The Autobiography of Anna Chandy – I (Continued)

[In this part of Anna Chandy’s autobiography where she talks of her childhood, her mother’s tough love made me think. I have always thought about my life that contrary to much common sense, tough love has served me much better than the overprotectiveness that is favoured these days by parents. Tough love is an implicit acknowledgement of your potential to develop as a human being while overprotectiveness implies your permanent state of passivity. Tough love is a form of power that provokes resistance and makes you immune to it later (as is so beautifully evident in this section), while overprotectiveness just weakens the immune system altogether, making you break down at the first encounter with life out there. Also, as the difference between Anna and Sara show each one learned to absorb and resist in different ways, so tough love, however much it may try, can never succeed in producing identical subjects.]

An orderly routine

Our usual practice was to cook in the morning, pack our lunches, and leave for school. The routine at home was very structured. All of us were expected to leap out of bed as though we had springs attached to our backs when the alarm clock rang at five in the morning. If we were late even by a moment, the warning call, “edi kochanne, saramme, do I need to come there?” would sound. Our parrot, which heard it regularly, learned it by heart, and if Ammachi was delayed for some reason, it would screech the same words and wake us up.

We had to finish our morning prayer and ablutions and sit at our desks to do our lessons. Breakfast would come only after. During the study-time we were not to look at each other or take our eyes off the book. Amma would conduct inspections time to time to check if her instructions were being properly followed. Because the punishment that followed if she found out that her orders were being ignored even a teeny bit, even the animals and birds in our house did not have the guts to disobey. To make you understand how severe it was, let me retell one of my experiences.

One Sunday, we were sitting as usual around the temple and singing the hymns. At that time, we heard a mango-seller passed by on the nearby road shouting “mangoes, mangoes,”. I who was rather partial to mangoes rose from my seat almost involuntarily, and no sooner had I said “Mangoes” than Ammachi’s hymn-book hit my forehead. The book had been newly bound and it cut my forehead. If the aim had slipped a bit, I would have lost an eye. Leave aside the fact of becoming the target, the pain was such that I could not even cry. When my clients brought baskets and baskets of honey-sweet mangoes when I was a lawyer in Nagercoil, I would tell them the story of how Ammachi dealt with the mango-obsessed glutton.

When I used to cry after a beating, probably relying on a version of the IPC 75th Section, she would award me enhanced punishment. My sister was of a more delicate constitution and somewhat of a more modest and calm nature and so she was not subjected to such punishments. I however was built like someone ready rough-and-tumble and someone who would provoke it, and so was subject to them time and again. I did protest against this discriminatory treatment meted out to siblings but was in no position to question its grounds.

Amma was our Supreme Court as well. We enjoyed no freedom whatsoever in the matters of food and clothing. Do you know what it would be if one grumbled, after eating the same curries or same sorts of snacks — palahaarams for a whole week, that it may not be inappropriate if this agenda were somewhat modified? “Yes I too am bored with this and was thinking of changing it but taking into account your complaint, I have decided to continue it for another week,” would be the response.

Besides the common crimes, I used to face a rather more serious charge as well. That was about downing my sister’s share of goodies after eating up my own share of snacks and other food items — she was generally averse to food. Though the plaintiff — my sister — did not complain about it, Ammachi treated me as a target to be watched and kept a strict eye. To stop me from stealing, such items as eggs and milk could be consumed only in her presence. As for ghee, she would hand us our shares in specially-labelled bottles, which had our names: ‘Kochannamma,” “Saramma.” But my sister who could not stand ghee, usually fed me her share. The consequence of eating up both shares has always been evident on my body, now and then.

Let me also tell you about a fun thing that happened in this food-stealing saga. When my sister attained puberty at the age of fourteen, Mrs Kumaresa Pillai, who was our tenant in our tiled building, made for her a sweetmeat called ‘Kali’, made specially for pubescent girls, which was a combination of herbs, fenugreek, plenty of jaggery and ghee. Amma who was determined to make sure at least this should be eaten exclusively by my sister, locked her and the kali, both, in small room so as to secure them from my attack. When preparations for such custody were on, my sister, who could not even tolerate the smell of this Kali, and myself, who was so taken by its shape and taste and therefore felt that it would be quite alright to repeat this ‘attaining puberty’ event, entered into an illegal contract. The agreement was that when Amma’s attention moved away, the Kali would be passed over through the window-bars onto my outstretched hands. Thus I ate three-fourths of the Kali quite gleefully while my sister swallowed the smaller share with much difficulty.

My mother’s principle was that one must be frugal in food habits; my sister was very happy with that. But the glutton that I was, and the four others of my age who stayed with us, including Chinnamma, were not content with this. The solution was found was the joint assault on the koozha jackfruit tree in our yard, which produced very sweet fruit. One of my playmates suggested that we name this generous source of succour, our refuge from the intense hunger of youth, ‘Ammachipplaavu’ [Mother Jack Tree] but I disagreed with this and introduced an Amendment, suggesting the name Appachanplaavu [Father Jack Tree], and it was accepted by the others. After we returned tired from school, once Amma set off for her evening walk with Kochamma [aunt], we would quickly eat our frugal portions and then mount our assault on the jack tree. We would pull down the ripe fruit, sit around it and devour the sweet flesh and then bury the thick skin and seeds somewhere to avoid detection. Because all the fruit on that tree had been set aside to be given as alms to beggars or to whoever came asking for it, and because it kept on bearing fruit as soon as we plucked it, like the inexhaustible divine bowl, the akshayapaatram, our stealing was not noticed much by Ammachi. When there were no ripe fruit, we settled for raw ones; Chinnamma would pluck the raw bananas from the banana trees that thrived in our yard and cook a tasty thoren from chopped raw banana and coconut scrapings. Some friends, medical experts, later told me that it was all that banana-thoren that I devoured at this time that made my brain grow. Though both these forms of pilfering did come to Amma’s notice occasionally, the punishments for these were not so severe because neither really affected our budget. But she would transfer the job of watering her fifty rose-plants with water drawn up from the well from the gardener-boy for a few days, saying that the excess consumed would be digested only that way.

Like in food, in clothes also, we followed some strict rules. Through out the time I lived with Amma, even when I was a student in the Arts College, I received only one freshly-laundered set of clothes a week. If we dirtied those, we would have to keep wearing the soiled set and did not have the freedom to even wash it on our own. Though I do not have all of the attention to clothes that I acquired through this routine now, I still retain around half of it even today. If I take one set of laundered garments on a Monday, I do not change them till Thursday. To change in between feels like a terrible dilemma to me. But though I have tried very hard to pass this on as a family tradition, it has not worked with my son or my grandchildren. My son insists on a freshly-laundered shirt when he goes to court every morning and another one when he goes out in the evening. My grandchildren need freshly laundered clothes every day. One can forgive the little ones — after all their clothes may get soiled in school. But when my son throws at least two well-ironed shirts with their folds still in place into the laundry bin every day, I never fail to raise a protest in the memory of the old discipline. But it was useless. And after he got married, this protest seems to have become totally irrelevant. Because, his wife, totally subject to his wish, is only too ready to launder and iron not two, but three shirts for each day, and stack them up where he can find them, thus even avoiding the need to ask.

Amma would give us only ordinary clothes, not any fancy ones. When I finished school and went to college, I wore the kacchamuri, the chatta, and the kavani, which was the style of female dress among the Syrian Christians. I completed my Intermediate classes in the Government Women’s College and then continued in the Maharajah’s Arts College for the History (Hons.) degree. There, because we studied along with male students, I did feel a desire to dress up a bit; there is of course nothing special about such a feeling. Though I did not have the guts to place such a request directly before Amma, I tried to bring it to her attention indirectly. It was useless. Then I found a solution in darning the damaged but beautiful gold-bordered kavanis that Amma and Kochamma threw away and using them. When the darning business went beyond a point, the male students began to notice it and in honour of my unusual skill in darning holes, I received the name ‘Ventilation’ from them. If you draw out a thread from the kavani itself, and darn the hole in it, it will look like a window — with bars. Even today, I am so skilled in this art that whenever my sister or children or other relatives need to do it, they entrust it to me, the Skilled Darner. But please don’t think that I am a greater garment-maker because I told you this. All I can manage is this ‘ventilation’ needlework; I know nothing of any other sort of tailoring or embroidery.

Amma was insistent that we should be frugal in everything, and not just in food and clothes. That insistence did bring me to grief sometimes. Even when I became a student in the Arts College, I still walked to college everyday. One day I stubbed my toes and broke my toe-nail and suffered quite terrible pain in my foot. Whenever we were careless, or whenever we fell down and hurt ourselves, Ammachi had a special basic treatment before applying medicine to the wound. Four good blows, that is. So we did not make use of even the fundamental right of crying in the face of physical injury. We would let Amma know of any pain only when it became totally unbearable. So when my toe was injured, I applied on it some random ointments I had and kept it under the wraps for a couple of days. But on the third day, the swelling and the pain became quite serious. When it was impossible for me to walk to college, I told Amma. Will be really good if I can go in a horse-carriage for a couple of days, I also suggested. The response was this harsh judgment: “if only you had been careful when you walked — this is the result of too much capering and cavorting! Go to college only if you can walk. If you can’t , then better apply for leave.” I was quite determined not to miss college even if I had to limp all the way there. I did so, suffering a lot of pain, for a whole week, and despite that, Ammachi did not relax her her decision. In her applied law, there was no section that referred to anything in the nature of an ‘appeal’. If a decision was taken, then no matter who said what, it would be implemented to the last letter.

Once, when subjected to this kind of military discipline, my sister and I even shared among ourselves a really sincere suspicion whether this was really our mother or perhaps actually a step-mother. Our aunt, who had overheard this, consoled us: “Children, what are you saying? This is indeed your mother, who gave birth to you. She behaves like this to you not because she lacks love for you. You see how loving she is to me? She used to behave the exact same way towards me as she does to you now. She says and does thus only because she is concerned about your futures and because she is diligent about shaping your character. And when two good natured young men come to marry you, all this sadness will be lifted and you will become happy. And then you will surely reap the benefits of this hard training.” Her prophecy did come true, and our future lives did prove that. It is common to hear their mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law criticise wives for their lax lifestyles and spending habits and lack of order, blaming their mothers. But in the case of us both, it was just the opposite. If we did show any virtue in our married lives, our husbands do not attribute it to us but usually to our mother’s effective upbringing of us.

The many proverbs that Ammachi used to chant: “Cut your coat according to the cloth”, ” A stitch in time saves nine”, “Keep a thing for seven years and then you will find its use”– the truth of all these became evident almost daily later. For instance, the ability to live life contently with whatever resources one may have — to make an Onam out of whatever you have — irrespective of whether I was just the wife of a policeman with a salary of a hundred rupees a month, or as an officer myself, I received, later, a salary of Rs 3500 a month was made possible only by Amma’s example and advice. But all this is impossible to impress on this generation. They are content with living life like Onam – a celebration — the whole year through whether they have resources or not. They do give me the advice that I ought to recite the Lord’s Prayer which says ‘Give us today our daily bread’, and stop trying to save up for the many years ahead and instead live a life of contentment meeting each day’s needs.

Amma was very careful to protect us and keep us orderly since we were growing up without our father and since we did not have brothers. We did not have the permission to even speak aloud when there were visitors at home and when they were conversing. Once, in such an occasion, we girls gathered behind the house and inadvertently laughed aloud at some jokes. The moment the visitors left, Ammachi called up our case for hearing and after giving us a piece of general advice on why women should be modest and reticent, and seizing the ear-lobe of the first accused, none other than myself, told me to stand forward: “If there are visitors in the house, unless they come in asking specifically if Kochanna isn’t around, you are not to make your presence felt at all. If you do otherwise, I will surely set you right,” warned she. The same Ammachi, when I created uproar in courts mingling with men and won cases, has to admit, “My daughter is a very smart one!”

After we matured physically, whenever she had to go out leaving us alone in the house, her usual practice was to lock the house and take the key with her. But because we could be more free during this period of incarceration compared to when Ammachi was in the house, we used to greet such occasions with great delight. I used to make use of such opportunities to ransack the boxes and almirahs to find food stuffs stowed away and steal some of it gleefully.

Saramma, on the other hand, used these times to go stand in front of the mirror and please herself by singing and dancing in front of it. Actions in front of the mirror were extremely agreeable to my sister. Her great desire to perform every act, from waking early in the morning to entering the bedroom at night in front of a mirror. Even her food, she ate sitting in front of a mirror. Defeated, Amma tried reversing the mirror. Even that did not work, so she stitched a cover for it. But when Amma was not at home, she would remove the cover and indulge herself.

As for studies, I did not face any issues at all. Though my classmates — Margaret Paulose in high school and Saradamma in college — did not let me take the first place, I inevitably won the second place. As I mentioned earlier, I studied in the Maharajah’s Girls’ High School till the fourth form and then moved to the Holy Angels’ Convent. The latter time is full of sweet memories for me. My mother’s disciplining was very palatable to the nuns there. And we, whose lives were shaped by it, were the objects of much affection in the convent. But though raised to be so modest and reticent, my mischievous nature got the better of me sometimes. Our maths teacher was a Konkanastha brahmin called Bappu Rao. Because I was really backward in just one subject, math, he used to scold me quite frequently. In protest I once drew a large pappadom on the black board without anyone seeing me before he came to class. The women of the Konkanastha brahmin community are pappadom-makers. Maybe because of that, the word ‘parppadakam’ [pappadom] served as a synonym for ‘Konkanastha brahmin’. The moment he saw the image, he quivered with anger. “Who did this?” he began a vigorous inquiry. I just sat among the other pupils looking innocent. He then gathered a group of us, a dozen of us naughty pupils, and asked each of us to the face, “Did you do it?” I, who was at that time quite unfamiliar with the legal profession and cases and accused persons and their defence, had no idea about the dictum ‘if you steal you must be able to hide too’. So when my turn came and when he looked at me and asked the question, I burst into tears. He was a gentle soul and so assured me that he would not report it to the principal and that as a small penance, I should stand in a corner of the class facing the wall till the end of that hour. By the grace of God, Ammachi did not get the wind of this. If she did, then besides this light punishment, I would certainly have been caned till my skin split open.

I was quite good at all subjects except Math. I even feared that I might miss college because I would never pass my school final exam because I was so poor in math. So I relied not just on studies and hard work but also on prayer and vows. And maybe because of that, on the night before the exam, I dreamt of a wall on which a geometry theorem and two problems in algebra were written. In the morning I prepared that theorem well and solved those two problems. When I got the question paper, I was astonished to see these questions there! I am neither lying nor exaggerating here. Not only did I share this revelation with my classmates before the exam, I also told people at home and in the neighbourhood about it too. I have mentioned it later in a speech too. Anyway, when the results came out, I scored 35 marks above the state average of 34.3. That was because besides the three questions I had seen in my dream I managed to solve correctly a couple of other problems as well. When I revealed this to my daughter-in-law who opted for Maths as her chosen subject for her college degree and my grandaughter who scored distinction marks in maths in her high school exam, they both made fun of me and rolled with laughter.

Let me also tell you that Mr Chandy had a chance to get a direct glimpse of my ‘expertise’ in Math long before we were married. That was when I was a sixth form student. Mr Chandy’s first wife Kunhamma and my father’s first wife were related to each other. So my mother was close to Kunhamma and her mother Elacchi Chedathy. They used to stay nearby those days, too. So on the request of my mother to Elacchi Chedathy, Mr Chandy gave me some Math tuitions. After trying with great difficulty for about a month, he gave up, saying, “I can’t teach this girl maths, nothing seems to get into her head.” Maybe when he thought he would marry this maths-less girl, he already had a plan to turn her into a lawyer — and that is why the lack of math did not appear to be an impediment.

When I got the School Final Certificate, in the column marking the Principal’s remarks, it was said, “above average in intelligence and a thirst for knowledge,” and in another place it said, “intelligent but talkative.” Once, two years before I retired, I went to the Holy Angels’ Convent and met the Principal of my times — the Mother Superior now — Sr Louise. Talkativeness was a quality that I absolutely needed as a lawyer, I told her . “How do you manage when you got to the Bench?” she asked me in return. I hold my tongue, I told her, and maybe because my training in the Convent readied me for it, I have not felt the transition painful, I replied.

3 thoughts on “The Autobiography of Anna Chandy – I (Continued)”

  1. Thank you for translating the life story of this highly inspirational, erudite, feminist of Kerala history. Her mother is a phenomenal women in many ways as I can find from this but this was not a pleasant read for me. I understand that each one had their own unique ways, social cultural reasons and so on for choosing their parenting styles. Moreover she eventually turned out to be a well rounded strong and successful person in her later life. But I still don’t understand what was the point of such harsh parenting where children are smothered under authoritarian parents though that authority was shielded in great love.I was thinking when the children are forced to live by abiding rules and discipline and to not question authority at their young stage, isn’t there high chances that they extrapolate this to their later life. A complete obedience to their authoritarian but seemingly loving partner, or even the paternalistic but totally undemocratic political leaders of their country. Over and above all this don’t children in their younger stage deserve the beauty of love and freedom than living in constant fear of punishment.

  2. I agree that she had a hard childhood; later in the book too she calls it authoritarian and military-style. But then power inevitably creates resistance — and in this case, Anna Chandy clearly learned how to resist it early in her life. She remembers with glee how they constantly subverted her mother’s disciplining. Anna Chandy’s childhood is one of learning a number of valuable skills at home and at school under strict discipline, and at the same time learning to subvert it from within at an early stage. Of course, this is not the best of parenting, and though Anna Chandy considers her future gains to be the rewards for her dutifulness to teachers and parents as well as her piety and prayers, it was sheer good luck for the most that gave her the circumstances under which she thrived and grew. Anna Chandy’s relationship to her mother is a bitter-sweet one, and remember, an autobiography is not what really happened, it is what one remembers, and what one imagines, even. And closely shaped by the time in which it is written. In this case, it was written at a time when she had embraced a highly religious path of life and when she was grieving for her beloved husband.

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