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The Meandering Vaigai

A 'history' of South India fails to focus on its subject, relies too much on colonial accounts and makes astounding claims on Periyar and Valmiki

The Meandering Vaigai
The Meandering Vaigai
Coromandel: A Personal History Of South India
By Charles Allen
Little, Brown | Pages: 432 | Rs 503

Let me make a confession.  I am a great fan of Charles Allen, especially his book Plain Tales from the Raj, and I was excited when I received this book for review.  However, I was left with mixed feelings after reading it.

This is a whimsical and unusual book.  It is certainly not a book on the history of South India, personal or otherwise, though its title says so. It is called Coromandel, which denotes the northern Tamil country or at best the eastern coast of India, but the book gallivants all over the country. The result is a bewildering assemblage of bits and pieces of history, myths and anecdotes largely collected by White rulers and administrators.  I found the reading easy and interesting, but I am a Tamil and I have a fair knowledge of the history of my region. A person who starts this book with no knowledge of the region may not gain much enlightenment when he or she completes it.

The book deals with some of the major dynasties of South India rather cursorily, but spends much time on other unconnected issues. For instance, the controversies concerning the Indus Valley civilisation or facts such as snakes being absent from the Rig Veda have nothing to do with either Coromandel or South India. The author quotes a long passage of Ralph Griffith’s translation of Valmiki Ramayana which has little relevance to the subject of the book.  It would have been wonderful if he had devoted a few pages on the Hoysalas who ruled the present-day Karnataka region between the 10th and 14th centuries, or the mighty Vijayanagara Empire, which dominated the region for about 200 years beginning in the 14th century.

It is not that the book doesn’t have its charms. One of the most delightful ­stories the author narrates is about Rous Peter, who was the collector of Madurai in the early years of the 19th century. “According to local folk songs, Rous Peter was woken by a three-year-old girl with three breasts who dragged him by the hand out of his bungalow whereupon it was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. The girl then ran into the Meenakshi temple and was not seen again.” Peter is supposed to have made an offering in gratitude to the temple in the form of a pair of golden stirrups studded with rubies. But the real story, Allen says, is that Rous Peter was an embezzler of government money which in today’s reckoning would amount to a few million pounds!

The chapter on Tipu, or Tippoo as the author calls him, is also gripping.  Yes, he was cruelty personified when he invaded the Kerala region, but the British were more interested in loot than good governance. The author’s ­ancestors benefited from the loot. “One of …my forebears…took part in the ­assault on Seringapatam and it made him a rich man. Eighteen-year-old Ensign Christopher Baldock’s share of the prize money as the most junior British officer present was £1000—the equivalent today of at least £80,000.”

There were several dark incidents in the history of the Coromandel even after the British firmly ensconced themselves in the South India. The poligars fought a brave war against the British, just after the death of Tipu. There was a mutiny at Vellore. A horrendous famine in 1876 took the lives of millions of people.  The book is silent about them.  The weakness of the book is its almost complete reliance of what the White masters had recorded.  The author’s coverage of the modern period of the region is patchy.

The book gallivants all over the country and is a ­bewildering assemblage of bits and ­pieces of history, myths and anecdotes ­largely collected by White rulers and ­administrators.

There are a few avoidable errors in the book. The village where Bishop Caldwell spent most of his time was not on the banks of the river Tamraparni but quite far away from it. There are much better translations of Tirukkural than the one by Ellis, and the ­couplets the author quotes are most decidedly not about married love, but about universal love for every creation. There may be some truth about Periyar Ramasamy being the cause of the exodus of Tamil Brahmins from Tamil Nadu, but he had nothing to do with the Brahmins of Kerala. The author makes an astounding statement when he says, ‘for many Hindus there is only one version of Rama’s journey and that is Valmiki’s Ramayana’! I am surprised that he has forgotten about Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas.

Charles Allen’s love for India is ­unquestionable. He calls himself a child of India, which he no doubt is. ­India, ­especially South India, deserved a ­better book from him.


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