Wife of ex Member of Parliament V P Nair’s wife and writer Lalitha P Nair (79) (Tilak Bhawan, Manakkara) passed away. A member of the Koyikonanth family, Thumbamon, Pandalam, her major published works were Lalithanjali, Ormakal Marikkunnilla, and Smrithimayukham. Sons: Dr Sasidharan, Dr Harikumar (both London), Vishwanathan Nair (Tilak Paints, Sasthamkotta). Daughters-in-law: Chandrika, Padmaja, Maheswari.
Just five lines — and a woman’s whole life is done — how easy. Someone’s wife, a writer of three books, the mother of three sons — that is all left behind when her life congeals. Her smiles and tears are not recorded.
The love she offered, the sweetness she served, leave behind no trace. The loneliness she suffered, the chagrin she swallowed, all of it turn into vapour. Only her words, and the words about her, survive. Words that we refer to as memories. The title of her last published work was Ormakal Marikkunnilla — Memories are Eternal. I am indebted to her for my short story Ormayude Njharambu [translated as The Jugular of Memory]. It may not be a coincidence that my first book and this mother’s last work relate to memory. There is a vein, a seam, that runs in the earth across time and space and tongue that binds together all of us who share a woman’s birth.
The story titled ‘Kavitha’ in Ormakal Marikkunnilla begins thus:
The obedient girl. She knows nothing of the outside. She doesn’t go visiting. She doesn’t know about receiving visitors. On the fourth day after she was brought home with a marriage-locket tied on her, she crouched in a corner and began to write.
What are you writing — give it here — I asked, a little anxious. The moment of discovery.
Poetry was the ailment. It was just beginning. Good. I am the chief protagonist. And then she herself. The theme is our delayed meeting. It will soon be complete. That thought was like a blow to my heart ….
The husband who feared his wife’s poetry. The story continues. Time flies, and she changes. In her husband’s words:
… she did not object. The craze for poetry and reading was over. In time, her habit of meditating in front of a piece of paper also faded. I did not have to strain myself to keep her away from unknown unworldly worlds.
I felt proud of my practical sense. I have stuffed all her education and knowledge and aspirations into the mud pot of ignorance.
But now, years later, this moment, doubt. The drop of doubt is getting bigger and bigger.
The lines she scribbles — her handwriting.
— exhausted from running, running.
That evil beast is in hot pursuit. I ran through a bumpy road, full of potholes — a strange path — stumbling and falling. My legs ached, my body and mind grew weak. Anything could happen now. I turned to look. Wonder of wonders! It too now ran for its life …
I am continuing to run after it. The cloak that looked like a tiger’s skin was not to be seen anymore.
The gentle creature will soon tire of running. When it collapses, I will take it in my arms and nurture it.
Meaningless words. Is it a poem? If it has meaning, what is it? I read it again. Again and again, to master its meaning.
— So that is how the lives of all women are. You will have to read it again and again. But the meaning will escape you still. The life of the writer Lalitha P Nair is no exception. She lived long as the ideal wife, the loving mother, the efficient housewife. She established a Mahila Samajam. Did social service. Wrote in her youth. Then fell silent. In the end, yearned to see her old writings in the form of a book. Two such books did appear. Without revealing a whole life-full of experiences and desires, leaving behind no word beyond what she said, she passed away. One of the many thousand women who fall silent from love or the denial of it. Lalitha P Nair did not give birth to me. But she did indeed give birth to the writer in me. A seam of writing binds women across generations.
Ten years ago I met her at her home, Tilak Bhawan, Sasthamkotta. I was visiting home, which I left fifteen years back, after a long interval. The breeze from the lake, the trees, the chirping of birds. Tilak Bhawan is the home of VP Nair who was a member of the second and third Indian Parliaments. That was first bungalow in the village, known as the kettidam around there; Lalitha P Nair was everybody’s kettidathil-amma (Lady of the Bungalow). From the time I learned to string words together, VP Nair was ‘Meesayappooppan’ (Moustache-granddad). His moustache was a grand one; his voice was ringing, majestic. If he was stern and forbidding, she was gentle and humble. Sasthamkotta would have been incomplete for me without Meesayappooppan, Tilak Bhawan, Kettidathil-Amma, and Uncle Moni. Whenever things got boring, my sister and I would set off for Tilak Bhawan. The way there was shaded by large grafted-mango and chickoo trees. There were huge growling dogs in cages. There were many reasons for us to love that house. First, appooppan’s collection of books. A great number of books and many magazines besides. Secondly, Amma’s sweets. She was the best cook I ever knew, and one of the few beauties I adored. Maybe it was her skilled hand, or perhaps the love with she served it, but I have never tasted better chakkavarattiyathu (Jackfruit-and-jaggery preserve) than her chakkavaratti-balls rolled in granulated sugar…
…when I went back there after many years with my little daughter in my arms, Amma greeted us with love and affection completely untarnished by the years and served us a feast and sweet things. I was enjoying the breeze from the lake after lunch when she approached me. She held out an old notebook. These are some old poems and stories of mine; mole, can you please correct them for me, she asked. It is hard to forget that moment when I took it from her and flipped through the pages breezily, thinking oh, Kettidathil-amma and poetry? Fiction? The well-shaped letters in fading blue ink. But the lines shook my ego. They brought to mind lines from the work of the beloved poet Sugathakumari. Harmonious, imaginative, clear, translucent language. I was taken aback, slack-jawed: how could Amma write so well? Considering the fact that Meesayappooppan was a two-time MP and the founder of the magazine Keralasabdam, it was easy for his wife to get her work published and praised even if it were substandard. I asked her if she had not shown him her work. She smiled without rancour: “I once gave him a poem to read. Is it a good one, he asked. I replied that I didn’t know if it was good. He tore it up. Told me to show him only when I wrote good poetry.” I had grown up seeing him and so this did not surprise me. She too must have not been surprised. But, as a writer, a vein of protest throbbed uneasily in me.
“And then?” I asked her.
“I showed him nothing after that,” she said. “Never sought his view.”
— the voice of dignity. She did not say that she stopped writing … only that she did not show …
I have known many women who yearned to write and who were denied writing only because they were women. Women who fell by the wayside trying to reach the arts, the letters. Women who pined for words never spoken or for songs unsung, all their lives. The figure of one such grandmother rose up in my mind then. It was that of Lalitha P Nair’s mother, Poyikkonath Mavelil Kalyani Amma. The sister of the poet Pandalam KP, who wrote the famous prayer-song Akhilanda Mandalam .. I remember her, clad in white, her hair all silver. By the time I saw her, she had started to lose her memory. When we stepped into her room, the first thing she asked my mother was not her name but how far she had studied. “I have an MA”, said my mother; the old lady seemed to like that a lot. “Very good,” she said, “I wanted to study for an MA. But my grand-uncle didn’t let me. Why do girls need it, he asked.” She then turned to me and my sister and asked us the same question, about our studies. You must study for an MA, she advised us. “I wanted to study for an MA. But my grand-uncle wouldn’t let me,” she kept repeating.
I was an eighth-standard student then; this meeting left me devastated. That a woman who had reached the dusk of life and who had lost almost all her memories still thirsted to study, that she still regretted that she could not study, shook me. I wrote a story about it, titled Oru Mohabhangathinte Katha . It was accepted in a school jubilee souvenir edited by the principal of my mother’s college. That was my first published short story. After it appeared in print, Meeshayappooppan, who was writing sitting under the chickoo tree, called me to him. Have you read Kunjan Nambiar’s works, he asked. You must read them. Especially Srikrishna Charitam Manipravalam. You must memorise it. He did not tell me that he had read my story and that it was good. But now I see that it was perhaps the gentlest compliment that he could pay.
He was difficult husband. Unique, as an individual. He was the son of Sadasyatilakan TK Velu Pillai and the brother of the famous writer ‘Maali’ Madhavan Nair. A good tennis player, the holder of degrees in textile technology and law, a renowned lawyer. Oxford English, lucid Malayalam, and the ability to recite from Shakespeare and Shelley, Ezhuthachan and Nambiar. A formidable scholar and a member of the undivided Communist Party. Someone who could walk into Prime Minister Nehru’s or the President S Radhakrishnan’s offices any time. He lived with a quiet smile among us the people of Sasthamkotta who knew nothing of his stature in Delhi or the fact that it was he who had introduced Malayalis to political journalism through the magazine Keralasabdam. It may be that the truth of an individual is not visible even to those nearest to them. The true individuality of a person is not unveiled in neither newspaper obituaries nor remembrances. …
When I returned from Sasthamkotta, I typed Amma’s poems into my computer and printed them out. I sent a few of them to journals; some were published. I too had a notebook of stories written long back. To make sure that I would not pine for them in my old age, I searched for it, found it, and placed it on my table. Her calls became frequent. When I came back after long shifts at the newsdesk, she would call, some times very late — mole, please make sure that the notebook is safe… please let me have it back soonest …
That was a harried night. Her urgent request rang in my ears — please don’t lose my notebook! Was a book full of stories and poems written in the long-faded past the greatest of treasures for a woman who had reached the dusk of her life, having fulfilled all the duties assigned to her by society and loved ones, as wife, mother, and grandmother? Words scribbled long back? I was suddenly gripped by the desire to read the stories that I had scribbled a long time ago. But my book, which had been on the table, was not to be seen.
I began to search for it. Soon, I became frenzied; I feared that I could not sleep without finding it. While my family slept, I turned our book collection upside down. Finally, I found it. The triumph I felt when I turned its pages, the sweat streaming on my body, is indescribable. …
In that frenzy, I opened my computer and keyed in word after word. It formed a story. When I was sure that it was, I titled it ‘The Book with the Red Cover’. I returned Amma’s book and the prints of her poems the very next day. The story that I wrote was my reentry or resurrection as a writer. It became Ormayude Njharambu after much editing. When I wrote that story, three women who I had met in three phases of my life were in my mind: Kalyani Amma who regretted endlessly that she could not study enough; Lalitha P Nair, who hid away her writing; and another grandmother who I had met as a trainee journalist, who was sad that she could achieve nothing even though as a child she had received the blessings of the great poet Vallathol. But when I wrote it, it became my autobiography. I often wonder why Amma held out that book to me when I returned there after an interval of ten whole years. It was like pulling out the exorcist’s nail hammered into the yakshi’s head. With that she pulled free, thirsted once again for blood…
[KR Meera is one of Malayalam’s finest contemporary writers and an unabashed opponent of patriarchy in all its manifestations. Excerpts drawn from K R Meera’s essay ‘Ezhuthinte Neelanjharambu’ in her volume of essays Ente Jeevitathile Chilar, Kottayam: DC Books, 2019]