The Autobiography of Anna Chandy – I (Continued)

[In this part of Anna Chandy’s autobiography where she talks of her childhood, her mother’s tough love made me think. I have always thought about my life that contrary to much common sense, tough love has served me much better than the overprotectiveness that is favoured these days by parents. Tough love is an implicit acknowledgement of your potential to develop as a human being while overprotectiveness implies your permanent state of passivity. Tough love is a form of power that provokes resistance and makes you immune to it later (as is so beautifully evident in this section), while overprotectiveness just weakens the immune system altogether, making you break down at the first encounter with life out there. Also, as the difference between Anna and Sara show each one learned to absorb and resist in different ways, so tough love, however much it may try, can never succeed in producing identical subjects.]

An orderly routine

Our usual practice was to cook in the morning, pack our lunches, and leave for school. The routine at home was very structured. All of us were expected to leap out of bed as though we had springs attached to our backs when the alarm clock rang at five in the morning. If we were late even by a moment, the warning call, “edi kochanne, saramme, do I need to come there?” would sound. Our parrot, which heard it regularly, learned it by heart, and if Ammachi was delayed for some reason, it would screech the same words and wake us up.

Continue reading “The Autobiography of Anna Chandy – I (Continued)”

The Autobiography of Anna Chandy – Part 1

Childhood and Education


Yours truly was born on 5 April 1905, in the asterism of Aswathy. There has been no dispute about the date of birth, but I cannot say that there were no disagreements at all. Long after the time of disagreement had vanished, the article on the women of Kerala which appeared in the Femina magazine of 12 November 1971 referred to the first woman Judge in the Commonwealth as “the 68-year-old luminary.” Now, if this case were before retirement, I would have filed an affidavit, argued, and got it dismissed with costs. Because it surfaced now, so I’ll let it go.

Continue reading “The Autobiography of Anna Chandy – Part 1”

The Autobiography of Anna Chandy -Statement.

[Anna Chandyude Atmakatha, Carmel Books, Thiruvananthapuram, 1975.]

Translated by J Devika

[Anna Chandy (1905-1996) was perhaps the strongest of first-generation-feminist voices in Kerala. But she was largely, until recently, nothing but a fact, or even just a factoid, for quiz competitions: the answer to the questions who was the first female Munsif, the first female judge, or the first female judge in the HC in India etc etc. Her interventions in the 1930s were largely forgotten or worse, cynically dismissed as posturing that she adopted to gain the post of the Munsif. The rejection of her work in the 1930s is not only wrong, it also implies the hostility towards a woman aspiring to be more than either a doormat or an also-ran.

This autobiography, however, may not do full justice to her life. It was obviously written as a way of healing — she had just lost her loving, amazingly supportive husband, a police officer who had not only encouraged her to study but also taught her the art of becoming a criminal law expert in court, and someone who seems to have totally delighted in his wife reaching heights he could never aspire to. This is written as a tribute to him, offering her entire biography as the fruit of his tireless effort. The historian G Arunima, reading the autobiographies of such Malayali women as B Kalyani Amma and Rosie Thomas, remarks that these are ‘biographies of marriage’ in which the authors quietly establish themselves as the very ground on which their men were able to craft their remarkable lives. This autobiography seems to reverse that almost exactly. Here, Anna Chandy quite openly and colourfully points to “Mr Chandy” as the silent support that made her own brilliant career possible.

Anna Chandy smashes all stereotypes about feminists in it: she comes across as a cheerful, active, mischievous, quick-witted, sharp-minded, articulate, happy-go-lucky woman who would have been quite content with a life of domesticity swaddled in a tender and intensely loving relationship with her man. The youthful humour that permeates her writing even when it was written, it seems, soon after her inconsolable loss and grieving, is unmissable. The ways in which she describes her man besides the common reference bharthavu (husband) are intriguing: she calls him atmanathan — the ruler of my heart — and then, atmasakhi — clearly, sakhi here could be neutral gender, it simply means ‘the companion of my soul’, or it could well be female too, and more frequently, as a person separate from her own personhood — Mr Chandy! She also reveals herself to be an intensely spiritual person, immersed in prayer and faith, and with belief in vows and observancs, someone so attached to the Mother of Christ that she left her Anglican roots for the Catholic Church later in life, in fact, without consulting her atmasakhi as she usually did. Yes, you can be a great opponent of gender injustice and still be a believer — there is a difference between faith and bigotry. Anna Chandy was a devout Christian and Catholic but she was open to all other faiths, as it is evident in this writing.

Mr Chandy as he emerges in this writing convinced me that all the talk of the New Woman of these times eclipses the New Man of the times. There was indeed, it seems, a New Man who was much more than the Reformer-Man who worked to ‘uplift’ women and turn them into obedient, if modern, efficient, domestic subjects. Here we have a man who did not simply ‘uplift’ but worked hard at opening doors and imparting skills, and relentlessly fighting all signs of doormat-mentality from surfacing in his wife. He does share much of the Reformer-Man for sure, but definitely was not threatened by his wife reaching for and actually reaching, the stars.]

I will be translating significant excerpts from this autobiography in parts and serializing it here. Enjoy!]

A Statement

That I should become a High Court Judge was the long-time dream of my Beloved, the Ruler of My Heart. In truth, he is the reason why I have a biography. From the day that dream came true, he used to urge me to write my story. But I cited such reasons like work pressures and bodily weakness, escaping it. When his insistence grew stronger I would tell him that actually, it was he who deserved to write my story than me; it was really his responsibility. He was a blessed writer himself. If he had written this, it would have been much more engaging….

After more than forty years of a fortunate conjugal life, Mr Chandy left me on 6 July 1967. This lamentable event was just three months after I retired from the position of High Court Judge. After the terrible pain of permanent parting receded a bit, I had begun to prepare to fulfil his wish of many years. It got prolonged till now because of various hurdles.

I am not past the age of 67. What if the leave period will not be extended! Who knows when the the irrevocable warrant issued by Yamadharman reaches me? Let me then finish up this job before. I think unveiling my debt to Mr Chandy before my family and people is a happy task. I write this with the prayer that this may become the eternal memorial to the foresight and love and sacrifice of a man.

The writing of the autobiography did not proceed at the speed I had imagined. Because I feared that the delay may end in my major aim in writing remaining unfulfilled, I published just the part about my unforgettable debt to the Ruler of My Heart in the Malayala Manorama (Jun-Sept 1971). My friends and relatives who read that series of articles congratulated me; but because the title that I gave them was changed to ‘The Autobiography of Anna Chandy’, they mistook it to be the completed version. “This contains only your doing as a lawyer and a judge, what about your childhood, adolescence, youth, education, family life, and above all, your conversion to another [Christian] denomination — what sort of an autobiography is this?” they pressed me, writing this to me again and again. I could have corrected it with a clarificatory note in the Malayala Manorama. Not doing it was certainly my fault. But it was to make up for it that I completed this autobiography quickly, with some difficulty. This is not written with a lot of thought or attention. I have never kept diaries or memoirs. I am just scribbling down whatever that comes up in my memory without much order or elegance of language, in very ordinary style. I have no idea of bookish language. This is my first attempt at literary writing. Therefore I beg the large-hearted readers to forgive whatever failings that may be found in the narration of the story of my life.

After I gathered together all that I had scribbled in my own hand, I took it to the Pangode Church last March (1972) , and according to my prior decision, placed it at the feet of Our Lady of Mount Carmel first, and then handed it over to the Provincial of the Malabar Province of the Carmelite First Order, Very Reverend Fr. Ephraim. …[acknowledges the help of others]….

Anna Chandy

New Delhi, 20-2-1973

The Struggle for Education: Three Generations of Women in Travancore — From the Autobiography of Ratnamayi Devi

[In the opening chapter of her autobiography titled From the Dusk of Life (Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 2004), the scholar and nationalist Ratnamayi Devi (1912-1990) writes about the struggles of her mother for education and employment in the late 19th century Travancore, her own struggles, and for her daughter. These are excerpts from several chapters in it. The autobiography is a translation by I K K Menon, of a Malayalam original. Though the book mentions that her birth year was 1912, it is likely, from the events she narrates, that it was 1904. Continue reading “The Struggle for Education: Three Generations of Women in Travancore — From the Autobiography of Ratnamayi Devi”

More Feminist than Nationalist? Ratnamayi Devi to Gandhi

[This is an excerpt from the autobiography of Ratnamayi Devi ( 1912- 1990),  who was a scholar and nationalist activist from Kerala, who spent the substantial years of her life in Wardha and Delhi, teaching Sanskrit at the Delhi University. She was a known translator of her times, between Hindi and Malayalam.  The story of  how she escaped an abusive marriage to secure higher education and an independent life and her choice of life-partner is a remarkable one. Her autobiography, published after her passing, titled From the Dusk of Life (Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 2004, translated by I K K Menon) also provides a fascinating account of the struggles of women for education in times when matrilineal families and kinship were deteriorating in Travancore (South Kerala). From the histories of Malayali first-generation feminists, Ratnamayi’s life was unique but surely not exceptional. Continue reading “More Feminist than Nationalist? Ratnamayi Devi to Gandhi”

Life, In My View: K Saraswathi Amma

Translated by J Devika

[from Saraswathi Ammayude Sampoorna Krithikal, Kottayam: DC Books, 1995, pp. 979-982. Reading this beautiful little essay, I cannot help imagining as a bridge of loving words acrosgenerationss . This woman surely struggled all her life with depression and mental issues; the immensity of her intelligence was such that she scared mediocrities who lashed back with insults. This woman who was so amazingly ahead of her time was nicknamed Vattu Saraswathi — Crazy Saraswathi — by her peers (many became scholars but surely could not even hold a candle to her). I see the same among young people today — the talented ones — and they slip, like her into sadness and loneliness. This essay is for them.]

Continue reading “Life, In My View: K Saraswathi Amma”

Remembering K Meenakshy: P K Medini

Translated by J Devika

A popular singer in communist meetings since the 1940s, P K Medini (1933-) represents the generation of working-class women who entered public life through left mobilization. She was born in Cheeranchira in the Alappuzha district in 1933  as the daughter of Kankaali. Her mother Paappy was a good singer. Her family was active in left union work She had to stop studies in Class 4, and then she became a coir worker at the age of 12 but was nurtured as an artiste by the cultural group formed by the union. Eighty-seven year-old Medini has been much-interviewed and documentaries have been made of her life. She continued her political career and was a panchayath president both at the village and block levels in the 1990s and after. Continue reading “Remembering K Meenakshy: P K Medini”

The Book of Mothers: P K Medini

[This is an essay by the legendary communist singer P K Medini (1933-  ) who was a participant in and witness to the massive worker and peasant mobilization in the Alappuzha district in the middle of the twentieth century. Translated by Jacob Cherian, the original appeared in the Mathrubhumi Weekly of 2012. The translation appeared on in 2012]

Read the article here.

Swimming Hard, Staying Light: Annie Thayyil on Facing the Challenge of Staying Alive

Translated by J Devika

[These translated chapters and the excerpt from a third chapter are from the autobiography of the veteran Congress woman Annie Thayyil (Annie Joseph) (1920-1994) (Edangaziyile Kurisu, Kottayam: DC Books, 1990), who was a prominent presence in politics in the Cochin state and among the first women to contest and win the elections in pre-Independence Cochin state. She was a member of the Cochin Legislative Council between 1945 and 1951, but struggled to stay in heavily male-dominated politics, supporting herself through her writing, and often at the brink of penury.  She however  ran a press, edited a paper and a magazine (Prajamitram and Vanitha) , earned a law degree in between, and served on Central Social Welfare Board, Catholic Congress, and later, on the National Minorities Commission. As a translator of classic literature to Malayalam and a writer, she was also on the executive council of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi. Her life was a remarkable quest for lightness and independence, as is evident from these chapters.

But equally interesting — and disturbing — is the dynamics of her relationship with her household help — the subaltern — Velama.  The critical history of the power dynamics between women in unfolding Malayali modernity needs to be traced through accounts such as these.] Continue reading “Swimming Hard, Staying Light: Annie Thayyil on Facing the Challenge of Staying Alive”

Activism, Married and Unmarried: K Devayani

Translated by J Devika

K Devayani (1922-1999) was a well-known communist political activist from Travancore, Travancore who lived through the most turbulent times for the communist movement — the 1940s and 50s. She entered public life through the social reformist movement, the Atmavidya Sangham, and the became the secretary of several workers’ unions in the Alappuzha-Ambalappuzha area. She was one of the founders of the communist women’s organization the Mahila Sangham and a member of the Communist Party since 1942. Her remarkable memoir Chorayum Kaneerum Nananjha Vazhikal is one of the most widely read of the writings of the women of her generation.  But it also brings to light the serious limitations that even women who sought to be communist revolutionaries faced — it was as though the norms of female respectability would simply not change no matter what.

Below are excerpts from this memoir. Continue reading “Activism, Married and Unmarried: K Devayani”