The Namboothiri community of Kerala has always had a substantial space in society, having produced a number of scholarly men who enriched us with their views, reflections and deeds.
V T Bhattathiripad was one such social reformer who contributed much to the resurrection of the community that was earlier bound by the “sacred thread” of rituals, traditions and orthodoxy.
Fuelled by his inner rebellion, Bhattathiripad, among others, had ventured into the movement which sought the renaissance of the community that had limited its women to the “insides of the illam (home)” and men to the confinement of customs. During the late 18th century and early 19th century, the community, tagged “upper caste”, had stooped into ignorance, social unawareness and blind devotion to traditional values.
It is this struggle for community emancipation that delineates the autobiography of V T Bhattathiripad, My Tears, My Dreams (Kaneerum Kinavuum), as he says in the prologue: “I write for the eternally unhappy Savitris of the community who were kept away from the public by means of dykes.”
Having been born into an “insignificant household”, which was on the verge of crumbling, he speaks of a childhood that “was not a beautiful dawn”. He was always mired in doubts about the necessity of Vedic lessons that were thrust on him. In his autobiography, Bhattathiripad explains, with disgust, the meaningless lessons forced on the Brahmin youth who recites it mechanically.
Bhattathiripad says, “Education that does not nourish the brains and entertain the minds will generally be uninspiring and such an education system will alienate one very quickly.”
In the book, Bhattathiripad speaks of the redundant and “eventless” life led by the Apphan Namboothiris (younger sons in the Namboothiri household. An Apphan Namboothiri had no rights over property and was not allowed to marry from the community) that vexed the humanitarian in him.
The astute reformer that he was, Bhattathiripad fumed at the community’s apathy in noting the transformations that were happening around them. “He (a Namboothiri) did not wake up even when the rays of science rose in the east,” said Bhattathiripad. “He fell asleep perched on the spiritual mattress.”
My Tears, My Dreams also traverses the events and people (the preachers of Yogakshema Sabha like Kuroor Unni Namboothiripad and the 10-year-old girl who kindled the urge for learning in him) that shaped the reformer and the human in Bhattathiripad. With pride, he notes how his play Adukkalayil Ninnu Arangathekku had awoken the sombre spirits of women in the Namboothiri household who threw away their palm-leaf umbrellas to come out in the public.
Translating V T Bhattathiripad’s autobiography, which articulates the cultural, social and historical milieu of the last century, was strenuous, and a daunting task. However, Sindhu V Nair has ensured that nothing has been lost in the translation.
“Bhattathiripad wrote the book in classical Malayalam. Though it may seem like an easy read in the beginning, each line bore an in-depth meaning. I had to learn about those times before even attempting to begin the work,” says the translator.
At a time when the social set-up of the Namboothiri clan has undergone a sea change, the autobiography of Bhattathiripad, whose efforts contributed to the uplift of the community and the lives of its members, claims a prominent space.
The efforts of the Oxford University Press in bringing out such translated work calls for kudos as these attempts liberate such literary works from the constraints of regionalism and language, besides marking a milestone in fortifying the literary branch of translation.