Satyamurthi’s correspondence – a treasure trove of vistas on the freedom struggle

Posted: March 6, 2015 in Uncategorized
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Satyamurthiyin Kadithangal – Paagam 1, 2 ; Oru Desabhaktharin Paarvaiyil Sudhandhira Poaraatta Varalaaru – Vikadan Prasuram : Thoguppu K. V. Ramanathan, Thamizhil – Charukesi

 Satyamurthi book wrapper Charukesi

In our neighbourhood of Abhiramapuram in Chennai, Charukesi is a spare and wizened figure who can be seen flitting across the streets at a speed phenomenal for his age, perhaps dashing off to a cutcheri venue or to some appointment occasioned by one of his public spirited works like keeping alive the memory of the late and lamented Devan. I have known him as a journalist ever on the move contributing to an array of popular magazines and newspapers.  He wields a bright and forceful pen in Tamil but is forthright in expressing himself without frills in English too.

Sometimes he has time only for a suggestion of a greeting while passing me along the street, but a few weeks ago we buttonholed each other and exchanged notes on our respective writing careers.  It was then that I heard more of Charukesi’s contribution, significant I should say, in translating the letters of the freedom fighter and pioneering parliamentarian S. Satyamurthi. I decided to learn more about it and paid a visit to Charukesi’s quiet apartment  one languid afternoon.

Charukesi’s translation is of a two-volume anthology titled ‘The Satyamurthi Letters’, selected and put together by K.V. Ramanathan, former bureaucrat who was my Resident Editor in Indian Express’s Madras edition for a few years in the eighties. There are about 400 letters written and received by Satyamurthi spanning a time frame between 1908-1942, momentous years in the history of India. It also has articles and open letters he wrote in periodicals and the texts of speeches he made in public forums.  To present all this in Tamil that is as lucid as clear flowing water is a tough task. Charukesi has been up to it and in this has rendered real service to Tamil readers.

I gather from Charukesi that Satyamurthi was an inveterate letter writer who also insisted in getting replies for his missives. Translating many of the letters Satyamurthi fired to British administrators, Charukesi is astounded by the patriotism, eloquence and logical thinking of Satyamurthi and adds jocularly, ‘‘I began to feel that the British left just to spare themselves the trouble of replying to the iron-clad arguments advanced by Satyamurthi!’’ Satyamurthi had been a lawyer before he took to full time politics, and the clear thinking and logical reasoning that he brought to his patriotic fervour made him a formidable crusader for his fellowmen and a great communicator on their behalf, a real ‘Dheerar’ in the service of the country.

The letters and responses to them give us an idea of the tempestuous times. For those with an intimate knowledge of the crisscrossing political forces working out in the Independence movement, they would provide added vistas.

The personal equations, rivalries and differences of opinion among leaders of the movement come to the fore too. For example, Sarat Chandra Bose,  Subash Bose’s elder brother mentions his differences with Dr. B. C. Roy in his letter to Satyamurthi, finding fault with Dr. Roy for being  closely allied with some people who were responsible for the undoing of ‘many honourable Bengali families’.  (Page 188, Volume 1). After India’s Independence, Sarat Bose, who led his brother Subash’s Forward Bloc and formed the Socialist Republican Party, advocating a socialist system for Bengal and India,  died in 1950 in Calcutta while B.C.Roy went on to become West Bengal’s second Chief Minister and remained in power for a record 14 years until his death in 1962.

Another poignant letter received by Satyamurthi, is that of ‘Deshbandhu’ Chitharanjan  Das. The latter was a founder of the Swarajist party that advocated going to the legislatures to break the British from within, and Satyamurthi was its prominent leader in the Madras Presidency. In his letter to Satyamurthi dated April 19, 1925, the fellow Swarajist openly speaks of his bad health and confesses that he cannot take any more setbacks. This from a man who had given up all luxury – at one time his clothes were tailored and washed in Paris and he maintained a permanent laundry in Paris to ship  his clothes to Calcutta – and  made great sacrifices for the nation. He ends his letter with the tearful parting, ‘‘My dear friend Satyamurthy, I am shattered. My services have come to an end. Somebody keeps calling me from afar. I now want to give up all agitations and strivings and seek solitude alone. Must I not give up at least my last years to God’’.  In the event, C.R. Das survives only for two more months. One can only imagine Satyamurthi’s deep distress and agony at the passing of such a great friend and patriot under tragic circumstances.

The book is of course rife with letters from and to C. Rajagopalachari, Satyamurthy’s arch rival in the politics of the Congress in the Madras Presidency. We have Rajagopalachari berating Satyamurthi about a Congress resolution that called for total prohibition in 20 years.  ‘‘This depresses me a lot. I think you must not have agreed to this. It is not right of you to have accepted this. It will be misunderstood. Things will go awry. Please get this reversed’’. The tone is gratingly critical. In our conversation, Charukesi too wonders about the Rajaji-Satyamurthy relationship. There seems to have been something that didn’t jell, some point that rankled, but it’s difficult to see what exactly it was! Not that the elder leader is all the time unsparing when it comes to the younger….In another response to Satyamurthi, Rajagopalachari admits to having hurt him with sharp criticism and apologises for it.

In another letter, we have Mahatma Gandhi pulling up Satyamurthy publicly and in a letter to him, for unpatriotic behavior during the conduct of the All India Congress Committee Meeting. In his reply, while being extremely respectful to the Mahatma,  Satyamurthy begs to differ from him. After mulling over the incidents mentioned by Gandhiji, Satyamurthy says that his actions were impelled by patriotism and were absolutely necessary! He goes on to accuse the Mahatma himself, saying that the actions of removing M. S. Iyengar and Subash Chandra Bose from the CWC were unpatriotic and against national interest! This amounts to respectfully showing the Mahatma his place! While crossing swords with the Mahatma, Satyamurthi expresses the belief that perhaps they can continue to be friends even while differing politically. This is the extent Satyamurthi could go to fearlessly express his dissent without being openly inimical.

 These letters and articles are a mine-house of historical material seen through the prism of the letters and writings of one of the greatest freedom fighters of Tamil Nadu.  Though beset by numerous ailments and more numerous incarcerations and political setbacks, Satyamurthi plodded on in the cause of his country, as his correspondence reveals. Like the Poondi reservoir that he planned as a water source for Madras city during his tenure as Mayor – though he did not live to see its commissioning in 1944 – his life and letters will continue to be a source of great inspiration for generations to come. Both K. V. Ramanathan who collected the letters and Charukesi who has given us a readable version in Tamil – a language that Satyamurthi himself loved – deserve our kudos for their efforts. Ananda Vikatan has added one more feather to its cap with this Tamil version of Satyamurthi’s correspondence.  Students need to be introduced to these letters with a clear explanation of the contexts in which they were written. That way we will sow the seeds of patriotism in young minds.


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