[These are excerpts from my translation of her story included in the volume On the Far Side of Memory, New Delhi, OUP, 2018. Lalitambika’s distrust of the repression of the body despite her great admiration for Gandhi was palpable, and this story illustrates it well.]
Whenever I hear about women’s social initatives, I remember Bhanumati Amma. Not for anything in particular. I have – by sheer mistake, but quite instinctively — called many young women social workers by her name. I would quickly correct myself – oh, how I forget! Why has this name installed itself so firmly in my consciousness? Young women of the present do not know much about her. Wonder what she would think of that? …
There are not many women’s names among us that will survive in time. Even if there are worthy names, no one is going to remember them. A young poet once teased me – “Oh, a puffed-up gang, indeed! They claim the tradition of the Rani of Jhansi or Padmini Devi – but is there a single woman in Malayalam who has made a name for herself in the arts, literature, social service, or at least in music?”
This angered me. I told him: “No, we haven’t … but don’t we have many, many mothers who have given birth to such achievers and brought them up? That should do, plenty.”
This must have been a tongue-lashing born out of the sheer lack of a fitting repartee. Also, from a sense of helplessness. Anyway, I did not bother to think up a set of old names to feel proud of. Or to be insulted by. Bhanumati Amma used to say: “Our kind will improve only when some women who are ready to takes risks and act rise up in society. Only when they leave behind the past and tradition and all its trappings. The authorities hold us by the neck, stifle our breath, and then make fun of us, ‘oh they don’t sing, they can’t make a speech’! We should bite hard the hand that holds us down and free ourselves, chechi! … Let it be a bit painful! Never mind that.”
She was like Tennyson’s Princess. If women must prosper, they must have a land of their own to strengthen themselves. The arts, literature, sculpture — all of these would have a place there. Political theory and struggle would be taught there. The final aim of such a world would be to make women capable of living in the world without men. Bhanumati described it: “Perfumes and silks will have no place in that good land. No face powder, no cosmetics … all the emotions that render us weak and vacillating will be abandoned. We will win if we can produce five hundred women workers who have been trained there from the age of five till twenty-five. They will then take things forward on their own …”
I could never agree fully with her ideals. But her sincerity and self-respect touched my heart. She dreamt of her future only in relation of the future of her own kind. She thought of it even in her sleep. How to end the mockery directed at women? How to remedy their failings? She believed in nothing less than self-sufficiency. She was not a desperate social reformer who had no other options. She was beautiful, well-born, well-educated, young. She could have taken up employment. Or get married. Or sit around the house lolling in gossip and lies. She had no need at all to earn a bad name, taking up the toil and trouble of social intervention for zero personal gain….
All public movements have the same fate written for them. After the first phase of excitement, a lull. The heat and radiance decline. The movement may not die off as long as the fundamental problem it addresses stayed alive. But surviving this second phase of slowdown and disfavour is tough. There was apparently some discord in the House. Many of the old activists had broken off. Some new members had joined. Because some political party was offering greater support, the adherents of the rival parties were displeased. Radha wrote: “They are making up tales about Bhanu chechi. The sad thing isn’t that, chechi, some of our colleagues have taken them seriously. If it were anyone except her, they would have pulled out their heads and left much earlier.”
Radha’s words can’t be taken at face value. She always worries about small things. Whatever, the next time we met, the old self-confidence was missing in Bhanumati Amma’s eyes. She said that they were shifting the institution from the city to a village. That would be cheaper. There would be greater freedom for the women’s movement there, too. Quite unusually, that day, she picked up my little child and caressed it affectionately. I had never seen her indulging a child before.
The times went by. I had no news worth the name at about the world for some time as I had been felled by a terrible illness. Forms moved by me as if they were shadows. I heard reports as if they were echoes from somewhere. Nothing was clear. Nothing would touch my inner self. I was not surprised when I heard that Bhanumati had moved to a famous women’s ashram somewhere outside. It was not possible to corral such a dynamic activist. Maybe that’s how her name was rising steadily – the name that was to be engraved in History.
Many days passed. Once, I bumped into Radha quite unexpectedly during a train journey. I didn’t recognize her at first glance. She had become unrecognizably thin. Those eyes were drained of poetry. The smile had left those lips. That vivacity and brightness, the lilting tunes, were no more. Now she looked like a tried and tested housewife struggling in the midst of heavy domestic burdens. When she turned her head by chance from the newspaper she was buried in, she recognized me – I had been looking intently at her. Shades of doubt and searching, thought and recognition, appeared on her face in succession. A minute passed … with a loud laugh from which surprise and joy burst forth, she ran up and hugged me: “Ayyo … you here, chechi? …”
Radha’s story was the usual one. After the House broke up, she went back home and got marriedat the earliest. She had three children now and was now a teacher in a primary school nearby. The job and childbirth and family responsibilities have eaten away her health and poetic talents. But she seemed contented in this new life too. When the House entered our conversation, she said: “I don’t regret my life taking this turn … compared to Bhanu chechi’s story, mine is so much better … Oh! What a disgrace it was … for all of us …”
“News about Bhanumati! “… I was stunned. “What was so disgraceful about it … Isn’t she now in the women’s ashram? … Maybe she has joined some revolutionary party …?”
Radha lowered her head, pain on her face. “Oh! … A revolutionary party! … How good that would’ve been! … But none of us expected this from Bhanu chechi … she who didn’t allow us to laugh or sing or even recite poetry … she who used to say that romantic love was suicidal for a woman …
Then, after some silence, she concluded,Radha’s station was near. We did not speak. Did we not have anything to speak? Did we not have anything to think? I had never thought of Bhanumati Amma as a faultless goddess. None of us are goddesses, after all. Can’t we get rid of this contempt for human emotions? Can’t we correct it …?
Holding Bhanumati Amma (and many other such fellow-beings like her) to my chest, I cry out loud:
“Beloved friend! Sister! Come! Why do you hide your face for a wrong committed unwittingly? We who fight to end such wrongs must also be able to forgive such wrong and heal such wounds (or, who are we to pronounce something right or wrong?)! Will you not forgive yourself? Will you not return to Duty’s radiant arena? Let us join together once again in this path that leads towards dawn …”
“And then – let us inscribe that name for the future – that unforgettable name – in a way that it will never be effaced. These bits of paper are for that purpose. The pen, after all, is in your hands.”
[‘Tirike Varoo’, in Lalitambika Antarjanathinte Kathakal Sampoornam, Kottayam: DC Books, 2009, 373-81]