Saturday, September 17, 2011

Reading Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha

I am reading Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. Hermann Hesse and I have a family connection, however distant. His grandfather Hermann Gundert was a missionary who worked in Kerala when my great-great-great-uncle George Mathan was also an Anglican priest thereabouts. Both the priests wrote grammar books in Malayalam. Though Gundert's grammar book was published first (circa 1850s) Mathan's Malayalam grammar book was published later (circa 1860s).

(In picture alongside George Mathan is in the white priestly robe and Hermann Gundert is the one with the side whiskers.)

However (this is a position I will defend with my word of honour), Mathan's work was much more detailed and exhaustive and the government of Kerala chose the book over Gundert work as the authoritative volume of Malayalam grammar then. I don't know if the two contemporaries met, but there must have been a healthy rivalry between the two priestly gentlemen, I am sure. Gundert and Mathan both maintained that Malayalam was a distinct language in the proto-Tamil family of Dravidian languages, unlike what is prevalent in Kerala nowadays. Let me clarify. Nowadays Malayalam is heavily Sanskrit-ised as to be unrecognisable from the Malayalam of those days.

In those days writing was done mostly by priests and the kind of language they wrote, containing western ideas of grammar, punctuation, syntax is today known as "Padiri (Priestly) Malayalam." All things considered, these pioneering priests were the first to think about compiling a grammar book when none existed in the eighties. Their contribution must never be overlooked.

Hermann Gundert made significant contributions to Malayalam language. He also went on to write - after he retired to Germany - a dictionary in Malayalam.

There is another Indian connection. Hesse's Siddhartha was made into a movie starring Shashi Kapoor and Simi Grewal.

I am @johnwriter on Twitter and John.Matthew on Facebook. I blog here.


Medhiniseshadri said...

Sir thats so wonderful to hear about the connection.... how did u like reading Siddhartha?

John P Matthew said...

It's a beautiful book, very lyrically written. Hermann Hesse has a very delicate style that brings out the beauty of the human condition.