K Saraswathi Amma : Ramani (Part 2)

“But wouldn’t that decision been the sounder one? Ramanan was deeply wounded when he was abandoned. His life withered away, true. But if Chandrika had been faithful to her love, how many lives would have withered and died? The parents would not have lasted long at the sight of their daughter’s despicable fecklessness. Chandrika needs not Kuchela’s pure-hearted poverty but Kubera’s riches even if it is impure. Does not Ramanan who is forever singing “This world is not a fantasy” know this? The ultimate aim of Chandrika’s immense sacrifice for the sake of love would be of Chandrika, Ramanan, and their poverty-stricken children, born of the daughter of a wealthy family, sinking in the mire of hardships and disappearing from the world before or after each other.”

“There was one way out, Sush,” I said. “Why couldn’t have she raised the cowherd from his decrepit cottage to the flower-laden mansion?”

“He become her slave?!! Better than that…”

“Slave? Great! How can that be? When she submits to him all that she had and takes him as her Lord and Master, she is the one who becomes the slave, right? Sublime love….”

“Not divine love, possible lust, that was what it was. A sweet attraction. Ramanan’s eye, besides did espy not just Chandrika’s purity of heart and glowing body, but also the abundance of her diamonds? Ramanan’s comparison of status, worry about meeting his beloved, and fear of separation clearly indicates that his love was utterly worldly. In any case, didn’t I say right at the beginning that ordinary people would find it hard to draw a living picture of love against a background that is hollow- that is just a fantasy ?”

“If so, aren’t her parents really the culprits?”

“Yes, there are in the world no others more culpable and selfish than parents – the very icons of selfishness! To make the their children’s enviable social statuses the very aims of their life — what a crime! But what to do, are not parents such undesirable creations in this world?”

Sush’s derogatory tone angered me: “Agreed, I am a fool. But how is Chandrika, who seduced and sent to death a poor chap who knew well his unsuitability and tried to keep a distance, a good woman! He was so virtuous!”

“Look, Santhi, a maiden approaching a man begging for love? Honour is most important to them. Women who cannot declare their love or seek after their lust cannot beg for love either. Chandrika somehow got an inkling about Ramanan’s love for her. The poor child! That caged parrot deluded herself. His swelling love and adoration intoxicated her impassioned heart — emotions that could simply not be wiped away sprouted up there. A young heart, was it not? She felt that she could give up her very life for the youthful goatherd who sang her praises thus. ‘What is there so much for others to blame?’ ‘What can father and mother possibly feel, about their little girl’s abundance of love?’ – she lisps – what can such a little elite maiden know of the world? The Chandrika who silences Ramanan who begins to preach to her about the world by saying ‘I don’t want to listen to this speech’, is she not but a child in the matter of life-experience? In the end her eyes opened only in the tension between Ramanan’s love and her engagement. That uncompromising state of affairs stared at her, who was but helpless, in the face. Either suicide or betrayal of love – both equally strong, equally sinful. In the sudden nervousness, she felt that suicide was better, but she did perceive her duty correctly, in the end. She who had grown up in comfort and indulgence, was simply not strong enough to endure new and endless difficulties. With a heart thrashing about in pain, she bid goodbye to her lover in her mind. Is not the greater sacrifice that of love for duty, and not of duty for love?”

“Indeed, indeed! How magnanimous! Like that Lord Coverly said, you can argue plenty from both sides! But that’s not what surprises me — how is she going to look at her husband’s face, after all this hullaballoo?”

“What does she have to fear? My Santhi, you have seen only the world of men which preaches ideals, is it not? Your poor thing, just walk around, take a good look, understand what is happening! In their dictionary, bachelorhood has never been the synonym of chaste brahmacharya! Those who indulge in wrongs out of their lust should not condemn those who are frivolous at the beginning stage of their mental development, if they possess the least sense of fairness!”

My scarce good sense advised me to keep silent, given the fact that my knowledge was extremely limited and entirely reliant on books. Sush continued: “In any case, what did Ramanan’s sincere friend, the one who kept declaring, ‘are you not my life?’ and so on, what did he do? Like Chandrika, Madanan too kept egging Ramanan on in the matter of love. That raised Ramanana temporarily to a state of ecstasy that was beyond worry and precaution. But it turned him mad and led him to suicide at the news of Chandrika’s wedding.Santhi, the stern truth is that Ramanan was killed by the ‘two endearing stars of the sky of [his] life.’ What dangerous folly it was for Madanan who had roused the fire of Ramanan’s desire by telling him that ‘what a terrible sin it is to refuse this pure-hearted gift of love’, just when Ramanan was trying to curb his craving for Chandrika, quite wisely? Did not his love have the effect of enemity? The same Madanan who said that if only Ramanan would confide in him, he would mortgage his very life’ and also advice Ramanan that he should not let his life waste away ‘for a mere woman’ — what does he do in the end? Instead of strengthening his weak-willed friend by his presence and consolation and stopping him from making tragic moves, he takes it out at fate, saying, ‘why did you make me a witness to this gaol of sorrow?’ , then trembles, ‘what will I do, what will I do!’, and finally in his dearest friend’s moment of great danger, closed his eyes, proclaiming that ‘I cannot bear to see!’ What a despicable, laughable reward for Ramanan’s sincere affection! The true friend is not he who withdraws from the weakness of love in the face of danger, but he who will offer courageous aid.

Sushama fell silent. I could not find argument to support my stand, so I too was silent. I was surprised by the eloquence of Sushama who was rather known to be taciturn. She broke the silence again. “How can Chandrika be held responsible for the weakness that laid around Ramanan’s neck the fatal noose, a weakness that was of his own heart?” Did not he decide, after having tried many times to get past frivolous desire, to leave that fantastic world of desire, and failed, to end the act with one of shedding his own blood. Ramanan who had advised Chandrika to think well and if she found it harmful, to throw that love into ‘the wilderness of forgetfulness’, could he not take comfort in the fact that Chandrika had merely taken his advice and accepted the bridegroom that her father had found her? Why did Ramanan who knew well of the ways of the world, allow the undesirable, disallowed, pointless desire to thrive and grow?”

“My Sush, are not human beings incomplete? Even the incarnations of God are flawed! It is entirely wrong to say that Ramanan had no purity of ideals.” I felt that my words lacked the strength of conviction but still continued. If Ramanan was only like any other man in this world, then would he not have caused the flighty Chandrika social shame? She was the one blinded by lust!”

“Chhe! You mean by the intoxication of love! Santhi, bodily desire is not something that arises in a girl’s body on her own. It is something that is awakened by constant male presence and influence, and which grows in time – you would know if you thought about it well. But I will not say that Ramanan’s idealism and self-control were not admirable. My effort has to reduce the faults heaped upon Chandrika in a depiction that makes readers see all responsibility of the tragedy as essentially hers – to show that these faults are less than this from that very depiction. If not for the force of social law, Chandrika would have remained the heavenly river of pure love. And even if Ramanan did manage to achieve his desire, what insult would have befallen Chandrika from that?”

I asked, rather surprised: “How come?”

K Saraswathi Amma: Ramani (Part 1)

[This is my translation of her famous response to the poet Changampuzha Krishna Pillai’s pastoral elegy Ramanan, which was arguably the most popular book in Malayalam in the 1940s. It told the tale of a poor goatherd, Ramanan, who fell in love with a beautiful aristocratic maiden, Chandrika, who, the poet bewails, betrayed their love by marrying another. Unable to bear the end of their love, the goatherd commits suicide. At its time, this feminist reading of Ramanan was not treated with the seriousness that it deserved but as a typically eccentric outpouring of a strange woman.]

“Throw away that book, Santhi,” Sushama came up to me after lunch, ending the silence under the causarina trees in the Women’s College campus. She snatched Ramanan, which I was holding in my hand, and threw it down with vehemence. “There’s nothing in it to pore over so avidly!”

“I’ll decide that?” I pulled the edge of her saree down and made her sit beside me. “But don’t vent your anger on the book. It’s a crime to damage library books like this.”

Her reply was in a piece of song:

Readily will I take all blame

But may you not misdeem;

Nothing abides over thee

In this life, this world of mine.

“The last declaration is a lie.”

“Yes,” she hugged me tight and said. “But I have never loved a girl-friend so much.”

I replied in a derisive tone.

“My Queen, I am glad to have received thy priceless love!”

Sushama reddened: “Santhi, how many times have I told you not to call me ‘Queen’! Poor kids! What do they know! What is the fate of the moth that leaps into the flame mislead by its outer allure? I know that my association does no one any good.”

“But then why did you make me your friend!!”

“Oh, that’s because I think that your nature is not swayed by external influences. I was taken by your naturally happy disposition! Somehow, I also felt that we were sincere friends for long, by some tie of a former birth. And besides, I really like the name Santhi.”

“But why do you preen so much, Sush?”

“Look, too much of coddling is bound to spoil anyone! Do you know what all my tears can achieve? I can do all sorts of wrong, I will not be blamed. Ah, leave it, Santhi,” she picked up Ramanan, which had fallen some distance away : “What is your opinion of Chandrika, in this work?”

“What a question!” My deep antipathy towards Chandrika instantly boiled in my blood. “What is there in favour of her? That vessel of gold a-brim with venom who betrayed the Lover who was entranced by the intoxication of Love, who was overflowing with blissful song — for cheap, ephemeral pleasures of the world… It was not Chandrika – moonlight – at all but an ill-omened comet from which the venom spilled all around… When that smouldering piece of firewood covered with silk, that flame which let out poisonous fumes, fell on that gentle cowherd boy and seared his tender body–“

“Calm down, tell me calmly,” Sushama said, covering my mouth with her rosy palm. “Speak without anger. Do you love Ramanan so? Great! If only he knew that the vine of his heart which had dried up from the disappointment over his first love had a chance to sprout again touched by the flow of love from such a lover of literature, he would not have killed himself. ” She took her hand away and continued, “But Santhi, should not such a harsh judgement be passed only after considering the circumstances under which such a cruel betrayal happened, especially by Chandrika who belongs to the race of women who Man had honoured with such epithets as abala [weak], chapala [flighty] and so on?”


“But why didn’t she think of all that in the first place? Did she not boast that even if the lamp of the sun dies in the sky, the lamp of her love shall not end? That she was willing to beg with a leaf-bowl for the sake of that sacred love? Did she not proclaim her willingness to sacrifice thus? How sorry! My regret is that she has heaped up such endless infamy and insult on all women!”

“Oho!” Sushama seemed all game to make fun of me. “So the fear is that no one may turn up to claim My Santhi’s love, right? Hey, don’t fear that. These are folk whose precept is, “do not count the teeth of the cow given free”. In the end when losses and gains are counted, all the losses are hers and the gains, his. She has become impure; her chastity is destroyed. She is the target of ridicule and insult, her heart is sore. Man is of course free in all ways? All joys that are available to the experiences are his; all of it is his gain. The curses of parents, the contempt of the world, their derision, hatred, slander, crime, the bad name suffered — and worse, sometimes, divine punishment in the form of an infant — all these are hers.”

The breeze ruffled the pages of Ramanan, still lying on the ground, and swept towards the college building. Sushama tied up the ends of the strands of her thought which had floundered somewhat. “Chandrika should not be condemned and cursed, she should be honoured and congratulated. A woman had at least wreaked this limited vengeance against the terrible betrayals that Man has been perpetrating against women over ages and ages. At an individual level, Chandrika erred. But Man’s work of despoiling is always deliberate. Chandrika’s act, however, had no other options. But the fact that a trivial woman was able to not just steep a man in unending dejection, but could actually destroy him, is a great victory for women in general.”

A song from the Department of Music which was adorned by a statue of Goddess Saraswathi, wafted through the air, caressing us. “And even if we admit that Chandrika is indeed a wrong-doer, her fault is not too big for sure. Look, Santham. Why is that the rich girl who luck exceeds the extent of the universe and sees all of the world in white light, from her mansion, not ready to act according to her boasts and promises? Either leave father and mother to fulfill my love, or from today forget that little bamboo flute… it was when she was forced to choose between these two lives that she noted the difference between them. In the first, the sole gratification was about the fulfilment of love, everything else is sorrowful. In the latter, the only pain is the loss of her beloved. “My pleasure, my victory, my enjoyment, my beauty, my brilliant youth’ — if all of these, except love, which are greatly sweet to Chandrika, are to be sacrificed at the altar of love with its foundations laid upon the God of Poverty, what would be her state after? The sorrow of her parents will tear apart her conscience. The derision of the world will pierce her heart and divide it; the poverty-stricken life in the goatherd’s hut will dry up the blue blood in her delicate body; even if the sole consolation amidst these manifold sorrows — Ramanan’s love — proves steady and bottomless, how much comfort and satisfaction could it possibly give her? God has not bestowed on Man the ability to love boundlessly. My dear literature-loving friend, don’t you know — love is just a part of man’s life, but everything in life for a woman?”

“Yes,” I retorted, “Is that not true?”

“If so Santhi, will Ramanan be able to at least console Chandrika, leave alone make her happy? Should not these things be thought through before she leaves the golden sanctuary of her birth for the goatherd’s cottage to be the housewife there? In such circumstances, if Ramanan’s love falls short then…”

“That won’t be.” I said that strongly. “I will not sully the ray of love even in the world of fancy — that is what he said — no circumstances can destroy his selfless love which is unmixed with desire for pleasure.”

“There! The topic of our debate has shifted!” Sushama smiled even though she was speaking with seriousness. “If Ramanan’s love was really so chaste — if it involved no bodily desire — why was her absence so intolerable to him? When she became another’s why did he wail so piteously – ‘even as you rise towards the matchless pleasure of sexual union, I lie in paths of the netherworlds of despair, growing cold’ – and kill himself? If he had not loved her consumable body but her eternally pure soul, why did he not take comfort in that it was not the heart that she had given him that was being taken away, but just the body? If Chandrika’s love was from just lust, Ramanan’s is no different? My dear Santhi, this sacred love that the poets are busy colouring does not exist anywhere in the world. Even the love of a mother for its child remains within the limits of bodily attachment. Is that not why she feel pain at separation from it? And if that is the case, how divine can be this attraction engendered by callow youth? Even those whose ego has been minimised do not feel love that is utterly selfless. We can’t help weeping with Kanva at his parting from Sakunthala. Tell me, Santham, am I wrong?”

“Maybe you aren’t. I don’t know.”

“Anyway, let us suppose that Ramanan’s flames of love cool down after the fulfilment of the union and in time. And if it gradually gets totally destroyed, what will be Chandrika’s state? Should not the impulsiveness of love be controlled by diligent thought? By then, she would most probably be not alone. What will that helpless, indigent, elite-born woman do then, Santhi, when she would be carrying the responsibility of caring for two or three little children? The sacred fulfilment of love will make her make a begging bowl of leaves. But even a pinch of rice will not fall into it. People will move away at the sight of a girl who defied her parents and ran away with a lower caste man. The street-brats will throw stones. My Santhi, the cow on the page does not eat grass. The world will not remember her as the goddess who sacrificed pleasure for the sake of love but as the fallen woman who abandoned her duty for lust.”

Sushama fell silent, choked with emotion. My experience of the world did not let me say that her argument was wrong. She began again: “For love that it beyond bodily temptations, what is the use of mutual [sexual union]? For progeny? When she sees those children she will know the extent of her sin. Does not Ramanan himself remark ‘how severe an inner blow’ it will be if Chandrika, the sole source of her parents’ hopes, if she wedded him?”

Expecting a response, Sush remained silent. I remained silent, looking at her attentively. She continued: “Then suicide was Chandrika’s last resort. Like all women, she was first confronted by love and then by death. But saying that she would not pour the red blood of her chest in sacrifice before them, she sidestepped both, wisely. In the end, seeing no other way, burning inwardly, she decided to enter the thorny thickets of conjugal life that her parents pointed towards and wander and tire in them.”

“Where did you get all this from, Sush? Did she not decide to live out of great desire for life, that intoxicates one, like wine.”

“Let it be so,” she flashed a beautiful smile.

An Excerpt from Samatvavaadi: Act Two

[Pulimaana Parameswaran Pillai’s Samatvavaadi [The Egalitarian] continues to be one of the less-noticed gems in Malayalam drama from the 1940s. One of the nameless characters of this play, referred to in it as ‘Younger daughter’, is perhaps a powerful voice questioning gender inequality. Below is the translation of Act Two of the play. In the first act, the character ‘samatvavaadi’ murders the ‘prabhu’ (the aristocrat), who is the father of his beloved (called ‘Older Daughter’). What follows is a dialogue between the aristocrat’s ‘Younger Daughter’ and her Lover.

K Ayappa Panikkar, who wrote the introduction to this edition of the play, remarks that it militated against the realist trends of its time, bringing in a pure of absolute form, ideas and world-views onstage. In other words, the women who speak in favour of tradition and who defy it in the play, and the other characters as well, appear artificial and designed to challenge realism.

Yet I cannot help remembering that these were the years in which many of the first-generation feminists including K Saraswathi Amma, but surely not just her, were speaking precisely the language which Pulimana makes the ‘Younger Daughter’ speak in.]

Act 2

Scene 1

[The spacious front-drawing room of the Aristocrat’s house. Black-coloured curtains hang in the windows and doors.]

Lover: You don’t know what you are doing. That man may have murdered your father, but he is your sister’s lover. Your sister loves him.

Younger daughter: I will destroy him.

Lover: Don’t be stubborn. If your sister testifies against him — that will be like her sending him to his death by herself.

Younger daughter: I don’t need similes… that woman knows her duty towards her murdered father.

Lover: You taught her that.

Younger daughter: She knows it.

Lover: A pity!

Younger daughter: You are uttering that for a hundredth time!

Lover: I can’t help saying it again.

Younger daughter: Can’t help refusing to listen to it again.

Lover: We don’t suit each other.

Younger daughter: Didn’t you see?

Lover (stunned): I believed…

Younger daughter: …in nothing. You are unable to believe in anything. Saying ‘a pity!’ all the time, such a person can’t believe in anything!

Lover: I believed in you.

Younger daughter: You disbelieved in me.

Lover: A pity!

Younger daughter (exasperated): Chhe! Stop saying that. You have wasted me, saying that again and again. I wanted to love. To laugh exuberantly. You said — a pity! The tender shoots of everything sweet in me just dried up! It is an evil incantation! You recited it over and over and turned me into a monster!

Lover: Not my fault. You are all like that. Monsters. You want to play ball with human hearts.

Younger Daughter: With hearts? But you have congealed venom there, instead of hearts! Why them do you speak of hearts? Let others speak of the heart.

Lover: Because of you —

Younger daughter: Because of me –?

Lover: I have not known a moment of peace in my life!

Younger daughter: You too, are the scion of an aristocrat.

Lover : Am I not to have a life of pleasure?

Younger daughter: But you do not possess the intelligence for that … you never had to think of anything. You had everything. You were given everything.

Lover: I was my father’s darling.

Younger daughter: You were loved. You never even had to think. And you lost the ability to think. But even the mind of a wasted person needs a space to move in. You created yourself, worshipped yourself. You’ve never known want. Your imagination created it. You wept and tears flowed around yourself. You were under an illusion that all are out to cheat you. You believed only in your own goodness. A truly clever chap!

Lover: How you love to accuse me! This is meaningless otherwise.

Younger daughter: You ended up with a weak body and base mind. Our parents made a pact — that we should be married.

Lover: (aroused by memory) You were just fourteen then!

Younger daughter: You had great freedom in my room!

Lover: A lie!

Younger daughter: My father was the son of a rogue. We have no blue blood. You have no health, but you are well-born. The rich man will do anything for aristocratic trappings. You had great freedom in my room.

Lover: And so — I did not take any such liberties, did I?

Younger daughter: You were a fool. You just piled obscene words on me. Dirty, boring, obscenities.

Lover: (lowering his head) But you liked them then.

Younger daughter: Yes, then… when I began to dislike them you started reciting — “a pity!” … If only you were a man! When my heart bloomed and brimmed over with the sweet nectar of virgin desires… to my youth, to animation, to love, your useless manhood just kept saying, “a pity, a pity!” (looks up) My life! What have I turned into?

Lover: What madness is this? What impatience? Why is it today you…

Younger daughter: Impatience. Events are about to take birth on the arena of the future. On the scroll unfurled by time, fate marks our paths … Hopes await with bated breath outside and behind each and every exit of this house. Do you not know any of this?

Lover: I know nothing.

Younger daughter: I know it. Clearly, in detail.

Lover: Your face is now very flushed. Whenever you feel troubled your face turns red, like this. Do you know how beautiful you become then? There is no one as beautiful as you.

Younger daughter: You arouse me now … what is my beauty?

Lover : Your beauty —

Younger daughter: Is it my spiritual beauty? My sacrifice! Commitment to service! Compassion! Are these my beauty? Am I Sheelavathi? The chaste wife who will not look at another man’s shadow, even? Is that the beauty you see in me?

Lover: (in surprise) Your sacrifice! Your service! Your compassion!

Younger daughter: Enough. I know that I lack all of these. And knowling that well, you still say that you love me. You still call me beautiful. For what?

(Lover remains silent)

You have no answer. The beauty of my body. The heady attraction to my perfect figure. Isn’t that the truth?

(Lover remains silent)

You men never admit your weaknesses. For Woman, I admit, male flesh drives her crazy with desire. But he thinks that the Woman’s seductive power is Man’s weakness. He is shy to admit it.

Lover: (not comprehending) I can admit, Man’s weakness is Woman. When I see you — my courage fails. What all are the resolutions I make when I come here each time!

Younger daughter: Don’t you know that I am a cruel woman?

Lover: (unthinkingly) Yes. (Suddenly) No! That is …I mean…

Younger daughter: The poor thing! The protoplasm that represents the primal evident form of life-force, in order to swim and reach its female mate, must be possessed by an immense passionate attraction. In men, that has grown into a clear slavishness.

Lover: That’s because the heart is surrendered? What can be done? If a man loves a woman, he is her slave. She is, for him, the mistress of his heart, the mother of his progeny, and the Pole Star of his life.

Younger daughter: That protoplasm probably said nothing of this kind. It probably did not know so many fancy words and was not so conceited. It just needed a mate.

Lover: Is the protoplasm the human being?

Younger daughter: No, much worse.

Lover: You want to speak in this confusing way. You used to say such sweet things once!

Younger daughter: I used to say foolish things then.

Lover: You knew how to smile then. You would be sweetly coy when I touched you. Now you utter peals of disgusting, frightening laughter. Stride around like a thug. You are all civilized now, having passed all those exams! That is why. But — Good God — what a transformation!

Younger daughter: I know how to pretend a smile and act coy even now. But back then, I wasn’t acting. My smile and my coyness are all dead. You destroyed all of it. Today, I just have fake stuff with me. My weapons.

Lover: Weapons! … Tell me , who are you?

Younger daughter: Woman! … Can you recognize the Woman? You have not seen her. You have seen only female forms shaped within the sanctums of men! Not women! You breed chaste wives; how can Woman grow there?

Lover: Stop raving. The models for the world of women–

Younger daughter: Woman’s model is Woman.

Lover: What about Sita and Savithri, then?

Younger daughter: They are perversions. (Suddenly) Do you know any history?

Lover: You make me such a fool!

Younger daughter: Do you know how colonisers rule? By handing out honours and medals to some of the slave nations, by distributing shiny caps, making them servants devoid of self-respect. They will be pointed out and this will be said of them — here are our model subjects! Shining exemplars! The colonising power of the clever man. The Chaste Wife of the model created to rule the world of women.

Lover: Excellent. Sita, Savithri…

Younger daughter: Aren’t you sick of that refrain yet? Please leave. Do not test my patience further. Do not drive me mad. Hear this and shudder: my models are Radha, Pingala, Mariam! They are my models. Models of Woman.

Lover : (with force) Whores! No, no you are joking. You can’t be like them. You are good. You can’t be so.

Younger daughter : Cchi! Do not deny my Womanhood … leave … I am part of that eternal seductiveness called Woman.

Lover: Destructive seductiveness! The beauty of the deluge. Your beauty!

( leaves)

Younger daughter: (as if in a dream) Destructive seductiveness!

When Healing is a Passion: Dr K Radhakumari aka Amma

I am the granddaughter of two Obstetrician-Gynecologists and the daughter of one. The Obstetrician’s basic tenet of watchful expectancy and masterly inactivity did not suit my impulsive personality. The prospect of spending my professional life staring at diseased female genitalia with their odoriferous discharges also did not charm. This is not the case with my mother, Dr. K. Radhakumari. At 82, she is still enthusiastic about her chosen field, Obstetrics and Gynecology.

When she started her career, Kerala was just emerging from the ‘dark ages’ as far as modern medical expertise and treatment was concerned. She talks of her post-graduation days when women with uteruses burst open and babies jammed inside were brought to Calicut Medical College. They were tied to make shift stretchers — usually bamboo ladders, and carried on the shoulders of men who walked many miles with their half dead burdens. The machete that rested permanently on the admission register in their Casualty (ER) was meant to cut the patients free of the ropes that kept them in place during their harrowing journey. If they made it that far, then remarkably many of them survived. Amma says that surviving the surgery was easier than what it took for them to make that trip alive.

Amma has forgotten the role that doctors like her played in midwife-ing the birth of their specialty in our state where it now stands on par with what obtains in the developed world. This fact was brought to her notice recently when a surgical oncologist, Dr. Chandramohan from the Regional Cancer Center, Trivandrum made a video. This video showcased the achievements of the pioneers from Kerala in Gynecological Cancer Surgery.  Dr. Thankam, Dr. Susan George, Dr. Kalyanikutty and  Dr. Radhakumari began this work in the 1960s.  Dr. Sreedevi, Dr. Clara, Dr. Chandrika Devi, Dr. Shyamala Devi, Dr. Usha Sadasivan, and Dr. Chitradhara head the list of those who have carried that baton forward.

My mother tells a story in that video…

The place: Alleppey Medical College, Kerala, India.

Time: The late 1970s.

A young fisher woman was given her death sentence – Invasive Cancer Cervix. The only treatment option was the complicated Wertheim’s hysterectomy. This was a radical procedure in which the entire uterus, tubes, ovaries and upper part of the vagina along with all the pelvic lymph nodes, fat and soft tissue were removed. The urinary tubes and the rectum had to be carefully moved away during this procedure, to prevent them from being damaged. At least three surgical specialists had to work in tandem to ensure its success, a Urologist, a Surgeon and a Gynecologist. Even then, one fifth of the women who underwent this surgery did not make it out alive. Dr. Susan George in Trivandrum and Dr. Thankam in Calicut were the only ones who had had the necessary training to undertake this procedure.

This young woman was poor, barely surviving from day to day. Going to Trivandrum or Calicut was out of the question, you might as well have asked her to go the moon. “Can’t you do something, Doctor Amma?  If you forsake me, I will die.” That was indeed true and those words went in deep. Amma talked this over with her colleague, Dr. M.K. Joseph, a Urologist. Neither of them had done this before or had received any training in this procedure. For a week, they pored over an old tattered Bonney’s Textbook of Gynecological Surgery, planning out their surgical moves. Next they needed an anesthetist and Dr. Unnikrishnan, an anesthetist, was willing to join them. The head nurse too nodded her agreement. The team was set to go.

That Monday morning, Amma reached the Operation Theater to find her nurse in tears. Internal politics. The Powers that be had pulled out every nurse from the Theater and reassigned them.

Amma looked around, saw her now dejected team, and took stock of the situation:

1. The Patient is ready.

2. The Surgeons are ready.

3. The Anesthetist is ready

4. Blood is ready.

“That’s it. We are doing this”, she declared. She had no nurses, so she called her other colleagues to help. My mother-in-law-to-be, Dr. Navaneetham agreed to be the surgical nurse. They set up a black board, the Head nurse was not permitted to assist but she knew what was needed. She wrote down the list and count of instruments and swabs. Then finally they started the procedure which took hours to complete. 

Afterwards, when they smiled at one other over their masks, they could not have known that the chance they took, and the effort they made would give that young girl ten more years of life. They did know however that their success in that endeavor would give them the confidence to undertake many more such procedures and also to train the next generation of younger surgeons.

That video by the Regional Cancer Center informed me that Dr. Radhakumari aka Amma has many other firsts to her name.  She is the first Gynecologist in Kerala to do Radical Oophorectomies, for ovarian cancer and the first to perform para aortic lymph node dissection to remove the lymph nodes around the major artery high up in the abdomen during Radical Hysterectomy. She is the first to do Hysterectomies using a Laparoscope and the first to do Colposcopies in the Medical Colleges in Kerala. Those firsts would have meant little if she had not been able to teach others these new skills. Working in the Medical Colleges ensured that she had the opportunity to pass on the knowledge she gained to hundreds of young gynecologists.

I know that in our country the pioneers in the medical field, those who take that first step behind which many thousands will later follow, are not always recognized or celebrated. Many of those pioneers have been women, who have not lagged behind the men in their thirst for new knowledge and their pursuit of excellence. They did this after overcoming challenges that their male colleagues have not had to face. Their names and achievements should not fade away and disappear with time.

We have to continue those efforts, to remember them and to remember our past.

[Meera Sukumaran is from Kerala, and is a pediatrician who practices in the US]

Divine Mother: Janamma

[Accounts of the Great Opening of Malayali society of the 20th century acknowledge the rising of empowering spirituality, but it is almost always the male spiritual seers and practitioners who are celebrated – Sreenarayana Guru, Poikayil Appachan, and others. There is a gap to be filled here for sure: there were many women who sought a spiritual life, both among the first generation of educated women, as well as outside. Of them, not many sought an active public life, but Janamma, who rose to the leadership of the Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha initiated by Poikayil Appachan which advanced a powerful emancipatory project among the caste-oppressed dalit people of Travancore in the early half of the 20th century, was a striking exception. After Appachan’s passing, she led the movement (from 1941 to her passing till 1985) with considerable force and exceptional diligence, preventing it from fragmenting and protecting its core of faith. Known widely as ‘Ammachi’ – mother – when she rose to leadership, Janamma married Appachan at the age of fifteen in 1925. She was born and raised in Neyyatinkara, Thiruvananthapuram and her parents were early adherents of the Pratyaksha Raksha faith. She studied in a Christian school till Class Four but was unable to continue her education. Initially reluctant to marry him, she apparently changed her mind totally on seeing him. Before their wedding, he made her promise that she could care for the Sabha and also give him two sacred offspring. He is said to have addressed her as ‘akkachi’, which is, in Malayalam, a respectful way of referring to an older woman, an elder sister.

After his passing there was much trouble and dissension, includes disputes over the Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha’s assets. A decision was taken to send Janamma and her two young children back to her natal home, but a chief disciple of Appachan, Nhaaliyakkuzhi Asan, resisted this. It took time for his disciples to accept a young woman, considered inexperienced, as their leader, but in 1941, she was officially accepted as president of the Sabha – she was just 31 at that time. Janamma faced many hurdles, including the hostility of the very disciples who first supported her, but ably overcame all of those, taking over the leadership and even fighting court cases.

This is an excerpt from a memory of her shared by K C Vijayan who joined the PRDS through her. This describes his first meeting with her and reveals her style of spiritual teaching. From the volume Divyamathavu:Orma Anubhavam, Thiruvalla: PRDS Yuvajana Sangham, 2010, pp. 53-71]

From https://dalithistorymonth.medium.com/an-anti-slavery-spiritual-revolution-in-kerala-prathyaksha-raksha-daiva-sabha-c795e46343e5 , accessed 19 June 2021.

… There were some rattan chairs on the veranda. Come, [I said], let us sit down. All three of us sat down. A little later, a girl came running, saw us, and quickly went off. A mother – Amma – came in suddenly. She looked fit and healthy. She looked at us closely. ‘Vandanam’, she said, greeting us. We were not familiar with the practice of greeting others saying ‘vandanam’. We too responded with ‘vandanam’. Who are you, Amma asked. We are pastors, we told her. We did not get up when she came up to greet us. The little girl who we had seen before came and stood beside her. Amma told her, koche, bring another chair here, let me too sit down with the sahibs. The chair was brought and Amma sat down in it … She asked us — what is the meaning of ‘vandanam’? We admitted that we did not know. She replied – [it is] the right which is the place of the masculine and the left, which is of feminine, join together and are pressed on the breast. The soul which resides in the heart bows to the supreme soul that resides in God. The soul resides in human, the supreme soul, in the Divine. Vandanam refers to this relation. Amma sang for us this song (song no 11, ‘I journey to reclaim the progeny of the Oppressed…). Who is God’s true heir? The relation between the soul and the supreme soul is eternal. Even when we die, we are dissolved in this relation. We understood the vandanam only when Amma told us all this. This is an important gesture that children of God must adopt when they meet and part. When we enter a shrine of the Divine, we must offer vandanam there and then also to the faithful assembled there. Amma taught us these things.

Then Amma asked us a question. When will Yesu (Jesus) come? Who told you of it? From where will he arrive? How? Tell me, tell me. But there is not a word in the Book that tells us when he will come. He was seen ascending to Heaven. And he will return in the same way. But nothing is said about the time of his return. The three of us broke into cold sweat unable to answer her. This Amma is no ordinary mother. She is endowed with divine grace…

After that, Amma asked, the Hindus have many sacred places and spiritual refuges like Kashi, Rameswaram, Varkala, Sivagiri, Palani, Sabarimala, and so on. Islam has Mecca and Medina and pilgrimage centres and sacred spots. The Temple of Jerusalem has become the spiritual refuge and heaven of the people of Israel. If so, do the indigenous Adidravida people who suffer in India have a refuge or a heaven of their own? Tell me, tell me quickly. I told you so many things. Tell me if you have a single word to put forward with courage. We were struck dumb, without a single word to speak or reply. We began to feel awkward. Because there was no sacred shrine, no refuge, to be seen for the indigenous oppressed people. The Divine Mother asked us again,

‘Tell me, how many doors does the Temple of Jerusalem have?’

Twelve, I said.

‘Why are there twelve doors?’

Don’t know, I replied.

Her Divinity was revealed then. She said,

The Twelve Doors of the Temple of Jerusalem

are meant for Heads of the Tribes.

Ruben, Simeon, Levi, Yahuda, Issakhar, Sebbalune, Naphthali, Gad, Asser, Yoseph, Benyamin.

The Divine Mother said, they are twelve gems… If the Temple of Jerusalem is for the generations descended from the twelve Tribal Elders, if only there was a thirteenth door, the oppressed people of Bharatham could have also entered. We said: there is no thirteenth door. Then the Divine Mother asked us. If so, why walk in those bylanes. Why not come here? Here the oppressed have a refuge, a shrine… (pp. 56-8)

A Malayali Woman in Delhi : Lakshmi N Menon in Politics

[Below are some translated excerpts from G Kumara Pillai’s biography of Lakshmi N Menon, and the obituary published by the Mathrubhumi newspaper at her death in 1994. These excerpts through much light on the induction of women into politics during the Nehruvian era. Kumara Pillai’s account projects her as a paragon of virtue in public life, endowed with all the qualities valued in Gandhian politics — simplicity, honesty, diligence, efficiency, humility, forthrightness. More importantly, it reveals the manner in which women who were not active in political parties, but pursued politics otherwise – as champions of women’s rights – could be inducted into politics in the Nehruvian era, unlike later times.

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Varaahan: A Chapter from Kamala Das’ Ente Katha

[This translated chapter is from Kamala Das’ Ente Katha, which has been one of the most controversial memoirs in Malayalam. The shock waves it produced in Kerala in the 1970s are hard to describe: she was attacked by both the liberal humanists and the leftists, abused as a harlot clad in a good housewife’s garb. It has also been celebrated as some of the most beautiful writing in Malayalam of the twentieth century. Kamala Das’ memoir in English, My Story and Ente Katha are related but distinctly different texts. Decades after, however, she rejected the memoir, claiming that it was entirely fictitious, written to please her husband who wanted her to make money from her writing.

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The Search for Love: Kamala Surayya

[This is from Kamala Surayya’s memoir Neermathalam Poothakaalam, in which she remembers her teenage love for her English teacher in school. It is one of the many avowals of queer desire in her writing. From Chapter 29 of Neermathalam… in Madhavikkuttyude Krithika Sampoornam, Kottayam: DC Books, 2009, pp. 1058-59]

“It was then that a new English teacher joined our school. Her name was Miss Sneha Laha. She was the eldest daughter of a psychologist from Ranchi. Her face was rather too long and pale. But her voice faltered in an extremely attractive way. A voice with a shattered spine. I had been seeking someone to adore. When she praised my essays and poetry I thought that she had begun to love me. My poems were about her. She read them, and smiled. I plucked a rose every day from our rose bushes to present to her. My expressions of love did not anger her. I used to tell Parukkutty [the maid] about her every evening. I believed that none but Parukkutty would be able to understand my passion for her.

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Memories of a Marriage: Kamala Das

[In this translated excerpt from her memoir Neermathalam Poothakaalam, Kamala Surayya remembers her parents, the poet Balamani Amma and V M Nair, from the late 1940s or early 50s. From chapter 29 of NeermathalamMadhavikkuttyude Krithikal Sampoornam vol 2, Kottayam: DC Books, 2009, pp 1056-58]

“It was around this time that my mother was chosen to be the head of the Keraleeya Mahila Samajam in Kolkata. Maybe because he was delighted that his shy wife had gained such a position, my father started making hefty donations to this organization. Its members began to visit our home more frequently to meet him. One day, the green ping pong table that we kids used with gifted to the Mahila Samajam folk. We hated the women who had flattered father and plastered him with smiles and filched our table. But despite this, I happily accepted a small role in a play that was to be put up for the Onam celebrations. The rehearsals were mostly held in the house of the Secretary of the Samajam. Her children and P G Menon’s elder daughter got the meatiest roles easily. In the tableaux that was to be staged before the play, I was to appear as one among the Indian Women. Only I was ready to appear onstage clad in a burqa covering all other parts of the body except the face, as a conservative Muslim woman. I displayed with pride my face touched to make it look fairer, darkened eyebrows, and reddened lips.

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Cabaret Dancing and the Malayali Feminists’ Moral Burden – K R Gouri Amma from the 1970s

[On 27 February 1974, K R Gouri Amma called for attention under Rule 16 in the Kerala State Legislative Assembly, drawing attention to the ‘menace’ of ‘naked dancing’ in Kerala. The translated version of her speech is below. It was perhaps one of the few matters on which the right and left, men and women who claimed to be decent, were all in public agreement – ‘naked dancing’ lowers the moral standards of a culture. This page from the records of the Kerala State Legislative Assembly does not give us any clue of who these ‘naked dancers’ were – they seem to have been a group of women with a male manager. They had actually secured permission from the local government authorities for their performances.

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