The 500-odd Gujarati families that have called Kochi home for generations have been role models when it comes to integration into Kerala society. Like the Sikhs and Marwaris of the city, the Gujaratis possess bilingual Malayalam skills and have immensely enriched the cultural melting pot that is Kochi. Historical records indicate that people from Gujarat started settling on the Malabar Coast as early as the fourth century. They have enjoyed the role of intermediaries in the spice trade, and were at one time partly responsible for the pepper and cardamom from Kerala reaching the far corners of the globe.
While many Gujarati families managed to acquire immense wealth, few enterprising individuals managed to leave as great a mark on Kerala society as Devji Bhimji, a man who would play a major role in developing the publishing industry in the state. Very little is known about the man’s origins and about how he ended up in Kochi in the second half of the 19th century. In the 1850s a time when trade was booming in the city, Bhimji was a merchant of gold, silver and stationary goods. His business acumen and intuition probably told him that publishing a newspaper was going to be the next great business idea.
In 2021 it is so hard to visualise a Kerala without teashops full of men in mundus reading Malayalam newspapers and discussing local and international politics, but this is a tradition that is less than a century-and-half old. In 1847 an attempt was made to publish a periodical in the state. Named Rajyasamacharam, the paper was the brainchild of German scholar Hermann Gundert, the grandfather of Hermann Hesse. Three years and 42 issues later, the paper dedicated to religion shut down. The same year that Gundert started the religious paper, he founded Paschimodayam, which had a broader set of articles covering science, history and geography. This paper had regular subscribers and managed to stay in print for four years. This was followed by the publication of magazines that also met with relative but short-lived success.
Kerala’s first newspaper
In 1860, Bhimji got word of an Englishman in his 20s who moved to India as soon as he graduated from university. The business community in Kochi came to know of this young man looking to try his hand at newspaper publishing. Charles Lawson, who had no experience in the industry, decided to start Kerala’s first newspaper. The English-language newspaper that he named The Western Star was targeted at the miniscule British and missionary community that lived in the city. Bhimji was one of the paper’s main financial backers.
A few years later he also agreed to invest in the paper’s Malayalam edition, which was called Paschimataraka. Both these ventures ended up being successful, with the Malayalam edition staying in print until 1886.
Observing the success of these two newspapers, Bhimji decided to devote more of his time to publishing. In 1865 he decided to start his own printing press. Devji Bhimji started a printing press at Cochin in 1865 under the name of the Kerala Mithram Press, N Padmanabhan, who was a professor of history and later principal of the Cooperative Arts and Science College in Madayi, Kannur, wrote. “In running the press Devji Bhimji had to face heavy odds. There was the obvious disadvantage of embarking upon a hitherto uncharted course. But more discouraging was the unhelpful attitude of the authorities.”
The police wanted to see the contents of any publication before it went to print. Bhimji would, however, stand up to the police and approach higher authorities, only to have his establishment sealed.
Padmanabhan wrote, “Devji Bhimji was not daunted. He approached the Divan on at least six occasions for a redressal of his grievances. But the Divan was averse to rescinding the censorship orders.” It would take an appeal to Henry Neville, who was serving as the British Resident in Cochin, to get the sealing orders withdrawn.
On January 1, 1881, almost 16 years after Bhimji started his press, the Kerala Mithram newspaper was launched. The paper was a trendsetter in Kerala. Its first editor was 24-year old Kandathil Varghese Mappillai, who would go on to become the founder of Malayala Manorama. Bhimji’s paper would maintain very high standards. “There was a marked tilt in favour of featuring news,” Padmanabhan wrote. “Due weight was also given for language and literature, criticism and articles on general topics of public welfare.”
Historical accounts suggest that the paper had a successful run right till the turn of the 20th century. The paper was run by Bhimji’s adopted son after the businessman’s death in 1894. The brief period that Varghese Mappillai spent with Bhimji helped him gather the necessary experience to successfully launch one of India’s most respected newspapers.
It’s unfortunate that there is very little information about Bhimji in the public domain. His legacy is celebrated by Kochi’s Gujaratis but none of the members of the community who this writer spoke to had any idea about the man’s life beyond his feisty determination to become a newspaper publisher. An online search shows nothing, but an August, 2017, image of a crumbling old bungalow in Mattancherry with a sign that reads “Devaji Bhimji Trust.” A greater effort must be made to find out more about one of the pioneers of journalism in Kerala - the Gujarati merchant who was ahead of his time.
(The writer is the author of 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’ and 'A Week in the Life of Svitlana’)