Friday, June 07, 2013

The story of Runganadum, the Brahmin from Chittoor.

The first half of the nineteenth century saw thousands of Indian natives being drawn into western style of education. Quite a few schools and colleges had come up by 1840, and the Universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were established in the year 1857. Pursuing higher education required migrating to a city and involved expenses that few could afford. It required one to be convinced of the virtues of western education and to believe in its potential to provide more lucrative means of employment. One such person to make that leap was Runganadum who is described in the book, “ The domestic life, character and customs of the natives of India” by James Kerr, Principal of Hindu College , Calcutta who had earlier had a stint in Madras. This was written in 1865, but the event it describes, perhaps, happened 20 years before that. (I have edited it below to keep it short, but do read the full text by following the link.)

It may be said of the great mass of the natives that we only see them moving around us. With a few only do we become personally acquainted; and that with the outside of their character only, while we remain in a great measure strangers to their social and domestic life.

Of all the Hindoos with whom I have become acquainted in India, perhaps the most interesting is my friend Runganadum, a Brahmin, and a native of Chittoor about thirty miles from Madras. He was introduced to me by Mr. Casamajor, of the Madras Civil Service, a most benevolent and large-hearted man. Mr. Casamajor took a great interest in him, and had the highest opinion of his character and talents.

Runganadum's personal appearance was very much in his favour. He was, for a Hindoo, rather above the middle height, stout, and well made. His complexion differed but little from that of a European well bronzed by a tropical sun. His features were regular and even handsome, his eye bright with intelligence, his forehead one of the finest I have ever seen. The expression of his face was generally serious. He always wore the old Hindoo dress—a white cotton wrapper round his waist and hanging down to his ankles, and a fine muslin scarf thrown loosely over his shoulders.

I knew Runganadum intimately for several years. He read with me at my house, Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations," Locke's "Essay on the Understanding," and Paley's "Natural Theology."* I was astonished to find so little difference between his mind and that of an intelligent European. His mental powers were indeed equal to those of any European of the same age I have ever known, while his amiability, truthfulness and manly honesty were above all praise.

At what I may call our meetings for mutual improvement (for I was a gainer from these meetings as well as Runganadum), at which times the books I have mentioned were diligently read, we often engaged in general conversation after the more serious business of the evening was over. I remember having an interesting conversation with him one evening on the subject of the social condition of his countrymen. He seemed to be convinced that the backward state of his countrymen was mainly owing to a silly reverence for old customs, however absurd they might be. He sometimes spoke on this subject with much earnestness.

As a proof of Runganadum's liberality of mind, I may mention that he did not object to learn by heart, along with the other pupils of the grammar school, the church catechism, and even the creed. He thought it right to conform to the rules of the school. He read also along with the other pupils, Paley's " Evidences of Christianity," and when examined upon it he usually gave a fair and manly answer to all questions, expressing his own candid opinion with temper and modesty. Truly, in some things, this heathen scholar was an example to Christians, such was his liberality of mind, his truthfulness, and humility.

Notwithstanding all his liberality and candour, I never saw much reason to hope that he would renounce Hindooism and become a Christian.* He was well acquainted with the evidences of Christianity, as mere arguments addressed to the understanding, and his mind was in a remarkable degree free from prejudices and open to conviction. Still, he did not evince any decided disposition to change his religion. I can never forget his modest seriousness one day when I spoke to him on the subject. On asking him whether, now that he had read Paley's Evidences, he did not believe in the truth of Christianity, he held down his head in a meek, submissive manner for some moments, and said nothing. His regard for truth would not let him say with his lips what he did not believe in his heart, and he held down his head and said nothing. After some silence, he looked up with rather a sly smile.

The following is an extract from one of his letters, written while a student at the grammar school "I was, during the whole of last week, engaged at the rate of two or three hours a day, in writing an essay on Female Education. It is rather too long. It consists of twenty-eight pages. During the time that I was writing the essay, I was led to consider when would my countrymen learn to see education in its true light, and appreciate it for its own sake, and not pursue it with the unworthy motive of making it a tool for procuring money. I clearly see that the greatest of all benefits that either a European or a native can do for the good of this country, is to disseminate the happy seeds of education. I think it unlikely that the natives will be inclined to enlighten their females by educating them, unless the men themselves are first well educated. In all the civilized countries of Europe, the education of the females was subsequent to that of the males. Hence in this country, too, the education of the males should precede that of the females."

The following letter, which I received from him when absent from Madras, on a visit to his friends at Chittoor, will give some further insight into his character.

"With sincere respect I beg leave to address you the following letter. I am detained here longer than I expected. I am extremely reluctant to stay here, and am anxiously looking forward to my return to Madras, and hope to reach it soon. I am now very fond of algebra. I worked all the problems of quadratic equations in Hutton's Mathematics, with the exception of five, which I find too difficult for me to solve. My esteemed friend, Mr. H. Groves, has lent me his algebra by Euler, and I have worked several questions in it. These questions I have copied in my book of exercises. I am now so far reconciled to the study of the book, that when I meet with a difficult question, instead of laying it aside, as I used to, I sit down with patience and try for an hour or two the right method of working it. I have revised the Sixth Book of Euclid, and I see practically that there is more advantage to be gained in reading the same book often, than in reading several books once.

"The friend of mine whom you saw some months ago in Mylapoor, is now reading with me Smith's Wealth of Nations. By assisting him in that book I derive some benefit, which is this :—When I read a book, I understand the meaning of it, but then I find it difficult to express the ideas of the writer in my language. Now, in reading it with my friend, I am put to the necessity of explaining it to him; which I cannot do to his satisfaction, unless I study the subject myself and think properly before I speak.

The interest which I take in Runganadum, and which I trust may be shared by some others, induces me to say a few words more about him. In 1845, being at that time in Calcutta, I received the following letter from him, written from Chittoor.

“I am extremely happy to communicate to you a piece of news, that it will no doubt give you great pleasure to learn. I am now the chief interpreter of the Supreme Court at Madras—a promotion from the post of a head writer in a court in the provinces, to what is considered the most respectable situation in the Presidency that a native can aspire to. The change has been brought about in a way the most honourable to myself and just and impartial to the community. On the vacation of this post, which happened two months ago, the judges were determined to exercise their patronage in a way calculated to insure and promote the interests of the people—i. e. by offering the situation to the best scholar and the most efficient interpreter they could select by public examination.

The moment I learnt that this post was thrown open for competition, I sent in my application, and offered to stand a trial in Teloogoo, Tamul, Mahratta, Canarese, Hindustanee, Persian, Sanscrit, and English. Some of my European benefactors and teachers were pleased to give me the most favourable testimonials I could expect with respect to my qualifications and character. When the trial came on, it so happened—thanks to Heaven! that my superiority was perfectly decisive; and last Friday I was nominated to the post of chief interpreter. I am now perfectly content, so far as my income is concerned, which, I believe, is close upon Rs. 500 a month; and my present ambition is to prosecute my studies in English literature and the vernacular languages, and to set a good example to my countrymen. I write this in haste, that you may enjoy the news of the good fortune of your ever grateful pupil, Runganadum

It was of Runganadum that Mr. Norton, formerly President of the Madras University, thus spoke, when examined before the parliamentary committee of 1853 :—" He is a young man of very powerful mind, and would have been a distinguished man at either of our universities. He is as remarkable for the strength and powers of his mind in mature life, as I should say almost any European."


Vaidy said...

You are on a roll Raj - multiple posts in just a few days!

I have saved your earlier book reference about the "cunning" natives and I intend reading more passages over the weekend. This book extract too looks interesting. I am amazed that so many of the English took the time to jot down their thoughts & experiences. I suppose in the 18th & 19th centuries, other than occassional social events, reading & writing were the only outlets for them! Thanks to you for digging into such books, for folks like me. :)

Raj said...

Vaidy, this extract is from the same book.

Yes, the British loved to keep notes and write. And those records have survived, and are accessible to us thanks to Google Books !

Thanks for your constant words of encouragement.

Shruthi said...

This extract is interesting on so many levels! The condescension is really remarkable, isn't it?

Raj said...

Shruthi, thanks. I thought the tone was more admiring than condescending. Europeans had had the advantage of formal education for many decades and the performance of a native ( a first-generation student) must have evoked genuine surprise

Shruthi said...

"He is as remarkable for the strength and powers of his mind in mature life, as I should say almost any European."

To me, this sounds as if he thinks it is surprising that this "native" is almost as good as a European in the powers of his mind. Yes, many "natives" didn't have the benefit of education, but didn't the Europeans have the ability to recognize sharpness of the mind in matters that didn't concern education? Or perhaps they didn't have any contact or connection with uneducated but smart "natives."

My question is - yes, Ranganadum is smart, and worthy of admiration. But why the surprise that he is nearly as good as a European?

Am I reading something in this thatI shouldn't be? :)

Vaidy said...

Shruthi, I agree with Raj. I don't see it as condescension. The author's surprise is primarily because that was his reference point - other Caucasian Europeans like him, that's all.


Shruthi said...

Hmm.. I see!

Raj said...

Shruthi, I feel this was said only in the context of 'education', and wasn't meant as a comment on the native's general intelligence level. The admiration was for the native's ability to excel in European subjects without the benefit of a formal education, or passed-down learning from earlier generations. So, I'll be more charitable to the Brit :)