A. Madhaviah: A biography and a novella
By Sita Anantha Raman and Vasanta Surya,
Oxford, Rs 295
A. Madhaviah is one of those 'argumentative Indians' whom, Amartya Sen has recently dwelt upon. An upper caste Tamil, Madhaviah was well-versed in Tamil and in English literature and was an advocate of post-enlightenment European nationalism. A strong believer in literature as a weapon of social change, he was a prolific writer of Tamil and English fiction. Most of Madhaviah's books launched scathing attacks on the casteist and misogynistic biases prevalent in Hinduism. He participated energetically in debates on wide-ranging issues like widow remarriage and women's education to help create a 'publicspace'.
In his autobiography, Madhaviah pronounces his unrestrained admiration for the secular ideas espoused by the Englishman, Charles Edmond Bradlaugh, and the American, Robert Green Ingersoll, though he himself was not an atheist and advocated a liberal reformist appropriation of scriptures.
This book, written by Sita Anantha Raman and Vasanta Surya, is significant for several reasons. First, as a biographer, Raman steers clear of pedantry and hagiography and adopts a non-elitist approach. Secondly, the way he locates Madhaviah in the context of 19th-century reformist nationalism of India is equally laudable. Raman's biography turns out to be a narrative that maps the text on to its context with a shifting focus.
The discussion of Madhaviah's problematic relationship with missionaries like Reverend J.R. Henderson, William Skinner, F.A. Nicholson et al becomes interestingly illuminating on the ambiguity implicit in the nationalist ideology. This ideology partly resisted and partly accepted the colonial claim of racial superiority of the Europeans. A point that needs to be noted is that Madhaviah's views, articulated through his novels like Padmavati Charitram, Satyananda or Charinda, reveal inconsistent, and often conflicting, responses towards issues like Christianity and colonialism. The authors, Raman in particular, are alive to Madhaviah's eclecticism and the various shades of his myriad personality which also had its moments of indecision, compromise and weaknesses.
This book includes Madhaviah's major works that have been arranged chronologically. It also comprises a novella that recounts a poignant love story of a child widow titled Muthumeenakshi. Madhaviah's brand of social reformism and his vision of Indian humanism are well-documented in it. However, Vasantha Surya's translation, while efficient, does not quite capture the telling sharpness of Madhaviah's phrases.