Activism, Married and Unmarried: K Devayani

Translated by J Devika

K Devayani (1922-1999) was a well-known communist political activist from Travancore, Travancore who lived through the most turbulent times for the communist movement — the 1940s and 50s. She entered public life through the social reformist movement, the Atmavidya Sangham, and the became the secretary of several workers’ unions in the Alappuzha-Ambalappuzha area. She was one of the founders of the communist women’s organization the Mahila Sangham and a member of the Communist Party since 1942. Her remarkable memoir Chorayum Kaneerum Nananjha Vazhikal is one of the most widely read of the writings of the women of her generation.  But it also brings to light the serious limitations that even women who sought to be communist revolutionaries faced — it was as though the norms of female respectability would simply not change no matter what.

Below are excerpts from this memoir.


,,, I had not end my studies in Class 9. In those days, parents did not generally approve of  nubile girls walking long distances alone to school. I too had become more interested in certain kinds of public activities than in studies. When I stopped school and stayed at home, there was a more favourable atmosphere to engage in the former. My brother and sister locked up their house [in Punnapra] and returned home to Paravur around this time.

My brother was by now a full-time activist of the Atmavidya Sangham. His interest in public activism was a big source of support for me at home. The activities of the Sangham under the leadership of Swami Aryabhata who was the disciple of Guru Vaghbhatananda, were spreading quite rapidly in the nearby areas. My sister became active when its women’s wing was being formed.

Atmavidya Sangham which opposed the caste system and social hierarchies did a lot of work to enlighten the local people against these evils. I entered this activism in the shade of my brother and sister-in-law. The conference of the women’s wing was held at Punnapra. Muthukulam Parvati Amma [a noted poet, scholar, reformer, and follower of Sreenarayana Guru] presided over it and Gomathy Dev [the wife of the radical writer P Kesava Dev] spoke. My sister was the secretary and she welcomed the gathering. I recited the prayer; that was the first time I faced an audience. I became an active worker of the Atmavidya Sangham. Soon, I was elected the secretary of the women’s wing.

…I used to be very sad those days about my inability to give speeches. Whenever I found myself immersed in Aryabhata Swamy’s smooth-flowing, completely unimpeded flow of words, I desired intensely to become an orator. In the end, I began to memorise the speeches he wrote for me and recite them with clarity in the meetings of the Sangham. In many temple festivals, meetings would be organized through progressive youth, and I began to recite these speeches with no stage-fright at all. Many meetings were held at the Kuthirappanthiveli, Bhajanamatham, and Aravukad. That a young girl clad in a skirt and blouse was making public speeches about the caste system and exploitation became the talk of town. My brother was very proud and happy; he encouraged me whenever necessary and bolstered my courage.

By that time, the social order of the country had undergone significant change. On one side, the agitation for responsible government were gaining strength. On the other side, the coir workers of Alappuzha and nearby places were beginning to agitate for the necessities of life.

In 1934, there was a general strike by the coir factory workers. The Diwan’s regime and the factory owners joined together to let loose all sorts of attacks on workers.. The workers were subjected to considerably violence by the police and the goondas. There was firing in the southern part of Alappuzha town. In the end, when the strike was withdrawn, it was seen that the current state of the organization had to be changed and that all workers in the coir sector had to be brought under a single banner. For this, a meeting of women working under the factory owners and in their houses was called in Kalarkodu. I let my brother know and attended the meeting. Sugathan sir and Advocate P N Krishna Pillai spoke. A union called the ‘Ambalappuzha Taluk Coir Workers’ Union’ was formed.  I was chosen the secretary and Simon Asan was the president. I was just fifteen years old then.  Many women joined this union but it did not last long. It is the same coir-spinners who also performed agricultural labour….By this time, the agricultural workers’ union had become a force to reckon with in the fields. The women agricultural workers received five annas a day as wages. They were expected to work till six in the evening without a break. They were not permitted to even take a sip of water in between. When the thirst became unbearable, they would drink the water from the channels running near the field’s ridge without straightening their backs even. Anger began to accumulate against this slavery among the women workers. What started as murmuring on the ridges exploded one day. I was in the front row of the strike… The women workers in the Kalarkodu field refused to work one day. They demanded better wages and some time for rest at noon. The landlords unleashed thugs and police on the women the best they could. But this strike only spread all the more. Women went in groups and persuaded other groups of women who were working to quit and join the strike. In the end, helpless, the police took the initiative for mediation. It was agreed that the wages would be increased to 6 annas and there would be a half-hour break for rest each noon. The success of the strike made us all very enthusiastic. Though it was we women who conducted the strike, the leaders of the coir workers’ trade union were present to provide us with advice and instructions … (pp. 27-30)

[Devayani describes her journey towards becoming a communist.] …The realization that I was becoming a communist created a strong sense of pride in me. Comrade [Krishna Pillai] instructed me in the basics of communism. I did not understand all of it. But I understood that communism was the theory of human liberation. I was given a companion to organize the women and call meetings — Thankamma. … We gathered women of four or five huts in a space nearby and explained things. Most of the speeches were against the war [World War II]. Thankamma spoke in many meetings. The Mahila Sangham gained a strong foundation in the villages. The experience of public speaking gained through activism in the Atmavidya Sangham came handy to me. From his hideout in a hut in Kanhiramchira, Comrade would write down the the time and place to organize meetings and the points to be made in the speeches ; we carried them out. When many things I knew only vaguely became clear and with new experiences, the desire to engage in public activism as a communist turned into a firm oath. I continued the work of building up the Mahila Sangham keeping in close touch with party workers ,,,” (pp. 32-33)

“…I was told that it was not enough to work within just the Ambalappuzha taluk and so I first went to Cgerthala taluk and later to Ernakulam and Kollam districts. Women’s meetings were organized in Cherthala, Muhamma, Vayalar and other places. I spoke along with Sugatan sir [the legendary communist leader] at the anniversary of the Muhamma coir workers’ union… In Cochin state, I made speeches at Anthikkad, Nattika, Engandiyoor, and many other places … Around the same time I spoke at the cashew workers’ conference at Kollam and at the Thirunakkara maidan in Kottayam.

Comrade Krishnan Nair [that was the name taken by Devaki’s future husband, A V Kunhambu] was very happy to see that my activism was now taking me to far places. Often I felt that he was taking a greater interest in more work and giving it greater consideration. Many other comrades too had the same feeling. One day, he asked me, completely out of the blue: “Have you ever thought of getting married?”

I struggled to respond with clarity.

“Often, young women who freely engage in public activism can give rise to slander,” he explained.

“I wish to continue my political work. If marriage will not obstruct it, I am willing to consider,” said I. I told him of an earlier marriage proposal that I received. Even the engagement was nearly over. He was a theatre actor. He was a local man, used to play female roles in the Puranic plays. He was clean-shaven, and had curly hair grown long; he was good-looking, and had a woman’s good looks; he used to come to listen to my speeches regularly. When the alliance was proposed everyone favoured it except my brother. It was almost fixed. My fear was that I may have to give up my political work, My brother however came to my aid; he said that the alliance cannot be accepted. Nobody at home speaks against him.

And so it did not happen.

“What if you receive a proposal that does not impose these restrictions, what will you do?” he asked.

“Then, if it suits me and my family, I agree.”

“Do you like me?”

I sat with my head bowed unable to look at the face from which the question had proceeded most unexpectedly.

“I am an orphan. I am from the far north Malabar. A communist in hiding should not introduce himself too much. But should I not tell you at least this much? I am an accused in a murder case — accused of murdering a sub-inspector of police. The police are on the lookout for me since nearly a year. I have no father or mother. Not even a tiny bit of land. All I have is my party. I do not have the ability to even give you a single meal. You will have to support me many times even by hard labour, carrying rocks and sand even. I have only sorrow to give you. But if you like it, I shall marry you.” He said mildly… (pp. 36-38)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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