The world into which Sankaran Namboodiripad arrived in 1909 was flooded with gods. There were important gods for men and less important gods for women, all stationed inside the house. There was a friendly goddess who lived above the portico, and a terrifying goddess restrained on the first floor of the outhouse. Their daily fare included “blown rice, then cooked rice and, in the end, milk porridge” and, now and then, the gods possessed an oracle to make their views heard. Even distant gods in faraway temples deserved acknowledgment—first everyone prostrated for all the grand gods; then they fell flat on the floor in the name of the household gods; and in case some god or other was accidentally omitted, a “compensatory prostration” followed to ward off divine wrath.
As a Brahmin man in Kerala, Sankaran could expect to live in near opulence. Cushioned by their deities, the Namboodiris “occupied the highest position among all other communities and castes, collected fabulous amounts as rent, enjoyed undisputed supremacy over the tillers of the soil, and maintained intimacy with the ruling monarchs”. There were processions of parasol-wielding servants but modernity meant that there was also a motorcar at Elamkulam Mana, Sankaran’s ancestral home. Every time it was used, though, a dip in the pond was warranted to wash away the ritual pollution that invariably accompanied Western inventions. Sankaran could also have acquired a series of wives—his father had two, and four of his sisters were married to men who were not single. One cousin had two ladies, and after the wedding of his daughters, this specimen proceeded to espouse a third.
It was the Moplah Rebellion of 1921 that changed everything—Sankaran’s family retreated from their rural cocoon to the sanctuary of an urbanizing locality, exposed for the first time to Western-educated crowds, children playing football, people sipping tea, and Brahmin men in English shirts (the first Brahmin woman to wear a blouse in Kerala was ostracized because, surely, only a harlot would feel an impulse to cover her breasts in a land where toplessness was uniform). “An ambition rose in my mind,” Sankaran later wrote, “that one day I should also go to school…and imbibe the modern refinements which were an adjunct of school education.” He did go and became a fine student, failing only in art. “But then, the marks of drawing were not counted in the final examination, and as such it did not worry me.”
School and college allowed Sankaran to involve himself in the reformation of his caste, initially through such curious articles as “French Revolution And The Namboodiri Community”. More seriously, he began to argue for the rights of Brahmin women. They, including his mother, were antharjanam (literally, indoor-people), the only women in Kerala who lived in purdah. Soon, in his own scattered way, he was protesting Bhagat Singh’s death sentence and championing Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement, and in 1932 he was arrested for the first time. To a Namboodiri, this meant irretrievable loss of status, but Sankaran, already written off as a rotten egg, was surveying other characteristics of the experience. Prison, he pithily wrote, “could compare well with…a hostel except that there was no freedom to go out of the jail compound”.
By the mid-1930s, Sankaran had veered towards the socialist camp within the Congress, and despite a stint with the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee and election to the Madras legislature, he wasn’t convinced by Gandhi—the Mahatma might achieve political freedom, but what about social liberation and freedom from the bondage of class? “The tortuous path which took me from the original moorings of the feudal family into which I was born, and from the old-fashioned education to modern education and the organized movement of social reform, and ultimately to nationalism with its leaning towards the left…at last culminated in my membership” of the Communist Party of India. The year was 1940, and Sankaran emerged as the E.M.S. Namboodiripad the world would remember.
His Brahmin heritage became a thing of the past—EMS began to work with Dalits, fishermen and labourers, becoming “the adopted son of the working class”. Romance aside, in 1947 he put his money where his mouth was, selling personal property to resurrect a party mouthpiece. Ten years later, after independence and a sustained political movement, he was sworn in as the first chief minister of Kerala, in 1957. Jawaharlal Nehru was not immediately alarmed at the prospect of a Commie in power, noting that EMS had, for all his stammering rhetoric, put on “the most proper and decorous constitutional clothing”. But behind it all, EMS’ intentions were fixed in red—it took one week for him to promulgate Kerala’s historic land reforms, arguably his most significant achievement.
Predictable opposition followed, and in the next two years, a law and order crisis overwhelmed Kerala—or was manufactured to justify the imposition in 1959 of President’s rule. “Everything looks yellow to a jaundiced eye,” EMS ruminated after the dismissal of his government, adding wryly: “It is not violation of ‘democracy’ and ‘free enterprise’ for the landlords to own several thousands of acres of land in the very village in which there are hundreds of families with no land at all…. But it is a violation of ‘democracy’ and ‘free enterprise’ if the Government enacts a law according to which these thousands of acres of land…are taken over and distributed among the landless.” He refused to be cowed, and 10 years later, during his second stint in power, land reform became a reality.
His fellow Brahmins were horrified—many of them were impoverished overnight. It was harsh and much went awry, but for masses of people, it was the correction of a historic wrong. The Namboodiris justified their grip over land in Kerala through the myth of Parasurama, an avatar of Vishnu, who is said to have reclaimed the coast from the seas and presented it to Brahmins for eternity. There was poetic justice that, centuries later, it was a Brahmin who handed land back to those who tilled it—those who evidently had no place in Parasurama’s scheme but were taught to view the Brahmin as “their royal liege and benefactor, their suzerain master, their household deity, their very God on earth”. To EMS himself, whose death anniversary Kerala observed last weekend, there was little irony in all this when life itself was one elaborate irony.
He was born in a household where the gods reigned, eating rice and milk. He ended it as a rationalist, with no gods for company and quite a different kind of menu. A journalist, following a meeting with Nehru, asked EMS what the prime minister had served for lunch. “Exactly what a good Kashmiri Brahmin should offer a good Namboodiri Brahmin from Kerala,” laughed the Commie—“fish, meat and chicken!”
Medium Rare is a weekly column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore.