Ring-bound legacy

The Eighth Ring — An Autobiography by K M Mathew, Published by Penguin-Viking, New Delhi, Price Rs 699/-, pages 391.

By H K Dua :  The Eighth Ring is not just the life-story of Mr K M Mathew — it is much more. It is the story of birth, and rebirth, of Malayalam Manorama, one of the best papers of modern India; of the last days of the Travancore State, of Kerala in all its hues; and of Malayalam Manorama’s symbiotic relationship with its people. They seem to be made for each other.

Kerala and the people, their hopes and despair ooze out of K M Mathew’s autobiography as also of the pages of Malayalam Manorama. Across this fairly detailed personal story, there also runs the story of his family, his father, fondly called Appachen, and mother Ammachi, and of the well-knit clan which came to grow around the beautiful backwaters of Kerala. From the small beginning the family came to set up a major bank, an insurance giant of company with its wings spread across the country, plantations and rubber industry beginning with making rubber balloons in Bombay leading to the making of MRF tyres. It was an early instance of a Make-in-India mission.

The dearest child of the family was Malayalam Manorama which began its long journey with just six pages, printed on a handset press, with no idea of lay-out of design, but equipped with the desire to play a role in the social and political growth of the people of Travancore and after its merger with the state of Kerala. The founder, grandfather — Kandathil Verghese Mappillai ( KM Mathew’s grandfather) established the paper way back in 1888, around the time Indian National Congress was born.) Little did he knew then that the seed he was sowing would become a major force in Kerala one day, and also emerge in his grandson’s time as one of the most important newspapers of not only Kerala but of the country.

Newspapers grow at appropriate time on congenial soil and in a favourable social and political millieu. Kerala was going through vast social and economic changes in the 19th and the early 20th centuries. Education was spreading in many parts of the country, but the people of Kerala took to it like the delicious Karimeen fish in its backwaters.

Kerala was to lead the nation by leagues, particularly in women’s education. Social churning was going on. There were agitations over Vaikom temple being thrown open to lower castes. Narayan Guru, one of the greatest sons of Kerala, was campaigning for ending untouchbility. The freedom struggle had also crept into Kerala. It came naturally for Malayalam Manorama to support the social, political education movements and campaign for abolishing untouchbility in Kerala’s cast-ridden society. History was taking turn for the better in Kerala and Malayalam Manorama was on the right side of history.

Not all was going honky-dory for Malayalam Manorama and the family. As the family business grew, its bank, its insurance company and other businesses grew, at a time when Malayalam Manorama had over the years became a powerful presence in Travancore. Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer happened to be its Dewan. CP wanted to emerge as a powerful figure in the State of Travancore and had come to acquire enormous power. The wealth of the family coupled with popularity of Malayalam Manorama was blocking CP’s designs for grabbing more power. K M Mathew’s father, Appachen who had taken over as Chief Editor would not bend before CP’s authoritarian ambitions.

K M Mathew’s book is full of gratitude for most people, big and small for little things they did for the family and Malayalam Manorma. Only one person earns the title “villain” in K M Mathew’s story –- Sir, C P Ramaswamy Iyer. Mathew has described in details how C P was given to megalomania, and how he tried to crush the paper and the family’s business empire.

C P chose to launch a severe attack on the paper and the businesses which backedd its growing clout. Through intrigue, unsavoury moves and enormous power at his command he brought about the collapse of the bank, forced change in ownership of its insurance business. The worst blow was Appachen’s arrest and the imposition of censorship and the closing of the paper, all to satisfy CP’s sadistic pleasure. In a way Malayalam Manorama was to experience Emergency, before the country was to taste much later in 1975.

Appachen who had emerged as a maor figure on Kerala’s socio, political landscape was put behind the bars like an ordinary criminal. Malayalam Manorama closed, and with wealth gone, the family was in ruins. K M Mathew says it was not only his father in prison, so was Malayalam Manorama. In jail for nine long years K M Mathew’s own education was interrupted as the shocking news came to him at Tambaram railway station that his father had been arrested. The comfortable world around the happy-go-lucky young man had collapsed.

Appachan and Malayalam Manorma’s troubles lasted nine long years and ended about three months after India became free and the paper had gone through a sort of baptism of fire.

It turned out to be K M Mathew’s responsibility to lead the paper and make it a major daily. Speaking not only for Kerala, but also for the country. K M Mathew’s success lay in his vision and capacity to build brick-by-brick by encouraging team work and being ahead of other papers in using modern technology. His basic plus point remained in the bonds he had with the people of Kerala, and with a forward-looking approach on national issues. No wonder, when he passed away five years ago, millions turned up at his funeral. They thought it was their personal loss.

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H K Dua has been Editor of several National Dailies, Ambassador, Media Advisor to PM, and a nominated Member of Parliament. He has recently joined ORF, a prominent New Delhi think tank.

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