The Autobiography of Anna Chandy — Part 1 (Continued)

Mr Chandy Enters My Life

I was a third-year student at the Arts College, Thiruvananthapuram, when Mr Chandy entered my life making me his life-partner. I was 21 then; he, 30. At that time, I was a nobody — just the daughter of the widow Sara who was a teacher at the Holy Angels’ Convent. There was nothing remarkable about me except my excellence in studies.

At that time Mr Chandy was a widower and the father of a seven-year-old girl. The marriage proposal did not cheer my teachers and girl friends. In my little world of those days only these two groups of people existed. The Principal Rangaswamy Iyengar who came to know of the proposal somehow, summoned me to his office one day for a serious chat about my marriage plans. “Anney,” he asked, “do you really want to do it know? Why are you hurrying it? Aren’t you a student who’s going to graduate in flying colours in just a year? Are you not destroying the chance of becoming a history professor or a college principal this way? A police officer is most likely to be a cruel fellow. He’s not going to let you continue your studies or work. So if possible if you give up these marriage plans for the time being.” Though he advised me thus, when I told him that this was the wish of my widowed mother who had no one to help her in this world, this loving soul said nothing more and gave me his blessings.

But it was harder to deal with my women friends. Their objections troubled me more. “Why are you getting into this trouble, Anney? Why are you in such a rush? Can’t you wait for a bit more? Is it that you’ll get only a second-hand chap with a child, on top? What’s the use of love gone cold, like stale rice gruel? Will you be able to experience heavenly love, like Romeo and Juliet? And even if you do, won’t the child be a hurdle for even a honeymoon?” quizzed they. They set me up in the defendant’s box and began to cross-examine me qith eloquence. And besides, they reminded me of the many gifts that a police officer could bestow his wife with the police baton. In the end, to stop their verbal arrows, I pulled out my chakrayudham — and that consisted of the love letters Mr Chandy wrote to me almost on a daily basis. I revealed to them the truth that he was indeed a lively litterateur and someone who possessed a poetic sensibility. When they saw the valentines overflowing with poetry, their arguments vanished. “This guy is more ardent than Romeo himself! Not only is this love quite unlike cold rice gruel, it is practically boiling over!” said my friends.

Kazhakoottam

So we got married. He took leave for a few days and stayed at my house and in the house where his older brother Thomas P Chandy lived with his wife and children. Then he went to his workplace, Kazhakkoottam. He was more insistent than me that my education should continue unhindered and that I should not lose any benefits from it. Let me tell you the truth — all I really wanted was to somehow complete my education and had no desire at all to get into a job. In my narrow world only my younger sister Saramma and my widowed mother existed. The only public places we knew were the church and the school. At home, my mother, who her students nicknamed ‘Tigress-teacher’ , ran a military-style, highly-ordered household. We had no permission even to utter such words as ‘cinema’ or ‘theatre’. Except for Christian devotional songs, we were not allowed to sing or hum at all. We were not allowed even to open novels or any such writing. Even a picture-book would be subject to close censoring. Truly, it was like being imprisoned. But if you compare our childhood to the present-day jail, you’d be mistaken. Now life in prison included newspapers and magazines for your reading pleasure. Where is it? Where is our childhood in which all such things were totally forbidden?

In those times, a person like me was bound to feel attracted to the comforts of life and respect that a police officer’s wife enjoyed. I could go to any movie or any play that I chose. A police head constable and a manager [of the theatre] would come with a car and pick up the Inspector yajmaan and his wife with low bows and many salutations. We would be seated in the front row on special seats. We would be served with tea or coffee or cold drinks in the middle of the show. We would even be garlanded and handed bouquets. And driven back home in the car, of course.

The routine in the house too was quite easy. All I had to do was some minor supervision in the kitchen early in the morning, and send away Mr Chandy after his breakfast. And then help our daughter Baby change into fresh clothes, feed her breakfast, and hand her to her ayah, Maria. Once this was done, I was free to go out for my morning circuit! Though I was educated and all that, I found no difficulty at all in making friends with Thankamma, the daughter of the head constable Paramu Pillai — she had dropped out of school at Class 5. All our neighbours were Nairs. I made friends all the girls of my age among them. Four of five of us would go off to a stream which was at a distance covered in the time of a naazika or so, taking our oil and the taali-paste to wash our hair, for a bath. That felt like a pleasure-trip to me. Once the bath was over, I would feel an uncontrollable hunger. So I always carried coffee in a jug and some snacks in a tiffin carrier. On most days, it would be kumbil-appam, made of rice flour and jaggery and coconut and banana stuffed in a vayana leaf and steamed. The very memory of its aroma and taste makes my mouth so watery that you could run a ship on it! After returning, it would be time to give Baby a bath and send her to school. I would supervise that and get down to preparing lunch. By then, Mr Chandy would have come for lunch. He would have lunch, take a short nap, have some tea and then head back to work. My women friends — neighbours would have arrived by that time. I used to amuse them by reading aloud to them story books and newspapers and magazines. In the middle of the reading, I would hold forth on my interesting experiences and when I saw them nod in pleasure listening to my story-telling performances, this History (Hons.) woman did feel proud of herself. I desist from elaboration.

And thus we lived, when I got pregnant. Till I went back to my mother’s house for delivery in the ninth month, things flowed in this way. There’s just one thing that deserves a special remark. That is about the special pangs of hunger, the craving that besets pregnant women, what we call vyaakk. At that time, I craved for the tender shoots of the coconut tree, and the tender coconut-sprout, the pongu. When I told the man responsible for the vyaakk of this, he replied, “this is a nuisance, now! Where am I to go find it? Would have been alright if one could buy it somewhere. Anyway, let me see?” My good luck, at that time, they were cutting down coconut trees to build a new road through Kazhakkoottam. The tender leaves of the coconut tree came from there. The pongu was sent a couple of times from some houses where they had stored coconuts to dry them for copra. But I was not satisfied by this; my eye turned towards the coconuts which the owner of the house that we were living in had planted in the yard. Thus the fence started devouring the crop. I indulged in some minor thieving; dug up some of those coconuts and gobbled down the pongu. But I stopped before I was found out.

Let me also tell you of a loss I suffered because of that vyaakk. One day, when some person who was involved in some case came to meet Mr Chandy and tell him of his woes, he also brought along an offering, most probably according to the rates of the time. It was a glorious, rounded, large, ripe varikka jackfruit. The aroma of the fruit assailed the pregnant woman, me that is, who sat in the room. And I was yearning to consume it, badly. But before I could rise from my seat, I heard a loud reprimand, “You upstart! Who told you to bring this here? You better take this on your head right now and run back, out through the gate!” In an instant, I was beside Mr Chandy, telling him of my difficulty. “No,” he said, “I’ll get you another, better one. Let’s see if something bad results out of that.” When I began to get stubborn, he called a police sepoy and told him, “This is a bother! But go after him and buy the fruit from him for two rupees,” and handed the cash to him. And so when the pregnant wife’s raving craving clashed with the husband’s principles, the unfortunate situation arose in which a jackfruit that was worth a mere 8 annas had to be bought for two whole rupees.

I delivered my baby in my mother’s house. He was a fair, chubby, lovely little infant. You may ask, how did this dark-skinned wench have such a baby? Mr Chandy was a very handsome man, tall and well-built, and fair-skinned. In truth, later, when I used to carry my darling little son on my hip and stand on the roadside near my house, my teachers from Women’s College passing by would ask, “Dear Anne, is this truly your child? Tell us the truth!” I would call up Mr Chandy as the Material Object and exhibit him for proof. But after having grown and grown and reached the age of 45, I think he is growing darker and darker like his mother.

When I returned to Kazhakkoottam after my confinement, I had to make some changes in my routine. I gave up my morning circuit and bathing in the stream and stayed at home playing with the child and bathing him, singing him to sleep, making baby clothes, and cooking the dishes that my husband loved, and spending the rest of the time with my women friends, reading novels and so on, and thus spending my days fully satisfied, like a total housewife. And as I lingered in that magical world with many sweet dreams, I had no time or inclination to even remember the possibility of an employed life — the bland existence of a History tutor — that would have been open to me.

But was it right to leave a BA (Hons) graduate like me to be just a kitchen-woman and housewife? Couldn’t she enter a more useful profession? Such thoughts were passing through Mr Chandy’s mind. But if he made even the most distant reference to such a possibility, I would quickly slip away from his grasp. The more he described the desirability of such a life, the more I would elaborate on its darker sides.

One of those days, his friend and classmate, the lawyer Balakrishnan Thampi, came to visit us. I used the cookery tricks that I had mastered to welcome him. He showered praise on the cookery skills of his friend’s wife, and then said, “Is it right for you to remain a smart fellow making such an educated girl cook the kanji and the curries and some snacks? Shouldn’t you pave a way for her future making use of her university degree?…” As if responding to his friend’s question, Mr Chandy revealed an idea that he’d been nursing lately. “Let’s get her to go to the Law College. Not a single woman of our land (the Travancore of those times) has gone that way, right? She often uses her debating skills against me at home. It is certain she will shine at the Bar. And besides, I have myself seen how, when she was school girl, she had donned the role of a lawyer at the Victoria Town Hall, cross examined the plaintiff and the witnesses, and won a favourable verdict.”

I still remember the incident that my husband mentioned then. It is said that “coming events cast their shadows.” Things to happen in the future sometimes appear like shadows before their time. This case, I believe, was such a shadow of the future.

The plaintiff in this case complained that the defendant had stolen a goat. My classmate Margaret Paulose (the former principal of the All Saints College, Thiruvananthapuram) was the lawyer for the plaintiff. The defendant’s lawyer was me, all of 15 years. I appeared in style in the court clad in a gown borrowed from a lawyer and remade to size. I argued that the defendant was mentally unsound and should hence be pardoned. To defend this argument, I had taught the plaintiff that no matter what the plaintiff’s lawyer asks, the sole answer should be a loud ‘baaa’ with eyes rolling. The case was heard and the arguments of the defendant’s lawyer were accepted and the court pardoned the defendant.

Anyway, my husband and his friend had formed a Bench that day and passed an ex-parte verdict. That was to send me to the Law College. “Ah, right you are, I didn’t think of that” said Mr Thampi. “If it all works out well, then we may see the kitchen lady emerge as a High Court judge.” I stood in my defendant’s box and applied every single argument that arose in my head to get this verdict altered. The foolishness of pushing me into a profession in which with the exception of some [among the male lawyers], most had earned the status of ‘poverty-lawyers’, the huge difficult that I, who had not the slightest idea of the law, may not be able to master the subject and pass the exams, the discomfort of going mixing with the rowdy fellows in Law College as one of them and becoming an object of curiosity among them, the trouble of leaving behind a baby which was still being fed at the breast — I put all these before them with teary eyes and a faltering voice.

Maybe he didn’t want to create a scene in front of his friend, Mr Chandy consoled me, “Don’t fret, we were just considering a possibility. I am not even sure if women are allowed admission to the Law College.”

When he was about to leave, Mr Thampi told me, “Don’t be a fool — please don’t kick away the Goddess of Prosperity when she comes right before you.” And they both left together.

I had readied myself for combat when Mr Chandy came home that evening. He tried patience, temptation, even scolding — it looked that he may even use the fourth of the Four Methods of Persuasion, violence. After all he was a policeman! Anyway, I withdrew from the scene and prayed to God to rescue me from this great trouble for the time being. I appealed for help from my mother in Thiruvananthapuram. “If you can’t persuade him and set him straight, your fate!” she declared. I made my co-sister write to my husband’s brother Thomas P Chandy (the secretary of the YMCA) who was in the USA at that time to dissuade his brother from this terribly risky venture. But he was of the view that women should improve themselves through education and so his reply disappointed me. Do you know what he wrote? “Kunhjacchan knows what’s good for her. She should be obeying that. Is it right that I interfere in it?” The battle continued. Satyagraha and fasting were all duly applied (the gherao was unknown those days). After all I was a woman, I failed. So I set a condition — find me a woman companion to join me and I would fulfil my duty to obey my husband. The moment I said this, he set off looking for a woman companion to study at the Law College with me.

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