A shining star in Kerala’s reading history

On National Reading Day (June 19), let’s look at how a Malayali established an English newspaper called Western Star from Kerala.
C J Kurian’s home from the book ‘Annyamee Porattajeevitham’
C J Kurian’s home from the book ‘Annyamee Porattajeevitham’

KOCHI: A family get-together helps to weave stories out of memories — often the usual, and rarely, the unusual. At times, such reunions may also hit you with surprises!

One such occasion was to commemorate the 100th death anniversary of my great-great-grandfather, C J Kurien. I was invited by Brigadier Joe Curien, my grand-uncle whose tireless efforts was instrumental in bringing together cousins and relatives all across the globe, on that Sunday.

As I was about to turn around after picking up a halwa that caught my eyes atop a table laden with delicacies, I saw a note on C J Kurien.

In spite of my very little interest in filial trajectories, I skimmed through the lines savouring the halwa. He was the first nominated president of Kottayam municipality, a successful farmer and a member of the Sree Moolam Praja Sabha. I could not help myself go ‘Wow’ as I went on to read that he ran an English newspaper from Kerala, towards the end of the 19th C. With that half-eaten halwa, I scrambled to my cousins to reveal my discovery. “Er… I have heard about it before; but I don’t know much about it other than that it was mentioned in a book on the life of C J Kurien,” says my elder brother who is the ‘intellectual’ of our lot.

A few days later he sent me a couple of pages from a book citing references of an English newspaper Western Star, and so did my husband, who found a few titles to appease my hunger for details!

Kurien Writer
Kurien Writer

A week later, I digged up a bit more on the newspaper from books on the history of print media in Malayalam. From whatever I could gather, I understood that C J Kurien, a nephew of Kurien Writer, published an English newspaper from Cochin called Western Star, which had been an initiation of his uncle’s, in the 1860’s.

The Roots of Modern Journalism in Kerala penned by Dr Babu Cherian and Jacob Isaac, which won the Thayatt Award in 2003 mention that in September 1860, an issue of ‘Jnananikshepakam’ published a statistical data regarding newspapers published across the globe, which included a paper from Cochin.

The writers believe that the reference was to Western Star. The paper was published from a printing house of the same. It was run by a group including Ittyavara Writer, Ittoop Writer, Kurien Writer, an Englishman Walker and a Gujarati industrialist Devaji Bhimji. The first editor of Western Star was Charles Larson, who also helmed The Madras Mail.

He had been visiting his brother in Kochi, after completing his studies in England. Later, he went to Madras and started the Madras Mail there. Various sources suggest that the newspaper was published twice every month and included news from abroad as well as regional reports based on what was sent in mostly by the subscribers. Copies of Western Star were delivered to readers, including the Viceroy’s council, the rulers and their divans, and the British Resident, according to Prof Hope, a descendant of C J Kurian and a researcher in the field.

A few years later, Western Star Press was transferred to Kurien Writer’s progenies and the publishing house moved to Thiruvananthapuram.

A year after Western Star saw the light, the publishers hit upon the idea of having a Malayalam edition of the same which came out as ‘Pashchimatharaka’. T J Pailee and Itoop Writer were the first editors of ‘Pashchimatharaka’, later taken over by Kaloor Oomen Philipose Aashan, especially after its merger with ‘Keralapathaka’, another newspaper from Cochin.

Dr Anilkumar Vadavathoor in a comprehensive study on the history of print media in Malayalam says that ‘Paschimatharaka’, apart from producing a translation of the English newspaper ‘Western Star’, also had space for regional news and literary criticism. A Comedy of Errors was translated and published in this paper, cites Anilkumar. It also offered sharp criticism on the lack of administration by government officials.

I was excited by all that I read. I knew nothing about Western Star, in spite of having heard C J Kurien’s name and legacy mentioned in family gatherings over the years. I have heard stories about him which are more centred on cultural and religious affairs, but nothing about the newspaper. I contacted many elders in the family, but nobody could recollect personal narratives about him as a publisher, other than the facts which I read in books.

Maybe, those stories have been lost forever. Those who had known the sorrow and joy of holding pen, running a press and publishing newspapers, would also have been a repertoire of tales which a publisher holds close to heart. Unfortunately, C J Kurien’s newspaper-stories have not been recovered yet. And that remains a scar on this great-greatgrand-daughter.

The writer is an asst professor at BCM College, Kottayam.

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