The late K.M Mathew, describes in his autobiography, the famous Mammen Mappillai family, founders of the Malayala Manorama in Kerala. Written at the age of 90 years, Mathew wanders through a labyrinth, with the help of his mother’s ring, symbolising love and integrity, left to him by his father, who had melted down his wife’s ornaments and had a ring soldered for each of his children. So, K M Mathew calls his memoir, “Ettam Modram” or “The Eighth Ring”, (Penguin Viking 2015) as he was the eighth child.
The book takes on the analogy of the Ancient Mariner, with the parallel of the sea farer who tells a tale, but we remain transfixed as readers as the author writes about the travails of the family which go through unusual situations of wealth and poverty. It is as much a history of Kerala, told from the point of view of dominant caste politics, as well as their relationships with their friends and those who served them. One of the chapters is devoted totally to the collusion politics of C.P Ramawami Aiyar against the St Thomas Christians and the Mammen Mapillai family in particular. Participation in the Freedom Movement by the author’s father, , eight years in prison and then to return broken hearted to the bedraggled circumstances of their lost fortunes is told with intimate detail. The banks that Mammen Mappilai owned were shut down, the newspaper closed, and the family had to restart it’s ventures.
“Appachen could not bear the disappointment when the establishment that he had nurtured with his dreams and hard work, and that had grown to become the biggest insurance company in India, changed hands. It had flourished better than our bank. I sometimes think that even if it had not crashed, both the bank and the insurance company would anyway have been nationalised later, in 1969. The insurance company that Chaidambaram Chettiar took over from us became a part of the Life Insurance Corporation of India, the LIC, when all the insurance companies in the country were nationalised.” (128)
Failure was not an embarrassment to the Mammen Mappillai family. The women kept cows and sold the milk to support the family. They all lived together, when circumstances forced them to, shifting out to their own homes when their economic condition improved. Their lovely home at Kuppapuram, near Allapuzha town became their icon, in the days when several members of the family were shunting around in small houses in Presidency towns, while finding new trades. The balloon factory became their first successful business during the second world war, with it’s market in Bombay, where one of the brothers lived and traded. The factory itself was in one of their tea plantations, in Kerrikunda in Chikmagalur District. The smell of latex killed off one of their brothers, K.M. Jacob or Chacko, who had resisted the appearance of the factory next to his well maintained colonial bungalow, in the tea estate. However, the profit motive and the good of the family as a cluster, was seen to be sufficient reason to establish the factory, in spite of the resistance of the brother who had inherited the family gene for bad lungs.
How the balloon factory led the way to the Madras Rubber Factory is an enthralling story. The Manorama Family keeps its rural sensibility, and overthrows a multinational company, using their wit, loyalty of workers, and adherence to norms. Tragedy overtakes them many times, but they just pick themselves up and start again. Among his father’s papers Mathew finds a note to the children about losses incurred while building an empire. These include the failure of a chit fund, which is a type of local banking; a lemon grass producing oil unit; a wholesale business in Kottayam; a coir processing unit; losses incurred in the Kottanad, Tamarasserry, and Nilambur estates; ship purchased and losses incurred; a cigarette factory; a tile factory; losses in land purchased in Punalur, Chengars, Pullikkanam. (199) Ofcourse these losses were nothing to the closing down of the bank, insurance company and newspaper, during the time when C.P ruled Kerala in the name of the regent.
The women K.M. Mathew writes about dominate the narrative. His mother always hired a house in Alleppey, to have her babies, since she didn’t want to give birth in Kuppappuram which flooded regularly. His sisters in law are marked by their grit and effeciency. As for romantic love, K.M. Mathew suggests that he never had cause to think about women before his marriage, because it was not the custom. His love for his wife, Annamma is a palpable and grateful love which was immortalised through a biography of the same name, which I look forward to reading. Docility and authority were the two virtues women were meant to have, apparently.