Journeys of discovery
Researching their ancestors, a Briton and an Indian rediscover links long forgotten.
Photo: Vipin Chandran
Shared past: Nicholas Balmer and Prema Jayakumar.
IT was a story of an extraordinary comradeship. The relation that existed between Thomas Hervey Baber, sub-collector of Tellichery in 1805 and his deputy, Kalpally Karunakara Menon, defied the norms of the period. But sadly, no one thought of documenting it. Their successors are trying to do that, in their own ways.
When Prema Jayakumar, one of the leading translators in Malayalam, started working on Kalpally Karunakara Menon, it was just an attempt to record the story of her ancestor for family members to read. Around the same time, Nicholas Balmer, an English civil engineer, inherited a "trunk full of letters" from a distant ancestor.
Little did they know then that these two names were deeply embossed in the land's history. Thomas Hervey Baber, who was Mr. Balmer's great grandfather, and his deputy, Kalpally Karunakara Menon, led the team that captured Pazhassi Raja.
Both of them realised that the stories they had at hand were too big to restrict to family histories and started working on separate books. At an advanced stage of research they came to know about each other through a common friend. After a couple of years' communication through emails, they met for the first time at Kochi this December.
"We were told about our ancestor as the hero of a rather romantic story, a child who ran away from home in his teens and rose in life using his talent. But all these were wrong. I now have his will with me," said Ms. Jayakumar.
At the other end, Mr. Balmer also has a different experience. "When I started reading the letters and the history of dealing with people from different communities, I felt that I could understand it. Because I had 250 Indians and Pakistanis working for me in the Gulf. When I used to listen to my workmen, I realised what my ancestor might have been through."
The lives of Thomas H. Baber and Kalpally Karunakara Menon crossed each other's with the former's arrival as an official of English East India Company. Baber was the Sub-Collector of Tellichery when Pazhassi Raja was killed.
"Menon was often the trouble-shooter for Baber," said Ms. Jayakumar. "And he was recalled many times for specific assignments, even after he retired from service following Pazhassi Raja's death. Once he was sent to Coorg (to negotiate with the Raja of Coorg for avoiding a war) and to Pune on another occasion to negotiate release of five persons kidnapped by a local ruler."
Both Mr. Balmer and Ms. Jayakumar are now in possession of loads of research material. Their meeting was also a chance to exchange them. One of them being a memoir by Colonel James Welsh, who came to Malabar to deal with the insurgency that broke out in Wayanad. Col. Welsh had Karunakara Menon as his guide, as recommended by Baber.
The memoir reproduces a drawing of Karunakara Menon's residence at Ramanattukara. "This banyan tree, shown here, fell the day my uncle was born," said Ms. Jayakumar, with an unmistakable joy in her voice. She then showed Mr. Balmer a black and white family photograph that had her uncle as a young man.
When he Balmer started out, Baber was just the man who tracked down Pazhassi Raja. Or that was what he could get from the Internet. But, letters and documents that Mr. Balmer inherited paint another picture of his ancestor. "He campaigned against slavery. He was an outsider with the English community here."
Balmer has collected archival material, which includes an extract, as preserved in the Malabar Manual, from the complete report that Thomas Baber filed to the Collector of Malabar on December 31, 1805, where he gave a detailed account of Pazhassi Raja's last battle. The report narrates how the body of the fallen king was carried in the palanquin of Baber and his ailing lady in the palanquin of Baber's captain. The king was given a proper funeral, despite English hostility. Baber wrote: "I was induced to this conduct from the consideration that although a rebel, he (Pazhassi Raja) was one of the natural chieftains of the country, and might be considered on that account rather as a fallen enemy."
While Balmer tried to reconstruct the story of Baber's life from his "often-hurriedly written letters" and ledger entries made by East India Company clerks, Ms. Jayakumar had to cross-check the veracity of stories handed over from one generation to another within the family. Balmer, who is touring the State along with his son, wants to get "the Indian perspective of history", to complete his book. His tour programme also included hunting for the unmarked tomb of Baber and his wife at a church somewhere in Thalassery.
After retiring from the East India Company, Baber returned to London. But the lure of Malabar was too much for the Englishman and he soon returned. "There are no accounts whether Baber met Karunakara Menon on his return. But it is believed that they died almost during the same period," Ms. Jayakumar said. The story was not destined to end there. And so, the tale of friendship resumed after six generations.
© Copyright 2000 - 2006 The Hindu
Date:07/01/2007 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/mag/2007/01/07/stories/2007010700160400.htm Magazine
Copyright Nick Balmer, 5th January 2007.