Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVIII No. 14, November 1-15, 2018

From India’s Digital Archives

- Karthik Bhatt

The Digital Library of India (DLI) project, an initiative of the Central Government, aims at digitising significant artistic, literary and scientific works and making them available over the Internet for education and research. Begun in 2000 by the Office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India and later taken over by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, it has to date scanned nearly 5.5 lakh books, predominantly in Indian languages.

This month’s book is Revived Memories by K. Subba Rao (Ganesh and Co. 1933). It is credited with being one of the earliest autobiographies of an Indian journalist. Starting his career as an educationist, Subba Rao later joined The Hindu and was also involved with the Indian Social Reformer as its Joint Editor. He then shifted to government administration by joining the Mysore Services. The book is a fascinating account of his life and interactions with several notable personalities of his times.

Subba Rao was born in Tanjore in the 1860s. His father, Krishna Rao, held several positions in the Government, starting as a Munshi in the Deputy Collector’s Office in Tanjore and rising to become Sub-Magistrate of Vedaranyam. The family was originally from Coimbatore. In 1876, Subba Rao joined the Government College in Kumbakonam, then considered as the Cambridge of South India. He was, however, forced to discontinue his education following financial constraints in the family thanks to his father being relegated to the position of a Taluk Sheristedar on the insistence of a rather unscrupulous Collector, H.S. Thomas.

Subba Rao notes that it was around this time that demand was being felt for the opening of Native High Schools across Southern India following the success of the one in Kumbakonam. On receiving several representations from his friends in Coimbatore, he moved there and started the Coimbatore Native High School in 1882. The school grew against all odds (including obstacles in obtaining recognition, primarily as the teachers, though dedicated, had not passed through the Training College), producing excellent results in a short span of time. Following its success, a similar school was established in Erode. While at Coimbatore, Subba Rao also started nurturing an interest he had long harboured, that of becoming a journalist. He started to contribute letters to The Hindu and after several rejections became regularly accepted.

Subba Rao moved to Madras in 1886 in search of a job that would earn him a steadier income that would help the family finances, which had further plummeted following his father’s summary dismissal from the services along with 18 others on the recommendations of the Board of Revenue for the Tanjore Remissions inquiry. He joined the offices of The Hindu following an interview with G.  Subramania Aiyer, its founder and Editor who had been in occasional correspondence with him and was posted as its Madurai Correspondent. He arrived in Madurai just as the Government was in the midst of active damage control following its defeat in the famous Garstin Dacoity Case which had resulted in the acquittal of the Zamindar of Bodinayakanur, who had been named as chief accused. Subba Rao’s work as an investigative reporter reporting on the confidential enquiry commission found acclaim with his employers and thus began a nearly decade long association.

Subba Rao was an active member of the Social Reform movement. In the book, he narrates three incidents of widow remarriage that he was closely involved with (the first one being that of G. Subramania Aiyer’s daughter) in the face of heavy social opposition. Along with a few others, he founded the Indian Social Reformer, a weekly devoted to moral and social reforms, and subsequently the Madras Social Reform Association.

After eight years with The Hindu, Subba Rao quit to join the Mysore Services. The shift in the profession came about thanks to, in his own words “a dismal financial horizon”. G. Subramania Aiyer was, however, not too keen to let him go and even left the door open for his return until the time the Mysore Services had confirmed his appointment. There was, however, no looking back, but the association with The Hindu was renewed when, in 1924, he wrote a series of articles documenting his life and association with several public personalities, which form the basis for this book.

The book is a valuable documentation of public life and several notable incidents of the late 19th and early 20th century in the Madras Presidency. The short biographical accounts of the various people Subba Rao was in close contact with, such as Sir T. Muthuswami Iyer, G. Subramania Aiyer, Sir K. Seshadri Iyer (Dewan of Mysore), and Srinivasa Raghava Iyengar (Dewan of Baroda) do justice to the remarkable personalities they were, without coming across as being hagiographical.

In his Foreword to the book, the Rt Hon’ble V.S. Srinivasa Sastri commends the book as being a “good specimen of its class” and makes a special mention of how Subba Rao has steered clear of making ugly disclosures and destroying reputations. A fine line of humour throughout the narrative adds value to this must-read book.

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