The Autobiography of Anna Chandy — Part 2 –Continued

In the Legislative Assembly

The nominated members were often derided as mere kaipokkikal –aye-sayers. But during my term in the Assembly (from ME 1106 – 1108) [1930-32], I made a conscious effort to prove myself to be much more than just an aye-sayer.  Let me give you an example. According to the eleventh section of the Travancore Municipal Regulation (the Fifth Regulation of 1095), women, along with people with mental instability, people who cannot see and hear, and leprosy patients, were excluded from membership in Municipal Councils.

I did not try to find out which man was responsible for such an outrageous insertion in the law, one that was a gross insult to women’s education and culture in Kerala.  I argued strongly against this foolish, weak, and irrational condition and the urgent need to remove it in the Assembly and brought it to the attention of the government. As a result, the disqualification of women in the Municipal Councils was removed before my term ended. Many in Kerala which has come first in India in the matter of women’s freedoms and women’s education, and that made history by appointing India’s first woman surgeon-general, the first woman judge of the High Court, and the first woman income-tax collector may not believe today that such a barbaric law existed here.

Before I end this narration of my life in the Assembly, I do hope my dear friend Ponnamma (Mrs Pattom) will not mind me recounting an amusing incident which happened when Pattom and I were lawyers. One day we, who were at the Thiruvananthapuram first class Magistrate Court, were sitting side by side. Sri Thanu Pillai pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the perspiration, and had barely opened it when he noticed a hole in a corner of the folded square. Quickly noticing his slip-up, Sri Thanu Pillai put it back into his pocket. But the moment I saw it, I knew that this was Ponnamma’s freshly-laundered bodice! “Why did it you shove it back so quickly,” I asked, “Come on, take it out, let me see?” Our friend who was afraid that I might do some mischief by outing him, said, “My dear Mrs Chandy, please be quiet. This is your friend’s mistake.” I had to suppress my keen wish to reveal the gaffe and create an amusing scene among friends, with a lot of effort.  But I went to Sri Thanu Pillai’s house that very evening and told my friend the whole story weaving into it all sorts of fancy tassels! After that, no matter where I met him, I would utter the words “Shall I say…” to Sri Thanu Pillai and he would caution me, “Mrs Chandy, better be quiet”.

When Sri Thanu Pillai was going to Punjab to take up the Governorship, I was among the friends who gathered at the airport to see him off – I was a High Court Judge then. The officials in charge of the send-off asked me to garland his wife and my friend, Ponnamma. When I happily undertook the task, I told him, “Here, I have garlanded your wife. Now she has to come with me to wherever I call, and you can’t object.” Do you know what his reply was?

“No, that can’t be. The garland I put on her neck hasn’t broken yet, so this new garlanding can’t be the basis of any right…!” Though he weakened me by pointing to this legal aspect, I seized the moment to take Ponnamma’s kerchief from her hand and wipe my face, and opening it, I asked, “Shall I tell…”? No sooner had I uttered it than he implored in a whisper and admitted his defeat to a woman: “My dear Mrs Chandy, won’t you let me leave this place in peace?” I have written this here because when I record my memories, it is impossible for me to not remember my respected friend Sri Pattom Thanu Pillai who passed away a few days back.

The North India Trip

I was active also in the Travancore branch of the All-India Women’s Conference. The Queen Mother was the patron of this organization; I was an active member alongside Smt Anandavalli Amma, Smt Rugmini Amma, Easwari Amma, Lakshmi Narayanan Nair, and others.  The annual meeting of this organization was held in Thiruvananthapuram one year. Smt Lakshmi N Menon, Smt Ammu Swaminathan, Rajkumari Amrith Kaur and other all-India leaders came to Thiruvananthapuram to take part in this event.  I welcomed the gathering, and everyone congratulated me after the speech.

I was selected along with Smt Ponnamma Thanu Pillai, Smt Rugmini Amma, and Smt Anandavalli Amma to attend the next year’s annual meeting which was to be held at Lucknow. I had a chance to deliver a great speech there too. Let me not conceal the fact that my husband’s intellect and expertise was active in the preparation of these speeches too.

Since this travel to attend the All-India Women’s Conference meeting at Lucknow was our first trip to north India, we decided that we would also visit Delhi and Agra too; we paid for that out of our pockets.  Though I have no intention to make this narrative longer with a description of the journey and the sights, I must indeed mention our climbing up the Qutub Minar in Delhi, and our experience of – I cannot recall which place it was – the welcome accorded to us by monkeys.

Now you are allowed to climb up only one or two storeys of the Qutub Minar. But back then, you could go up all five. We decided to climb. We pushed our way up from within an unbroken stream of human visitors, getting pushed and elbowed and kicked, and giving our share back to the crowd, and went all the way up, and then all the way back down. Only when we returned to where we were staying did the real impact surface. Though I was young then, my back and legs began to complaint and refuse to cooperate. All of us applied hot compresses and medicinal oil. Ponnamma was my companion in this treatment. We helped each other to rub the oil on each other’s bodies and apply warm compresses. Seeing our loving attention and care to each other, the others began to say — Oh, what will Chandy and Thanu Pillai say! Anyway, the treatment helped.

The next day, we continued our trip. At Agra, we visited that eternal memorial of sacred love, the Taj Mahal, and not content with seeing the monument, the gardens and fountains around it, we ventured into the narrow tunnel through which women used to go to the Yamuna river from the palace. The tunnel was dark, and the only light available was that which reflected from the stones and mirrors encrusted on its ceiling. Our guide was someone who spoke a rather incomprehensible and strange language, and it was only after we had descended for some time and noticed that we seemed to be getting nowhere, that the inappropriateness of having followed a stranger down there dawned upon some of us. But since we decided that though he was male, he would not dare to lay his hands on the five or six of us, young and strong women, we continued bravely and reached the river.  I who was obsessed with bathing in rivers, put forward a suggestion – that we return only after taking a bath on those bathing steps once used by queens – but it was rejected with a thumping majority. So we just washed our faces, hands, and feet and climbed back through the tunnel. We left the place rewarding our harmless guide amply.

I cannot also forget the Hall of Mirrors. It is in there that the queen of dancers  performed and the prince threw her a love-filled glance, and in return received her smile, and all of this was reflected in countless mirrors which caught the eye of the emperor who was furious… to find out if this was just a story, some of us danced while the others sat down here and there and threw desiring glances and found out the truth of the story. [Translator’s note: here she gets the names of the characters of this story all wrong! The prince is mentioned to be Salim but the dancer is Mumtaz and the emperor, Aurangazeb, according to her].

The welcome by the monkeys was at some large Hanuman temple. On the way to the temple, a whole troop of them were up on a large tree, jumping here and there, sliding down, grinning and making sounds. When some of us reached the tree, some of them leapt down. Scared that they may hurt us, we asked our guide what we should do. They won’t bother you, he said, just get some peanuts and chana and scatter them around. They’ll happily scour the ground for the nits and go away. We did that, and most of them were happy with it and scampered back up the tree. But around a dozen of the young and mischievous, brash ones who had come near us, grinning and making an amusing conversation grabbed a handbag and the flowers in our hair, and disappeared.  Even worse, one of these chaps caught hold of our sunglasses; another guy got a grip on pad that one of us had inserted in her hairdo, which was peeping out of it. Now, this pad wasn’t mine, alright? I have always had hair that was lush enough; I had no need for such spurious additions for my hair. And I do not intend to reveal who it belonged to.

This story about the Hanuman temple reminds me also of the story of our visit to the Kasi Viswanath temple. As a native of Travancore, I knew that Christians were not permitted inside the Sreepadmanabha Swami temple. So when I stood before the temple confused, my Hindu friends gave me courage, assuring me that there were no such restrictions there; they took me inside the temple with them.

The Stage

I also had the chance to enter a field that women those days recoiled from. The Sri Chithira Tirunal Library used to organize a play every year in connection with the Maharajah’s birthday. The play would be performed in the palace first, for the members of the royal family. Then, to raise subscriptions for the library, it would be performed again in the VJT Hall. This was the usual practice. In those days, women’s parts were played by men dressed like women.

The library officials went to the palace to discuss the play to be put up that year. The Queen Mother asked, “Are you going to find men to act female parts this year too?” They said that they had no other way.

“Why do you go looking for men to play women’s roles? Aren’t there smart young women who’ll do it? Try talking to them …” she said. “Parents will not let their young girls act with men in plays. They will have to face slander, won’t they…” the library officials asked.

“Alright, why don’t you ask that Anna Chandy? She will need only her husband’s permission? Tell her that I asked.”

They came to me under her instruction. I was only too willing to do this. I considered this a chance to go and act a play in the palace and gain the Queen Mother’s affection – and that this would be good for my future.

“If Mr Chandy allows, I have no objections to acting in the play,” I told them.

When my husband came home, I told him about this. As someone more interested in my future than myself, he did not murmur a word of opposition, and agreed. But he set a condition. It must be a part which I could act as a married woman, one in which I would not have to coo and call to my lover, ‘praananaatha… Lord of my Soul….”; secondly, he wanted to see the script before. Accordingly, I played a social reformer, an educated, unmarried woman. I had to act the part of a woman who sent packing the men who approached her on the pretext of making offers of marriage. There was also a scene when she takes a whip to one of the worst of such nuisances, a lawyer (played by C I Parameswaran Pillai).

Anyway, this was the very first time that I got a chance to display my grit and acting abilities. The first performance was at the palace. Chitira Tirunal tirumeni himself gifted me an upper cloth with a heavy gold-brocade border. I also received the Queen Mother’s compliments.

Later the same play was put up at the VJT Hall. Maybe it was because a woman was acting in it, the hall overflowed with spectators. Anyway the play was a roaring success. But Sri C I Parameswaran Pillai who had suffered whiplashes from a woman found it hard for a few days to enter the Bar Association Hall with his head held high. “Why did you do this?” Some fine chaps asked. The people in those times had only a limited appreciation for the arts and their ideas about acting were also only so much.

For me, dramatics was an important step towards moving upward.

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