Book Review: My Search for my Great Grandfather

My Search for my Great Grandfather: The Venerable Oommen Mamen Archdeacon of Mavelikara of the CMS (Church Missionary Society) Anglican Church of India (1830-1904). By Mathew Zachariah, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Education, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Pages 39+xi. Privately published, 2010.

Rarely do we come across a privately published book that has such enormous historical significance. Dr. Mathew Zachariah’s book on Archdeacon Oommen Mamen definitely falls into this category. This small book sketches not only the life of a remarkable Christian leader but also a period of great significance in the church and society. The Church in Kerala during the last twenty centuries has passed through several phases such as the Syrian connection, the Roman Catholic mission etc. Dr. Zachariah’s book is situated in another equally significant phase, the work of the Protestant mission in the nineteenth century. Students of history would note that this was a period of great changes, not only in the Church but also in the larger society. The interaction between the local king (Maharaja) and the colonial powers with all the complexities involved in this relationship resulted in radical social and political changes. The waves of the nationalist movement had reached the shores of Kerala as well. More importantly, the age-old caste hierarchy that denigrated some people as ‘untouchables’ was being challenged in several quarters – among enlightened rulers, the missionaries and the nationalists.

In short, nineteenth century in Travancore was a period of enormous historical significance, yet surprisingly, there are few books, especially from a Christian perspective, that discuss this period. This context adds to the significance of Dr. Zachariah’s book on Archdeacon Oommen Mamen. At no time did Kerala have any dearth of indigenous church leaders, yet the Archdeacon, with his progressive ideas, great dignity and pastoral care, stand head and shoulders above most others. He was clearly a man far ahead of his times. As the author notes, “He was a true modernist. He opposed superstitions in the ancient Syrian Church which he called ‘Syrianisms.’ His letters reveal great dignity. There is not even the slightest hint or pretence of inferiority in any of his letters to the English women and men he wrote to.” (Page 6).

The Archdeacon’s views on women were surprisingly modern. During a period when social interaction between men and women was discouraged, after conducting church services “Mamen would go to the women who had come to the service and stayed around to chat among themselves. He would ask them about the welfare of each of them and give them Bible verses to memorize. As this became known, women would wait for him to come to them in all the villages and towns after each service.” (p. 22). We need to remember that this was a period several decades before women got voting rights even in England!

Archdeacon Mamen was a leader of the Church but he also contributed richly in the wider society. He is considered as one of the founders of the modern Malayalam language. At a time when vast sections of the people were illiterate and the small group of scholars that there were, busied themselves with the classical languages of Sanskrit, Latin and Greek, Mamen was interested in having the ordinary people understand his words. He therefore, wrote and spoke using very simple words and phrases (pp. 24-25). His preference for the use of simple language, however, should not be misunderstood as a lack of scholarship. He authored eighteen books in Malayalam most of which were translations from English. It is a mark of Mamen’s eminence in the world of literature that the great Malayalam poet and historian Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer quoted from the introduction of Mamen’s book, Salomonte Subhashithangal.

The Archdeacon’s influence stretched beyond the church and the world of literature, to high political places. When he died, Kerala Varma the High Prince of Travancore, noted: “Lost to us is a respected friend of mine, a worker infused with (Christian) mission and a helper to poor people.” (p. 26).

This book speaks as much for the eminence of its author as it does of the subject. Biographies of people written by their relatives are often mere eulogies. Dr. Mathew Zachariah has every reason to wax eloquent over his great grand father, yet with rare academic rigor, he writes in a balanced and dispassionate tone. The author affirms that his own reading of colonialism and the missionary movement is different from that of the missionaries. He even hints at some of the weaknesses of the Archdeacon (pp. 22-23).

The enormous amount of research that has gone into the writing of this small book is remarkable. Dr. Zachariah spent several days at the CMS Archives preserved in the University of Birmingham, collecting materials for this book. An excellent list of maps, sketches, facsimile of documents and photographs add to the significance of the book. The book also has a genealogical chart. The extensive bibliography provided will aid anyone interested in further study in this area.

This book has been privately published and the income from the sale of the book goes towards a noble social cause. Let us hope that this book will stimulate scholars to do further research on this great leader of the Church and society and that an enlarged bibliography will be published in due course.

– JMA

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