[Anna Chandyude Atmakatha, Carmel Books, Thiruvananthapuram, 1975.]
Translated by J Devika
[Anna Chandy (1905-1996) was perhaps the strongest of first-generation-feminist voices in Kerala. But she was largely, until recently, nothing but a fact, or even just a factoid, for quiz competitions: the answer to the questions who was the first female Munsif, the first female judge, or the first female judge in the HC in India etc etc. Her interventions in the 1930s were largely forgotten or worse, cynically dismissed as posturing that she adopted to gain the post of the Munsif. The rejection of her work in the 1930s is not only wrong, it also implies the hostility towards a woman aspiring to be more than either a doormat or an also-ran.
This autobiography, however, may not do full justice to her life. It was obviously written as a way of healing — she had just lost her loving, amazingly supportive husband, a police officer who had not only encouraged her to study but also taught her the art of becoming a criminal law expert in court, and someone who seems to have totally delighted in his wife reaching heights he could never aspire to. This is written as a tribute to him, offering her entire biography as the fruit of his tireless effort. The historian G Arunima, reading the autobiographies of such Malayali women as B Kalyani Amma and Rosie Thomas, remarks that these are ‘biographies of marriage’ in which the authors quietly establish themselves as the very ground on which their men were able to craft their remarkable lives. This autobiography seems to reverse that almost exactly. Here, Anna Chandy quite openly and colourfully points to “Mr Chandy” as the silent support that made her own brilliant career possible.
Anna Chandy smashes all stereotypes about feminists in it: she comes across as a cheerful, active, mischievous, quick-witted, sharp-minded, articulate, happy-go-lucky woman who would have been quite content with a life of domesticity swaddled in a tender and intensely loving relationship with her man. The youthful humour that permeates her writing even when it was written, it seems, soon after her inconsolable loss and grieving, is unmissable. The ways in which she describes her man besides the common reference bharthavu (husband) are intriguing: she calls him atmanathan — the ruler of my heart — and then, atmasakhi — clearly, sakhi here could be neutral gender, it simply means ‘the companion of my soul’, or it could well be female too, and more frequently, as a person separate from her own personhood — Mr Chandy! She also reveals herself to be an intensely spiritual person, immersed in prayer and faith, and with belief in vows and observancs, someone so attached to the Mother of Christ that she left her Anglican roots for the Catholic Church later in life, in fact, without consulting her atmasakhi as she usually did. Yes, you can be a great opponent of gender injustice and still be a believer — there is a difference between faith and bigotry. Anna Chandy was a devout Christian and Catholic but she was open to all other faiths, as it is evident in this writing.
Mr Chandy as he emerges in this writing convinced me that all the talk of the New Woman of these times eclipses the New Man of the times. There was indeed, it seems, a New Man who was much more than the Reformer-Man who worked to ‘uplift’ women and turn them into obedient, if modern, efficient, domestic subjects. Here we have a man who did not simply ‘uplift’ but worked hard at opening doors and imparting skills, and relentlessly fighting all signs of doormat-mentality from surfacing in his wife. He does share much of the Reformer-Man for sure, but definitely was not threatened by his wife reaching for and actually reaching, the stars.]
I will be translating significant excerpts from this autobiography in parts and serializing it here. Enjoy!]
That I should become a High Court Judge was the long-time dream of my Beloved, the Ruler of My Heart. In truth, he is the reason why I have a biography. From the day that dream came true, he used to urge me to write my story. But I cited such reasons like work pressures and bodily weakness, escaping it. When his insistence grew stronger I would tell him that actually, it was he who deserved to write my story than me; it was really his responsibility. He was a blessed writer himself. If he had written this, it would have been much more engaging….
After more than forty years of a fortunate conjugal life, Mr Chandy left me on 6 July 1967. This lamentable event was just three months after I retired from the position of High Court Judge. After the terrible pain of permanent parting receded a bit, I had begun to prepare to fulfil his wish of many years. It got prolonged till now because of various hurdles.
I am not past the age of 67. What if the leave period will not be extended! Who knows when the the irrevocable warrant issued by Yamadharman reaches me? Let me then finish up this job before. I think unveiling my debt to Mr Chandy before my family and people is a happy task. I write this with the prayer that this may become the eternal memorial to the foresight and love and sacrifice of a man.
The writing of the autobiography did not proceed at the speed I had imagined. Because I feared that the delay may end in my major aim in writing remaining unfulfilled, I published just the part about my unforgettable debt to the Ruler of My Heart in the Malayala Manorama (Jun-Sept 1971). My friends and relatives who read that series of articles congratulated me; but because the title that I gave them was changed to ‘The Autobiography of Anna Chandy’, they mistook it to be the completed version. “This contains only your doing as a lawyer and a judge, what about your childhood, adolescence, youth, education, family life, and above all, your conversion to another [Christian] denomination — what sort of an autobiography is this?” they pressed me, writing this to me again and again. I could have corrected it with a clarificatory note in the Malayala Manorama. Not doing it was certainly my fault. But it was to make up for it that I completed this autobiography quickly, with some difficulty. This is not written with a lot of thought or attention. I have never kept diaries or memoirs. I am just scribbling down whatever that comes up in my memory without much order or elegance of language, in very ordinary style. I have no idea of bookish language. This is my first attempt at literary writing. Therefore I beg the large-hearted readers to forgive whatever failings that may be found in the narration of the story of my life.
After I gathered together all that I had scribbled in my own hand, I took it to the Pangode Church last March (1972) , and according to my prior decision, placed it at the feet of Our Lady of Mount Carmel first, and then handed it over to the Provincial of the Malabar Province of the Carmelite First Order, Very Reverend Fr. Ephraim. …[acknowledges the help of others]….
New Delhi, 20-2-1973