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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Thiru. Vi. Ka, the Tamil Gandhi & His Times.

Thiru. Vi. Ka, the Tamil Gandhi & His Times.

By. S. Soundararajan

This pamphlet is the shortened version of the first political biography of a Tamil publicist, about whom little is known outside the Tamil region of India - Thiruvarur Vriddachalam Kalyanasundaram (ThiruViKa) (1883-1953). He was active in many spheres during the first five decades of the Twentieth century, an era of awakening for India. The book covers that period, with him as the centre-piece.

India was steaming into perilous waters during the first half of the Twentieth century. Her crew was untrained and lacked navigational aids. Holding sway over the bridge, her alien master yielded the charts fitfully. Nor was she fitted for this exciting voyage towards nationhood and democracy, of which her people knew little. Did not Sir John Stracey say that that "there is not, and there never was an India… national sympathies may arise in particular Indian countries"?

She was also coming of age in the sense that Renaissance was dawning upon her in almost all the spheres ranging from music, fine art, literature and above all in politics. Great Britain, the country that had enslaved her and her European neighbours lent their political philosophies. Even though the accounts varied at each telling, she was straining to reach out to her ancient and medieval history for inspiration. Native leaders tumbled forth from this mélange in unexpected numbers in unlikely places and in unusual domains; some straddled many spheres with ease and aplomb. Patriotism was a big draw that ensnared many. Regionalism was as much a help as it was a hindrance.

At the dawn of the century, people did not matter; the dominant ruling class did. Two deleterious societal fault lines - the vice-like grip of the caste and the dubious ‘divine right’ of local chieftains – kept the common man shackled to his serfdom. It is said that he was resigned to British imperialism; its administration was fair, peace prevailed, personal domain was safe and it instituted some overdue reforms. Indian soldiers unsuccessfully mutinied in the northern regions in 1857, in what is now termed as the First War of Independence. What was secured was not liberty, but the imposition of British sovereignty. Curzon’s partition of Bengal in 1905 caused consternation and vehement protests all over the country. Minto-Morley Reforms of 1909 promised share in legislative affairs to Indians. Political mileage was also sought to be drawn by linking the global Islamic Khilafat movement (1919-1924) to the freedom struggle. The country eventually became free in 1947. Our democracy is still under probation, having outlasted a spell of dictatorship during 1975-77.

These developments are extensively covered in literature, but for the role of the Tamil leaders during those eventful five decades. This deficit has also been noticed in literature; three such illustrative comments in 1962, 1970 and in 2008 are cited. [1] This book on ThiruViKa [2] seeks to fill that void. He was active throughout this turbulent period as a Tamil scholar, political leader, trade unionist, editor and as a social and religious reformer. A prolific writer, he was much sought after as a public speaker. A Marxist by 1918, he began translating Gandhiji’s speeches in 1919. His book of 1921 on Gandhism is considered the best ever exposition on that subject in Tamil.

He was called the Tamil Gandhi for his austere life-style, disdain for personal wealth, the monk’s habit, the characteristic Gandhian trait of tenacity leavened by an engaging openness of the mind, and even a physical likeness. Like the Mahatma, he was deeply religious in an orthodox way, receptive to all faiths all the same. He has fallen into obscurity even in Tamil Nadu, thanks to changing political trends and shifts in all the spheres in which he had laboured hard. Awards, schools, roads, bridges and neighbourhoods have been named for him; the memory has, alas, faded.

Publicists and scholars of his times thrived on dissent, amity binding them when common cause beckoned. ThiruViKa is the best subject for reflecting on the upheavals of his times as he belonged to many circles; he represents the unrepresented. It is time we kindle an interest on such matters as an equal period has elapsed after federal India came into being. The global Tamil, 74 millions of them, according to one count, can barely speak the language and are among the English-reading public, near and afar. They will find it welcome. This book is the first of this genre in Tamil and English [3].

[to be continued]


1. Varatharajan, Na. in ThiruViKa (1962), Sivagnanam, MaPo in his Viduthalai Poril Tamil Valarndha Varalaru (The History of the Growth of Tamil during the War of Independence) (1970) and Bhaskaran, S.T in a Book Review in the Hindu of February 3, 2008, have commented on these lines.

Sunil Khilnani signposts us to a large number of writings on India in the detailed Bibliographical Essay in his 1997 book, The Idea of India. That Essay mentions none with this focus and can be reasonably mentioned as a supportive finding. My diligent literature review also shows that little has been done by way of academic analysis, social histories, testing anecdotal evidence, oral history and narratives, with this or a similar focus.

2. All proper names are denoted by such-like initials after the first use, adhering to Tamil practice; it is also easy on the eye. A List of Abbreviations provides full names, as transliterated and as given in the text.

3. Sahitiya Akademi, New Delhi claims to translate most of its publications into English and other regional languages. The slim eulogistic biography, Ma.Po.Ra. Gurusamy(1998) ThiruViKa. New Delhi.Sahitiya AKademi remains untranslated into English.