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Folding History into Fiction

Sukumari and the Earliest Malayalam Novels

The story of the rise of the novel in Malayala rajyam (“the Kerala country” as O.Chandu Menon would call it) in the last quarter of the 19th century is a fascinating one. The new genre was born due to the confluence of various factors, material and cerebral, and the chain of changes they sparked off. The most significant of them were the colonial experience, the growing influence of Christian missionary work, the establishment of schools and printing presses, the construction of the railway and postal networks, the slow introduction of mechanization and the exposure to the English language and, through it, the world of liberal thought.

The region, like the rest of the country, began to take baby steps towards modernity, introspecting about selfhood, trying to consolidate an identity for itself, and carving a niche that represented its true essence. The new experiences – associated with both the stimulus and the response – inevitably led to an enhanced sense of self-awareness as well as a critical examination of the prevailing caste structure within the Hindu society and all forms of social inequality and injustice it perpetuated. This, in turn, triggered a search for solutions, with some thinkers advocating reform within the system and others, convinced of its impracticability, espousing escape routes.

As Christianity offered a release from the stranglehold of caste hierarchy, and English education opened new vistas of growth and social mobility in colonial India, independent and progressive thinking began to exercise its influence on the people of the land. The new economy – that had come into existence with the changed administrative structure as well as incipient industrialization, the rise of the middle class and the gradual emergence of leisure time (that made reading possible) -- galvanized the region’s march towards modern life. The intense intellectual, ideological and cultural churning that such an atmosphere brought about had a profound effect on the society of the time. Hoary customs and traditional values were questioned as a result of which the strong forts of Brahminical and patriarchal hegemony came under attack, the social structure began to weaken, the joint family system slowly developed cracks before eventually falling apart, and women as well as the marginalized groups started asserting themselves. A fatalistic submission to the oppressive establishment gradually gave way to a desire for an egalitarian society, and the optimistic prospect of self-actualization fuelled efforts for academic growth and social mobility. Not surprisingly, the Malayalam novel, even while being a product of all these influences, addressed them from various angles within its thematic ambit, highlighting in the process the positive and negative aspects of both the existing system and the changing scenario.

The First Malayalam Novel

What is interesting to note is that there is no consensus regarding the first novel written in Malayalam. There are four or five claimants, and each enjoys the support of a few zealots. Such a confusion is, in large measure, a creation of differing parameters that are taken into account in the definition of the genre. The prominence accorded to Appu Nedungadi’s Kundalatha (1887) as the first novel in Malayalam has the most number of convinced votaries. But it is strongly contested by Archdeacon Koshy’s Pulleli Kunju (1860). It pre-dated Kundalatha by two-and-a-half decades, as it was serialized in Jnaananikshepam magazine in August-November 1860 under the title Jaathibhedam before being published as a book titled Pulleli Kunju in 1882. However, most of its detractors hardly deign to give it the label of ‘novel’ because of certain severe defects, like lack of a proper plot, fleshed-out characters or a central conflict.

Paradesi Mokshayatra (1847), the Malayalam translation of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, by Rev. Joseph Peat, and Fulmoni Ennum Koruna Ennum Peraya Randu Sthreekalude Katha (1858), translated from a Bengali novel by Hana Catherine Mullens, are other candidates to the coveted position. But their claims are neutralized by the logic that each is foreign in origin and does not handle the life of the Malayalis. Viewed from such a perspective, the argument that Mrs Collins’ Ghatakavadham (the translated version of The Slayer Slain), published in a serialized manner in a quarterly magazine titled Vidyasangraham in 1864-66 and brought out in book form in 1877, is the first Malayalam novel cannot be ignored. The legitimacy of such a contention is derived from its content. It is set in Travancore, an erstwhile princely state, and the characters are Malayalis. But to critics, in whose reckoning translations are derivative and not original products, Ghatakavadham is hardly worth serious consideration. And to those whose aesthetic expectations are high, Kundalatha is a novel only in the notional sense. They feel the title which truly deserves the honour is O. Chandu Menon’s Indulekha (1889) which has all the ingredients of a proper novel.

But to a growing number of literate readers of that time, these technical differences hardly mattered. The new genre caught their imagination, and they did not let the novel’s growth be either sluggish or scanty. The number of titles that got published within a short span was very impressive, considering the time consuming and labour–intensive processes involved in book production during those days. Subsequent publications also gained avid followers, immediately and later – be it for historical or artistic reasons – notably, Padinjare Kovilakathu Ammavan Raja’s Indumathi Swayamvaram (1890), Cheruvalath Chathu Nair’s Meenakshi (1890), O. Chandu Menon’s incomplete Sarada (1892), Potheri Kunhambu’s Saraswativijayam (1892), Kizhakkepattu Ramankutty Menon’s Parangodi Parinayam (1892), Komattil Padu Menon’s Lakshmi Keshavam (1892), Kochuthomman Apothecary’s Parishkara Pathi (1892), Joseph Muliyil’s Sukumari (1897),C.V. Raman Pillai’s historical trilogy Marthanda Varma (1891),Dharmaraja (1913) and Ramaraja Bahadur (1918-20) and so on.

Considering the social and intellectual climate of that period,it is not surprising that most of the above-mentioned works appear to share a few characteristics. Even while focusing primarily on romantic love, the conflicts and their resolution, these novels touched upon the emerging ideas of nationhood, the nationalist movement, religious and caste differences, individual freedom, selfhood, the significance of English education, the freedom of women, the transition from a matrilineal system within a joint family set-up to a nuclear family structure and so on. And if we were to create a composite picture of the social fabric of the land at that time from the background sketches of each work, we would get a fairly accurate idea of the tone and texture of human life as it existed in Kerala in the 19th century.

However, holding a mirror to the mores of the period was not ever the express aim of any of the writers. While many of them did place a premium on verisimilitude, their primary purpose (with very few exceptions) was either to nourish Malayalam, still in its infancy in the field of prose narratives, to quicken its strides towards maturity, or to convey specific messages to the readers, or to profile the features of a particular community for the benefit of outsiders.

The Writer’s Intent

Appu Nedungadi, the author of Kundalatha, was a very farsighted man who was actively involved in progressive social activities, and one among the many reforms he attempted to introduce in Kerala was a school for girls. Nedungadi not only promoted the cause of girls’ education but also tried to popularize modern banking methods in the society, showed his journalistic talent in publishing periodicals like Kerala Patrika and Kerala Sanchari, and displayed his entrepreneurial skills in the field of milk distribution. This extraordinary visionary zeal, however, did not extend to the portrayal of the characters or society in the novel he composed. Kundalatha is a shallow romance that is full of pasteboard characters, unrealistic incidents and unbelievable coincidences. But Nedungadi did not aim any higher either: “I hope this book will give harmless pleasure to the public who have no knowledge of English and to women who have time hanging on their hands. Although I desire to alleviate the abovementioned pathetic condition of the majority of the people of this land, I am convinced I do not have the ability to improve it.” It was perhaps this exclusive aim of imparting pleasure that made him believe he could spin a fairy tale-like story that laid no claims to verisimilitude.

With Chandu Menon’s Indulekha, however, we see the emergence of a very strong didactic intent prompting the composition of an almost realistic story. In his letter to W. Dumergue (who translated it into English), he admitted that one of the reasons for creating the novel was “. . . to illustrate . . . the position, power, and influence that our Nair women, who are noted for their natural intelligence and beauty, would attain in society, if they are given a good English education.”

Kizhakkepattu Ramankutty Menon, the author of Parangodi Parinayam, went to the other extreme to claim that English has no such magical powers. Learning it does not make people proud or superior. Not having an English education does not make anyone inferior or bad either. The purpose of his novella, as he admitted at the end of it, was to state that a person’s dignity and status ultimately depended on the nature and behaviour he or she showed.

Padinjare Kovilakathu Ammavan Raja was impelled to compose Indumathi Swayamvaram, a far inferior book vis-à-vis Indulekha, to modernize Malayalam. The sincerity of the righteous indignation he displays in the preface is hard to miss: “Do I need to say it is indeed shameful to the modern people of Kerala that in this 19th century, when all languages are growing like the waxing moon, our Malayalam is not moving out of childhood and into adolescence? It is very pathetic that even on seeing certain gifted individuals who – despite having several official activities that do not get over despite working diligently day and night – complete their work within two hours and spend the rest of their time for the nourishment of Malayalam language, many of our natives with nothing particular to do and despite possessing the ability to craft books, spend their time idly and show little interest in such efforts.”

Cheruvalath Chathu Nair’s objective in creating Meenakshi was to write something that would be of some use to the literate masses. So he wrote in his preface: “At present, when several talented individuals are coming together and working towards increasing the knowledge and refinement of people, in tune with the times and with appropriate reforms, I have included a few issues in this book in the absolute confidence that presenting such subjects in the form of a story will be beneficial to the public. This is not likely to cause displeasure to anyone”.

Potheri Kunhambu had a clearly chalked-out propagandist mission in writing Saraswativijayam. He was convinced that social elevation was possible only through English education via Christianity (the epigraph, an old adage: “Education is the greatest of all wealth” underscored his argument). And so he wrote in his preface: “What moved me to write this book was reflecting on the unhappy situation of the Pulayas of Malabar who are in a far worse state than the Parayas of Madras and elsewhere. The main reason for naming this book Saraswativijayam is what I have stated earlier. If any Malayali who reads this book is moved enough by the plight of the suffering creatures mentioned above to uplift them from their present helpless state my purpose will have been fulfilled.”

Sukumari, as its title page announces, purported to be “[a] Story descriptive of the Early Work of the Basel German Evangelical Mission in N. Malabar” and Kochuthomman Apothecary’s Parishkara Pathi was written ostensibly to slake the author’s own desire to see a novel documenting the life and mores of the Syrian Catholic community in Kerala.

The Aesthetics of – Differing Opinions

Although Joseph Muliyil’s Sukumari was one among a dozen of the first novels written in Malayalam, it did not find a prominent mention in many accounts of the origin of the genre in Kerala. Nor did it provoke any serious analysis until perhaps recently. In 2013, when Chintha Publishers embarked on a mission to revive popular interest in the earliest novels in Malayalam under the series “Novel Pazhama,” Pradeepan Pampirikkunnu was called upon to revisit Sukumari critically. In his overview of it from a Dalit perspective, evoking the Shakespearean line “When the moon shone, we did not see the candle; so doth the greater glory dim the less,” he stated that the novel’s obscurity was caused by the relative brilliance of Indulekha, which eclipsed all the other works of the period.

The uniqueness he observed in Sukumari lay in its yoking of historical exactitude (as evident in the realistic accuracy of topographical descriptions and church schools down to the exact syllabus they followed) and fictional narrative style. To him, Sukumari represented the last effort in the 19th century to turn the path of the novel back into history and dialogism which had been abandoned in Indulekha, and this it did by problematizing the very concept of religious conversion. The main characters are members of the avarna community, and hence outside the chaturvarna [four-caste structure in Hindu community that categorized people in a hierarchy of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras]. So their so-called conversion to Christianity presupposed or demanded a conversion to Hinduism first! Pampirikkunnu’s verdict was that although Sukumari concluded like a fairy tale, it maintained closeness to the social life of 19th century Kerala, thus proving the fact that it is historical time that creates great literature.

George Irumpayam was less charitable about the reasons for its lack of success, and fixed the blame almost entirely on its artistic blemishes. He observed that the work was uncommon in that it was not an imitation of Indulekha or any English novel, as most other novels of the period were. He also admitted that Muliyil’s choice of names for his characters was realistic because they were commonly chosen by followers of the Basel Mission Church. Besides, some of its other features – the sheer abundance of events, the following of characters’ lives right up to their deaths, and the style of language – helped bring a wave of newness to the genre that was gradually sliding into stereotypical monotony. Nevertheless, Muliyil failed in handling characterization, dialogues and the narrative creatively, and that explained why it did not become popular among the reading public. 

The Suggestive Richness of Sukumari

Notwithstanding the validity of these views, Sukumari deserves a closer reading than Pampirikkunnu brings to bear upon it and a more lenient approach than one adopted by Irumpayam. And for a more intimate understanding of the layered nature of Sukumari we should perhaps compare it with two other novels of the period, Pulleli Kunju and Saraswativijayam, with which it shares common thematic ground, namely disillusionment with caste-contaminated Hinduism and the appeal of Christianity. In a sense, if the presentation of Christianity were likened to a spectrum, these two novels would be seen to present its opposite bands. It is an in-your-face entity in Pulleli Kunju but a shrinking violet in Saraswativijayam.

Pulleli Kunju is a three-part novella which reads more like a tract than a fictional narrative. The eponymous hero engages in an abruptly-introduced intellectual conversation with Rama Paniker his neighbour in which he denigrates the caste system and idol worship of Hinduism. While these debates take up the first two books, the third is devoted to the virtues of Christianity, the story of Jesus Christ, the efficacy of His teachings and so on. As the critic Vijayan Kodanchery remarks in his prefatory note: “By the time we come to this [the third] part, the novelistic sheep’s clothing of the writer falls, to reveal Arch Deacon the evangelist.”

The criticism may appear harsh and spiky but it is very pertinent from an aesthetic point of view. The third part of the novel effectively reduces the main characters to mere props or pretexts to better contextualize the proselytizing speech of the evangelist. We notice that only as many of contemporary Hindu societal mores as are required to legitimize people’s conversion to Christianity are delineated in the work. Therefore, the cast of characters appears minimalist, the social fabric wafer thin, three-dimensionality of characters completely absent, and human interest next to nothing. The novella is so arid that it does not inspire a second read.

Saraswativijayam is a fictional dramatization of Potheri Kunjambu’s conviction that Christianity and English education are the panacea that will rid Kerala society of the malaise of spiritual ignorance and economic backwardness. Marathan, an unlettered, low-caste youth, is presumed to be dead after being assaulted by a Namboodiri’s lackey for his crime of singing a song. One and a half decades later, he gets “reborn” as Jesudasan, a Sessions Judge, and in a remarkable turnabout of events, exercises his power to acquit his erstwhile enemy in a court of law. Such a sweet and compassionate revenge would never have been possible if the Pulaya boy had not converted to Christianity, learnt English, landed a job and quickly ascended to power with his diligence and skill.

Jesudasan’s generosity of spirit is conveyed very succinctly in the novel: “Jesudasan had learnt from the German missionaries that whenever possible one must help even one’s enemies. And he proved it by personal example.” There is no attempt at dramatizing all the experiences that caused the morphing of Marathan to Jesudasan. His history is quickly summarized at the very end of Saraswativijayam. It is this hasty wrapping up that provoked Dilip Menon, in the Afterword to his translation of the novel, to remark that “Christianity is present throughout the novel as the emancipatory ideology offering a new life to both the Pulayan as well as the excommunicated daughter of the Nambudiri, Subhadra. . . . Yet, Christianity remains a nebulous presence; apart from its effects there is no elaboration of its beliefs or ideology.”

Even while being as much a Christian novel as Pulleli Kunju or Saraswativijayam, Sukumari handles the theme in a manner that is more subtle and sophisticated than was common at that time. It is non-confrontational in spirit in that the narrative does not pitch Hinduism against Christianity as starkly as Pulleli Kunju does; nor does it shy away from a presentation of the sheer crassness of caste-ridden Hindu society as Saraswativijayam does. Instead,Muliyil allows the philosophical underpinnings of Christianity to emerge naturally when Maanikkam, a teenaged Thiyya girl seeking to embrace Christianity, wishes to clear her doubtsregarding the new religion.

As if to further soften the religious contrast, Muliyil makes it appear as if Maanikkam’s fascination with Christianity (for all the intelligence the narrator glimpses in her) comes not out of her frustration with the injustices meted out to members of her caste, her experience of marginalization and so on. Rather, she is drawn to the new religion for sentimental reasons – her elder brother Raman’s conversion and subsequent departure, which had caused untold misery to the family. Her mother Maatha’s and niece Chirutha’s subsequent conversion follows the same path of family loyalty and affection.

Interestingly, Raman’s decision to become a Christian at a more mature age would have been a self-conscious andconsidered one, driven by personal experience of discrimination and possible humiliation. But those episodes are completely elided. All that the reader gets is a tiny thought flashing across his sister Maanikkam’s mind: “A smart and intelligent person like my Ettan would not have rejected his own beliefs without adequate reason.” It would appear as if Muliyil does not want to make a comparative study of the two religions, and nowhere is this spirit of neutrality more evident than in a sharp response of a priest to a new convert’s derision towards Hinduism: “It does not befit us to scorn or cause pain to others.” In fact, many of the accusations that Pulleli Kunju makes against Hinduism, like insularity of ideas, hypocrisy, gender- and caste-injustice, anti-national spirit, and so on would not perhaps have sounded inappropriate if they had come from Raman’s mouth!

Muliyil’s artistic refinement lies in his tucking these negative aspects deftly and economically in snatches of conversations and stray bits of descriptive phrases, and permitting the background of the narrative to carry the cargo of historical details. A reader who is not conversant with the socio-cultural peculiarities of that space and time is not likely to capture the nuances of meaning that reside in half-articulated segments of the text. But if he had chosen to lay them bare, Muliyil would have destroyed the suggestive power of the narrative completely. To understand the significance of this technique better, let us consider P. Chandra Mohan’s summary of the social reform movements in Kerala during that time period:

The initiative for social reforms in Kerala was first taken by the Christian missionaries. The missionary activities became quite widespread in Kerala in the beginning of the 19th century on account of the exertion of London Missionary Society, Church Mission Society, Malabar Basel Mission, Salvation Army, etc. In their zeal for spreading education and abolishing slavery and forced labour as well as their fight for granting low caste women the privilege of covering their breasts, they became the precursors of social reform movements in Kerala. Although the activities of Christian missionaries were aimed primarily at either the protection of the interests of the European capitalists in the state or at the proselytization of the members of the backward communities to Christianity, their work did spread enlightenment among certain sections of the society by dispelling to an extent superstition among its members and by engendering in them a feeling of self-respect and equality.

Nearly all the sociological facts mentioned here are introduced in the backdrop of Sukumari. The inferior status of Maatha, Maanikkam and Chirutha is only partially verbalized with “Although nothing prevented the Thiyyas from walking along the road during the morning hours . . .,” a clause that encompasses a whole history of discrimination, marginalization and exploitation associated with untouchability, unapproachability, unseeability, inaccessibility to temples and public roads, and so on. The inhuman diktat of the upper caste men that the women of inferior castes had no right to cover their breasts is conveyed indirectly when Maanikkam sees Chiranjeevi for the first time and is astonished at the sight: “The stranger was clad in a pudava. As Maanikkam did not usually travel, the sight of women who wore such clothes was not a familiar one.” The tragic scene which captures Maanikkam’s last moments speaks volumes about how the lower castes were denied education as a result of which they slipped into dangerous superstitions and became victims of the avarice of charlatan astrologers and quacks.

The profiteering ways of the European capitalists and the damage they inflicted on the country’s economy come through very naturally in the course of a conversation among Sukumari, Thejopaalan and Sathyadasan in Chapter 5. The bestial practices of slavery and forced labour prevalent at that time are revealed through Sathyarthi’s experiences in Chapter 16. Thus there is little of the seamy and corrupt underbelly of 19th century Kerala that does not get a brushstroke in the canvas of Sukumari.But Muliyil seems to purposely avoid bold jabs and loud colours, and even prevents them from occupying the foreground, preferring instead to allow the muted shades and light touches to tell an eloquent tale. In the final analysis, it can be asserted that in the unidimensional quality of its characters, the high incidence of serendipity in the plot and the near absence of figurative language, Sukumari may seem to be on the same level as nearly all the novels of the period.

But where it appears far ahead of its times is in the knitting of a social tapestry whose suggestive richness helps it transcend the customary function as a mere backdrop and reveal the complex dynamics that animated the economic and cultural matrix of 19th century Kerala. An awareness of the fact that such finesse in narrative technique was shown nearly 125 years back, when the genre of the novel had only made its appearance in the land and the rhetoric of fiction was neither fully known nor systematically articulated, will certainly add to our appreciation of Joseph Muliyil the raconteur whose talent deserves more solid acknowledgement and critical endorsement than have been given so far.

This appeared as the Introduction to a bilingual publication of Sukumari, in English as also in the original Malayalam, by FOLIO, Thiruvananthapuram, in 2021. The translation into English was also by Dr Radhika P Menon


  1. Ammavan Raja, Padinjare Kovilakathu. Indumathi Swayamvaram. 1890. 2nd edn. Thiruvananthapuram: Chintha, 2013.
  2. Apothecary, Kochuthomman. Parishkara Pathi. 1892. 2nd edn. Thiruvananthapuram: Chintha, 2013.
  3. Irumpayam, George. Aadyakaala Malayala Novel [Early Malayalam Novel]. 1982. Kottayam: National Book Stall, 2010.
  4. Kunhambu, Potheri. Saraswativijayam. 1892. Trans. Dilip Menon. New Delhi: Book Review Literary Trust, 2002.
  5. Menon, Kizhakkepattu Ramankutty Parangodi Parinayam. 1892 Trans. Sulochana Ram Mohan. Samyukta Vol. 4, No. 1 Thiruvananthapuram: Women’s Initiatives, 2004.
  6. Menon, O. Chandu. Indulekha. Trans. W. Dumergue. Calicut: Mathrubhumi, 1899.
  7. Mohan, P. Chandra. “Growth of Social Reform Movements in Kerala,” Perspectives on Kerala History: The Second Millennium. Kerala State Gazetteer Vol. II Part II. Ed. P. J. Cherian. Govt of Kerala, 1999: 456-485. 23
  8. Muliyil, Joseph. Sukumari. 1897. 2nd edn. Thiruvananthapuram: Chintha, 2013.
  9. Nair, Cheruvalath Chathu. Meenakshi. 1890. 2nd edn. Thiruvananthapuram:Chintha, 2013.
  10. Nedungadi, Appu. Kundalatha. 1887. 2nd edn. Thiruvananthapuram: Chintha, 2013.


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