Behramji Merwanji Malabari was an Indian poet, author, publicist, and social reformer. He was best known for his intense advocacy for the protection of the rights of women and his activities against child marriage. His efforts led to the passage of the Age of Consent Act of 1891, which regulated the age of consent for females. He founded the Seva Sadan Society in Bombay in 1908 to provide care to those women who were exploited and then discarded by society.
Early Life of Behramji Malabari
Behramji M. Malabari was born on 18 May 1853 in Baroda (now Vadodara, Gujarat) in a Parsi family. His father, Dhanjibhai Mehta, passed away when he was six or seven. His mother, Bhikhibai, then took him to Surat, where he studied at an Irish Presbyterian Mission School. Merwanji Nanabhai Malabari (the childless owner of a drugstore who traded in sandalwood and spices from the Malabar coast) subsequently adopted him and hence named ‘Malabari’.
Author and Editor
After completing his schooling at the Irish Presbyterian Mission School, Behramji Malabari relocated to Bombay at the age of 15 years. There he took up a teaching job to support himself. He had an interest in Literature and Poetry.
In 1875, B. M. Malabari published a volume of poems, “Nitivinod” (Pleasure of Morality), in Gujarati. In 1877, he wrote English poetry, “The Indian Muse in English Grab“, which caught the attention of many brilliant and eminent English poets, such as Alfred Tennyson, Max Muller, and Florence Nightingale. Muller and Nightingale would also play a role in his campaign for social reform.
Behramji Malabari was also instrumental in translating Max Muller’s Hibbert Lectures into Indian languages, as he believed that the Hindu priesthood was misinterpreting the Vedas and Upanishad. On the insistence of Muller and with the assistance of N. M. Mobedjina, Malabari himself undertook the translation into Gujarati. Malabari then attempted to have the lectures in other languages, including Marathi, Bengali, Hindi and Tamil. To do so, he travelled extensively to find translators and funding for them.
B. M. Malabari’s life work in journalism began in 1880, when he acquired an English language daily, the “Indian Spectator“. He edited the ‘Indian Spectator’ for twenty years until it merged into the “Voice of India“, which Malabari had already been edited jointly with Dadabhai Naoroji and William Wedderburn since 1883.
In 1882, Malabari published his “Gujarat and the Gujaratis: pictures of men and manners taken from life“, a book of a somewhat satirical nature.
In 1890, Behramji Malabari travelled to Britain. In 1893, he published “The Indian Eye on English Life, or Rambles of a Pilgrim Reformer“, in which he described his three journeys to England and observations of the British way of life.
In 1901, he became editor of the monthly East and West.
Work as a Social Reformer
B. M. Malabari became well-known in Britain at that time for his role in promoting women’s rights, especially those of the Hindu widows.
In August 1884, B. M. Malabari published a set of “Notes on Infant Marriage and Enforced Widowhood“, which he sent to 4000 leading Englishmen and Hindus. In this document, he listed the “social evil” of “baby marriage” and encouraged the British government to prevent it. On the issue of remarriage for widows, Malabari criticised the Hindu practice of prohibiting it, and he blamed the ‘priestly class’ for misinterpreting the scriptures for their own selfish reasons.
His “notes” were the prelude to an emotionally charged discussion that occupied the press for over seven years and made Malabari one of the most influential Indian social reformers during his time.
In 1885, a girl named Rukhmabai, a child bride was ordered by Judge Pinhey to return to her husband or be jailed. She was 11 years old at the time of her marriage to a 19-year-old Dadaji Bhikaji. However, Rukhmabai had no intention of going to her husband, as she had every desire to complete her education. She flatly refused her husband’s demands to live with him. Her refusal to return to him at the age of 25 resulted in her husband filing a case in Bombay High Court for restitution of conjugal rights of a husband over his wife.
Behramji wrote many editorials that supported Rukhmabai’s case. His detailed editorials of the Rukhmabai case gave the issue a popular focus. Malabari wrote editorials not only in his own magazine but also letters to the editors of The Times.
In 1890, B. M. Malabari travelled to London for the first time, where he set up a series of meeting with leaders for an appeal for the rights of Indian daughters.
In his articles “An Appeal from the Daughters of India” and “Notes on Child Marriage and Widow Remarriage“, Behramji advocated Rukhmabai’s case in Bombay and Britain. The case attracted the attention of Max Muller and Florence Nightingale, and both wrote a commentary on it.
When he returned from London, he met with advocate Kashinath Trimbak Telang to discuss the amendment of the Penal Code, which would raise the age of consent. Due to his consistent efforts, the British government passed the Age of Consent Act of 1891, which regulated the age of consent for females. Behramji also played a similar role in the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 in Britain, which raised the age of consent from 13 years to 16 years of age.
Although B. M. Malabari stayed away from the Indian National Congress (INC) as an organisation, he attended the INC Session in Bombay in 1885. He was a nationalist and had a close relationship with Dadabhai Naoroji, one of the founders and leaders of the INC.
Behramji Malabari was felicitated with the Kaiser-e-Hind Gold Medal in 1900 for his immense services in social reforms.
The Parsi social reformer Behramji M. Malabari campaigned all his life against child marriage and enforced widowhood. In 1908, Behramji, along with friend Diwan Dayaram Gidumal, established the Seva Sadan Society in Bombay. The Seva Sadan specialised in taking care of socially discarded and exploited women of all castes and providing them education, welfare, and medical services.
After serving society and the country as a reformer, Behramji Malabari died in 1912 in Shimla.
Write about the published works of B. M. Malabari?
• The Indian Muse in English Garb (Bombay: Reporters Press) in 1876.
• Gujarat and the Gujaratis (London: W. H. Allen & Co.) in 1882.
• Notes on Infant Marriage and Enforced Widowhood in India (Bombay: Voice of India Printing Press) in 1887.
• An Appeal from the Daughters of India (London: Farmer & Sons) in 1890.
• The Indian Eye on English Life; or, Rambles of a Pilgrim Reformer (London: Archibald Constable & Co.) in 1893.
• “India in 1897” (London: A. J. Combridge) in 1898.
• “Bombay in the Making: being mainly history of the origin and growth of judicial institutions in the Western Presidency 1661-1726, with an introduction by George Sydenham Clarke” (London: T. Fisher Unwin) in 1910.
What were Behramji Malabari’s contributions to the Periodicals?
• Indian Magzine and Review (Three Hours with Miss Carpenter in Bombay, July 1878).
• The Times (letter to the editor, 22 August 1890).