Monday, March 10, 2014

When all hell broke loose over an elephant of the U caste: Memories of a lost India

R. Gopalakrishnan is a celebrated corporate leader -- celebrated as much for the positions he held in Unilever and then in Tata Sons as for the bestsellers he wrote such as The Case of the Bonsai Manager. As it turns out, he is also a gifted narrator of the laughable quarrels within his religious sect. "I happen to be a vadagalai", he says.

The simplicity of his sentences add to the impact of his tales. Example: "Among the Brahmins of Madras there were those who worshipped Shiva (called Iyers) and those who worshipped Vishnu (called Iyengars)". Then he goes on to describe how Iyengars were only one-fourth of Iyers in numbers, yet subdivided themselves into warring groups: Vadagalais, people from the north of Tamil country, who stressed Sanskrit and used the caste mark of U on their forehead and thenkalais, from the south, who used Tamil as well as Sankrit and wore a distinguishing caste mark that resembled a Y.

In the 1790s matters came to a head in the Devaraja Swamy temple in Kanchipuram, one of the three holiest Vaishnava centres. The issue was whether the temple markings especially those on the "ever-so-visible temple elephant" should be in U or Y style. The dispute went to court. In 1942, writes Gopalakrishnan, "the Maharaja of Travancore presented the temple with an elephant that bore a U mark. All hell broke loose". Some three centuries have passed, but the judicial and administrative systems avoided taking a decision, prompting Gopalakrishnan to say "this case must be the longest pending unresolved legal dispute in India".

Competing for that honour, though unmentioned by Gopalakrishnan, must be the dispute between the Orthodox and the Jacobite Syrian Christians of Travancore. The issue there was who should be the spiritual head of the denomination -- the pontiff in faraway Syria or a local dignitary. Many old churches remain locked under court orders. Robed bishops go on hunger strikes. Spirited followers come to blows in and outside churches. As Gopalakrishnan's ancestors wondered, was this what religion was all about?

Those ancestors, confined to their village of 3000 people, also wondered about the appearance of "a monstrous, puffing steam engine train". Reports said that one could go from Tiruvarur to Madras in one day. This was terrible. How could good Vaishnavites of Thanjavur perform sandhya puja and observe other acharams in such circumstances? Gopalakrishnan recalls these moments of nostalgia, delight and insights in his lovely little book, A Comma in a Sentence, presenting history through the experiences of six generations of his family over a 200-year time span. Perhaps the most moving passage in the book is his account of visiting his native village of Vilakkudi after a lapse of 30 years when most of his relatives had passed away. He just wanted to look at the old agraharam dwellings, recognise what was still standing. Then, suddenly, a bent old widow emerged, peered at him and exclaimed: "You look like Rajam's son. He had the same look and gait. You cannot be any other". Excited villagers then assembled around him for an emotional reunion.

Gopalakrishnan gives an account of how Brahmins dominated Tamil Nadu and much of Kerala at one time although their numerical strength was minuscule. This theme is taken up by another recent chronicler of reminiscences, G. Ramachandran (who retired as Finance Secretary, Government of India) in his Walking with Giants. When three decades of Congress rule ended in Tamil Nadu and the Dravida ideology was enthroned with its proclaimed stance against Brahmins, "the civil servants felt jittery", writes Ramachandran. "Many of them felt they would either suffer transfer from their present jobs or loss of face in inconsequential posts... A number of important posts in the Secretariat at the time were held by Brahmins". But their fears proved unfounded. Annadurai as Chief Minister was so fairminded that he helped many Brahmin officers. Those were days when politicians followed certain principles whatever their ideologies. And civil servants, too, tended to be honourable. Today we come across principles and honourableness only in the reminiscences of retired men.