Memory: My Radhamol: Devayani Kunhambu

Translated by J Devika

[Accounts of the resistance and suffering of women and children during political struggle in mid-20th century are relatively rare — this is therefore a very valuable account, from a leading woman activist of the Communist Party in the 1930s and 40s who married a male colleague who later became a prominent leader. If party leaders were hidden by the most deprived sections of the people who took the brunt of police violence for them, this account reveals how their wives, too, found refuge in the families of working-class, lower-caste women. Devayani’s story is also unique in another way. While the wives of upper-caste communist leaders were protected by their families, often large joint families — tarawads — Devayani, who hailed from south Kerala, Travancore, married a man from Malabar and migrated there and lived in a labouring community, and for her, the experiencing of marrying a communist involved learning to labour as well.]

[From Devayani Kunhambu’s memoir Chorayum Kaneerum Nananjha Vazhikal, Thrissur: Samata, 2010, pp. 62-5. First edition 1983.]

My little girl still comes into my mind with soft footsteps as a memory that moistens my eyes. Her father had been jailed at the time I gave birth to her. I wrote to him asking what name we should give her. His reply gave me the freedom to name her. I found a name that I liked — Radhamani. Not because of its meaning or anything like that. Just an attraction to the name. I took her to the senior uncle at Aalakkaadan House in accordance with her father’s wishes and named her on the twenty-eighth day ceremony. I tied a one-rupee silver waist-chain on her. I placed an areca leaf close to her ear and Valiyammavan whispered her name three times into her ear. Radhamani … she was a lovable little girl with large eyes, fair complexion, and curly hair.

She was much more mature physically and mentally at the age of two. When Chemmarathy had finished milking the cow in the Padinjhare house, she would pick up the milk-jar and toddle over there to get some.

Whenever the police stormed our house I would pick up my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and hug her tightly to my chest like protective armour. My great fear when the policemen intruded day and night was whether they would violate me. In those days om which the situation was so insecure that resistance was only a ritual, when even the emaciated women in houses with no men and no stability were being hunted, if thirty-year-old I was not violated, I think that it was because of Radhamol, my protective shield. It is after all when the young mother holds her child to her breast that she gains a fiery radiance that makes it impossible for anyone to approach her with hostile intention. But even today, it is inscrutable. Though all those who loved me and helped me were beaten to a pulp right in front of my eyes and though I was constantly harassed and followed, only lathis or canes were brandished at me; no one had the gall to touch me.

One day at noon, my daughter and I were drinking our rice gruel sitting near the north-side door of the kitchen. The Sub-Inspector Kumaran came up to the north side of the house in mufti, and turning his back to us, sat down to defecate right in front of us. I was enraged to see him sit with his back exposed towards us as we were drinking our gruel and shut the door firmly. He ran up, kicked the door open and spewed obscenities on me non-stop.

“I and the baby were drinking our gruel sitting here. No one with any shame would have done what you did. Eating and shitting don’t happen in the same place.” I retorted in great anger. By then he was nearly convulsing with rage like a possessed creature.

“Edi, I will get into your house and shit inside if I wish! I will drive you away from here!” There was a framed photo of AV [her husband the well-known communist leader, A V Kunhambu] on the wall. He seemed to calm down a bit when he saw it. He took it off the wall, looked long at it, and then, hmmm-ing, put it on the floor and left.

I sensed some danger. I was under the impression that Comrade [her husband] was in jail. If he had been released he would surely have come home. Because the party [the communist party] was in tatters, there was no way to gather any information. But I felt a strong suspicion. The police need not bother about the photo of an incarcerated person. I lost no time to break the glass frame, take the photo out and hide it very carefully in a room inside. The next day the police marched it with no notice through the front and back doors. Sub-Inspector Kumaran and some five or eight policemen ran in. Radha was playing with the broken photo-frame.

“Edi, where it that photo from yesterday?” When they rushed up, I had already picked her up. “Bring that photo, edi!” In the melee, I invented an explanation : “The baby picked up the photo that the SI put on the floor and played with it; it fell on the floor and broke. She then cried stubbornly for her father’s photo and carried it around for some time. Then she tore it; I think it was scattered in the breeze maybe.” I said that without thinking much whether the explanation was logical. In between a few of the policemen were ransacking our boxes. Suddenly the Sub-Inspector raised his cane towards the child and asked brusquely, : Where is that photo edi?” I was terrified if she would blurt out the truth. Will she be able to sense her mother’s total helplessness. I looked at her eyes, my face completely forlorn.

Without a twinge of hesitation she uttered these words: “It flew away in the wind, para-paraa!” Though barely two and a half years old, she behaved like a communist’s daughter. My mind cooled.

“Oh, listen to the child. It must be true. Let us go.” They went away. I did not know then that AV had gone underground after being released from jail.

Later the neighbours spotted the police prowling around the house at night quietly with their torches, and told me. The truth is that this made me rather afraid. I felt that however much I may try to avoid it, I would have to seek refuge in some neighbouring house; if not, I would lose much that I valued. I began to spend the night at the house just on the eastern side of ours. Panayanthatta Kunhambu Nambiar was summoned to the police station for that and they beat him there. In the Tetran House which was on the east of this house, there were no older men who the police could take away and beat. Patti Amma who lived there had four girls and the youngest, a boy, Krishnan, was only seven. I began to stay with them at night. I began to go out to work with her each morning. Weeding the paddy, harvesting, threshing, planting the paddy, and other such agricultural tasks, and collecting bark, firewood, and grass from the forests and dry leaves for farming — I began to do all these. I was not familiar with any of this. Patti Amma taught me to do all this. When all ways seemed barred to me, I felt that I should earn my bread through labour, no matter how hard it may be. We would leave in the morning and come back late. Patti Amma’s daughter Narayani would take care of my girl. When we leave at four at dawn, she would be asleep. I would shut the door from the outside and leave. Many days, she would wake up and cry from hunger. Then fall asleep again, tired from weeping. If someone did not hear her cry and feed her something, her next meal would be after I returned, after I cooked something for her. My girl grew crying from hunger, falling asleep, then waking up hungry and crying, quite like an orphan. If someone went to her hearing her cries, they would comfort her saying “Amma has gone to get you some appam.” When I returned with that day’s appam, my little mol would have wilted like a cut colocasia leaf.

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