Literature
An under-appreciated master storyteller fades away
Image from Penguin Books India

On March 22nd, 2015, Abraham Eraly, the little-known master-historian based in Puducherry, suffered a paralytic attack which rendered the right side of his body useless. He had been living alone in an apartment in Sarathambal Nagar in the coastal town for nearly four years. In recent months he working on what he thought was the most important project of his life. “The project was on Indian culture, on how it was a glorious culture once, and the events and circumstances that lead to its present situation. He told me it was very important to him, and that he was sad that he might not be able complete the project because of his paralysis,” says his brother George Ivan.

Eraly was admitted to Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER) in Pondicherry following the paralysis. His wife Sita Eraly lives in Pondicherry too, and was helping him through his illness. His son, Satish Eraly, flew down from the US to look after his father. But at 81, having laboured through decades of stellar historical writing and journalism, his body succumbed. He breathed his last on April 8th, 2015.

Eraly is the author of several books on Indian history, chronologically starting with The Gem In The Lotus, a historical account of the period between pre-historic India and the fall of the Mauryan Empire. He describes in colourful, witty, thought-provoking and meticulous detail, the life of Indians from pre-history to the end of the Mughal Era in his books The First Spring (in two volumes), The Last Spring (a two-part series) and The Age of Wrath.

He also wrote Tales Once Told: Legends of Kerala and a novel Night of the Dark Tree. “It is hard to imagine anyone succeeding more gracefully in producing a balanced overview than Abraham Eraly,” says William Dalrymple, of his book The First Spring. “His works on history were extremely good and deserved much better marketing. His books were undersold and not as widely-read and appreciated as they should have been,” says S Muthaiah, an eminent historian based in Chennai who knew Eraly for over four decades.

“The callow youth”

Abraham Eraly was born on August 15, 1934 in Ayyampalli, a small village in Ernakulam Distirct in Kerala. His schooling was in the same village, but he moved to a college in Ernakulam to graduate in history. Later, he enrolled at the Madras Christian College in Chennai for a postgraduate course in history. He returned as a professor of history to MCC in 1971. It was at MCC that his tryst with historical writing began, perhaps at the encouragement of his professors. In his book The First Spring, he writes, “Dedicated to the memory of Dr. Chandran Devanesan, Warden, Professor and Principal, who saw in a callow youth a glimmer of something worth encouraging, and gave him a future to devise.”

In an interview to Shreekumar Varma for The Hindu in 2001, however, he says he had always been writing, his ambition being to translate the complete works of Lenin to Malayalam. Abraham Jacob, now a retired Railway Board member, was Eraly’s student at MCC. Though he was a literature student, Jacob worked with Eraly on the MCC college magazine. “He was very popular. He brought in a lot of innovation into the magazine, and was very liberal. He was defined by what he wrote, but none of us then could have guessed that he would go on to become such a successful historian,” says Jacob.

“He was charismatic, and attracted students. He was a man of many parts, with multiple talents. He changed the dull and dreary college magazine to an extremely provocative and interesting journal,” says Sadanand Menon a leading journalist based in Chennai who worked with Eraly through his MCC years and later for Aside, Eraly’s legendary city magazine.

Bold, introvert and meticulous

By the mid-seventies, Eraly was getting fed up of teaching. Few months after the Emergency, he launched the magazine Aside. In his interview to The Hindu, Eraly describes it as an “upper class magazine – a quasi-literary kind of stuff”. He told Varma, “The publishing profession said - six months is going to be the life-span of this magazine. It lasted 20 years! It started in 1977 and folded up in 1997.”

Aside was bold. “It takes guts to acknowledge the irony of one’s own existence. Aside had the courage, throughout. By the same token, the magazine never took Madras attitude too seriously either. On the cover of the first issue was a photographic still life, of two perfect idlis on a plate. The blurb for it ran thus: 'Rite to invoke the Thrice born: on a freshly cleaned and burnished table of propriety, place a white plate of Victorian bequest, and on it a vestigial "jathi" leaf. Sprinkle the leaf according to convenience with Ganga water or a disinfectant and place on it delicately, two dyed-in-the-West idlis. Surround the plate with silver bowls of English dip, garnished with American slang and generously spiced with "desi". The cutlery may be arranged according to sharp business practice, but take care to place on the right side and on a slightly higher plane, a glass of holy sanctimoniousness,” writes Janaki Venkatraman, one of his closest literary comrades, in The Unhurried City: Writings on Chennai.

Meticulous – the one word almost everybody uses to describe him. “His defining quality was his capacity for detail, his emphasis on quality and standard,” says Jacob. “He was a fine mind, wrote extremely well. He was knowledgeable and an intellectual,” adds Muthaiah.

“Eraly was not a socializing person, he was a recluse,” says Menon. Jacob also remembers him as an introvert, and he did not mix with too many people. “He was a nice human being, but he believed in having only close friends,” adds Jacob. In his final years too, he locked himself up in his apartment to write. He would rarely step out if he was writing, and would not even attend book-launch events.

Varma remembers his sense of humor. “I told him before the interview that his name is misspelled as ‘Early’ in the telephone directory, and he replied saying “but I am never early”. “He used to swim in the morning, or go for a run on the beach and watch VCD movies in the evenings. But his writing took up his whole day,” says a reminiscent Varma.

The incomplete spring

By the mid-nineties, Eraly wanted to grow bigger, go beyond Aside. He had plans for a south Indian magazine, and even started a printing press. But things did not pan out as planned, and he wrapped up the magazine in 1997. He published his first book, The Last Spring, in 2000. His last book was The Age of Wrath published in 2014. In a tribute to Eraly on his Facebook wall, Vincent D’Souza, a senior journalist in Chennai who was groomed by Aside, writes “Abraham Eraly must be chuckling in the heavens. Or badgering the Sultans. The man who founded and edited India's first city magazine is dead - the news made public a week after he had passed away in his den in Pondicherry- he would have liked it that way. He was a recluse in many ways, but his sharp eyes said more of him.”

As he chuckles up there, he has left his admirers disappointed, craving for what he would have unleashed on us in his incomplete project, perhaps his magnum opus.