How one brave Keralite rattled the British

Updated: Aug 18, 2019, 07:53 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Husband-wife duo Raghu and Pushpa Palat's book is a revelatory account of a case fought by Raghu's great grandfather Sir C Sankaran Nair that shook the foundations of the British Empire in its heyday

How one brave Keralite rattled the British
Raghu and Pushpa Palat. Pic/ Ashish Raje

'By accepting Sir Michael O'Dwyer's challenge, Sir Sankaran Nair had put the British constitution and the British people on trial. They [were] tried and found wanting.'Mahatma Gandhi

History buffs that we are, this strong statement by the Father of the Nation that graces the jacket of the just-released book, The Case that Shook the Empire (Bloomsbury) proved enough temptation to devour it in 48 hours. Surprised that such an important case had skipped our history textbooks through school and college, we looked forward to our meeting with the writers who had pieced this case together. First to greet us at their Pedder Road home is Raghu Palat, banker, consultant, teacher and prolific author. "So, did the book draw your attention?" he enquires, as we settle into their artfully done living room. His wife, Pushpa, a bestselling author and veteran journalist for over three decades, joins us. And soon enough, we begin to join the dots on this explosive case that rocked Britain and the Indian subcontinent in 1924. Sir Michael O'Dwyer, former lieutenant governor of the Punjab who ordered multiple atrocities in the region, had filed a defamation case against Sir Nair for having named him responsible for these acts in his book. What ensued was a five-week-long legal battle at the Court of the King's Bench in London—the highest court in the British Empire.

As a young boy, Raghu recalls how his family would always refer to 'Sir' with godfatherly-like awe. "He was this larger-than-life personality whom my elders would speak of with immense pride each time at my grandfather Ramunni Menon Palat's mansion in Palakkad, Kerala. His legal exploits, disciplinarian life, and equation with British rulers were the stuff of legend in our hometown." Then one day, a teenaged Raghu came across a stash of telegrams from important national leaders to condole Sir's passing. These included Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and MA Jinnah. "I realised he must have been an important figure in India's nationalist movement."

Decades passed since that discovery. Raghu pursued his academics, married Pushpa, and the couple started a family, all the while following their own career paths. Then, in 2017, while the couple was on holiday in Amritsar, they visited the Golden Temple, and decided to visit Jallianwala Bagh. Pushpa spotted a plaque that honoured Nair for his role in fighting against the massacre and injustice of the horrific incident. Something stirred within, and they decided to share this with the rest of the world. However, when pen was put to paper, they realised that Nair's battle for the truth about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre deserved a book, and not just an article.

Raghu Palat
Raghu Palat with a photo of his great grandfather Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair. The authors have received requests from Kerala to translate the book into Malayalam. Pic/ Ashish Raje

"Writing this book was an enjoyable experience, especially after 44 years of marriage," Pushpa says, recalling their disciplined routines where both would write chapters separately, and exchange notes to find a middle ground, often burning the midnight oil in the process. "Writing involves a lot of give and take, just like marriage. Raghu is all about the details," she smiles; "…And Pushpa gave the book its human side; like the parts where she felt it was important to retain anecdotes about Sir's family life and his personality traits," Raghu completes the sentence. "I'd recommend it [writing] to any couple. It's an enjoyable exercise, because when there is trust, the writing will flow seamlessly. It consumed most of our lives for two years but it was so worth it," she adds.

We note how their distance from the subject, and balanced narrative of fact and family history has ensured that the book isn't reduced to a personal tribute. "Or else it would have become a rose-tinted account," clarifies Raghu, recalling the hours spent poring over archival material from libraries, and family records. Readers will learn not only about his life and accolades but also his doubts and shortcomings as a human being. Then, there are the insightful backgrounds of some of its other key characters, General Reginald Dyer and O'Dwyer. The book also charts their last days. "We believe in karma," they nod in unison, urging us not to reveal the conclusion. We've kept to our word.

It is this chemistry and enthusiasm that's given us a compelling, albeit unknown chapter in India's freedom struggle that makes us look at one of its darkest days in new light.

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