Freedom Issue 2018: Descendants

Sir C Sankaran Nair: Lives and Letters

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Former President of the Indian National Congress Sir C Sankaran Nair was one of the builders of modern India. His granddaughter carries forth his legacy in her own private and erudite way

THE SUN DECIDED not to play spoilsport this Tuesday evening. After days of endless rain, clouds yielded to the light over Ottapalam. Situated in central Kerala, Ottapalam is not a must-see tourist spot of the state. Like the heroines of Victorian novels, she is neither cooing damsel nor full-throated woman; neither backwaters nor beach; neither village nor city. She is still growing up. Her railway station has only two platforms, but she also hosts hypermarts and shopping arcades. Mundu-clad men on motorbikes whizz down gullies laced by paddy fields. Apartment blocks abut heritage homes. The town has the charm of the old, and a brio which suggests youth.

Today the action is at the CSN Centre, as it is the inauguration of the 17th KPS Menon All Kerala Senior Shuttle Badminton Ranking Tournament 2018. Players clad in shorts and tee-shirts mingle with ladies in Kanjeevarams. The two courts, spruced and shined to perfection, are watched over by two elderly men in large framed portraits. One is Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair (CSN), after whom the Centre has been named, the other is his son-in-law KPS Menon.

The CSN Foundation was established in the late 70s, in memory of one of the ‘foremost builders of modern India’. A non-political organisation, its first task of business was to bring out a complete collection of the writings of Sankaran Nair. Thanks to the patrons and secretaries of the trust over the years, the Foundation hasn’t remained stuck in time. Its legacy to Ottapalam is audible in the hoots and whistles of the players and spectators at the badminton court. It is an inheritance that extends beyond the perks of bloodlines, and echoes into the evenings of a town. With the arrival of an Indonesian coach, ambitions on the court have expanded from the state level, to national, to perhaps even international some day.

The players thwacking a shuttlecock over the net are unlikely to know much about Sankaran Nair, a man who was chosen as president of the Indian National Congress (interestingly, the only Malayali to have held that post) in Amaravathi back in 1897. His role was that of a constitutionalist within the national movement, and that of a nationalist within the constitutional set up of British India. He can be best understood through the book C. Sankaran Nair written by KPS Menon, first published in 1967. The slim and erudite volume is part of a series on Builders of Modern India dedicated to ‘the story of the struggles and achievements of the eminent sons and daughters of India who have been mainly instrumental in our national renaissance and the attainment of independence’, published by the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

KPS Menon (1898–1982), husband of Sankaran Nair’s youngest daughter Saraswati Menon, was himself a well-respected author and diplomat who served as ambassador of India to China and the Soviet Union. KPS Menon had direct access to Sankaran Nair and his diaries, but his book is written with the temper of an archaeologist and not the indulgence of kin. This biography of Sankaran Nair (1857-1934) is a deeply reported account of a lawyer, judge, politician and Member of the Viceroy’s Council who strove for the ‘emancipation of his country from the bondage of foreign domination and native custom’.

In the pantheon of freedom fighters, Sankaran Nair is often overlooked because as a constitutionalist he opposed Mahatma’s Gandhi’s methods. In his treatise Gandhi and Anarchy, he writes, ‘Non-cooperation as advocated by Mr Gandhi may be a weapon to be used when constitutional methods have failed to achieve our purpose. Non-violence and passive suffering will lead to bloodshed or be unfruitful of any satisfactory results.’ Published in 1922—the same year as the Chauri Chaura incident which led Gandhi to suspend the Non-Cooperation movement at a national level—the book did voice valid reservations for that time, but also ensured that its author would be sidelined from common halls of fame for not seeing eye to eye with the Mahatma.

Sir Surendranath Banerjea in his book, A Nation in the Making, rightly wrote of Nair as one of the ‘founders and early builders of the Indian National Congress whose achievements the present generation is apt to forget, but who placed India firmly on the road to constitutional freedom’.

Nair— ‘averse to extremism in words and deeds’—was prescient in many ways, as he saw the danger of mixing religion and politics, a folly that many patriots could be accused of, and the amplifications of which still resound. A believer in constitutional agitation and social reform, he opposed fanaticism of all kinds. KPS Menon notes, ‘Even exaggerated nationalism, he thought, was a curse.’

As a social reformer, he advocated the ending of polygamy and infant marriage; equality for women; abolition of the caste system; introduction of a proper marriage law; free primary education for the disadvantaged and the spread of higher education in the interests of scientific knowledge.

Nair played a pivotal role in the Reforms Act of 1919—recommended by Edwin Montagu and the Viceroy, Lord Chemlsford—which expanded the participation of Indians by introducing diarchy in the provinces, under which elected ministers were responsible for subjects such as education, health and local self-government. Menon writes, ‘These measures were far more liberal than the paltry proposals which had been put forward by the Government of India in 1916. For this the credit must go largely to the uncompromising stand taken by Sankaran Nair in the Viceroy’s Executive Council.’

Nair’s probity was celebrated by India when he resigned from the Viceroy’s Executive Council after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Wanting to rouse British public opinion about the magnitude of events in Punjab, he set out for England. He wrote in his memoirs, ‘I was determined that if I could possibly manage it there would be no Jallianwala Bagh again in India.’ At the Secretary of State’s Council, Nair insisted the British Government condemn the travesties committed by General Dyer and others in Punjab. He also criticised Michael O’Dwyer in his book Gandhi and Anarchy, as he believed that ‘O’ Dwyer caused or was responsible for the commission of that atrocity’. O’ Dwyer sued him for libel.

Nair played a pivotal role in the Reforms Act of 1919 which expanded the participation of Indians by introducing diarchy in the provinces

In the case O’Dwyer vs Nair 1924 before the King’s Bench Division in London, the jury decided by a majority of 11 to 1 that General Dyer had not committed an atrocity at Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh, and Sankaran Nair, the defendant, was accordingly held guilty of libel. The sole dissenting juryman was none other than Harold Laski, the well-known political economist. Since the verdict of the jury was not unanimous, it was open to Nair not to accept it and seek a fresh trial. He chose not to do so, saying, “Who knows what another 12 English shopkeepers would think.” O’Dwyer offered to forgo the damages of £7,000 if Nair tendered an apology. He refused point-blank, even though it was a large sum.

I MEET ONE OF Sankaran Nair’s oldest living descendants, Parvathi Thampi, 93, at a recently opened Malayali restaurant in Chennai. Thampi, the daughter of KPS Menon, is immediately tickled by its mouthful of a name—Kappa Chakka Kandhari (meaning tapioca, jackfruit, bird’s eye chilli). A great grandmother to three, Thampi’s family is often heard saying, “Hope we can be like Kunja Velliyamma (her family title) when we grow old,” as age has neither dimmed nor dulled her ardour for life. While she is the matriarch of an unwieldy family, she has the spunk and curiosity of the little prince on an asteroid. A skilled raconteur, she often prefers drama to facts. Her sister Malathi Nair who is also at the lunch often has to rein in her sibling’s imagination.

Thampi is hard to pin down, as she is always busy with something in the house or beyond. The lunch cannot drag on for too long as she has a packed schedule: lunch, siesta and then the ‘50-50 club’. She explains, “It was a club started to encourage young musicians. It is 50 per cent music, 50 per cent saapad (meals).” With her signature humour, she adds, “During music, there will be 10-12 people. By saapad time, it is packed. Many of the musicians here think the louder the better. But I have been going for years and have seen some of the finest musicians perform here in their early days.”

She has few memories of Sankaran Nair as she was not yet a teenager when he died. She remembers a headline that described Nair, as he of ‘Atlantine shoulders fit to bear the weight of monarchy’. She sees him as an imposing 6-foot tall gentleman who would eat two chickens a day. Whether the latter is fact or fantasy, it is impossible to know. She grew up on stories of his fabled strength: he could rip apart an entire deck of cards with one swift move. A strict disciplinarian, he ensured his daughters (he had one son and five daughters) studied Sanskrit seven hours a day. Her mother Saraswati Menon was a Sanskrit guru and taught her husband hundreds of shlokas.

Like most women of her generation, she is perplexed to learn she is the protagonist of a story. She mentions achievements of other relatives and descendants, believing them to be more appropriate for coverage and posterity. There was her eldest cousin, a captain in the Army, who kept a pet tiger. He gave it away only when a doctor told him once it tastes blood it can never be tamed, she tells me. There are siblings and nephews who have built illustrious careers in academics, the foreign service and Indian bureaucracy.

But to me, it is her story that merits telling. Our culture of biographies is so fixated on masculine glories in the public field that we spurn the rich interior and intellectual lives of countless women.

Thampi was born in Ottapalam, and travelled with her parents to Sri Lanka, the North West Frontier Province and China. She spent 1943-46 in China and even studied at Ginling College in Chengdu. To this day she remembers some Mandarin. She lived for more than 20 years in New York with her husband, KP Thampi (who worked at the UN). They retired to Madras on November 5th, 1977. “It is Guy Fawkes Day,” she says. She is the author of two children’s books Geetha and the Village School and Moon Uncle.

In a 2014 article in The Hindu, ‘A Dream Childhood in Balochistan’, she writes about her experiences: ‘I was just entering my teens when my family entered a world totally new: a brave and barren world, so different from the strait-laced bureaucratic world of Delhi-Simla and the lush and languid world of Ceylon, where we had spent the preceding four years. We were taken aback; so, I think, were the Pathans of Balochistan! When they heard my father, a South Indian Hindu, was coming there as the Political Agent, they, as one of them confided later, had expected a dhoti-clad, betel-chewing, Brahmin with a caste mark, and not the agnostic, Oxford- educated individual my father was.’

She flew in 1951 with two infants to the US. As a 25-year-old with three children in New York, she initially hated it, overwhelmed by the domestic chores and child rearing. She recounts setting a hot cup of coffee in front of her infant and stuffing toast into her husband’s mouth, as she mistook the two. But after making friends who lasted a lifetime, she fell in love with the city and Americans. Always dressed in a sari, in snow and rain, she says she never faced racism in the 60s or 70s. “At that time they liked foreigners,” she adds. She enrolled at the New School for Social Research and even took courses on Hinduism and the West and another one on ‘Man, Biology and Society’. Every Wednesday, she’d watch a matinee play on Broadway.

She’s transplanted her New York habits to Chennai, where she is a regular at all cultural and musical evenings. As a patron of the Music Academy, she says with evident pride, “In the last 40 years I have not missed a December season (the annual classical dance and music extravaganza of Chennai). The only time I have is the three years my parents and husband passed away.”

When I call Thampi on the phone a few days later, she is poring over the morning newspapers. An avid reader, she is right now immersed in Manu S Pillai’s Rebel Sultans and is enjoying it as she has visited Hampi, but knows little about the history of the period. Her other project is reading the biographies of American presidents. She says, “I have read nearly all their biographies, except George Washington. He seemed rather dull.” She has chugged through more than one on Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

With a cataract surgery scheduled soon, reading is proving to be hard. Recently she has discovered the joys of Netflix and finds Narcos, on the Colombian cocaine trade, particularly rivetting. She is still adept with her cellphone and refuses to save contacts, choosing to remember phone numbers instead. Her memory is laser-sharp, as every Friday she recites the entire Lalita Sahasranama (a Hindu prayer that is 1,000 names of devi) nine times.

Thampi is looking forward to visiting her tharavad in Ottpalam. It is a place she holds dear for the innumerable meals and conversations she has shared over red dining tables and chairs with her family. The legacy she has inherited from her parents and grandparents is that of wisdom and grace; to her progeny, she passes this on, coupled with laughter—always, laughter.

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