Communistkaary Without Membership: Howlath Beevi

[This is a translation of the autobiographical essay on the life of Howlath Beevi, a communist activist whose political life spans the decades from the 1950s to the present titled ‘Membershippillaatha Communistukaari’ in Alosyius D Fernandes and D M Scaria, Urumbettavar: Poraattangalile Sthreejeevitam, Alappuzha: Janajagrthi Publications, 2011, pp. 7-16. Howlath Beevi was a close aide of the legendary K R Gouri and followed her when she exited the CPM to form her own party.

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Red Post in a Hairdo: K Meenakshi and the Travancore Police

[This is a translation of the short piece ‘Mudikettinullile Chuvanna Kathukal’ in Alosyius D Fernades and D M Scaria, Orumbettavar: Porattangalile Sthreejeevitam (Alappuzha: Janajagrthi, 2011, pp. 23-27), on the communist labour leader of the 1940s from the Alappuzha district, a nerve centre of left mobilization of industrial workers in coir and cashew and agricultural workers, K Meenakshi. While hailed as a heroine of her times, she was more or less forgotten later, and came back to memory through the work of the feminist historian Meera Velayudhan. This piece simply uses her own first-person narration of her political life.]

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Holding Up the Communists: The Lives of K Pankajakshy and K Parvathy

[Below is a translated excerpt from the biography of one of the tallest leaders of the communist movement in Kerala, Com N E Balaram, titled Balaram Enna Manushyan (Balaram The Man), written by CPI leader and activist and daughter of N E Balaram, Geetha Nazeer.

The lives of communist leaders of mid-twentieth century Kerala are much-discussed, but little is known of the women who worked behind the scenes, enabling their activism — their sisters, mothers, wives, and other female kin. Also, much less is known about women who worked with them to set up their social welfare agenda.

Read more: Holding Up the Communists: The Lives of K Pankajakshy and K Parvathy

The excerpt below brings to light two extraordinary women : K Pankajakshi, and K Parvathy. K Pankajakshy was N E Balaram’s life-partner who help up his life and created the environment in which he could pursue a career as a political activist and politician; K Parvathy played a vital role in setting up rescue homes for women, working with the dynamic Law Minister of the First Communist Ministry, V R Krishna Iyer. The excerpt is from the chapter titled ‘Parasyamaaya Jeevithasaahacharyangalilekku’ (Towards an Open Life) which describes the time soon after the ban on the Communist Party was lifted, when comrades began to come into the open again. Balaram, who was not really interested in marrying and settling down, was persuaded by his cousin. Geetha Nazeer writes:]

… My mother had a job. She had scored excellently well in the SSLC — Matriculation — exam, but had been constrained to work without continuing her education. This was because she had six siblings. Only two of them had jobs — the eldest, Balakrishnan and Narayanan. Both were in the army. One of her older brothers, Gangadharan, had worked in the railways but had been dismissed for his union activities. Her only sister Parvathy had just completed her degree in Law. The other two brothers, Sreedharan and Subrahmanyan, were students. All the expenses in the house had to be met from the meagre earnings of Mother’s father. Amma, who registered herself in the Employment Exchange, got an appointment in just a week. In 1950, she entered employment as a minor — as a clerk in the Thalasshery court. Independence had come, but Aiya Keralam (United Keralam) had not yet arrived. Malabar was part of the Madras Presidency. Amma belonged to the Karuvaandi family in Kathirur. It was a joint family. The eldest uncle was in the army but his wife and children stayed in the Taravad. The other brother, Gangadhara Marar, was a communist and so knew my father. And besides, he was also a relative. Once, when they were still underground, Father and some of his comrades had come for a meal, Amma had opened the door for them. … when this marriage alliance arrived, Mother’s father was not happy with it. There was after all someone stuck at home now who’d lost his job because of Communism and trade unionism. The children had not yet secured regular employment or incomes. Some of them were still students.

Amma was our Valyachhan’s (This is how we called our mother’s father, Sankunni Marar) sole support. Marrying father, who was unemployed, would mean trouble for her. Besides, he also knew well that Father’s family was in a bad shape. But our grandmother Lakshmikkutty said, ‘He’s a good man’. The rest, they will handle together.

Father was shuttling between Kozhikode and Pinrayi, busy with Party work and his work with the Party newspaper, Deshabhimani. He was greatly pressurized to accept the marriage proposal. In the end, they were married on 2 June 1954; Pappettan [the cousin who brought the proposal] was the master of the ceremony; it was a simple wedding conducted in the family home. After that, things were, as Amma says: ‘Because he worked at Deshabhimani in Kozhikode, he’d come home once a week. Then the two of us would go to Pinarayi. It was convenient because Sunday was a court holiday.’

Father’s family was in dire straits. His brother-in-law, the husband of his sister Yasoda, was in the army but did not have a significant income. His brother Nanu worked for a pittance at a cashew factory. The youngest, Govindan, was unemployed. Their father was aged. The police had confiscated their assets, moveable and immoveable and so the house was in real jeopardy. My parents’ conjugal life began with my mother embracing the family that had become an orphan because of my father’s political activism. Until his death, my mother made sure that he could rely upon that strength. Even now, we children rely on it, to some extent. Though her name is Pankajakshy, her siblings used to call her Cindrella, after the fairy-tale princess. My grandmother reduced it to Cinda. Father used to call her by that name, too. We were so happy as children in that house in which that name resounded. The members of Amma’s family are generally gentle and mild. She too is like that. Her nature was complementary to his eminence. That was the chemistry of their mutual fit…

… Parvathy valyamma [senior aunt] had finished her Law studies and had practiced first in Koothuparambu first and then in the Thalasshery Court with V R Krishna Iyer, when he became the Law Minister in the first Communist Ministry of 1957. Krishna Iyer, who had decided to open Rescue Homes for women as part of the newly-formed Social Welfare Department, asked Parvathy if she was interested in joining this work. That is how she gave up her practice and took up this new responsibility. Homeless women, insecure sex workers, and destitute women were to be sheltered in these new homes, and they were unavoidable in the social climate of those times. It was a social justice programme that called for considerable attention and tact. Valyamma immersed herself in it and kept postponing marriage plans. In a way, her services were an important chapter in the advancement of women here. She devoted all of her life to it. She deserved to be remembered separately and at length. She lived in those homes with those women and travelled across districts and could come home only on holidays … [ from Geetha Nazeer, Balaram Enna Manushyan, Kozhikode: Mathrubhumi Books , 2020, pp. 97-100]

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Mary Mathew – The First Malayali Woman Engineer from Malabar : Joy Kallivayalil

The first Malayalee woman engineer from Kochi State, P.K. Thressia and the first woman engineer from Travancore State, Leela (George) Koshy. Both of them received their degrees in 1943.

Mary Mathew has the distinction of becoming the first Malayalee engineer from Malabar. Mary was born on 3 March 1927 in a conservative Syrian Catholic family as the eldest of six children of Col.P.A.Mathew and Theresa. Col.Mathew was an officer in the British Indian Army.

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The Activities of the Cheramar Sthree Samajam: Excerpt from Vinil Paul

[This is an excerpt translated from Vinil Paul’s recent essay (Madhyamam Weekly, 26 July 2021 pp. 36-7) rather on the women’s organization of the dalit community organization, the Cheramar Maha Jana Sangham, based on reports published in its organ, the Cheramar Doothan, from the late 1920s.]

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Petition from the Cheramar Sthree Samajam to Elizabeth Kuruvila, Member, Travancore Sree Mulam Praja Sabha

[The following is the translation of a petition submitted by the dalit women’s collective, the Cheramar Sthree Samajam advancing the needs and rights of dalit women in Travancore, to Elizabeth Kuruvila, member representing Women, newly-appointed to the Praja Sabha. It appeared in the dalit publication, the Cheramar Doothan (1103 ME, Karkatakam 30, 1928, p.4). This petition was recently discussed by the young scholar of dalit modernity, Vinil Paul. For a discussion of the historical context and significance of this petition, see, Vinil Paul, ‘Chermar Sthree Samajam’: Tiruvitamkoorile Dalit Sthree Pravarthanangal’, Madhyamam Weekly 26 July, 2021. The Chermar refers to a dalit Christian community (of the Pulaya people) formed by Pambady John Joseph in 1921. In preference to the already-prevalent caste-name Pulaya, he proposed the new name ‘Cheramar’. Both Dalits who chose the Christian faith and those who did not could be part of this new community. The Cheramar Maha Jana Sangham was formed under his leadership; the above-mentioned publication was also assumed this name the same year. Vinil Paul notes that the Cheramar Sthree Samajam was the women’s wing of this organisation and run entirely by women.

This petition was signed by C Mariamma Cherammal. Her biographical details are yet to be traced. ]

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The Writer’s Words: Lalitambika Antharjanam: Part Two

[Continuation of Lalitambika Antharjanam’s short reflection on her practice of writing.]

My first publication was a story titled ‘The End of the Journey’ (Yathraavasaanam) which appeared in the Malayala Rajyam Illustrated Weekly. It was an independent retelling of Sitadevi Chattopadhyay’s story that was published in the Modern Review.

In my early days as a short-story writer, Tagore was ‘God’ to me. The Tagore I had met through the translations of Puthezhathu Rama Menon and Kalyani Amma. And later, Bengali novelists like Bankim Chandra and others — and as I had close interactions with the Sriramakrishna Ashram since childhood, the influence of Sriramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda helped to shape my ideas. My imagination gropes, to this say, in the shade of these mighty shadows (no, of illuminations).

If you ask me which of my stories I like the best — which of my offspring I like the best — I cannot give you a reply. Since I do not read again what I have finished writing, I can only say — all that you like are liked by me too.

An experience that may sprout in the mind as a story-seed is not always easily recognized. After much time– some days — maybe even some years — later, it rises to the memory. From the unconscious to the conscious mind. And you write it. The heat and mobility of reality might have waned by then. But the rawness of the incidents that inspired it would have given way to a more mature and new state. One does not submit to the story-seed. One makes it submit. But that may not be achieved, always. No one writes a good short story making notes for it from beginning to end. The end, too, is shaped as one writes. I have seen stories planned as tragedies turn into tales with happy endings, and vice-versa. Endings that arise as the characters’ experiences develop along with them are the right ones.

‘Inspiration’ (sic.) is truly the awakening of creative impulses. Behind great works of storytelling, there is likely to be great creative impulse. The irrepressible urge to give rise to molten, bubbling, ideas. There are those who claim that there is no such thing as the inspiration (sic.) and that it is possible to write without it. But if one starts writing, it will awaken — unless one is writing to get rid of a nuisance. I will not describe the sweet unease that lasts from the emergence of the seed of a tale till the birth of a well-shaped story from it. Because if such a sweet unease does exist, it cannot be described.

It is after all the images and experiences of real life that mirrors in fantasy and turns into the work of art. Maybe one did not mean it deliberately. Maybe it is not clear whose it is, how, when, and so on. Though in a complex way, it is still something that struck its inner world that fantasy traces. In Romantic stories, the idea may be more important. When people of similar mindsets write, there may be similarity. It is possible that one may be accused of stealing ideas too.

Among my characters who were purely imagined, I am particularly fond of the Punjabi girl in the story ‘A Leaf in the Storm’ (Kodungattil Oru Ila). That’s because she is purely a product of my imagination. I had not seen Punjab then. I had no direct knowledge of the refugees. I read in a newspaper article, an item about how abducted young women were exchanged. When I went to bed that night, this news item came to my mind, quite unexpectedly. And with it, the form of the young woman refugee, bearing the weight of unthinkable sorrow. I sat up and wrote the whole story. This symbol of the moral dilemma of womanhood is my favorite. Because her creation was entirely achieved through my fantasy.

I have never experimented with any particular style for a story. The style appears, appropriate to the tale that I narrate. It will be different for Romantic stories, realist ones, and sketch-based ones. The style that suits one will not fit the other. I did strive to experiment only once. I tried writing a story about the emergence of the human as a seed of life — I had hoped to write, step by step, a whole series on it. But because I felt that I did not possess enough scientific knowledge necessary for the subject, I gave it up.

No one probably starts writing with a full-fledged view of life. But it takes shape as one writes. It is impossible otherwise. The author’s view of life is visible all through the story.

Not meant for propaganda — but the ideas, wishes, aims, which became one’s own, they are circulated through one’s art. Good literature has such a side to it. Even Valmiki and Vyasa wrote in forms that could be circulated.

I believe that it is duty of the kalaakaaran (the male artist) — as well as the kalaakaari (the female artist) to take apart the narrow and decrepit rafters of social life and along with it, replace these the resources with which a reformed and healthy new abode may be constructed. Novels, short-stories, poetry — all of artistic creation can only be an instrument to this end.

The Writer’s Words: Lalitambika Antharjanam: Part One

[In this short essay, Lalitambika reflects on her practice of writing. It appeared as a prefatory note to her volume of collected short stories (Kottayam: DC Books, 2009, pp.xxix-xxxii)

It is the interest in life, after all, that urges one to re-create life. Fulsome works of art can emerge only from the brimming over of the love of life. The momentary interactions that the five senses make possible in an inner realm and turn into sensation. In that dream-like background composed of the truthfulness of reality and the colours of the imagination is born the impulse to literature — one could say, like the rays of sun falling on the moon and turning into moonlight. Dreams are more beautiful than reality. Though a seed germinates in the soil, it grows and spreads and bears fruit in the wide-open sky, truly. The seeds of stories are also like this. They become works of art only in they grow.

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K Saraswathi Amma: Ramani (Part 5)

“Sush burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably. Her tears found their way into my heart and stayed there as hatred for the very race of men. She controlled her sobs and continued: When I asked him about the solution Lina had found, he shrieked like a demon: ‘It was her lifeless corpse that I saw next morning that told me what her solution was! In front of it, I took an oath – that I will douse the fire in me only with vengeance. That is how I came down here along with Krishnan Nair. Because I am capable of lively speech and pleasing behaviour – maybe also because of Providence – I gained what I wished. Because I did not know who my Hindu opponent was, I picked a young Hindu girl who was as pretty and young as my Lina to despoil. Our faith tells us to show the other cheek when slapped on one. But human beings are incomplete. The actual answer in situations like this is – the book says on thing, but the act, another. But personally, I am only full of affection for you, Rani. Helpless I am! A man’s lust destroyed my sister; my revenge has dirtied you too. But I am still sad. That Rani has not suffered the inevitable humiliation that Lina had to suffer!’

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K Saraswathi Amma: Ramani (Part 4)

“Then visits and conversations began to happen regularly. The familiarity soon grew into love before long. How sad! What a fool I was back then! Mr Babu started by addressing me as Ms Rani, then Sushama Rani, then Sushama, and soon, Sush. Mr Babu became just Babu to me.”

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