Vignettes of the Memory: Lakshmi N Menon

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.

[The following is an excerpt from an autobiographical speech she made titled ‘Smrithi Chithrangal’, reproduced in her biography by G Kumara Pillai (Lakshmi N Menon, Kochi: Poornodaya Publications, 1999, pp. 64-70]

… As students, the problems facing the nation had caught firm hold in our minds. We stayed back in college even after class hours to read about the Russian Revolution and Swami Vivekananda’s speeches. Participate in the struggle for the country’s freedom, wear khadar, lead a simple life — the passionate desire for these took over the mind. We had secret societies in our hostels. It felt as though we were holding hands in the dark and  taking an oath to sacrifice ourselves to a larger cause. Even then we studied, passed our exams. We left college with the feeling that there were bigger goals to achieve and that we too had a role in deciding the future and fate of the nation.

I was in school when the faint echoes of the suffragette struggles of England reached us. I was not old enough to understand fully the significance of the struggle for voting rights for women. But whenever my father asked, “Should men and women have equal rights?” I would always answer, “Definitely, yes!” Father would smile favourably at my defiant answer.  I took part in the suffragette struggles for equal voting rights that were happening in England and the US though only through the mind. The stories of how women demanding voting rights were thrown in prison and force-fed made my blood boil. Even today this is a riddle. Why should women be denied things that men acquire with no effort?

This attitude of the young mind gradually grew harder with the sight of other injustices. Gandhiji was in jail in the early 1920s. Kasturba came to Madras then. She had travelled third class and her body was full of scars from bed-bug bites. Mrs George Joseph was in Madras then. We all had a meal at a Gujarati home. Mrs George Joseph told me privately that Kasturba had more greatness than her great husband. I believed her. Seeing many women who held themselves back for the fame of their husbands in later years, I now believe that the wives of our great leaders who remain unknown are the really great human beings. I have in mind Lenin’s wife Krupskaya, J C Bose’s wife Abala Bose, President Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor Roosevelt. I have had the good fortune of meeting all of them in different times. My faith in women’s ability to get things done with no fuss at all is probably from [seeing] my grandmother’s behaviour which combined efficiency, patience, and self-control … (pp.67-68)

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