A Personal History of South India

An eclectic account of the complex history of south India, where centuries move back and forth.

Thiruvalluvar statue at Kanya Kumari, Tamil Nadu, India.
Thiruvalluvar statue at Kanya Kumari, Tamil Nadu, India.

The history of India is notoriously hard to define. ‘Quicksand in every direction. Dates and figures never certain. Here the centuries move back and forth as months do elsewhere’, notes Roberto Calasso in Ardor, his recent book about the earliest Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, aptly quoted by Charles Allen in Coromandel: A Personal History of South India.

For example, the date of the Vedas’ composition lies somewhere between 1500 and 500 BC; the Buddha’s death date varies between 483 and 400 BC; and even the Taj Mahal’s completion date is uncertain. Less familiar, perhaps, is Thiruvalluvar, discussed at length by Allen. This poet and philosopher from Tamil Nadu was born of a Brahmin father and an outcaste ‘pariah’ mother and is thereby a symbol of low caste rebellion against high caste oppression. His massive standing statue confronts visitors to Kanya Kumari (Cape Comorin), India’s southern tip. He also appears in London, bearded and seated cross-legged on the lawn outside the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies. When did Thiruvalluvar live? Somewhere between the second century BC and the eighth century AD! Indeed, ‘some question if he ever lived, and perhaps it doesn’t matter’, notes Allen, provocatively.

Indian historical uncertainty has affected the title and subtitle of Allen’s original, if quirky, book: the latest of his nearly two dozen books on India, both ancient and modern, but the first to focus on south India.

‘Coromandel’ was the European colonial name for just the south-east coast of India down to Kanya Kumari; it appeared on Portuguese maps at the beginning of the 16th century. Allen chooses it to stand for all of south India – including of course the south-west Malabar coast, ‘chiefly for sentimental reasons’, because as a teenager, born in colonial India, he liked an adventure novel, Coromandel!, by John Masters. As for ‘South India’, the book’s definition includes anywhere south of the River Narmada, which flows through the modern Indian states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, rather than the more limited, but widely accepted, geographical area covered by Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telengana. Fair enough, maybe, on traditional grounds. However ‘South India’ rarely, if ever, includes the town of Puri on India’s east coast, site of the Jagannath Temple, to which the book devotes a whole chapter, ‘Juggernaut’.

Maybe this eclecticism can be excused on ‘personal’ grounds (as suggested in the subtitle), especially given Allen’s track record as a writer and historian. Undoubtedly, his Indophilia illuminates the best passages of Coromandel, many of which relate to the British Raj’s revelation of India’s history, explored by him in earlier books such as The Buddha and the Sahibs. Allen rightly reveres colonial scholars, such as Sir William Jones and General Alexander Cunningham. Yet: ‘For all the good intentions of men like my father – and there were plenty of them on the ground – British imperialism was very good for Britain but very bad for India, even if it was never the vast satanic mill that some make it out to have been.’ He also notes, in his concluding paragraphs:

In all my travels across India, now extending over seventy-seven years, I have never once been assaulted, or robbed or even been verbally abused. Official indifference, yes, when it comes to banks and getting permits, but in every circumstance I have always been met with … India’s proverbial and fully deserved tradition of hospitality.

How surprising, then, that Coromandel omits the south Indian writer, R.K. Narayan (1906-2001), who epitomises values Allen admires. Creator of Malgudi (based on Mysore) and translator of the epics The Mahabharata and Ramayana, Narayan is widely considered to be India’s greatest fiction writer in English: something of a modern equivalent of Thiruvalluvar.

Coromandel: A Personal History of South India
Charles Allen
Little, Brown 432pp £25

Andrew Robinson is the author of India: A Short History (Thames & Hudson, 2014).

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