Column | How an early 20th-century Malayali student in Ohio became famous

Ohio Wesleyan University campus. Photo: Facebook/OhioWesleyanUniversity

It’s impossible to know if Devasahayam, a young Malayali student who was enrolled in a law programme at the Ohio Wesleyan University in 1908, was seeking to be a “nine days’ wonder” or to have “15 minutes of fame.” The young man, who hailed from the princely state of Travancore, was one of the first Malayalis to go to the United States (US) for higher education and managed to get several mentions in American papers for a variety of reasons, some comical.

An incident in the spring of 1908 would propel him into the limelight in a country where an Indian (then called Hindoos) was a rarity.

On the afternoon of March 24, 1908, Devasahayam entered the US Senate and decided to take the gallery seat that was reserved for the vice president of the country. It isn’t clear whether he was guided to that particular seat or he chose it himself. One hundred and fifteen years later, imagine the anger if a visible foreigner entered the Indian Parliament and sat in a place that was reserved for a cabinet minister! But Washington DC in 1908 seemed to be a more relaxed place than contemporary Delhi and media reports of the incident suggest that American Senators laughed it off.

Duke of Abruzzo
When the Senators noticed that the seat reserved for US Vice-President Charles Fairbanks was occupied by a man wearing a red turban, they assumed that the visitor in question was the Duke of the Italian region of Abruzzo. Of course, at that time, almost no American would have been able to identify someone as a ‘Hindoo,’ unless he or she was dressed in traditional Indian clothes. But even Devasahayam’s “reddish turban” and “cloak lined with crimson” did not give him away.

“Word was passed around the floor of the Senate that the Duke of the Abruzzi, who, it is reported, is to marry the daughter of Senator Elkins of West Virginia, sat in Mr Fairbanks’ reservation,” the Natchez Democrat, a Mississippi newspaper wrote in its April 12, 1908, edition. The report, which was based on a wire copy, identified Devasahayam as a “graduate of the Ohio Wesleyan University en route back there to take a post-graduate course.” The paper added that the student became the centre of attraction at the Senate that afternoon.

Other Senators started to tease Stephen Elkins who had served as the US Secretary of War and was a prolific writer. “Say, Elkins, I see the Duke of the Abruzzi is in the reserved gallery,” the Mississippi newspaper quoted an unnamed Senator as saying. It added that he did not say a word, turned “fiery red” and did not return that afternoon.

None of the American media outlets that covered this story wrote anything that suggested that Devasahayam was escorted out of the building or reprimanded.

This comic incident made it to papers in a few US states such as Illinois and New Jersey.

Missionary zeal
The Malayali student was named after Devasahayam Pillai, a layman from southern Travancore, who embraced Christianity in the 18th century and would be canonised by Pope Francis in 2022.

Devasahayam’s name appeared in a few other American press reports from 1907-09. The university he studied at, Ohio Wesleyan, was established by Methodist missionaries. It was probably this same group that arranged for him to study in the US.

In March 1908, Devasahayam got coverage in the Pittsburgh press, since he faced racial discrimination in the city. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said he was treated with hostility by managers of two hotels in the city as he was not White. In the city to speak at a convention of the Young People’s Missionary Movement, Devasahayam was called a “mitt-negro” by one of the managers. One hotel allowed him to use the dining area but refused to give him a room, while another allowed him a room but did not let him use the dining facilities.

During his first night in Pittsburgh, Devasahayam had to be “smuggled” into a room.

At the convention, he spoke passionately about spreading Christianity in India. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had a report about his address getting several rounds of applause and a standing ovation from hundreds of people.

While in the US, he became an ordained minister and some articles started referring to him as Reverend Devasahayam.

An article in the Springfield News-Sun in April 1909 said Devasahayam was pursuing a course in a medical college in Chicago. He returned to India by 1910 and moved to Madras, where he worked as a missionary.

Long before the idea of studying in the US gained popularity in India, Devasahayam became a pioneer, who earned a bit of fame in the country.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

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