in the target language to a framework that takes into consideration politics of representation, and what Tejaswini Niranjana has called the 'force' of translation. The question of translation is at the heart of the very writing of Indulekha and, by extension, also at the heart of the Malayalam novel. In the preface to the first edition, the author provides us with an account of why he wrote the novel. Around the end of 1886, after he was transferred from the busy port city of Kozhikode to the village of Parappanangadi, Chandumenon found himself spending a great deal of time reading English novels. Resentful because he was not paying enough attention to them, the circle of his intimate friends/his wife (there is some ambiguity here) demanded that he share his reading with them. He first tried by providing a plot summary or gist of a few of the novels that he had read; that failed to arouse any interest. He then experimented with an extempore translation of Henrietta Temple. He found himself adding explanations and examples, using tone of voice and expression in such a way that he became more like an interpreter than a translator in the conventional sense of the word. His wife enjoyed this so much that she wanted him to translate more. Encouraged by the success, he began work on a written translation of the novel. His observations regarding the difference between his oral rendering and the formal translation are worth citing in some detail:

I do not think that it is particularly difficult to read a novel and then translate it orally in such a way that close friends of mine who do not know English can understand it reasonably well. On the other hand, I believe it is practically impossible to do a written translation in such a way that they will really grasp the import of the story. When one reads a written translation, one only understands what has actually been written. That is not enough. The actual force of an English work can be put across quite well in an extempore rendering because it is possible, even as each incident is being recounted, to supplement the translation with detail, example and commentary, and to draw out the meaning implicit in the words with gesture and tone of voice. If you incorporate such description and commentary into a faithful written translation, there is no doubt that the work will get completely out of hand. Furthermore if one were to simply translate the romantic episodes/love scenes in an English novel into Malayalam, they would not be particularly enticing'.

Chandumenon decided that the only way he could solve the problem was to actually write a novel in Malayalam. What he did might be thought of as creating-in Malayalam and in relation to the Malayali world at the time- the experience of the novel.

John Willoughby Francis Dumergue, the then collector in Malabar and Malayalam translator to the Madras government, was enthusiastic about Chandumenon's achievement. 'Mr Chandumenon,' he writes, 'has quit the well-worn track, paved with plagiarism; modern Malabar is depicted in his pages and the language of lndulekha is the living Malayalam of the present day' This depiction of contemporary reality as well as the colloquial language, Dumergue argued, was of immense 'value to Europeans'. The novel was, therefore, of 'far more importance to the ends of administration than all the monuments of archaic ingenuity which we read and mark and leave undigested He undertakes the English translation-he terms it a translation into the 'lingua franca of the East'-in order to ensure that the new departure made by Chandumenon is not 'limited to the narrow sphere' of Malayalam, but will also be available to others working in the 'East'. In this he considers himself as assisting in the author's objective.

It is significant that Dumergue finds he has to 'add a few notes in which I have endeavoured to explain certain passages relating to the social and family system peculiar to Malabar' In fact, just as Chandumenon felt it necessary to add to the discourse of Henrietta Temple when he translated that book for his Malayali audience, Dumergue must add something to make Chandumenon's novel appropriate for the audience he is addressing. What he is forced to add-the notes explaining the peculiarities of Malabar-are in fact an indication that his project and Chandumenon's are not identical. In fact, in this case they are quite radically different. And one might go so far as to say that the project of the original and that of a translation are rarely the same.

Dumergue regards the representational and linguistic realism of Indulekha as a resource for colonial administration. The novel, he writes, 'supplies a distinct want felt by colonial administrators'? Unlike the classical texts, this work makes the land and its people accessible to him in a way that he finds useful. In other words, they are presented in a way that already readies them as it were for administrative intervention. This overall orientation is clearly evident in the notes, and in subtle but sure ways also affects the nature of Dumergue's translation. We have no evidence that Chandumenon wrote the novel in order to meet such a need. On the contrary, the novel would appear to have been part of a public disagreement that he had with British administrators and the initiatives that they were proposing.

No doubt also because of the fluency and the idiomatic elegance of the English Dumergue uses, and his general 'faithfulness' to the original, his translation has generally been considered a 'good' translation. It has been reprinted several times. Going by the controversy that it raised in the press, it would appear to have also been the basis for the widely circulated textbook that was prescribed at the Class X level. There are two ways of thinking about this, and both of them are relevant here. First, the aesthetic success of the translation, its smoothness and readability, has deflected our attention away from the colonial/orientalist leanings and the administrative inspiration of the Dumergue translation. The aesthetic success is related to the ease with which the original seems to have travelled into English and made itself at home there. In fact, an approach that is concerned primarily with the transfer of meaning, and the readability of the text in the target language is likely to miss these issues that concern the politics of representation. Second, the authority of Durnergue's translation is such that its reading of lndulekha became definitive. Tejaswini Niranjana points to this tendency as a general one in a colonial situation. She writes: 'Influential translations ... interpellated colonial subjects, legitimizing or authorizing certain versions of the Oriental, versions that then came to acquire the status of "truths" even in the countries In which the "original" works were produced.

Thus, in his 1965 foreword to a new edition of Dumergue's translation, T.C Sankaramenon, who is also the author of the Sahitya Akademi monograph on Chandumenon, tells us that Dumergue saw in the novel a 'faithful, fascinating picture of life in Malabar, and such a picture, he believed, would not only be interesting but also useful to administrators and historians'. This is a paraphrase that touches up Durnergue's 'original' in a very significant way. There are two key additions: Chandumenon's original novel is now read through the lens that Dumergue held up to it, as a 'faithful and fascinating' picture of life in Malabar. There is no mention here of the controversies over Marumakkathayam, or the debate over modernity that culminates in the detailed discussions of Chapter 18. Likewise, neither has the problems of transforming the taste of Malayali readers nor of capturing his wife, Laxmikuttyamma's interest been mentioned here. Furthermore, Chandumenon's realist depiction, we are told by this urbane nationalist critic writing in independent India, was not only valuable to administrators-s-and here he appears to be in agreement with Dumergue-but also to historians. While it may not be justified to read too much into this phrase, one can, I think, point out that the needs of administration and scholarship are depicted as identical. It is ironical that Chandumenon's enthusiasm for English education comes in for criticism by this nationalist critic as does Chapter 18, which he considers a 'structural blemish' and a 'vexatious hurdle' in the reader's 'eager pursuit of the plot'. For Sankaramenon, the novel is a 'well-told, pleasing love story which would have a wide appeal, By and large, this is the frame in Leela Devi's 1979 translation of Indulekha entitled Crescent Moon, which indicates her reading of the novel as a romance (a crescent-not 'new'-moon) rather than as a political or cultural initiative (there is no echo even of the other meaning of the word Indulekha-a new/fresh line/inscription). Not surprisingly, Leela Devi also chooses to improve the original by omitting Chapter 18.


Foreword by Susie Tharu ix
Preface xiii


Beginnings 1
Indulekha 5
An Angry Man's Oath 30
A Separation 34
Panchumenon's Anger 41
Panchumenon' Anxiety 50
Kannazhi Moorkillatha Manakkal Surinambuthiripad 59
An Arrival from Madras 73
The Coming of the Nambuthiripad and Other Things 76
A Letter from Madras 85
What People Said about the Nambuthiripad 92
Conversation between Indulekha and the Nambuthiripad 100
Second Conversation between Indulekha and the Nambuthiripad 129
The Nambuthiripad's Wedding 144
A Calamity 153
Madhavan's Tour of the Country 164
How Madhavan was Found 176
A Conversation 184
Things Which Actually Happened at Home during the Period of Madhavan's Journey 215
The End of the Story


Afterword 226
Appendices 237
I:     Preface to the first edition of Indulekha 237
II:    Preface to the second edition of Indulekha 241
III:   Dumergue's Preface 245
IV:   Chandumenon's Memorandum to the Malabar Marriage Commission 248
V:    The President's Supplementary Memorandum to the Malabar Marriage Commission 263
Bibliography 275
Glossary 284


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