Interview with Robin Jeffrey – Part I

Saidalavi P. C. interviews the scholar, Robin Jeffrey, on his well-known body of work on Kerala, and his experiences as a Canadian graduate student in Kerala in the 1960s.

Editors’ note: This is the first part of a two-part interview. The Malayalam version of this interview was originally published in Mathrubhumi Weekly 97 (33), 2019.


‘One evening in December 1967, I travelled from Makara in Coorg to the Kerala side of the ghats. I still remember passing over the ghats and seeing all those red flags fluttering on the Kerala side of the border.  E.M.S. had formed the United Front government earlier that year. This image fascinated me then. I have remained keen ever since to understand Kerala.’


Munching on fish fingers and salad at a restaurant in St. Kilda beach in Melbourne, I had an opportunity to converse with Robin Jeffrey about his long-standing academic engagements with Kerala. He is the author of many books and articles on Kerala, including The Decline of Nair Dominance and Politics, Women and Well-Being. The write-up below is drawn freely from that conversation.

A photograph of a smiling white-haired person wearing a black suit and striped blue shirt.
Prof. Robin Jeffrey. Image credit: Saidalavi P. C.

Said: Could you tell us why and how you came to India and to Kerala?

Robin: I came to India in 1967 with the Canadian University Service Overseas (Cuso), which was the Canadian equivalent of the Peace Corps. I had just finished my BA and had also worked as a journalist. My first placement in India was supposed to be with the Haryana Family Planning Agency, but eventually, it didn’t happen. So they transferred me to the Punjab Institute of English in Chandigarh, as a teacher.1 And I taught English in the Government Boys’ Basic High School in Sector 20 for two years. That was wonderful because, as teachers have long holidays, I could travel across India. During the holidays, I went to Kerala for the first time in December 1967. I had met and become friends with a Punjabi family who had business in Kannur, and I went to Kannur and stayed with them for a couple of nights.

Then, in the summer of 1968, I came back to south India for holidays. This time, I travelled in Tamil Nadu particularly, and flew over to Cochin, and came back up from Cochin to Kannur. This journey made a big impression on me and one scene is still fresh in my memory. While I was coming out of Kochi in a KSRTC bus, the bus had its tarpaulin shutters down to cover the windows. It was monsoon and there was heavy downpour. When the bus stopped somewhere, I lifted the tarpaulin and saw on the veranda of a house, very close to the road, an old lady wearing big glasses and reading a newspaper. I had taught a hundred and fifty kids in the school in Chandigarh; none of them had specs except one. And here was an old woman, with these big specs, reading Mathrubhumi or Malayala Manorama, probably Malayala Manorama in Kochi at that time. That picture stuck in my mind.

When learning to read and write was such a big deal for both women and men in other parts of India, it made such an impact on me to see people reading so widely. Of course, lots of people have said this about Kerala. Leslie Brown, one of the last English bishops in Kerala, had a story about literacy in his memoirs. He was travelling on one of the ferries around Vembanadu Lake, and saw people all around him reading Marxist tracts, as if they were reading best-sellers. This was in the late 1940s.

Twenty years later, I shared some of that amazement. I thought Kerala was a very interesting place and very different from Punjab and other places I had been to in India.

Said: How did this fascination with the place turn to an academic interest?

Robin: I left India in 1969 having finished the appointment at Chandigarh. By that time, I had already decided to learn more about India and everything I had seen during my travels and experienced in my school.So I got admission to the University of Sussex in UK intending to do an M.A. on Indian Studies. Sussex then was a terrific place. It had some of the best scholars on India who were active at that time. It had F. G. Bailey and David Pocock on the anthropology side; it had P.C. Choudhary, who was an economist; Peter Reeves and Anthony Low on the history side. Bruce Graham, who wrote a very fine book on the Jan Sangh, was a political scientist. And it had Ranajit Guha who inspired and coordinated a generation of scholars around the project of Subaltern Studies. It was really an interesting place, particularly with Reeves and Low; they were not just good scholars, they were terrifically nice human beings. I was fascinated by what I was learning—and learning, too, about how little I knew. When I had finished the MA in the spring of 1970, Sussex’s School of African and Asian Studies (AFRAS) asked me whether I was interested in doing a doctorate—a D.Phil.—in Sussex. It offered me an opportunity to go back to India, and I wanted very much to go back; I jumped at the opportunity.

Said: Were you at the department of history at Sussex?

Robin: I was listed as doing history. But the nice thing at Sussex in those days was that all the Indian scholars were together in the School of African and Asian Studies. People did not seem to take disciplines too seriously. Anthony Low was heavily influenced by anthropologists when he was a teacher and doing his PhD thesis in Africa ten or fifteen years earlier. That interest and tendency had rubbed off on people like Peter Reeves, who had been Anthony’s student in Australia at one stage. 

The disciplines did not matter as much as the questions you were interested in probing. They weren’t fetishized in the way you sometimes encounter today, particularly in Singapore or US where people complain, He is a sociologist and couldn’t possibly do the work of an anthropologist or historian’. The disciplines provide different tools, but it usually requires a variety of tools and skills to respond effectively to tough questions. That’s a long way of saying that I was ‘doing history’, but I was encouraged—expected—to read in anthropology and development studies.

Said: How did you decide to write a thesis on Nairs in Travancore?

Robin: When I was asked what I was going to research for a doctorate, I thought that since I had lived in Punjab, I would do something on Punjab and on the Partition. I had already done a small thesis on the Partition for the Masters degree.But Anthony Low, who was one of my supervisors, was very interested in princely states and indirect rulership. This arose from his African experience. He asked me, ‘What about the princely states?’ Then I started exploring and discovered that there were two princely states in Kerala, and because I was already intrigued by Kerala, I began to read about it, beginning with articles about communists and the 1957 government. The more I read, the more I was drawn towards Travancore. Travancore had been called a ‘model state’ very early on. What made it the ‘good boy’ princely state, as far as the British were concerned, so early? So I began to think I would write a thesis about modernization; about how Travancore ‘modernised’—whatever that means—and what it had done to please the British. That was the general idea. 

But once I went deeper, I found that the important and fascinating story was about social change and social conflict. And the matrilineal system of Nairs and other groups seemed essential to that social organisation. I felt matriliny was one of the essential factors for making Kerala different. The thesis therefore ended up becoming a thesis about social change in Travancore, highlighting the role that the matriliny’s collapse played in that social change and also trying to understand why matriliny didn’t survive. These questions came up only after I got into the fieldwork. Until I came to Trivandrum and began working there, I had never heard of the Marumakkathayam Report of 1908, which is a rich document, hard to find at that time, but an exciting discovery once I got to it.

Said: How was your fieldwork like?

Robin: I was in Kerala for about ten months. I spent quite a bit of time in the cellar of the Secretariat in Trivandrum, where all the old Travancore government records were kept. There was Kochukrishnan Nair, the in-charge, and a peon called Swami and there was a bookbinder called Thambi. And we were the four there nearly every day. I would open a bundle of files and see what was there. There was no index. It was wonderful and exciting. 

I went to Kochi couple of times to use the High Court library for the printed records of Travancore court cases, and to Kottayam to use the library at CMS College. And I spent a bit of time at Nagarcoil, because the Nanjanad area was part of the old Travancore state. Scott Christian College at Nagarcoil had begun as a missionary school back in the 1850s. They had a library which had some of the old local reports about what the London Missionary Society had done each year. There were a series of these reports for the 1870s and 1880s which had details on who gave donations to the mission, with so many thousands of rupees. What was interesting about them was that the donations were going up and up—and then the coffee disease came. A number of LMS converts were planting coffee, but as soon as the coffee blight came, the donations went down. Those details suggested that there were economic opportunities with the introduction of cash crops like coffee, but these crops relied heavily on growing conditions and ultimately on international prices.

Said: When you started doing fieldwork in 1971, how was Kerala studies like? Were there people whom you met? What was the research area like?

Robin: There wasn’t a lot; Elamkulam P.N. Kunchan Pillai was dead by that stage. His essays in English had been published by the time I got to Kerala in 1971, and there was K. M. Panikkar’s history of Kerala, done years before. A.K. Pothuval was still alive, Pothuval was a classical scholar who worked in the museum I think. As far as I remember, one of the important pieces of scholarship that came out about this time was by T. C. Varghese, Agrarian Change and Economic Consequences (1970). It was an economic study of what had happened to the land in Kerala during the 19th century. It touched on the social change that came about through land transfer and the importance of land in determining social status. I discovered this book while I was in Kerala, and it was a book I admired. I never met this man. I don’t know what happened to him. Who else was writing about Kerala? The anthropologists Joan Mencher and Kathleen Gough were writing. I never met Gough, but I did meet Joan Mencher years later.

Said: I think, particularly because of the first elected communist government and all that, there were a lot of people researching the communist movement at that time.

Robin: Yes, indeed! Tom Nossiter did a book on communism in Kerala in 1982. There was also an Englishman called Christopher May who worked on the communist movement but did not publish anything. By the early 1970s, interest in the 1957-59 communist government—there had been a lot of such interest in the 1960s—waned.The book by Victor Fic, Kerala: Yenan of India had come out by 1970. He was a Canadian-based scholar of communism; the book was superficial and not very satisfactory. George Woodcock had done Kerala: A Portrait of the Malabar Coast, which was more of a travel book. Books like D. R. Mankekar’s The Red Riddle of Kerala (1965) also came out. But if you look at the bibliography of the Communists in Kerala, you see the big spike is between 1958 to 1965.

Said: What was the methodology you followed then to categorise and to record whatever documents you were looking at? As you know, it is easier now with photocopying, camera and other digital devices?

Robin: When I was starting doctoral research, Anthony Low showed me how he kept his notes. He had them on 5×3 index cards, and I thought this was not a bad idea. Today, I have got boxes and boxes of 5×3 index cards. As soon as you start a document, you make a card with the full title of the document and everything you need to know to find it again or direct someone else to it. Then every time you made a note from that document, you gave the new card the short title of the document and a subject heading to help you file it later. 

After a week’s work, you had a pile of these cards—a reward for your work. Then came the fun: you got to read through them, shuffle them and put them in shoe boxes and into subject compartments with little flags to tell you what was there. It was great fun because you had a sense of satisfaction. The other nice thing was that it was an effective methodology because you digested what you read. Because all this was done by handwriting, you were trying to take economical notes. You didn’t want to spend a day writing out a whole document verbatim, so you digested it and only took interesting direct quotations.And there were no photocopiers until the late 1970s in Trivandrum not until 1978, I think.

It was the opposite to what you often see these days—students, particularly undergraduates, making a pile of photocopies and then going through them with a highlighter pen. They end up with a document that is more a work of art, covered in pink and yellow highlighter, than something they have read and understood.

To be continued.


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

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