Sunday, November 15, 2009

A window into another world

A family unearths a diary written in 1932 by their grandmother, a member of the Cochin Royal Family, who had died young. Thanks to the entries they were able to have an idea of the life and times of that period

Photo: Devaki Varma

By Shevlin Sebastian

Entry from a 1932 diary: a) Mahatma Gandhi arrested. There is a complete hartal in the town. The account of the arrest is very sad. Tears came to my eyes when I read it. India is in mourning. The tears of the oppressed undermine the thrones of kings. This is the death knell of the British empire.

b) Things are going from bad to worse. We are having martial law throughout India. The official terrorism is increasing. Oh God have you forgotten us, poor Indians?

c) Finished the novel ‘A Passage to India’ by E.M. Forster. A book in which the arrogance of the English people in India is fully shown.

d) Temple entry for other castes has begun at Guruvayur. When will caste Hindus become wise? At this time higher caste people should get the depressed classes with them. Instead, they are trying to eliminate them.

All these entries were found in a diary, which was written by Devaki, the wife of Ravi Varma, the first prince of the Cochin Royal Family, while she was staying at Ernakulam in 1932. So far, only one diary has been discovered. It is now with Devaki’s fourth child, Padmaja Nayar, 74, a widow, who lives in an apartment in Kochi.

The diary is written in English. The sentences, in black ink, are clear and concise. “Most of the entries are about daily life, the family, about her brother looking for a job,” says Padmaja. “One of her sisters needed to have a toe operation. In between she wrote about the political situation in the country.”

Devaki’s anti-British stance was clear. Confirms daughter Leila Varmah: “My mother had a lot of beautiful silk blouses. But when she became anti-English she did not touch a single one of them and started using khadi.”

Through the diary Padmaja got a chance to get acquainted with her mother, who passed away in 1939, when she was 40. “I was only four years old when she died,” she says, as she looks with moist eyes at the diary. “When I read it I felt very happy.”

The unusual aspect of the diary was that it was written in English. Padmaja feels that her mother felt more at home in the language. “She may also have been influenced by my father who was a Sanskrit and English scholar,” she says.

Some entries were poignant. The 4th March entry went like this: ‘Today is Tampuran’s 55th birthday. May God bless me so that I can celebrate at least 25 years more with him and may the choicest blessings of the Almighty fall upon my dear husband.’ Unfortunately, Devaki died within seven years, following a uterus operation.

Daughter Leila, who was 12 when her mother died, says Devaki was an outgoing person. “Amma had a large circle of friends,” she says. “An affectionate and capable person, she was involved in a host of social activities.”

For Padmaja, even though her mother died so young, she did not miss her much. “Meenakshi, my eldest sister, was like a mother to me,” she says.

But when Padmaja turned 40, this mother of two children started missing her own mother. “I would hear everybody say, ‘Amma, Amma’, and I would think, ‘Why did not God allow my mother to live long?’ But after a while the feeling passed away.”

For the younger generation reading the diary was an enthralling experience. Great granddaughter, Shailaja Prashanth, a senior copywriter in an advertising agency in Kochi, says, “I felt an incredible pride over how opinionated and articulate she was, and how much she enjoyed life! She was very idealistic in the way she looked at India and was influenced so much by Gandhiji. As a fellow writer I also admired her simple, easy style.”

Shailaja was surprised by the life of women at that time. “I thought they led a very circumscribed existence, but that was clearly not the case with her,” she says. “It was a window into a different world, but, surprisingly, it was not so different from mine - the way she thought is very much like how I think.”

Shailaja also had a surreal experience. “My great-grandmother mentions meeting a lady from a prominent family, and I happen to be a friend of her grand-daughter. What a strange coincidence!”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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