Personal History

The Diaries of Eliamma Mathen: Homemaker as Intimate Historian

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The diaries of Eliamma Mathen capture with rare sensitivity the political intrigue and skullduggery in the former princely state of Travancore

AUGUST 25TH, 1938: ‘We took a long time over discussion of Isa 58: at family prayer & I suggested to them that one bond of oppression we could loosen was the heavy weights carried and drawn in carriages by men far above their strength. The size of the rice sack must be made very much smaller that was the only salvation for people who carry them on their heads and backs, another reducing the size of the man-drawn bandys and rikshaws in Madras. Actually people kill themselves drawing them. If our boys can rouse the mind of right thinking people & start a movement for breaking this oppression, they will not have lived in vain. It will be a hard task. Capitalism will rise against it as it means loss to them. On another occasion at family prayers I spoke about child-servants in Travancore, especially among Syrian Christians. Another thing to be stopped.’

August 26th, 1938: ‘Grave troubles in Travancore. Civil disobedience begins today. Lord be Thou with the leaders. Let thy will be done in everything. Perfect Thou the leaders in everything. Let them not be found wanting in anything. Psalm 73 is very apt for today. It foretells C.P.’s fall.’

The initials refer to the controversial Diwan of Travancore, Sir CP Ramaswami Aiyar, in the diaries of Eliamma Mathen (1894- 1952), a well-read, religious and politically engaged woman whose recently-found writings have aroused much interest for the light they throw on socio-political life in the princely state that was to become a part of Kerala. From all that has been gathered about her, Eliamma was from a family from Ollasha in Kottayam district that valued education highly. As a homemaker, she was a good cook, keen on gardening and well versed with art and music. The close watch she kept on public affairs, however, has got historians poring over her words.

Written long-hand in English, Eliamma’s diaries are hardbound notebooks of varying sizes that cover a period from May 2nd, 1938, to April 12th, 1942. “These notes unearth many interesting aspects of the Diwan’s rule in Travancore,” says PJ Cherian, former director of the Kerala Council of Historical Research (KCHR), which is transcribing and digitising them as reference material. Dr RK Jayasree, a former professor who has volunteered to catalogue all ten volumes of them and highlight entries of public relevance, describes Eliamma as “a remarkable woman who had original views on the socio political happenings not only in Travancore but across the whole world”.

“The first volume mostly has inspirational verses from the Bible,” says Cherian, “From the second volume onwards, the notes get intensely personal. She raises staunch criticism of Sir CP who sabotaged the Quilon Bank and sent her husband to jail.” The bank in question was established in 1919 by the diaryist’s husband CP Mathen, a banker who served as a Member of Parliament (1952-57) and Indian Ambassador to Sudan. In 1937, Quilon was merged with Travancore National Bank, set up by KC Mammen Mappillai, who was the editor of Malayala Manorama for over half a century. CP Mathen was the new bank’s chairman. But rumours of its insolvency led to a run on the bank, the Diwan’s administration refused to lend it any support—instead warning the public against it—and it had to be liquidated a year later. Its bankruptcy was allegedly the outcome of a plot by CP Ramaswami Aiyar, and the two bankers behind it were imprisoned in 1939. Mappillai was released in 1941 and CP Mathen in 1942. The diaries have Eliamma Mathen’s views on the whole sordid episode.

“The Quilon National Bank is an important chapter in the history of modern Kerala,” says Dr Jayasree, “We have several narratives on the rise and fall of the bank, and this adds a fresh perspective to the same. She had no axe to grind. Unlike in the case of the other versions, this is neither mediated nor manipulated.”

That evil one C.P. is at another of his tricks... Whatever be the advantage, I don’t want a compromise with that evil one. If God sends us justice, let us get it, otherwise let us suffer

The diaries were a fortuitou s find. They were kept with Mariam Ram, granddaughter of Eliamma Mathen and the wife of N Ram, former editor of The Hindu. “It was quite accidental,” says Dr KN Panicker, former chairman of the KCHR, “Mariam told me about these notes in a casual talk once when we met in Chennai. We discussed in detail how to archive and preserve those precious notes, and it was Ram who suggested we hand the diaries over to the KCHR.”

Mariam Ram only has passed-along memories of her grandmother, who’d passed away just before her birth. “The picture that I have in mind,” she says, “is the one I have drawn from the stories narrated by my mother.” Sara, her mother, is the sixth child of Eliamma and CP Mathen. “My mother could recollect from her fading memory that grandmother was a voracious reader. She read beyond religion and was extremely devoted to her husband and children. She was one among the early women of our community who went to college.”

In the diaries, the left side of each page has verses from the Bible and other spiritual texts. It’s what they might mostly have been all about, had it not been for Quilon Bank’s collapse and her anguish over it that comes across from the second volume onwards. There are references to World War II, Hitler, Gandhiji, the Civil Disobedience Movement and a popular uprising against Travancore’s authoritarian Diwan.

CP Ramaswami Aiyar, who ran the state with an iron fist from 1936 to 1947, was seen as a villain by some and as a visionary by others. Under his charge, Travancore made rapid strides in social and industrial development but was unduly harsh on Christians and Communists, say critics. The treatment meted out to the merged bank is taken by many as a sign of his prejudice against Christians, whose support for Gandhi’s Congress was seen as a threat by the princely state. Given the politics of the time, some even saw the bank’s forced closure as a veiled warning to the community.

Eliamma’s notes of June 20th, 1938, the day Quilon Bank was formally closed down, speak of the Diwan’s wrath against her husband— who she affectionately refers to as Unny—among others in the business. A day later, she sounds panicky: ‘Sir C.P. intended after breaking the Bank, to get my Unny & others in prison. “In three days I will get half -a-dozen of them behind the bars,” he roared one day. O Lord, O Lord, allow it not. Rather, take my Unny away. I who cannot live a day without him will bear everything alone, only do not deliver my Unny into his hands. Take him off, take him off. Anything but ‘that’ Lord.’

Eliamma preferred not to eat anything that her husband couldn’t in jail. Some years after he came out of jail, the two of them went on an all-India tour, a mid-life honeymoon of sorts

Despairing of the Diwan’s repression, she would greet Gandhi’s objections to the princely state’s conduct with hope. On September 2nd, 1938, she writes: ‘Most upsetting news from Travancore. Every leader in prison. Mob uncontrollable, military firing again, in Quilon. [Gandhiji’s] statement against Travancore Govt. & its present policies in every paper and broadcasted from every station. Served you right, C.P.!’ Three days later, she sounds gleeful at popular protests against the tormentor: ‘C.P. is having a terrible time. Yesterday the Congress meeting here was something terrible against C.P. His effigy was again kicked & spat up & burned and such violent speeches made against him. Yes indeed Lord, ‘The mills of God’ have started grinding and they will grind very small. Yes amma, your words are being fulfilled. ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’.’

Her appeals to the divine would acquire a rising fervour as the Quilon case grew ominous. Consider this entry of July 8th, 1938: ‘Lord thou knowest everything. My poor Unny. Thou knowest all his life. But how to prove his honesty & innocence in this muddle. Dearest Lord, how worried I am... “When I can do nothing He does all.” Thank God. I can only cry & I do cry night & day. Lord I believe thy deliverance is already on the way to us.’

Omana Eappen, who works on a project conserving historic gardens in the Deccan and is another granddaughter of the diaryist, vouches for Eliamma’s commitment to her husband. “I do not have memories of my grandmother as she died long before I was born. All I know about her is gathered from my mom and aunts,” says Eappen, “I understand that she was very happily married. Her daughter Sara says she was deeply in love with her husband, and gave up meat, fish and even eggs while CP Mathen was serving the jail term. She preferred not to eat anything that her husband couldn’t have in jail. CP Mathen, in turn, was very proud of his highly intelligent and capable wife. Some years after he came out of jail, the two of them went on an all-India tour, a mid-life honeymoon of sorts which she hugely enjoyed.”

It would be a long time, though, before her husband could get any respite. Among other things, he was accused of tax evasion and embezzlement of funds. If the pressure on him to concede guilt was intense, it seems, so was her desire to have him reject a plea bargain on principle. To her, it was a wicked ploy. As she writes on June 4th, 1939: ‘That evil one C.P. is at another of his tricks. His envoy Philipose visited everyone in jail on Saturday& said, “If you won’t defend the case you shall be given a slight punishment & immediate pardon, but if you defend the sentence will be heavy.” Even if he means it, it is a disgrace… but the fact will be he won’t keep his word even then & we will be fools not to defend & get a heavy sentence. Whatever be the advantage, I don’t want a compromise with that evil one. If God sends us justice, let us get it, otherwise let us suffer. It is His will. Strengthen my darling day & night, O Father, that he may not weaken for a moment.’

She read beyond religion and was extremely devoted to her husband and children. She was one among the early women of our community who went to college

To her relief, he did not. The autobiography that CP Mathen wrote after his release, I have Borne Much, refers to his wife’s diaries as the most useful reference material in telling the story of the most trying part of his life: ‘Among the records available to me were a complete diary assiduously maintained by my wife, throughout the entire period of my adversity, and a number of letters she had written to me while I was a prisoner under trial.’

A later enquiry found him and his fellow bankers innocent. Even their depositors got their money back. But time in jail was time lost. Eliamma’s diaries serve as a record of events related to the Quilon case, and it seems clear that she intended to have the truth, as she saw it, revealed at some point to the world at large. In his autobiography, CP Mathen writes of how she kept his spirits up, comparing his torment to that of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew who was denied justice in a France full of anti-semitism a few decades earlier. The banker cites the following words from one of her letters dated November 23rd, 1939, and delivered to him with a jail censor’s stamp: ‘One day, a sensational book will be written by an able hand and a mighty pen. Many heads will have to bow heads in shame for the part played by each in an atrocious crime against a public institution and several innocent people in it. May God spare my life until I see it published. As in the case of Dreyfus, the world will forever know the truth and will not forget it either. Another Emile Zola will be found to give it life…. Courts of Law from the lowest to the Highest. Every seat of power appealed to with clear facts and documents for nearly two years, but there has been neither a voice nor any that answered…. The world knew and still knows what was done to Dreyfus. It will know all that was done to you.’ Of his own reading of her words, Mathen writes: ‘This was the cry of a heart in Anguish, expressing a hope against hope, the symbol of the year pressed close to the one broken string of the harp which once had filled her life with music and now seemingly destroyed beyond despair.’

That the Nazis had overrun large parts of Europe also appears to have fed her anxiety over authoritarian regimes. ‘Hitler’s statement awaited with great anxiety,’ she says in an entry dated September 12th, 1938, ‘He is a menace to the whole world. He must be the Anti-Christ. The European situation, the check to the national Congress & the trouble in other states are all a shade to the wicked C.P. Lord wilt thou allow him to escape what he justly deserves?’

If her references to Èmile Zola and the Dreyfus Affair reveal her range of knowledge, her opposition to capitalism and fascism illustrate the sophistication of her world view. She also expresses views on a range of other matters. On difficulties with child-rearing, she writes on July 13th, 1941: ‘Shiela is growing too dictatorial and Sara just teases her all the time that I do not know whom to scold & the kid is getting all spoiled. I wish I could teach her. She is not attending to her lessons properly. She is very intelligent but needs pressure & direction. Otherwise she will either read some books or do some painting. If Unny had been here! He loves teaching kids & has real aptitude too, only all his life he was too busy even to see his children! But he really is clever at teaching and loves it too. I hate it. It is the one thing I cannot do—for years I had no trouble with the children’s clothing. I thought of it with thankfulness yesterday. They have still enough to last them till they all get into sarees!’ And then, on July 18th, 1941, some more exasperation: ‘I only wish I could get a little time to attend to home duties & needle work etc especially repairing &mending & putting buttons on. All the dresses need altering to & I cannot find time for any such things & there is no one else… It is so exhausting for me now. But how clean the kids look after I give a bath… I had my oil bath & then read the papers. The news today is not very cheering. Russia is feeling the strain of the most virulent of all German attacks. I hope & pray they won’t be defeated. If they fail, the world menace will be all the more a menace. Japan will rush in & America too.’

Nationalist leaders were regular visitors once the Mathens moved home to Madras. Annie Mascarene, the first woman MP from Kerala, finds several mentions in the dairies. Here’s one from September 27th, 1938: ‘Annie Mascarene & another young man from Calicut a great congress worker came in the morning. After breakfast all went out. Unny had a plain talk with Narayanan. He has been very cheeky towards Babu for sometimes now. Unny met Mr Grant and Bashiam also. Lord provide for Babu. Take him away from all these scheming wicked Brahmins. Lord thou wilt provide honest work, & sufficient to get on, for these children. I am so thankful for the kind consideration of the Andrew Yule people. Miss Mascarene will stay with us while she is in Madras. I prayed for her during quiet time. Lord I thank Thee.’

Such humility, given how valuable her diaries are now proving to historians, seems entirely misplaced.