My Mother: M Leelavathi

[M Leelavathi (1927– ) is one of Malayalam’s most brilliant literary scholars of the earlier generation, whose life reads like a series of struggles against misogynies, old, new, and admixed — and of triumph over all these obstacles. She is perhaps the most awarded woman scholar in Malayalam, having won almost every noteworthy prize for criticism in Malayalam and a Padmasri, almost the only one to have scaled such heights of success. Most importantly, she is perhaps the most striking representative we have of the second generation of Swatantryavaadinis in Kerala. Below are translated excerpts from an essay she wrote about her astoundingly-talented mother, Nangayyamaandal, who was denied higher education but who struggled to provide her accomplished daughter with one. In the present when one hears of how the lack of access alone will drive lakhs of young girls outside education in India, and how no one seems to really care about this, one feels all the more obliged to excavate such stories — in a region where women did secure education, it was not as if they were simply driven into it, like sheep. It was rather an outcome of countless struggles, cutting across caste, religion, and class. Like it may be clear from the account below, or from Ratnamayi Devi’s remembrance of the struggles of three generations of women in her family for education ...

From M Leelavathi, ‘Ente Amma’, Sanghatitha 2 (5), 2011, pp. 24-30. ]

Translated by J Devika


Love, compassion, graciousness, patience, on one side; arrogance, brashness, animus, vengefulness on the other side — such a hybrid personality was she, my mother, in who Man and Woman combined half and half. My mother was blessed with abundant energy for the world’s labours and immense intelligence. If only she had received an education befitting these qualities, the sky would have been the limit (as it is said in English) for her growth as a person. The circumstances [at her time] were cruel. They stunted her. Like some cruel people stop trees from growing and turn them into bonsais. One of her classmates was my teacher later — Elizabeth Teacher. She told me: if your mother were given higher education, she would have ruled this land. My mother was among those who the English poet Gray lamented for, in his similes about flowers that blush unseen in the wild, and gems of the purest rays that rest in the dark unfathomed caves beneath the oceans. And I was the only one who saw this and bewailed it.

My mother began to menstruate when she was in the seventh class. We belonged to the sub-caste called Nambidi; in those days, all our affairs were controlled by the local feudatory, the Punnathur Tampuran (an aristocrat from a house similar to those of Eliyangad, Annakkulam, Chiralayam, Chittanhur, and Kumarapuram) and he forbid her studies. Her father was too timid to defy this diktat. There was no one in those times who did not fear the sword of Damocles that hung over their heads constantly, the bhrast [which would instantly render them outcaste]. My mother quit school. She bid goodbye to the Kunnamkulam Girls’ School. She stayed home, drowning in tears. She seethed in anger towards that Tampuran. Those days the practice was that whenever there was a feast at the Tampuran’s kovilakam, someone from the Nambidi homes would partake in it. Two and a half years after she was forced to leave school, Amma had to go to a feast there. She sat among those who were being served food in the four-sided-hall-like verandah, the naalirayam , without taking her blouse off. The Tampuran arrived to scrutinize. “Take the blouse off,” he ordered. “I don’t want the food,” my mother proclaimed loudly, getting up and striding out. This became a hot topic of discussion everywhere.

My father Kazhunkampalli Kunjunni Nambidi was someone who had got into a dispute with the same Tampuran once, taken him to court over it, and won the case too… Though not equal in status, my father was a local notable by virtue of his wealth and influence. He decided to marry the young girl who had openly defied the Tampuran. My father was someone who would not stop until he gained whatever he desired. He let my mother’s father know of his desire. They [the suitor and the father] were about the same age. My mother refused; the age difference was too much. But messages continued to arrive via a messenger called Kalarikkal Panikkar…. This went on for two or three years. Finally, my mother gave in. … she must have been seventeen or eighteen. They were separated in age by twenty-eight years! My mother gave birth seven times; eight children were born. Three died in infancy; five survived. I am the eldest… (p.24)

The practice of matriliny those days meant that the care of the children was not the father’s responsibility. It was the maternal uncles who were to look after their nephews and nieces. Both my maternal uncles were younger to my mother; they were of a new generation, that is. Their family lives were not shaped by matrilineal values. They were settled in Bombay and were interested in their own families. But they did not ignore their nephews and niece. In 1940, when my brothers and I came down with typhoid and had to be admitted to the Kunnamkulam hospital, it was our senior maternal uncle who came down from Bombay and took up the responsibility of caring for us. My father was prevented from coming to the hospital by his stepmother [who was hostile to his marriage and had tried to stop it]. My mother was fully pregnant and also not allowed to come there by the doctor. She had twins that time. … my mother fought with my father for not taking care of us children who were down with fatal illness. Even before, quarrels between them were common. All of those were about a single thing: about money for our regular expenses. .. (p.25)

… I passed the SSLC exam [secondary school leaving exam] in 1945. Because none of his nephews or nieces had sought higher education, my father decided to end my studies. It was my fervent wish to become a doctor. If that was not possible, let me at least study nursing, I begged in tears. But it was all futile. Two of my friend Mariamma’s sisters were nurses — that is how I began to desire nursing education. It was when nothing seemed to work that the news arrived that I was the topper among girl students who appeared for the SSLC examination in the state of Kochi and that I would be given a scholarship. Overall, I stood fourth in the whole state. This high rank, obtained by the hard work of trekking eight kilometres each way back and forth to school every day, was not a small achievement. My teachers urged my mother to give me higher education. My father washed his hand off, refusing any financial support. My mother decided to let me study at any cost. By then admissions to all colleges were closed. Miss Thankam, the younger sister of Bhargaviamma Teacher of the Kunnamkulam Girls’ High School, was in the English Department of the Maharaja’s College . An application was sent through her to the Principal P Sankaran Nambiar. He admitted me seeing my high scores. He noticed that my score in Malayalam was very high, and that I had secured the first rank in the state of Kochi in that examination. My uncle accompanied me to Kochi and admitted me to the hostel. Altogether, I needed about forty-five rupees a month. The scholarship did not cover it fully. My mother had to borrow many times to make up the deficit. In the Intermediate Exam of the Madras University, I came first among the Science Group students. I would have got the first seat for medical studies. But the rank was not enough; you need the ‘file’ of money too! My fervent desire dissolved into my very soul. Our principal had already suggested when I was an Intermediate student that I should study for a BA in Malayalam…(p.26)

… My mother was mentally inclined towards the Congress during the freedom struggle. She used to recount with regret how she had yearned to take part in the Guruvayur Satyagraha when other women like K C Padmavathy were active in it and how she could not because of her pregnancy and our father’s disinclination towards the Congress. Her views were progressive, beyond caste and religion. When I was in Palakkad, she instructed me to let a young dalit boy stay with me till he was given a place in the hostel… She also funded the nursery-teacher training of two women from our place. She once came over to Palakkad to get some money from me for this. I handed over the cash that I had kept apart for my brother who was to appear for an interview in the Atomic Energy department…(p.27)

My mother not only took the courageous decision to send me to college, but also took up a totally progressive position regarding my marriage, rejecting established caste-rules. Though I was completely convinced that the sky would not fall if I married someone of a caste that did not wear a sacred thread, the fear that people would laugh at my mother held me back. My mother took that decision by herself when she met him. Even then, I insisted that the wedding would have to be conducted by the elders of the community. It happened that way, through my mother’s efforts. My mother who was an admirer of VT and MRB [VT Bhattathiripad and M R Bhattathiripad, both prominent reformers of the Malayala Brahmin community] had not the least doubt…. (p. 29)

As a college lecturer, I used to give public talks quite frequently. My mother was very happy with it. There were some people in the college at Palakkad who were irked by this. Probably out of the efforts of one such person, an unnamed bit of slander was published about me in the scandal-sheet called Taniniram that had begun to appear in those days [in the 1970s]. I knew that this was a step taken after efforts to turn students against me had failed, but I felt that my public talks were merely a source of mental agony besides being a loss of time, and that I should stop giving them. When I told Amma this, she opposed me. When I gave talks in distant schools and other places, usually, I would be late to return. I had the feeling [now] that these slanderers may even attack me otherwise [physically]. When I revealed this fear, Amma said that she would accompany me everywhere. My mother was mostly in our native place. She came over many times just to come with me to my talks. She would always remind me to stand firm in the face of any kind of slander. The [Taniniram] report which had promised its readers yet another instalment with the concluding line ‘rest in next…’ had to wrap it up in the face of my refusal to yield. I continued giving talks in many places. And most of the time, Amma would be with me. (p.29)


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