The Field of Action of Abala Women: Only the Home?
I will not narrate anything more on my career as a lawyer. Before I entered office, I had the opportunity to participate in many social arenas. As the fame of being the first woman lawyer spread, I kept receiving a steady stream of invitations to speak and preside at innumerable stree samajam (women’s association) anniversaries , and girls’ school annual days, and so on. I was also invited as a guest to some artistic performances. I did not waste such opportunities. I knew that these would help me as a lawyer and besides, my husband was extremely encouraging and he helped me prepare speeches and even accompanies me when I had to travel far.
At that time, I emphasized the need to give women the freedom and the space to work and act equally with men in all fields. I received much applause when I declared that it was the duty of the government, the people, families, and husbands to concede equal rights to women who were equally qualified as men. But the old generation thought that I was a revolutionary. There were many who said that this woman was out to needlessly provoke other women who were now contented with staying quietly at home, taking care of the home, and raising the kids — she was out to make trouble.
In those times when conservatism was truly regnant, I remember what even my esteemed teacher, T K Velu Pillai, said. This was when I was practicing in Kottayam. He said: “The true arena of women, who are weak by nature(abalakal) is the home. That is the purpose for which God created them. Women do not have by birth the intelligence or the essential qualities to shine in fields in which men work, especially the law. If other women decide to act hastily at the word of the freedom-seeking women, the result will be the ruin of the home and the land.” Velu Pillai sir said such things in a public meeting at Thiruvananthapuram.
If it were today, would Sir have dared to put forward such a strange argument? Surely not. In those days, prominent and talented women had to go seeking in the puranas, itihasas, history, and [the experience of] foreign lands to find durable and persuasive arguments to secure their rights in the administrative, social, and political fields. “Did Bhama not valiantly fight? Did Subhadra the chariot not ride?” – to think that one had to quote such childish verses to secure one’s rights, one feels reduced in self-respect. Today, however, the highest leadership of the country is held with much boldness and ability as well as foresight, easily overcoming very many obstacles, to the amazement of even enemies, by Srimathi Indira Gandhi, and just a mention of her name is enough to cure this malady. Just like her tireless fight against injustice and disorder, she is also determined to end the poverty , want, and unemployment that troubles the country, and to bring down all inequalities in all sectors and to secure social justice. Her life is committed to fulfilling the programmes meant for the good of the land and the people, caring not for dangers, threats to health, and comfort — all of this which makes her the Gem of India, the pride of Indian womanhood and the object of admiration of all foreign lands. How admirable this gem of a woman is, who finds the time to comfort, like a mother, the wounded soldiers who are hospitalized and in pain, the widows and mothers who had lost their sons, children who are orphaned and left to shed tears on the streets and verandas, and who at the same time carries the burden of ruling as well! How she finds the time to do all of this is amazing! Though her desire to see India’s first woman judge sit in India’s highest court of justice along with the male judges could not be fulfilled because the men would not cooperate, it was her wish to see a woman become, for the first time, a member of the Law Commission that creates the laws which the highest court must abide by, which resulted in a woman from the southern-most end, Kerala, reaching there, a place where even men from here had not reached. It appears from the papers that there is a feeling that there is not enough representation for women in the Parliament, and that there is effort to find a solution to this lack. I am happy to remind the women’s organizations in this country that this is the time to find solutions to the infirmities that women suffer, if any are found.
Let me end this digression and get back: the officials and many women in public life in Thiruvananthapuram wanted me to give a fitting reply to Velu Pillai sir. They wrote to me saying that I should get back there soonest. Such things never bothered me now, or then. Let anyone say what they please, the best thing was to stand firm in whichever field you are in without getting into disputation and speechifying, and let your work speak for itself. But my husband’s pride would not let me stay silent. He was after all, the one who prepared and launched me into the field of law. So, taking all the arguments to be allegations directed at himself, my husband began to insist that I should go to Thiruvananthapuram and launch and argument as the ‘defendant’’s lawyer, in this case. He also made me write a response which shattered each and every argument advanced by Velu Pillai sir.
So the ‘client’ and the ‘lawyer’ reached Thiruvananthapuram. I read out that response in the VJT Hall, in front of a full house, a public meeting, presided over by Sri P K Narayana Pillai, who was a judge of the Travancore High Court, with the boldness that is the gift of youth. And was able a secure a more or less favourable verdict from Sri P K Narayana Pillai, who was a conservative. As soon as I ended my speech, I was complimented profusely by the ‘plaintiff’, Velu Pillai and the members of the audience. The next day’s papers reported my speech, granting it considerable prominence. And thus Mr Chandy’s tactic hit the bull’s eye.
[Translator’s note: a translation of this impressive speech may be found here. Though Anna Chandy is only too keen to give all the credit to Mr Chandy, eyewitnesses at that time reported that the speech was actually extempore! It was quite an event, remembered by people in Thiruvananthapuram for a long time.]
My husband always encouraged me not to limit myself to a lawyer’s activities and engage in other work that would be helpful for my future success. One such was the publication of a magazine called ‘Shrimati’ which was the first publication for women by an all-women team. It was run by a four-woman editorial team including Smt Theravath Ammalu Amma. I was the Chief Editor. Writing about women’s grievances, bringing them to the attention of the general public and the government, bring them knowledge about managing the house, raising children, education, and so on, inform them of various kinds of activities that women in other parts of India and around the world were engaged in, and so on – this is what Shrimati tried to do. I continued to publish it until I ended my career as a lawyer.
My quest for women’s freedom did not end with this entry into the world of journalism. I decided that I would fight the elections to and become a member of the Travancore legislative body. Mr Chandy was highly enthused, and encouraged me in this. My rival was Sri Pattom A Thanu Pillai. I calculated that women would vote for me, and in the Nair-Brahmin divide of those time, most of the Brahmin votes would favour me. That was what made me enter into a fight with Sri Pattom who was a very popular political leader in those times.
I remember how both of us, candidates, gave fiery speeches in our campaigns. But let me tell you, we not engage in the kind of inflammable rhetoric or braggadocio characteristic of candidates these days. This reminds me of an election speech I read about in an English magazine. A candidate in the election to the Parliament apparently declared: “I want educational reform, I want social reform, I want constitutional reform…” and then unable to remember the rest, stuttered, “I want… I want…” and a witty fellow in the audience who was bored by this, completed the sentence adding “I want chloroform!” Though I have not had the misfortune to listen to any of the recent election speeches, from whatever I gather from the newspapers, we need not just chloroform but something more powerful than it to overpower these speech-makers and keep them down.
For sure, there was some of the excessive ardour and ire, quite normally seen among our supporters. Sri Thanu Pillai won with a considerable majority. But that did not affect our friendship at all. I have had to argue very strongly with Sri Thanu Pillai about matters we strongly disagreed about. None of it harmed our friendship. It continued uninterrupted until his death.
I did not feel sorry to have lost against a popular, majestic leader. And if I did have any unease left in my heart, that was lifted when I was nominated to the assembly by the government. My regard and respect for Sri Pattom Thanu Pillai only increased with his victory and my defeat.