Interview with Robin Jeffrey – Part II

In part two of the interview by P. C. Saidalavi, Robin Jeffrey speaks about his body of work on Kerala, and his recent work on South and Southeast Asia.

Read Part I of the interview here.

Book cover of Nayar Medhavithwathinte Pathanam. The top half features the title in bold, black and red text on a white background, with the author's name, "Robin Jeffrey," in Malayalam below it. The bottom half has a monochromatic sketch of muscular men in loincloths, with weapons, around a man sitting atop an elephant. There are coconut palms in the background.
Image copyright: D C Books, Kottayam.

Said: When your 1973 dissertation, ‘The Decline of Nayar Dominance : Society and Politics in Travancore, 1847-1908’ was published as a book, what was the response like?

Robin: It was okay. It got reviewed in academic journals. And there was a Malayalam edition which I think is still around. Nayar Medhavithwathinte Pathanam, which is too often translated back into English as ‘the destruction of Nayar rule’. I have sometimes met Nayars, who say, ‘You wrote about the destruction of the Nayars’.

Said: Though matriliny has declined, Nayars are still one of the dominant political and social powers in Kerala. How did this ‘decline thesis’ come to have such a strong resonance for you?

Robin: The decline was that Nayar families were no longer as powerful as they had been. Being born a Nayar no longer gave you the same privileges you would have had in the old days. Property was being disposed of. Karanavans (the eldest male member of a family) were selling off property either to benefit their own children or to pay the fees for their nephews to go to school. By the beginning of the twentieth century, you needed credentials if you were going to get a government job. It is not that Nayars fell off a cliff, but other people, Ezhavas particularly, acquired wealth, assumed more important positions and could buy land. Syrian Christians in Travancore and Cochin, of course. had always been influential and landed. 

By contrast, matrilineal societies in other places in the world—in Pacific islands and West Africa—were homogenous and were composed only of matrilineal people—only they lived in that area. But in Kerala, society was made up of patrilineal and matrilineal groups, and sometimes groups that followed a little bit of both practices. There were challenges facing matrilineal families from people whose personal law made it easier for them to adapt to the expanding cash-crop economy and credential-oriented education than matrilineal families could.

Said: I think maybe it is an influence of the Malayalam translation that there has been a commonsense notion that it is the Nayar decline in the sense of destruction. That’s not what you meant, actually!

Robin: Certainly not destruction! I was aware of the way people might approach the title. So at some point early in the book, I tried to spell out that decline is not destruction and dominance is not authoritarian rule.

Said: You mentioned that one of your influences was F.G. Bailey. And what kind of traces do you see in your work? And who are the other people who influenced your style of writing and presentation?

Robin: I like Bailey’s writing because, although he was an anthropologist, he tried to understand the history of the people among whom he lived. In his first book, Caste and the Economic Frontier, he was very clear about the importance of exploring historical change. The book is clear, logical and convincing, and it has a historical depth that he blended with everything he was studying as an observant anthropologist.

I read some anthropology at [University of] Sussex in that environment. I didn’t like the idea that there is some sort of anthropological present where you took a snapshot of today and that somehow explained everything. Ranajit Guha, who was at Sussex at that time, long before he became the godfather of Subaltern Studies, was keen to explain the present, but to do it, he first went back to the Permanent Settlement in Bengal of 1793. The ethos of AFRAS (African and Asian Studies) at Sussex at that time was that all disciplines needed to be appreciated and used, depending on the questions one was trying to respond to.

Said: After the publication, when did you come to Kerala? Did you meet any Nayars whom you had earlier consulted? Had they seen your book?

Robin: One of my oldest friends was Puthuppalli Raghavan. He was one of the old CPI comrades. He was born into a Nayar family in central Travancore about 1912. So he was about twelve at the time of Vaikom Satyagraha. 

By the time I met him in the early 1970s, he had left the Party at the split in 1964. He used to say, ‘Once we walked with people, now they all ride in cars’. I think Nayar Service Society wouldn’t have been keen to claim him as a Nayar, because he joined the Communist Party and married Shantha, who was an Ezhava. The story he told was that she was secretary of the Alleppey district committee, and when he was an under-trial prisoner and being taken to the courts every day, he and his co-accused would shout, ‘Inquilab zindabad!’ She saw him first when he was shouting slogans from the police van. They married in the Party office. 

In fact, in that early time, I had three really good friends. One was K. Prabhakaran, the son of Kumaran Asan and his wife. Mrs. Prabhakaran was such a lovely woman. Once, I had those tropical ulcers—you know, those things that swell up and become red and then they burst and bad blood pours out. I had a couple of these on my leg one day when I was visiting their house. I was wearing trousers. One of these tropical ulcers burst, and blood started flowing down my leg, over my bare foot and onto the floor. She knew at once what it was and was so kind and sympathetic! My first thought had been, ‘Oh no! A foreigner’s blood on the floor of a Hindu house. This is bad!’ But she cleaned it up; she cleaned me up and sent me to a doctor. She was that kind of a woman. 

So, then, my third friend from that time was Abraham M. Nidhiry, who was a principal of a college at Kuravilangad, near Kottayam in central Travancore. He had written a book about his grand uncle, Father Nidhiry, who had been one of the first indigenous Roman Catholic Syrians to challenge the foreign bishops that the Pope was sending to Kerala. Abraham Nidhiry wrote a book about this in English in 1971. I got it in a bookshop in Trivandrum and got in touch with him. He became a close friend too. 

These were my three ‘local informants’, as anthropologists would say, but they were more my local parents. They looked after me in many ways.

While I was writing up my thesis in the UK, I used to write to Prabhakaran regarding anything I wasn’t sure about. Those were the days of snail-mail, and the snails could be very slow. You had to send a written letter in an envelope and then wait for the reply. If I was writing about the SNDP Yogam, Dr. Palpu, or Kumar Asan himself, I would write to Prabhakaran if I needed a fact-check. And similarly, Abraham Nidhirywas very good at clarifying some of the remarkable politics among Syrian Christians, who seemed frequently to divide into rival groups.

Said: So, what did you work on after your first book?

Robin: The next question that intrigued me—it was the first question in fact—before I got side-tracked into ‘matriliny’, was about Communism; why a communist movement had gained such traction in Kerala. Why would a man in Kerala spend years in jail between 1930 and 1960 for being a Communist if all he had to do was to sign up as a Congressman? A person prepared to undergo that sort of imprisonment shows that he or she was working for a greater cause. Why should that be? 

I think two key reasons were the collapse of the matrilineal joint family and the growing outrage of ‘polluting’ castes at the disabilities they suffered. These two big social issues created significant numbers of literate people searching for ways out of intolerable social situations. Puthuppalli Raghavan had a story that whenever he felt lonely as a young person growing up, he would go to the school library and spend his time reading. He had another story about bringing home an Ezhava friend. He made his friend sit in a chair on the verandah, and when the friend left, Puthuppalli broke up the chair. Family members reprimanded him: ‘What are you doing? Why would you break up the chair?’ He said, ‘You say I am not allowed to have other caste members in the house and they are polluting. I am breaking up the chair. It must be polluted now’. He was trying to demonstrate how stupid the concept of pollution was. I think it is quite a common story. I think many of the old communists had comparable stories. 

I think that Kerala, by the 1930s, had a pool of people of various castes and religions, all with good basic education, some of them of high social standing in the old order. Many of these people were searching for what was going to replace their dislocated family systems or the unjust and ridiculous social system, based on caste discrimination. 

Said: Though untouchability was unlawful, when you came to Kerala in the 1970s, were you able to see the remnants of those practices you described in the book in the 19th century?

Robin: The very nice man who taught me Malayalam on two occasions was a Dalit. I remember going to an office with him. He was helping me with an enquiry. We were offered tea and when we came out of the office, he was furious. My tea had been given with sugar and milk, but his tea without milk or sugar. ‘They knew!’ he said. 

But you were asking about what my interests were after the thesis. My original interest in communism in Kerala drifted towards a related issue—the so-called ‘Kerala model’ of development—improved living conditions without red, green or industrial revolutions. My question became, ‘How did that happen?’ The second book about Kerala that I wrote was trying to explore and explain the ‘Kerala model’. It was published in 1992 as Politics, Women and Well-Being: How Kerala Became ‘a Model’. The title is a six-word digest of the book: Politics + Women = Well-Being.

Meanwhile, I did a book on Punjab in 1986 focusing on the Khalistan movement. It began from the interest in Punjab I developed during my time in Chandigarh. The fourth book was India’s Newspaper Revolution published in 2000. Media and Modernity, published in 2010, was a collection of published essays.

Said: I see that you had a kind of a shift from Kerala studies to looking at South Asia and Southeast Asia, and you have brought out a lot of edited volumes including the recent one with Ronjoy Sen, Being Muslim in South Asia. When did you shift your focus and how did it come about?

Robin: I got interested in newspapers in the 1980s, and that grew out of Kerala and seeing all the Malayalam newspapers, magazines and journals. The adoption and dissemination of print and reading culture that had happened in Kerala was beginning to happen at a high rate of speed elsewhere in India. In a way, therefore, Kerala led me towards a study of newspapers at an all-India level. While I was researching India’s Newspaper Revolution, I wrote twelve essays for the Economic and Political Weekly on the newspaper industry in each of the major languages. I had to do that to try to get a better picture of an all-India overall view.

I think simple questions usually have complex answers. The interest in newspapers and media got me curious about mobile phones and what they do to—and for—the people who use them? For seven or eight years, I taught a course, ‘Politics and Media’. It was good to have read widely to try to explain things, convincingly and entreatingly, to undergraduate students.

Said: Your first book got translated to Malayalam. It would have generated a kind of discourse in Kerala, particularly with Nayar-Ezhava conflict and so on. Were you invited for any kind of academic discussions in Kerala?

Robin: I was invited to the first of the Overseas Malayalam Conference in 1978. And I was at the History Congress at the University of Kerala a few years ago. But these were events, rather than extended discussions. Most of my friendships in Kerala were personal, with people who were interested in history but not academic historians.

Said: I also wanted to ask you something else; this is from seeing your collection of documents on Kerala. Most of them are autobiographies or biographies. How did ou develop a methodological interest in such writing?

Robin: Biographies and autobiographies are wonderful sources. They help you to try to understand what people thought of their own worlds and times. What do they say about their childhood? This was especially important to me in Kerala because I was trying to make an argument that for a lot of people who were born between about 1905 and 1945, their futures were not controlled strongly by their families because families were fracturing.

Kerala from the 1960s was, I suspect, generating more biographies than most parts of India. The population was highly literate, many people had had quite adventurous lives in the nationalist or social-reform or communist movements, and there were plenty of print shops to bring out books—if they got paid or expected to make a profit. 

I didn’t consider them with any strong ideological or theoretical sense about what I was doing. I regarded everything as raw material if it seemed to relate to whatever it was that was interesting me at the time. 

Said: As a senior and expert scholar on Kerala studies, how do you look the scene of Kerala studies now?

Robin: What I really like is this news network they have built up over the last four or five years, Kerala Scholars list. There are a thousand people on it. 

I think there is a great book to be written about women’s magazines in Kerala, going back to Kalyani Amma, wife of Swadeshabhimani K. Ramakrishna Pillai, around 1905, when women’s magazines started coming out in Malayalam. There used to be quite an extensive archive of some of these magazines at the Sahitya Academy at Thrissur. They would be a wonderful source. You don’t see so many books by Malayalis coming out about Kerala—not as many, anyway, as you see books coming out from Bengalis about Bengal. 

This may also have to do with the fact that Bengalis have been going overseas for studies for a very long time—from the 1870s at least. And Bengal had Calcutta, the British city, so lots of English was spoken there, and lots of printing presses operated there, even 200 years ago. Kerala had plenty of contact with the rest of the world, but it did not have the significant foreign presence that Bengal has. There was no big city in Kerala to act as a magnet as Calcutta did. The great city for Malayalis was Madras, a ‘foreign’ city and a long journey from Trivandrum, especially before the railway reached Kollam in 1903.

Editors’ note: A Malayalam version of this interview appeared in Mathrubhumi Weekly, 97 (33), 2019.

About the Interviewer: Saidalavi P.C. is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. He can be reached at <>.

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