A pioneer's prolific life journey

A pioneer's prolific life journey

The Eighth Ring
K M Mathew
Penguin/Viking
2015, pp 391, Rs. 699

With a circulation of 16 lakh copies, Malayala Manorama is a rare phenomenon in regional language journalism. Established in 1888 by Kandathil Varughese Mapillai, the saga of Manorama has no parallels.

Eigth Ring is the autobiography of K M Mathew who presided over the destiny of the publication since 1973 till his death in 2010. He joined the daily in 1954 to ease the burden on his elder brother K M Cherian. He was instrumental in taking Manorama to the digital age and ensuring its spectacular growth. Intensely personal, the memoirs give a fascinating account of ups and downs of Manorama. It is essentially the story of his illustrious family, towering father K C Mammen Mapillai, endearing mother, eight brothers and a sister.

A pioneering entrepreneur in Kerala, Mammen Mappillai had got into several ventures losing and making money. Realising that the newspaper may not generate enough money to meet the needs of his large family, Mammen Mapillai spread his net far and wide. He bought extensive tracts of plantations and agricultural land. His biggest success was as a banker. Travancore National and Quilon Bank became the largest bank in pre-Independent south India. As editor of Manorama, he hobnobbed with the state Congress leaders and supported the freedom movement, earning the wrath of dewan C P Ramasway Iyer. When the wily dewan failed to persuade Mammen Mappillai to support him, he moved against the daily and the bank with a heavy hand.

Through a meticulous operation, CP ensured the collapse of the bank. Mammen Mappillai and a few directors were put behind bars on trumped up charges. Meanwhile, CP’s police sealed the Manorama office. Reduced to penury, the family looked elsewhere for sustenance. In those years what sustained them was the income from Chikkamagaluru coffee estates.

After his release from jail, Mammen Mappillai was in no mood to sit back. His sole aim was to revive Manorama at any cost. Finally, the paper saw the light of the day after nine years. Despite the poor quality of printing, readers continued to remain loyal to the paper. K M Mathew gives moving account of the daily struggle to get the paper printed daily. Always in debt, they toiled hard to find the working capital and acquire a new press. As employees stood loyal despite the poor wages, readers also chipped in. Mathew pays glowing tributes to those who helped the daily to tide over the crisis. When Mathew succeeded Cherian, the circulation was three lakh copies. When Manorama was growing, the youngest sibling in the family took MRF to great heights.

It is an account from a witness to history. What makes the nonagenarian’s reminiscences interesting are the innumerable anecdotes on interesting personalities, vignettes from his childhood in Kuttanad surrounded by water, special bond with Madras Christian College where all the brothers studied, and the sketches of a few Manorama employees. As a nine-year-old boy, Mathew happened to see a sari for the first time at a Brahmin home. Out of curiosity, he touched its red border. The Brahmin told his servant to throw the sari into the river as the boy’s touch had polluted it.

There is no love lost between Malayala Manorama and Kerala’s communists. The Eighth Ring has a chapter devoted to this. Mammen Mappillai never hid his dislike for communist ideology. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Manorama seems to have toned down its criticism. Similarly, from pre-Independence days, the paper supported the Congress. Manorama backed Indira Gandhi when she split the Congress in 1969. But the paper that was stifled by a tyrant in the past failed to oppose the Emergency. 

What stands out from the memoirs is the solidarity among the brothers. This ensured the success of all their business ventures.

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