Translated by J Devika
[Lakshmi N Menon (1899-1994) was one of the most successful Malayali women in Indian politics despite the fact that she never really entered formal politics, though attracted to nationalism and international politics as a student abroad in the 1920s. Her father was the well-known reformer, educationist, and rationalist Ramavarma Thampan, (her mother was Madhavikkutty Amma) and her husband the educationist and scholar V K Nandana Menon — but she was one of the rare women who were better known than their male relatives. Lakshmi N Menon was educated in Thiruvananthapuram and she worked for a time as a teacher and later as a lawyer, growing closer to social activism in the 1920s and 30s especially associated with the All-India Women’s Conference. She was a member of the Rajya Sabha in the 1950s; she represented as the head of the India delegation at the UN in the 1950s and was a Minister of State in the 1960s. She was nominated to the Committee on the Status of Women at the UN.
This excerpt is from her biography by G Kumara Pillai (Lakshmi N Menon, Kochi: Poornodaya Publications, 1999). It is interesting not just because it throws light on Lakshmi N Menon’s successes, but, most interestingly, brings to light a whole network of educated, self-willed, independent women who helped each other — swatantryavaadinis in the finest sense of the word, The male biographer also leaves his mark: no wonder this generation was forgotten. If even a sympathetic biographer could betray moments of deep insecurity, one can well-imagine what would have been with others.]
Though she got a very favourable certificate from Prof. Rangswamy Ayengar, that did not help Lakshmi Amma to get a job in the Women’s College [Thiruvananthapuram]. There was a vacancy and a notification inviting applications. She believed, quite fairly, that she would be appointed. But that did not happen. It is said that this was because of her excessive interest in public affairs. But then, she received a call from Madras. From Gauri teacher. She let Lakshmi Amma know that there was a vacancy in the Queen Mary’s College, Madras. Lakshmi Amma had accepted employment in a school soon after her BA under her advice. Gauri teacher entered her life again, now.
K Gauri was born in Travancore’s northern-most village Aroor (5.8.1895- 28.2.1951) was one of the first women to have gained higher education and employment in Travancore, especially from the backward classes. Her father A P Kuttappoo was the sanskrit munshi at the boys’ high school in British Kochi. Gauri spent her childhood in Kochi. She learned Sanskrit and Malayalam from her father and studied in the St Theresa’s college, passing her SSLC exam at the age of 14. Continuing her education at the Malabar Christian College and the Presidency College, Madras, she secured an MA in English Literature. It is said that she was the first south Indian woman to have gained an MA degree… (pp. 57-58)
…. It was mentioned in the last chapter that Lakshmi Amma left for higher studies to England. If she was invited to Madras by Gauri, it was Kausalya, a native of Kannur, who helped her to go to England. Their deep friendship began in the Queen Mary’s College.C K Kausalya (15.7.1890- 3.4.1965)was the daughter of Kottyathu Choyi, the founder of the Choyis Seaside Hotel in Kannur. Like Gauri Sankunni, Kottyathu Kausalya too belonged to the first generation of modern educated employed women. Choyi had 10 children, 7 girls and 3 boys…
Kausalya who completed her education is the St Theresa’s school, the St Joseph’s Anglo-Indian school, and the Presidency College, Madras taught in the Kannur Girls’ High School for some time. Then she went to England on a scholarship, earned a BA (Hons.) in Biology, and returned, to join the Queen Mary’s College, Madras, in 1923 January. T C Kochukutty Amma [who was Lakshmi Amma’s student, who later became a well-known nationalist activist in Malabar] remembers that Lakshmi Amma would spend most of her free time in Kausalya’s room. Kausalya persuaded Lakshmi Amma to go to England in 1926. After her return, she did not rejoin the Queen Mary’s College. But their friendship continued till the end. Kausalya’s sister Nalini’s daugher Vimala says that she would visit whenever she could. Kausalya left for England again. She travelled in many countries till 1934, delivering lectures. She retired from Queen Mary’s in 1946, and settled down in Meppadi, Wayanad. Vimala stayed with her from the age of 8. There she planted an horticultural garden; continued social service. She started a school at Ambalavayal; later, she handed it over to the government. Teaching, social service, music — she adored these. She was a member of the Indian Science Academy. Played the veena really well. While at Queen Mary’s College, she carried out social service in the slums close to the college …(pp.72-3)
… It was at Kolkata that Lakshmi Amma met and got to know V K Nandana Menon. He was at that time a lecturer in Political Science at the University of Lucknow. In those days, to go to Lucknow from Kerala, one had to travel through Kolkata. It was in such a journey that they met, at a common friend’s house. They liked each other, and soon got married. Thus in 1930, on May 12, Lakshmi Amma became Lakshmi N Menon…. Kochupaappu Achan [Nandana Menon’s father] was seeking a suitable bride for his son when his letter arrived, announcing his wish. He was somewhat disappointed, but did not oppose his son. Ramavarma Thampan was happy when he read his daughter’s letter … he saw that they suited each other in both social background and education. Besides, being a progressive, he would not have tried to oppose his daughter’s decision. “He reportedly said that “Nandan has the qualification to marry kutty”. He had no doubts about his daughter’s qualifications. The wedding was at Lucknow … the home of the bridegroom’s friend Gupta was the venue. Besides the bride and groom, only Gupta and Sreedhara Menon [Nandana Menon’s brother] were present. There were only four chairs… They garlanded each other, just that. Then they left for their honeymoon in Bangalore.
Their marriage of 44 years was a happy one. They had no children.But that did not affect their attitude to life. Their natures were different. But they lived knowing each other, with mutual consent. Nandan Menon was someone who preferred a quiet life. Study, thought, teaching — he had few interests beyond these. His behaviour was gentle and calm. He spoke little, and mildly. He did not like public speeches over scholarly discourses. He was an authoritative scholar in political thought. His wife was filled with throbbing energy; this was what marked her. Moving constantly, travelling, talking — these were inevitable for her self-expression. It was not possible for her, as a public activist, to stay away from the people and public speeches. It was common for her to speak frankly the unpleasant truth. But both were deeply interested in reading. And great hosts too. Lakshmi N Menon believed firmly in women’s freedom but had not let go of traditonal values completely. Her ideal was equal cooperation between men and women. Nandana Menon had neither interest nor ability in domestic affairs. Therefore she took on herself the burden of running the home. And succeeded in taking both [lives] forward successfully.
Nandana Menon was someone who behaved with a subtle sense of humour. He was very fixed on order, cleanliness and neatness. He used to keep his books well-ordered at all times. If anything looked out of place, he would say with a mild smile, “Kuttiamma must have gone this way!” When his wife was a Cabinet Member, he would tell people very close to them who visited, “Did you see DM (Deputy Minister)? You should see her first!”… (pp.77-78)