Could a Parsi activist call for reforms of a regressive Hindu practice of ‘matrimonial slavery’? These days the answer might be a simple yes, but back in late 19th century Western India it wasn’t. Behramji Malabari, a journalist and a poet, was faced not just against those who believed in upholding these ‘traditions’, but also personalities such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who opposed it.
Malabari’s presence in the chapters of the Indian reform movement might have disappeared, but his legacy lives on. Often criticised for being a ‘western reformer’, he was the force behind the passage of The Age of Consent Act in 1891, which redefined the institution of marriage—a subject that continues to make the news to date.
In the Notes on Child Marriage and Widow Remarriage, he wrote: “Even though still an infant, her life is a social failure. In most things, she is at the mercy of others because the average Hindu widow is not able to appreciate and protect her rights as a member of society… To many, it is a wonder that the world hears so little of the results of such social inequality. I believe that is so because woman is the sufferer. It is not in her nature to publish her wrongs, however great”.
Despite his contribution to the rights of Hindu women, Malabari’s ‘heavily anglicised’ Parsi identity was a cause of distrust for many. The efforts of the ‘Luther of rose and lavender’ to reform Hindu society irked even legendary freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who claimed that “No one but a Hindu can possess that intimate knowledge of the Hindu Shastras, and the daily observances enjoined therein which is essential in any writer who attempts to prepare papers on the questions now placed before the government”.
However, this criticism didn’t stop Malabari from voicing the concerns of Hindu women and demanding riddance from practices like child marriage and enforced widowhood.
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Birth of a poet and activist
Marred by poverty and early parental death, Malabari had a troubled childhood.
Born in the princely state of Baroda on 18 May 1853, Malabari spent most of his childhood pinching pennies. He was just two years old when his mother Bhikhibai was forced to leave his real father, a poor clerk named Dhanjibhai Mehta, because of domestic violence. Three years later, Bhikhibai remarried Merwanji Nanabhai Malabari, a relative of the poet’s maternal grandmother.
Malabari was only 12 when his mother passed away due to cholera, following which he travelled to Bombay to make a living, where a relative of his late mother helped him get a tutoring job (teaching English to school kids) that eventually earned him Rs 150 per month. However, while Malabari scored remarkably well in English and Gujarati, arithmetic was not his strong suit—not until 1871—when he finally passed the subject after three failed attempts.
Malabari’s examiner and ‘Father of Gujarati grammar’, Reverend Joseph Van Someran Taylor, was the first to discover his poetic prowess. Struck by the beauty of his verses, Taylor introduced him to Scottish missionary and educationist Reverend Dr John Wilson. Malabari’s ‘poetic imagination’ impressed Wilson and he sponsored the publication of the Parsi poet’s first work, called ‘Niti Vinod’ or ‘The Pleasures of Morality’ in 1875. The government subscribed 300 copies of the same. And with this Malabari began his career as a Gujarati poet.
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Drive toward journalism
Although he was reluctant to let go of the joy of being a poet and felt that he could “serve his motherland better by his songs than by his newspaper articles”, Malabari believed that it was his “duty to deny himself this satisfaction for the good of the country”.
In 1880, after working under Martin Wood, the editor of the Times of India, he acquired The Indian Spectator. In reformer and poet Dayaram Gidumal’s words, the “little paper that was a rag in 1879, after a creditable early career, rose into fame and compelled its editor to remain in harness. The Indian Spectator was alive, and, like Frankenstein, refused to die”, he wrote.
Many renowned newspapers, including Allen’s Indian Mail, hailed The Indian Spectator for “representing in the highest degree, not only the intelligence but also the moderation and liberality of educated natives”. The Indian Statesman in 1882 called it “The best paper in India”, while The Pioneer spoke of it as “The ablest native paper in the Bombay presidency”.
The Bombay Review, shortly before its surcease, spoke very highly of him, saying “The editor is peculiarly fitted for being a trustworthy interpreter between rulers and ruled.”
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He couldn’t bear the plight of Hindu women
One of the most essential deeds, for which Malabari is still known, is his espousal of women’s rights, especially those of young widows.
From calling infant marriage “matrimonial slavery” to calling it “a sin to ignore the expressed desire of a widow for remarriage”, Malabari routinely encouraged the British government to get rid of Hindu practices such as enforced widowhood and child marriage. Some of his famous articles include The Indian Problem, An Appeal from the Daughters of India, and Notes on Child Marriage and Widow Remarriage, all of which influenced the Indian judiciary to pass The Age of Consent Bill in 1891.
One of the most prominent cases of child marriage he fought was that of women’s rights activist and India’s first practicing physician, Rukhmabai, who was 11 years old at the time of her marriage to 19-year-old Dadaji Bhikaji. Later, her refusal to go back to him at the age of 25 resulted in her husband moving the Bombay High Court, which ordered restitution of his conjugal rights.
In his articles, An Appeal from the Daughters of India and Notes on Child Marriage and Widow Remarriage, Malabari “championed Rukhmabai’s case not only in Bombay but in Britain as well.”
Malabari shamed the colonial government for its order saying, “The High Court of Bombay professes to administer the Hindu law and yet it imports into this Hindu law a point of the English Church law which has nothing to do with the marriage law of the Hindus. Henceforth we are to understand that Hindu parents may go on perpetuating infant marriages and that in cases of dispute the benevolent British government will aid and abet them, in the triple capacity of marriage-broker, policeman and jailor”. However, in a remarkable move, Queen Victoria granted Rukhmabai’s request to dissolve the marriage, post which the age of consent for sexual intercourse was increased from 10 to 12.
Malabari once said, “If it were merely a matter of appointing committees or passing resolutions or debating in the newspapers we should no doubt succeed grandly in making India one of the foremost countries of the world. But the future has to be worked out day and night, amid solitary villages and among ignorant men and women, at home and in silence, and for this simple task we are, alas, unspeakably poor”.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)