Swimming Hard, Staying Light: Annie Thayyil on Facing the Challenge of Staying Alive

Translated by J Devika

[These translated chapters and the excerpt from a third chapter are from the autobiography of the veteran Congress woman Annie Thayyil (Annie Joseph) (1920-1994) (Edangaziyile Kurisu, Kottayam: DC Books, 1990), who was a prominent presence in politics in the Cochin state and among the first women to contest and win the elections in pre-Independence Cochin state. She was a member of the Cochin Legislative Council between 1945 and 1951, but struggled to stay in heavily male-dominated politics, supporting herself through her writing, and often at the brink of penury.  She however  ran a press, edited a paper and a magazine (Prajamitram and Vanitha) , earned a law degree in between, and served on Central Social Welfare Board, Catholic Congress, and later, on the National Minorities Commission. As a translator of classic literature to Malayalam and a writer, she was also on the executive council of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi. Her life was a remarkable quest for lightness and independence, as is evident from these chapters.

But equally interesting — and disturbing — is the dynamics of her relationship with her household help — the subaltern — Velama.  The critical history of the power dynamics between women in unfolding Malayali modernity needs to be traced through accounts such as these.]

The Press and the Newspaper


No job. No money. No one to seek help from. It was true that I became an MLA. But that ended with the court case. … In short, a big zero. How was I to live? Start a press, some people suggested. But did I have the slightest idea of running a press? I’d never seen one. And what about the money to buy it? Would it come cheap? Someone told me that a small press was put on sale. It would cost below five thousand. I did not have five rupees. So then —?

A bank said that they could give me a loan. That made me a little brave. I decided to take the plunge. And found a worker. A smart one, his name was Velu. He knew all the work — composing, printing, binding. I started with him. In the first month I earned 32 rupees after paying the rent and Velu’s wages. That looked like big money to me. I wasn’t used to getting any money, anyway?

Exactly a hundred days after I acquired the press, someone offered to buy it from me. I sold it. Guess for how much? For ten thousand. Double the price I bought it for, that is. I went and closed the bank loan at once. I had the rest, another five thousand, in hand. Had I ever seen so big an amount? I was delighted. And even more puffed up with pride. I thought it was my cleverness. So I bought another press. A big one this time. For Rs 27,000.

That too was a bank loan.

Now, this time, I went bust. Isn’t it an elephantine foolishness to suppose that just because a rabbit was killed when the jackfruit hit the ground once, the same will happen each time a jackfruit fell? And on top, I did something even more stupid. I started a daily newspaper — the Prajamitram. Me, who did not know how to write even a news report, I started it. It was Professor Mundassery who urged me to start one. His aim was to expand my world. But the aim won’t do. Things need to move. It is not easy to get a newspaper going successfully. The truth is that neither me, nor the person who urged me had the sense to anticipate that. I fell deeper into debt — of Rs 62,000.

And there were other minor debts, here and there. I found it hard to stay on in Thrissur. I had not studied the law then. Had no idea about defamation. I would just write whatever I heard and saw. Quite recklessly. I now faced several defamation cases. I was also arrested many times for sedition. Not once, many times.

I still remember the experience of being arrested for the first time. The police inspector and a policeman came to arrest me. I did not grasp the situation. T K Nair was the Chief Minister of Cochin then. It was about something I wrote about the government in my newspaper. I don’t remember what it was, exactly. I did not understand. I asked.

“What do you want?”

“We are here to arrest you and take you to the police station,” they said.

For some reason, I was not rattled. I said, “You may leave. I shall come there.”

The Inspector smiled, probably at my ignorance, and said, “No, that can’t be so. We have to take you there –”

“Alright,” I said. “I’ll be with you in five minutes.”

I got ready and went with them but was reluctant to walk by their side. I said:

“You walk ahead, I ‘ll follow.”

“Ayyo, please don’t say that. If arrested you are expected to come along with us.”

“Then I will walk ahead of you. You stay a step behind,” I suggested. Even that is against the law. But they agreed probably because I was a woman.

By the time I reached the station, people had heard of my arrest; they were ready with bail.

Later, I felt — someone like me, with solid higher education, living in the town, and yet I knew nothing of civil and criminal, just think? I feel that the basics of the law should be necessarily taught in schools and our children should be given a general idea about our Constitution.

Let me return to our subject. I was arrested many times. The loan mounted there. The cases, here. I felt suffocated in Thrissur.

Anyway I did not have a house there. And no serious ties, either. I decided to leave. I needed to get rid of this snake around my throat, this newspaper. The only way to do that was by leaving. There was the Rs 55000 debt on my head. And me? All alone in this world. Even my own siblings did not know that I was drowning in debt. Who should I blame for this? I alone was responsible.

I rented out a building in Ernakulam and moved the press there. But to run it? That needed money. I had no money to get rice for supper, so how was I to find money to run a press —

So the newspaper closed down. The press, in this state. I became motionless again. I lived alone, with just my . Her name was Velama. The poor woman is no more now.

I still remember it.  A dark-bodied form. She cooked marvellously. But where were the groceries for that? ( pp. 128-31)

That Day


The days passed with difficulty, squashed and groaning. To who could I tell? And what use, telling? That was going to be a big turn in my life.

It was morning. I craved for coffee. But all we had in the house was plain water. No coffee powder, no milk, no sugar. It soon turned ten. The servant brought the shopping bag — we needed rice and groceries for curries. Where was the  money for that! There are situations in life when you will have to protect your honour in front of the servants, even. I asked, “is there no rice at all?”

“There must be a little bit in the bottom of the bin, ” she said. “So make do with that today, and you have it.  My stomach is upset; it will heal if I fast today. I’ll get us all we need tomorrow.”

Wonder if Velama noticed my unease? She said nothing. It was noon, and there was no lunch. I was faint with hunger. I went off to sleep for some time. But when I woke up I was even more famished. It was now past four; I now craved for some tea. I would have a headache without it.

But where would I get it from?

I sat on the verandah gazing out when a young man appeared. Who, I did not know.  He wore a silk shirt, and there was a lit cigarette on his lips. I thought, I could have got a cup of tea for the price of that cigarette.

The day ended. My stomach was on fire. My head began to spin. What to do? My own brother was here (in Ernakulam), a lecturer at the Maharaja’s College. I could simply go over there and have dinner, saying nothing. But the issue was that I had nothing. And the shame of it made me reticent. If you have your own resources, you’d not be shy.

Will you become so tired by a single day’s fasting? Not necessarily. But there is a difference between fasting when you have rice in the house, and when you don’t have any.

It was night. I could not even look at the face of my servant. The poor woman must be hungry? I was reluctant to ask. What if she replied that she was indeed hungry?  What if she said, “I can’t starve like this, I am leaving”? Then I would be all alone. I could not bear the thought.

I went to bed but sleep evaded me. My mind and belly were both aflame. How was I to sleep? Whom to tell this? After a while, I slipped into slumber.

A dream! That I had gone mad. I was running wild on Banerjee Road. I could see me very well. My hair was loose. My saree was torn. I was laughing hysterically. And wailing too. I was running crazy everywhere and the onlookers were laughing. Some had a stunned expression, some where sighing and shaming. “What happened to this Annie Joseph? (That was how I was known before I got married), some people were asking. “How little time is needed for women to go mad?” Others smirked. All this I could hear, and I could see me.

I have heard that sometimes dreams present reality with much greater clarity…

… The madness in my dream was just like that. I leapt up. The cot was near a window. I looked out through it. I was happy, relieved. I had not gone mad! I touched my body all over . It was just a dream. It is night. I am in bed. I am not crazy. That was just a nightmare.

My intelligence was very awake and clear. I sat up and thought. Even though it was just a dream, I’d gone mad. Why could that be? I remembered the last day. The starving and the thought that if only I had the price of the cigarette burning on that young man’s lips, I could have had a cup of tea. How my mind hurt thinking of how low I’d sunk. All of it appeared clearly in my mind as though in a mirror. Then I thought, this is what has driven me mad.

Suddenly, it was as though a page had flipped in my mind. I thought, what has happened to me? Really, nothing. I was in good health. I had an excellent degree won from hard work. No obligations to anyone. Can’t I survive giving tuition to some students? Why do I have to worry about the money for my meals? “Be brave,” I patted my own shoulder. Like an intimate friend, I spoke to myself. On the one side, my weakness, born out of sheer fatigue. On the other, my will-power, that has risen up sharp and prominent, rock-like. The intelligence pushed the emotions down. I somehow found great strength. I went back to bed and slept really well.

The day broke and the sun rose. I opened my eyes to reality. I was reading The Count of Monte Christo then. I went to my chair, sat down, and opened the book. I tried to read, but the lines did not move. My eyes were faltering. I desperately needed to have some coffee.

But from where?

Suddenly, I remembered that there was a big hotel nearby. Madras Cafe. They would send some coffee and food without immediate payment. I sent Velama to get some iddlis and two coffees. They sent it immediately; they did not know that I was a pauper! I ate up the iddlis and coffee. Ow! I remember even today, I have never relished my food so much.

It was the beginning of a new chapter in my life. How? I had no idea.

Still, the feeling stayed. (pp. 131-34)


I Clamber to Safety


The iddlis and coffee filled my stomach. I reopened Monte Christo and began to read. Then my thoughts flowed this way: I must live. I must live without dependence. But how? What if I translate this book? It was a big book of 1100 pages. To think that it could be translated and sold for an income … what a mad thought! Crazier than that nightmare! But I decided to try that anyway.

I pulled the book close. My plan was to start translating it. But you need paper to write? And I saw that there was no ink in the pen. You needed 12 annas for a bottle of ink in those days. I found a three-anna coin stuck on the table. I gave it to Velama to get two blocks of ink. I powdered them and mixed hot water. Now, for a pen. I had an old steel pen.  I wiped it clean. Then for writing-paper. I remembered that there was a bunch of papers on which Russian news appeared; distributed free to journalists. You could write on the blank side. I dusted it and got it ready. Now I was ready to write.

But I had to eat, now? For that, what? I had a small ring on my finger. We could sell it. But who would take it to the shop? I couldn’t. I was too ashamed. I took it off and gave it to Velama, telling her: “Sell this. You must ask in two or three places. Get some rice, lentils,  dried fish and other necessities. And don’t lose the rest of the cash.”

She stood staring at my face for a few minutes.

And thus began my second life. I would wake at 3 AM at dawn, sharp. Even today, I wake at 3 30 AM — and reach my writing desk. Labour — that alone is the basis of a dignified life. I prepared myself internally for such a life. I began to write. I did not have today’s speed. But I got started. In short, I translated that big book in six months.

And in the middle, how did I live? That was amusing too. I would write short articles for newspapers and journals, some of which would be published.

But only a few of the publishers would pay, and that too, rarely.

But I persisted. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to… (pp. 135-6)

[Annie Thayyil recounts in the rest of the chapter how she survived emotionally through her writing. Later, in a stroke of luck, she was able to re-sell the newsprint that she had ordered earlier for her newspaper, and climb fully out of debt. She describes that in a later chapter]




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