History boards the Tamil Nadu Express

M Rajivlochan

The essays in this book by a leading cultural historian of India give us a quick glimpse of the major concerns of the people of Tamil Nadu in modern times. It is a major corrective to the North India-centric history that has been propagated by the NCERT textbooks written by Delhi-based historians.

In an engaging style, the essays introduce us to major strands in politics and culture of Tamil Nadu and how they have changed over the years. The most important thing is that the author is sensitive to the ignorance that existing textbook history has fostered and the need to communicate the essence of the missing Tamil culture and politics in a simple engaging style. The beautiful illustrations by Mohamed Rashmy Ahmed only add value to the book.  Sixteen of the essays look at the history as it is refracted through the lives of leading public figures from Tamil Nadu.

One essay each is devoted to those who nurtured a separate Tamil identity that came up as a result of race-based understanding of India, which became popular among the British in the second half of the 19th century. 

Leading the essays is the one on Periyar. He brings out well the insistence of Periyar on social emancipation going hand in hand with political independence. The Brahmanical raj that the Congress aspired to create after the British left was unacceptable to him. Here we learn that Periyar was one of the earliest to translate the important writings of Ambedkar. The portraits of other political personalities takes forward the story of the capture of political power in Tamil Nadu by the non-Brahmin movement and its progeny. At least, I would have loved to read a little more on how, by the time of Jayalalithaa, this movement had begun to follow Brahmanical rituals in the name of being non-Brahmin.

Among the 10 essays on culture, the essay on Jallikattu is particularly interesting for its historical nuances and the insistence that this traditional sport should not be read in a simplistic way by imposing meanings of patriarchy and caste on to it. 

The nine essays on the literary figures give life to various strands of culture popular in the contemporary Tamil Nadu. My favourite essay is the one on Subramania Bharati, on whom Venkatachalapathy has written extensively in the past. The one on Sundara Ramaswamy brings out well the ease with which Tamil intellectuals traversed the multi-cultural lands of the South, being accomplished in the many cultures that they straddled. The most intriguing was the essay on Iyotheethoss Pandithar (1845-1914). Pandithar had, we are told, anticipated Ambedkar by two generations. But, one did wonder: Could it be that he was forgotten in history mostly because his style of work was not as irascible as that of his Marathi contemporary, Jyotiba Phule? That then suggests an interesting gap in the manner in which the various personalities described in this book evolved. They, with the exception of Periyar, seem to be rooted deeply within the Brahmanical culture that was fostered in Tamil Nadu during colonial times, even while they were fighting Brahmin domination. In contrast, in the North, for all its current boorishness and casteism, the one of the most popular stories is that told by Goswami Tulsidas of the evil Brahmin king, who was punished with death by prince Rama. Perhaps, in his next book, Venkatachalapathy may want to address such a contrast. 

In the end, a word on the design of the book. Every odd page carries the name of the author. Would it not have been better to carry the title of the chapter instead?