About the Book
The late V.T. Bhattathiripad was one of the leading social reformers of modern kerala. My Tears, My Dreams is his celebrated autobiography that maps his transformation from a young boy schooled in his ancestral calling of priesthood to a reading writer and activist.
It is both the story of a young Namboodiri man and that of a community, total in a style that is unique in Malayalam. The narrative is in the form of interconnected essays that invoke the tragic plight of the majority of Brahmin households in Kerala, mired in convention and ignorance. They locate V.T. Bhattathiripad’s own self-awakening in the collective struggle of committed progressive young men and women. Though it is an autobiographical narrative, the focus is on the society as a whole and on the Namboodiri community in particular.
Besides the main text, the book includes an in-depth interview that three historians conducted with the author in his last year, and rare photographs related to the author’s life and times. With a comprehensive Introduction and an Epilogue, this translation will appeal to students and teachers of Indian writing, comparative literature, history, politics, and cultural and gender studies as well as general readers.
V.T. BHATTATIRIPPAD (1896-1982) is one of the makers of modern Kerala. His imprint on the literary and social landscape of 20th century Kerala is visible even three decades after his death. VT, the writer, and VT, the activist, are inseparable. He was drawn into political activism by the freedom struggle. However, freedom had a larger meaning for him. It meant freedom from all oppressive structures including British colonialism, caste, patriarchy and religion. So he wrote short stories, plays and pamphlets, exhorting members of his own community, particularly the women, and the world at large, to build a more humane world. He did not join any political party but was committed to progressive ideals and remained a humanist all his life. Beginning with reforms within the Namboodiri community, he advocated modern education and urged his people to move on from temple duties to modern profession and, later, campaigned for widow remarriage and inter-caste marriages. He set a personal example in all this; his sister married a non-Brahmin, and he left priesthood to work at various things from journalism to farming.
As a writer, his best-known works are Kannerum Kinavum, the autobiography which won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award in 1972, and the play, Adukkalayil Ninnum Arangathekku (from the Hearth to the Stage). The latter was a manifesto for Namboodiri reformation and a seminal text in the history of modern Malayalam theatre. VT’s articles were frontal attacks on the conservative opinion of the day. One of them, Ini Namukku Ambalam Thee Kolutham (Now Let Us Fire to the Temples), got the government of the day to issue an arrest warrant against the author. When poet and essayist, M. Govindan, said the initials VT stood for Viplavathinte thee (Fire of Revolution), he was not exaggerating.
SINDHU V. NAIR was born in 1972 the year Kaneerum Kinaavum was awarded the Kerala Sahitya Academy Award. She went to school in Aluva, Kerala, and completed a Master’s degree in English Language and Literature from Kerala University. She worked as a teacher for a while in Kerala and Bihar. She moved to Delhi where her translations of short stories by Madhavikutty (Kamala Das) appeared in The Little Magazine; one of them, ‘Velutha Babu’, was included in The Little Magazine anthology Favorite Fiction: 24 Short Stories from South Asia. My Tears, My Dreams is her first full length translation. She lives in Chennai with husband Amrith and children, Parvati and Keshavan.
It is widely stated that had it not been for the reforms initiated by a group of young men in the early decades of the twentieth century, the Namboodiri community, reeling under the weight of tradition and orthodoxy, would have continued unchanged. The reforms initiated by V.T. Bhattathiripad and his associates were significant for more reasons than one. To begin with, it was in consonance with the ongoing struggle for national independence, even as it coincided with the Kerala renaissance that brought about a radical change in the caste-class relations in the state. Furthermore, the most important aspect of the Namboodiri social reforms was the fact that it was aimed at reforming itself and so targeted itself-an aspect that is often overlooked, particularly by those who find fault with the main actors in the reforms, especially V.T. Bhattathiripad, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, and others. But then, this is the case with all communities and their reforms too. In any case, the reforms, and naturally, the autobiographical account of the social circumstances of it by the main player V.T. Bhattathiripad, should be read in the larger context of struggles waged by other communities at one level and the question of modernity they were addressing at another. Furthermore, the English translation of his autobiography appears at time when the slogans and calls raised by him are being interpreted and used for purposes at variance with the spirit they embodied then.
The first few decades of Kerala in the twentieth century appear to be linked in collective memory to the calls given by leaders of social movements. This included the dictum or slogan ‘One caste, one religion and one God for humans,’ pronounced by Sree Narayana Guru (1856-1928), ‘No caste, no religion and no God needed for humans,’ proclaimed by K. Ayyappan. Each of these was aimed at radical social reforms and reconstitution of communal hierarchy and targeted at those who enjoyed different types of social capital. Remember, each of these dictums which have evolved into a doctrine, was enough to upset the foundations of the orthodox social structure of the time.
At the same time, it significant that caste was staring to be differently formulated and understood at a time when V.T. Bhattathiripad started his work. In this context, the avowed aim of the Namboodiri Yogakshema Sabha, the organization that set out to reform the Namboodiri community, assume interesting dimensions. Their call to make the ‘Namboodiri a human being,’ taken up by E.M.S. Namboodiripad and an idea mooted by V.T. himself in a speech (1930), assumes great relevance in this context. This statement (or call) definitely needs to be placed in the context modernity, now famously identified as colonial modernity, marked as it was by the spread of education and a differently articulated notion of knowledge.
It is indeed worth considering the other movements/organizations that were initiated with the intention of rearticulating caste and class. It cannot be altogether coincidental that a large number of organizations, which served a similar social purpose too, were formed at a time when the Namboodiri Yogakshema Sabha was formed. This included the SNDP Yogam (1903), Sadhujanaparipalana Samgham (1907), Valasamudaya Parishkarini Sabha (1910), NSS (1914), and Sahodara Prasthanam (1917) to name few (Vijayan 2000: 36). The work of Chattampiswamikal too calls for serious consideration. Of these, both NSS and the SNDP Yogam have emerged as powerful and influential organizations over the years. Their contribution and influence in the cultural and educational fields have far exceeded similar organizations. Schools and colleges set up by these organizations have boosted the members of the Nair and Ezhave communities both, culturally and economically. Organs representing other communities have not been as successful as these two on this count, possibly because of the difference in the numerical strength and also owing to the goals and nature of their composition.
Further movements in this direction were given greater impetus and legitimacy by the various regulations and legislations that were implemented. This included the famous satyagrahas (sit-in struggles) in Vaikom (1924-5) and Guruvayur (1931-2), the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936, Nair-Ezhava Regulations, the Namboodiri bills and the Malabar Matriliny Law (Vijayan 2000: 37). These had implications for the area that was to be reconstituted as the state of Kerala in 1956.
Before the nature and significance of the struggle within the Namboodiri community is examined, it is necessary to consider an important historical even that brought to fore a major concern of the people of Kerala. This incident, popularly known as the Malayali Memorial, had constructed a ‘Malayali’ subjectivity. This incident concerned a document, intended primarily as a memorandum submitted to the Maharaja of Travancore, contained the representation of all native ‘Malayali population. Here we see the declaration of a selfhood, the like of which until then had not been articulated. The memorandum signed by K.P. Sankara Menon, an advocate of the High Court opens with a plea: ‘I beg, to forward for your Highness’ favourable and sympathetic consideration a Memorial signed by more than ten thousand of your Highness subjects of different castes, creed and calling. Namboodiris, Nairs and Tiers, Syrian and native Christians and East Indians and Eurasians, Landlords, Merchants and Officials’ (Kerala State Archives 1993: 137). The Memorial or memorandum, submitted in 1891, demands reservation for Malayalis in various government jobs and positions.
There is another dimension to the paradoxical situation that defines the Namboodiri reform movement. Documents like the Malayali Memorial make a clear distinction between the native and foreign population of the region. But writers like P.K. Balakrishnan, painstakingly establish the non-Kerala roots of the Namboodiri Brahmins and point out the relatively recent origin of such Brahmin settlements. It is also well known that historians are divided over the status and power enjoyed by Namboodiri Brahmins. One might, as well, recall the argument that Christianity preceded Namboodiris to Kerala. None of these arguments however call for considering the Namboodiri community as a diasporic group. All linguistic evidence and certainly, lifestyles, persuade one to think that an indigenous tradition must have evolved along with them. The irregular distribution of Namboodiris across the state and the uneven nature of the gramams (villages) or settlements must have been the cause of the critical evaluation we see in Balakrishana and others.
While the reform within the Namboodiri community did not challenge authority or resist social hierarchy, as already mentioned, it addressed issues of the need for the community itself to the requirements of modernity. If in other communities it was colonial modernity that provided the setting for the resistance/reform movements, within the Namboodiri community, modernity was both a target and an aim. For the younger generation, modernity and its concomitants meant coming to terms with the brave new world, while the old guard predictable stuck to the traditional ways of living and modes of thinking.
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