They lived to tell the tale

This August is the centenary of events known as Mappila Lahalla in malayalam and Moplah Rebellion in British colonial records that took place in Malabar in 1921. To those who lived through the times surely they were momentous. Though there are academic histories of these events there are relatively few memoirs surviving. To get as close to one as I could I asked a 92-year old what she knew about them. As she was not born then, all that she knew had been passed on to her as a child by her elders. And this is what she heard. 

The narrator’s family lived in Valakulam village, in the Ernad region of the vast Malabar District of the sprawling Madras Presidency. They were landed gentry, leasing out to mostly Muslim tenants, called Mappilas in local parlance. Her father was the village adhikari, nominated by the colonial administration to collect land revenue, which was considered a hated imposition on India’s peasantry by the foreign rulers. The adhikari also doubled up as a mediator in petty disputes among villagers — this meant he was in regular and close contact with the people.

When the Moplah Revolt started, a group of Mappilas came to the narrator’s ancestral home late at night, asking to see the adhikari. He was only 25 years old but was already the kaaranavan, the oldest male member, of his thaivazhi, the matrilineal line of succession. The women of the household begged him not to go out to meet the crowd, but he did. Did he do this out of a sense of responsibility as the adhikari or to ensure his family’s safety? Whatever the reason, the encounter surprised him.

Addressing him as achcha, or father, the Mappilas told him that they had come to protect his family. He was asked to hand over his rifle. Whether they did so to leave him unarmed or to protect themselves we shall never know. For the next few days they parked themselves in the front of the house. Then, one day, they approached the family saying they have intelligence that a band of hostile Mappilas from outside their desam (area) was approaching and everyone must flee at once. The tenants escorted the family to a safehouse, the Kottakkal kovilakam or manor house, which was the eastern outpost of the samudiri, the erstwhile ruler of Malabar. The prescience of the Mappilas was remarkable, for when the family returned after peace was restored they found that an agricultural labourer who had been left behind had had his hand lopped off.

Then, there is the experience of the family the narrator later married into, who lived in Parappanangadi. The narrator’s father-in-law was a lawyer at the munsif court. It is unlikely that this family had the support of the local population, unlike what her own family had enjoyed. They too, however, took refuge in the Kottakkal kovilakkam. We have no idea of how they reached that place, which involved a journey of about 25 km. Travelling at snail’s pace in bullock carts, having to cross Tirurangadi town, where the first spark of the revolt had been ignited, they would have been sitting ducks for any attackers. Yet they survived, even prospered on their return. We have reasons to believe that they were assisted in their journey by the Mappilas themselves, for we are told that the narrator’s father-in-law later travelled to Madras to defend some of them charged with sedition by the colonial government. This could only have been a recompense for their role in saving his family.

Finally, there is the story of the narrator’s maternal great-grandmother, who lived in pious seclusion in a country estate near Kottakkal, with only a few retainers for support. As the situation grew tense, local Mappilas rallied around to ensure her safety. Unaware of the gravity of the situation, she is supposed to have told her interlocutors blithely, “Just take me to my son Gopalan”. There is no record of where she was finally taken, but the narrator is sure it was by pallak, a country palanquin! The old lady too lived to tell her tale. In the epicentre of an upheaval, these scattered members of a large family all survived. They were saved by the extraordinary empathy shown by their Mappila tenants.

 I must now disclose that the narrator is my mother, though this is not important. I was struck by how her elders saw their experience during the cataclysmic events of 1921. They told her a simple story in human terms, of the heroism of their mappila tenants, who risked their lives in saving them, and their pride in the courage of their kaaranavan. There is no rancour in this account nor a call for vendetta or a whitewashing of the oppressive landlordism of the time. On the other hand, my parent’s elders saw clearly that ultimately the upheaval that took place was a tragedy for all the people of their land. For the mappillas who rose against an oppressive agrarian system and fought bravely with crude weapons against a mighty empire, till they were finally crushed. Many of them died when the British Government of India transported the vanquished out of Malabar by rail in a goods wagon. For those innocent hindus who had nothing to do with the feudal order but yet underwent the trauma of having another faith imposed on them, and who would surely have been devastated when they were not accepted back into the fold by their onetime co-religionists. And, finally, for those who may have escaped the nightmare but had to see their places of worship desecrated, as in 1992 India’s muslims had to see Babri Masjid destroyed by a mob.  

Of the events that took place in Malabar in 1921, the stories I heard from my parent had in them humanity and a happy ending, but not all them do. We must accept all the stories, though, leaving out none for their inconvenience. Together, they remind us of a shared past and leave us better prepared for a common future.