Remembering Arya Pallom: Devaki Nilayangode

[This snippet of memory is from Devaki Nilayangode’s essay ‘Moonnu Talamurakal’ in which she remembers the woman pioneer of reformism among the Malayala brahmins, Arya Pallom (Yathra — Kaattilum Naattilum, Mathrubhumi Books, Kozhikode. 2006). Nilayangode was active in the Nambutiri Yogakshema Sabha in the 1940s at a time when many of its prominent activists were leaning more and more towards the left in politics.]

The Pallathu Mana (the brahmin homestead) is in Koppam, near Pattambi. Back then it was an old Naalukettu building. Some parts of it had been removed. I have stayed there many times. Whenever there was a meeting in a nearby area we would stay there. They did not mind any number of visitors. For party workers and community reform activists, it was like home. MRB (MR Bhattatiripad, the noted Malayala Brahmin reformer) stayed there for quite a long time after his wedding — that was the first widow remarriage in the community — with his wife.  They had nowhere else to go. Those who go there could step straight in and serve themselves some food. There would be no formal greeting or show of excessive friendliness. After the meal, all present could go and lie down in the Tekkini area of the house. And go to sleep chatting.

Arya chechi’s husband Pallom (his full name was Krishnan Nambutiri) was a full-time (communist) party worker. …  I met him a few times when I visited but did not know him well or speak with him.

Arya chechi had four children, three girls and her boy. Devaki, Murali, and Pulari were the girls. The boy died as a child. His name was Damodaran. MRB’s marriage was on the third day after the child died. Arya Chechi took the initiative to solemnize it despite the sorrow of her son’s death, not allowing it to impede her. Because they had nowhere to go, MRB and his wife stayed with them for a long while.

 

Photo: Arya Pallom, from T A Ushakumari (ed), Tozhilkendrathilekku, Thrissur: Samatha Publications, 2014.

Devaki was her oldest daughter. She was two or three years senior to me, but I called her by name. My chechi was of course Arya chechi! Pallam and Arya chechi wanted to give their children a sound education. This was the beginning of the 1930s. I am not sure if there were schools in Pattambi at that time. And there was no practice of giving Nambutiri girls an education. But Arya chechi sent Devaki to the Nambutiri school at Edakkunni. She studied there till she turned ten.

It was then that some really amazing happened. Arya chechi sent her daughter to Gandhiji’s ashram at Wardha! Thinking of it today, I am still finding it hard to believe. A small child, just ten. And Wardha was so far away. It was not at all uncommon then for adult Malayala brahmin women to go and stay there. Umadevi of Cholamana was one of them. She was later known as Uma Behn. I also know that another Antharjanam Devaki Narikkattiri also went there. Only later did I know that Arya chechi sent her daughter Devaki with this Devaki to Wardha.

Devaki was at Gandhiji’s ashram at Wardha for five or six years. She became the captain of a Congress Seva Dal volunteer group at that young age. Gandhiji was very affectionate to her. She told me later that she once had a fever and Gandhiji sat by her bedside nursing her back to health. He also advised her to crop her hair closely. Apparently, Devaki was delighted by this suggestion.

In the ashram Devaki’s uniform was cropped hair, a shirt and half-pants that reached her knees. She once came to Kerala too in this garb. This was for a Congress meeting at Shornur. When she got off the train, everyone thought that she was a boy. Only when she emerged in a skirt and blouse after a bath did people realize that she was a girl. And she left Kerala after the meeting.

In that period, M N Govindan Nair who visited Wardha advised her to appear for the Matriculation exams. The inmates of the ashram did not like it. Their view was that the education that the British offered was unnecessary. But Devaki had made up her mind to study more. She passed the Matriculation exam from the Karve School in Pune and then moved to Madras to begin medical studies. She completed the course, but did not receive the degree. That was because she did not complete house surgency, I think.

It was around that time that Devaki came to Kottakkal to participate in a Congress meeting. She was a volunteer there. Dr Warrier [later to become a well-known communist leader in Kerala] says in his autobiography that he met her there for the first time. Later he too reached Madras for medical studies. It was there that their love culminated in marriage…

Devaki used to participate in our [the Yogakshema Sabha’s] meetings just after her wedding, or just before. I was already married by then. After my wedding, I participated a little in the activities of the Yogakshema Sabha. I was the Secretary of the women’s wing, the Antharjana Samajam, for some time. Her mother Arya chechi was our leader. It was her commanding presence and suggestions that backed up our activism.”

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