Coffee-less in Colonial Tamilnadu

I finished reading A R Venkatachalapathy‘s In those days there was no coffee: writings in cultural history (Yoda Press, New Delhi, 2006. Nearly 200 pages, Rs. 495).

I have read some nice things about the author in one of Ram Guha’s columns — which is also quoted in the books blurb, by the way (and, probably in his India after Gandhi too; but I am not sure):

R.K. Narayan could have written in Tamil; he preferred to write in English. His fellow Mysore novelist U.R. Anantha Murty taught English literature, and even had a Ph.D from a British university; yet he chose to write in Kannada.

Like most of their contemporaries, Narayan and Anantha Murty were effortlessly bilingual. Which cannot be said, alas, for most writers and scholars of the present generation. The Indian novelists who write in English now might have a working knowledge of their mother tongue; they can speak it and sometimes read it, but they cannot, I believe, make a career, or name, writing in it. Some Bengali historians of my acquaintance do write occasional essays in Bengali as well as books in English; but they are the last of a dying breed, for they are all the wrong side of 50. There is an increasing separation of discourses: with some speaking and writing in English, and many others doing so in their own tongues. Few are the scholars now who can travel between these very separate worlds. One of these exceptions is the brilliant social historian A.R. Venkatachalapathy, who writes fluently in English and more fluently in Tamil, and is yet less than 40 years of age.

An excerpt from the book which was published in The Hindu was also linked to in this blog itself, a while ago. However, what made me buy the book are a couple of wonderful pictures of Narasus coffee advertisements from 1940s, several cartoons from Tamil dailies and magazines at the beginnings of 20th century, and, needless to say, the pieces on coffee and Pudumaippiththan.

Chalapathy (as he is referred by the series editor) sets the tone for the book in the first few sentences of his preface, which is eminently quote-worthy:

Isaiah Berlin, the renowned British historian of ideas, once likened himslef to a London cab, which went wherever it was hailed; meaning that he wrote whatever he was commissioned to. I have been rather like the notorious autorickshaw drivers of Chennai who want to drive their customers to wherever they want to go.

The book itself is split into two parts: one on the histories of consumption in Colonial Tamilnadu (of coffee, of tobacco, of cartoons, of the stories of Pudumaippiththan and of the popular imaginings of the city of Chennai); the other part is on the literature, culture and identity politics of the Dravidian movement (the making of the Tamil canon, the Dravidian movement and the Vellalars, the coining of technical terms in Tamil, and the writings of autobiographies in Colonial Tamilnadu).

I liked the pieces on coffee, the making of the Tamil canon, and the coining of technical terms in Tamil the best; the piece on Coffee is full of gems; to quote a few:

  • In the above-mentioned Pudumaippiththan’s story of Lord Siva’s descent to the earth and his encounter with Kandasami Pillai, the following conversation takes place in the coffee hotel:

    As God sipped the coffee, a divine demeanour of having drunk soma suffused His face.

    ‘This is my leelai [divine handiwork],’ said God.

    ‘This is not Your leelai, but the hotelier’s. Mixing chicory with coffee is his handiwork. Show Your mettle when You pay for the bill’ whispered Kandasami Pillai into His ears, content that he has sorted out the issue of paying for the coffee.

  • Referring to the early days of coffee, Va. Ra. observed, ‘In those days nobody drank coffee. Only a few rich households consumed it. Even there, they did not know how to make proper coffee. It would be jet black like kasandu [dregs]. Drinking such coffee, they would smack their lipes.’
  • When Bharatidasan, the fiery poet of the Dravidian movement, once wanted to criticse some Brahmin adverseries, he derisively called them ‘kapi kadai mundangal‘ (the wretches of the coffee hotels).
  • Pudumaippithan, whenever he wanted to call somebody crazy, would remark ‘You are a chap who drinks tea at a Brahmin hotel.’ G. Alagirisamy, his close associate, who has recorded this habit of Pudumaippithan, has glossed it with the comment, ‘In his view, coffee at Brahmin shops was best, while Muslim shops served excellent tea.’

His other pieces too have some very interesting information that was hitherto unknown to me. For example, I have read about U V Swaminatha Iyer’s surprise on learning about Manimekalai and Seevaka Chinthamani in a very nice piece by A K Ramanujan (which piece, Chalaphty also says is the best account in English). However, I did not know that Iyer probably embellished his account a bit for dramatic effect:

‘Have you read Seevaka Chintamani? Manimekalai?’

I had not read the books he mentioned. Nor had my teacher. I had never even set my eyes on these works. I thought to myself, ‘Without considering the many books I had studies, why should this man make a big issue of my not having read these couple of books’ and prided myself on this. ” i had no access to these books. If I did I am confident of reading them’ I replied emphatically.

No doubt, U. V. Swamintha Iyer’s account of this meeting with Salem Ramaswamy Mudaliar is highly dramatised and some matters of fact are suspect. (Contrary to what U. V. Swamintha Iyer would have us believe, one canto os Seevaka Chinthamani was already a presecribed text in the Madras Unviersity curriculum and Henry Bower, a prominent missionary-scholar had published it way back in 1868. Mahavidwan Meenakshisundaram Pillai had even copied the text, on palm leaves with Nachinarkkiniyar’s commentary and deposied it in Thiruvavadudurai Mutt’s library. As early as in 1859, G. U. Pope has included over half a dozen verses friom Seevaka Chintamani in his Tamil handbook for students. There is a much earlier reference in the eighteenth century Jesuit beschi’s writings to both Cilappadhikaram and Seevaka Chintamani.) But it highlights rather emphatically the conflict that was emerging in the later part of the nineteenth century, over what was the real canon, the great tradition.

On the whole, all the nine pieces in the book (the differences in the presentation style notwithstanding — some are a bit more academic and a little less popular in style), are great and I had lots of fun reading them; I would strongly recommended the book for those with an interest in Colonialism in general and, in Tamil culture and cultural history, in particular.


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