A century and 40 years ago, on September 28, 1881, 25-year-old Pulicat Rathnavelu Chetti, a brilliant young civil servant who was then 'head assistant collector' and 'vice president' of Palakkad Municipality, shot himself dead.
Rathnavelu Chetti, who was just six years into the service, was the first native ICS (Indian Civil Service) officer of the Madras Presidency, of which Palakkad, Kozhikode, Kannur and Wayanad were then part.
Racism was behind his suicide, this everyone knew. But what exactly caused Pulicat Rathnavelu Chetti to point the gun at his own temple and burst his brains out no one still knows.
Palakkadan death tale
One version of his death has acquired the status of a tragic myth in Malabar. It is said that at an event to mark the 15th anniversary of the Palakkad Municipality in 1881, Chetti had caught hold of the hands of a senior English officer and shook it with gentlemanly vigour.
The Englishman did not take kindly to the gesture and, as a way to cut the Indian to size and also to show his disgust, washed his hands in full public view. Disgraced, Chetti went home and took his life.
Boban Mattumantha, a history researcher based in Palakkad, had never found this convincing. “Rathnavelu Chetti had studied in Oxford and knew the English and the English way of life. His close friend circle was also British. So it is highly improbable that he would do anything that would cause discomfort to an Englishman,” Boban said.
More English than English
Chetti had his higher education at Balliol College, Oxford. He was so outstanding, even better than his English peers, that at 19 he became the first Indian to secure a scholarship in Mathematics in an English university. By then he had won the ICS exam and was about to return to India.
A local daily (Dundee Courier), in a report published on December 16, 1875, expressed anguish that he could not continue in Oxford. "The standard achieved by Mr Chetti in the scholarship examination was unusually high and one cannot but regret that it will be impossible for him to pursue his mathematical studies in the university of which he is a distinguished member," the report said.
This newspaper report was one of the many documents Boban unearthed as part of his research into Chetti's suicide. He also came across other writings – The Asylum Press Alamanac, the then Palakkad jail superintendent Isaac Tyrell's memoirs and the diary of H Fielding Hall, a British ICS officer – that suggested another possibility. (All these have found their way into Boban's documentary on Pulicat Rathnavelu Chetti. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRYj8juhIoc)
The alternative suicide theory is linked to an event called Canterbury Week, a gala event held at the Malabar Club in Calicut, now Beach Hotel in Kozhikode. During a lean week in the year, especially in August when there was nothing much to do in revenue offices and the tea plantations of Wayanad, the cream of the British in Kerala made a sensual pilgrimage to the Malabar Club and lost themselves in unhindered merriment.
There were cricket matches, card games, film shows, booze and all manner of wild diversions. The Calicut Canterbury Week was an exact replica – perhaps even a more boisterous one – of the original Canterbury Week held in the city of Canterbury in Kent, a county in South East England.
Code of conduct
The Malabar Club, like most British-controlled clubs in India, existed on a code of exclusivity. “Indians and dogs were not allowed.” Being so immersed in the English way of life, Rathnavelu Chetti believed he was part of the white pack. Except, the whites never saw him as one.
He wanted entry into the all-white Club, and because of his exceptional career, was about to be nominated even. But most white members were against this.
H Fielding Hall, a British ICS officer who had worked in India for nearly three decades and the author of 'The Passing of the Empire', had written of Chetti's death.
“A Madrasi of race named Chetti who attempted to enter the ICS and was to be nominated at a British club, until the club members threatened to blackball him and he ended his life in suicide." (Blackball is the process by which members of an exclusive club block the entry of an aspirant through a secret ballot.)
Fielding, believing himself to be rational, reveals the xenophobia that is pumped by the beating heart of the Raj. “An Indian gentleman cannot be an Englishman. Only an Englishman by birth has that camaraderie with other Englishmen. Club life is only possible to people of one nationality. You cannot mix in a club,” he writes.
What led Chetti to Canterbury?
Chetti, the distinguished Oxford scholar, was certainly intelligent enough to catch the racist impulse but still he went for the Canterbury Week. In the midst of the revelry, one of the intolerant Englishmen is said to have shouted something nasty at Chetti.
This is what Tyrell, the Palakkad jail superintendent, said in his memoirs, 'From England to the Antipodes & India - 1846 to 1902': “He (Chetti) had been to Calicut for the Canterbury Week and, while there, had a dispute with a planter who had used some strong expressions towards him. This it was said had preyed on Mr Rathnavelu Chetti's mind and led him to commit the deed.”
The hatred was based purely on colour. “I was very sorry indeed to hear of the occurrence, for I liked him very much and felt sure that, had he lived, he would have been an ornament to the ICS,” Tyrell wrote in his memoirs. Even Fielding had said that it was a sad end for a man who was “gifted and likeable”.
To be fair to Chetti, it was not just his reputed longing to mix with the English and be one with them that could have led him to the Canterbury Week. During the days of the Raj, it was at these club gatherings that top officials networked. Not to be admitted to a club was to put an officer at a disadvantage.
Problem with Canterbury tale
However, there is a big hole in the Canterbury tale. What was said at the Malabar Club, the “strong expressions” used by a planter, is still not known. This is surprising because had such an incident happened, there would have been many witnesses.
Even if the story seems likely, the question is why would someone like Chetti shoot himself just because a drunk white planter barked some nonsense. He would have long before sensed the presence of racist elements among the British.
His frustration at not being given entry to the Malabar Club is also not motivation enough for suicide as he had been denied memberships in all-white clubs before when he was serving as assistant collector in Chungalppett and North Arcot districts.
Vijayan on Chetti's suicide
Writer O V Vijayan, therefore, gives a holes-covered version in his last work 'Thalamurakal', a semi-autobiographical. Vijayan describes Rathnavelu as “a giant of a man, with the colour of pitch-black ignorance”. (Not a single photograph of him is known to exist.) Vijayan writes that Chetti invites two of his white colleagues, close friends, and their wives to dinner.
“While having food, one of the white women said: 'Four storks and a crow'. They were trying to tell a joke. The guests departed after dinner. Rathnavelu asked his servants standing almost invisibly along the corridors of the large house to go home and climbed upstairs to his bedroom on the first floor. There, he shot himself to death,” Vijayan writes in 'Thalamurakal' (Page 55).
Perhaps, Chetti lost hope when his closest white friends betrayed racist tendencies. “Death was Chetti's rebellion. It was the young officer's way of telling the British that he was unwilling to go on living as an inferior,” Boban said.