The Subhedar’s Son: A Narrative of Brahmin Christian Conversion from Nineteenth Century Maharashtra

Deepra Dandekar (Ph.D.) Researcher, Center for the History of Emotions, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin

The Subhedar’s Son: A Narrative of Brahmin-Christian Conversion from Nineteenth Century Maharashtra published by the AAR Series of Religion in Translation, OUP (NY) in 2019, is an introduced and annotated English translation of the Marathi book Subhedārachā Putra written by Rev. D.S. Sawarkar (1867-1952), an educationist and Christian reformer. The original Marathi book published in 1895 by the Bombay Tract and Book Society is a novelized version of D.S. Sawarkar’s father, Rev. Shankar Nana Balwant’s conversion at the CMS mission at Nasik in 1849.

This fictional representation of Sawarkar’s father’s life primarily highlights the travails of conversion among upper caste families in Maharashtra and the trauma of social ostracism associated with being Brahmin and Christian at the same time. Since Brahmins were traditionally bequeathed the ‘sacred’ responsibility of upholding Sanātan Dharma and Hinduism, conversion to Christianity constituted a betrayal and abdication of this duty. A narrative negotiating these humiliating allegations of betrayal makes Subhedārachā Putra a complicated story of Christian conversion that enjoyed intersectionality with caste, Marathi identity, and staunch patriotism. The narrative, hence, represents the quintessential struggle of first-generation, upper-caste Christians in Nineteenth Century Maharashtra that combined Christian conviction with nascent Marathi and upper-caste nationalism.

Translating this book was an interesting experience, primarily due to the timeless and emotional quality of its narrative. While the language used, Marathi, was difficult and formal at times, often requiring the use of dictionaries for words no longer in use, the narrative remained vibrant and resonated with descriptions of daily life. While some words were Persianized in comparison to the more Sanskrit forms in vogue today, the novel stands out for its unexpectedly intimate and emotional nature. Though Marathi Christian texts from the nineteenth century, such as those authored by Baba Padmanji, including his autobiography and personal memoirs, follow a didactic style, Sawarkar’s book retains a dramatic flavour by organizing the text in conversations. The story teems with romance and emotional descriptions of conflicts embedded in interpersonal, family and social relationships that underwent heavy transformation in the Nineteenth century. Set at the historical juncture when power transferred from the Maratha Empire, that had hitherto employed Brahmins like Shankar Nana’s father, to the British administration accompanied by the commencement of missions, the Subhedārachā Putra constitutes a crucible for understanding social and religious change in modern Maharashtra. 

Nasik was an interesting, if not a deliberate choice for CMS missionaries, since the town was dominated by Brahminical conservatism, with the Kumbha Mela organized on the Godavari’s riverbanks. The CMS mission, aiming at converting Brahmins, was first established in the early 1830s outside Nasik, in a separate Christian inhabitation named Sharanpur. Sharanpur also housed an orphanage and school for African slaves rescued from Arab ships in the 1840s, an industrial school for converts imbibing professional skills and a centre for developing vernacular Christian translations and literature.

Fulfilling the CMS goal of converting Brahmins, Shankar Nana was one of its first upper caste converts from Nasik, who spent the next forty years serving the CMS as a priest, catechist, preacher, evangelist and Marathi teacher. Apart from Nasik Brahmins, the surrounding region was extensively populated by Adivasis. The CMS, specially Shankar Nana was very successful in proselytizing among various Adivasi communities of the region. In his last days, Shankar Nana, ordained as Deacon, administered a sanatorium for the destitute and dying at Malegaon; a cantonment institution that was originally meant as a ‘Lock Hospital’ serving army officers. Having preached as Marathi pastor for twenty-six years at the time of his death and having assisted in the running of CMS schools and orphanages from his own home in Malegaon, both Shankar Nana and his wife Parubai, who was almost thirty years his junior, passed away in 1884. The couple was survived by six daughters and a son (Rev. D.S. Sawarkar), who published the novelized version of his father’s conversion narrative ten years later.

A copy of the book can be ordered from Oxford Scholarship Online.