Business Today

The Big Fight

The book chronicles the tribulations faced by the author's family and the resurrection of Malayala Manorama amid grim times.
By Palakunnathu G. Mathai   Delhi     Print Edition: June 19, 2016

Indian media moguls are not usually given to writing about themselves. By and large, they are a tight-lipped lot, in public at least.

That could be changing. Not long ago, Zee TV group boss, Subhash Chandra, published his autobiography. Now the memoir of the late K.M. Mathew, Chief Editor of the Malayala Manorama group, is out. Mathew actually wrote his book between 2002 and 2007 in Malayalam. This was later translated into English.

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While Chandra's book deals with his climb from modest beginnings to billionaire days, in The Eighth Ring, Mathew chronicles his father's rise to wealth, fall to near poverty and subsequent triumph. He deals less with the rise and rise of Kerala's largest circulated daily, than with the 'Big Fight'. As Mathew puts it, "This is in no way the life story of a person named K.M. Mathew. On the contrary, it is a book about the misfortunes our family endured and about the rebirth of the Malayala Manorama."

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The book highlights an epic war that began in the late 1930s, between Mathew's father, K.C. Mammen Mappillai, and Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar (Sir C.P), both larger-than-life figures on Travancore's stage before India's Independence.

Sir C.P. was a lawyer who had been Advocate General of the then Madras Presidency. He had been described as one of the cleverest men in India. In 1936, he became the Dewan and de facto ruler of the then state of Travancore. Sir C.P. backed an unsuccessful attempt to keep Travancore out of the Indian union and left Travancore after a failed assassination bid on his life. He is portrayed as the villain of this story whose evil machinations brought ruin to Mammen Mappillai and his family.

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Mammen Mappillai was one of Kerala's early entrepreneurs, with fingers in many pies. A school headmaster-turned-farmer-turned-businessman, the ambitious tycoon had once dreamed of his children becoming business barons as well-known as the Tatas or Birlas. Among other things, he bought acres of land at Kuttanad in Alleppey district, a coffee estate at Chikmagalur in Karnataka, and floated a bank and an insurance company. Oh yes, he also ran the Malayala Manorama - set up as a weekly newspaper by his uncle Kandathil Varughese Mappillai.

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Mammen Mappillai had nine children, including K.M. Cherian, who became Chief Editor of the newspaper; a son with a similar name, K.M. Mammen Mappillai, who would go on to set up MRF - the highly profitable Chennai-based tyre company; K.M. Philip of Philips Coffee fame; and K.M. Mathew, who succeeded his brother as the paper's Chief Editor. So this is also a story about the rise and travails of the Kandathil family, to which Mammen Mappillai belonged.

The war led to a run on the Travancore National and Quilon Bank - promoted by Mammen Mappillai and C.P. Matthen, a Quilon-based businessman - which Mathew maintains was engineered by Sir C.P.; the jailing of Mammen Mappillai, the sale of the family's insurance company and the closure of the Malayala Manorama for nine years from September 1938.

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Why did Sir C.P. train his guns on Mammen Mappillai and the newspaper he ran? According to Mathew, this was because of the financial aid the family's bank extended to the Congress Party in Travancore, and the close relationship between the bank's promoters and Congress leaders in the state. Mammen Mappillai and the Malayala Manorama, which had become a daily in January 1928, advocated political and social reform, in the process coming into conflict with Sir C.P. Indeed, the reformists used to meet at Mammen Mappillai's house in Kottayam. This is the nub of Mathew's story.

Mathew deals authoritatively with the history of Kerala's social and political movements, with his days in school and at Madras Christian College. But The Eighth Ring - Mathew was his father's eighth child and Mammen Mappillai gave each of his children rings - is also a ser-ies of random memories, as he puts it. As a result, the book jumps from topic to topic, and yet some of the anecdotes he recounts are delightful.

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Indeed, The Eighth Ring is populated by a host of people and families. Mentioned in passing are former Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy's grandfather, V.J. Oommen (Mammen Mappillai fought an election in the Travancore legislative council against him and lost); C. Kesavan, who became Chief Minister of the state; T.M. Varughese, who became a minister; several members of the Kandathil family; President K.R. Narayanan; prominent Kottayam families like the Padinjarekkara family and the Pannampunna family (the family of the late journalist B.G. Varghese and my mother and of Mathew's daughter-in-law), and my granduncle C.K. Thomas, Principal of C.M.S College in Kottayam.

Incidentally, my father, too, finds a mention. He was at Madras Christian College with Mathew, and Mathew stayed with him in Istanbul, Turkey, where the archbishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church plied them at lunch with potent wine till their heads spun.

The book's landscape largely features Kerala and the Syrian Christian community. The Malayalam version would have attracted a wide readership. But will the English translation of the book be of great interest to non-Malayalees? That has to be seen.

Mathew's account of his life is peppered with Malayalee nicknames for his brothers and others. Readers have to wade through names such as Oonnoonichayan (K.M. Cherian) and Peelikkutty (K.M. Philip), and then flip pages to figure out who they are.

Clearly, someone worked on this book after Mathew died in August 2010 at the age of 93 - it mentions the death of my father, which happened in January 2013, after Mathew died.

Still, many in Kerala regard Mathew as a visionary. Under his stewardship, the paper expanded, with editions all over the country and in West Asia. Magazines (Vanitha - the women's magazine, Balarama - a magazine for children, The Week - news magazine, to name some) were launched, as were television channels and internet editions of many of these publications. And in his lifetime, the newspaper's circulation topped 16 lakh.

Does that story merit another book? Over to Mathew's sons.

The reviewer is a veteran journalist

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