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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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 , 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)

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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Bhagavathi Kinattinkara, Elsa, and Educated Kulasthreekal : From the Memoirs of ‘Jooba’ Ramakrishna Pillai

[Perhaps the only source readily available about working class and dalit struggles in Thiruvananthapuram of the 20th century is the memoir of the freedom fighter, fashion-maker, and avid trade union organizer, ‘Jooba’ Ramakrishna Pillai (1910- 2005), titled Ente Ormakkurippukal (Mitraniketan Press, 1989). Always a narration from the ground, his memoirs are those of street-struggles. ‘Jooba’ was the suffix he earned in the 1930s for having popularised the north Indian long shirt, the jubba — in Thiruvananthapuram. It was initially identified as the mark of the subversive and the nationalist but soon became popular with government officials and soo even the Maharajah of Travancore embraced the ‘jubba’ (but with a touch of the sherwani, notes Pillai).

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‘Biographies of Marriage’ : G Arunima on the Autobiography of Rosy Thomas

[Below is an excerpt from the translator’s introduction by G Arunima to the autobiography of Rosy Thomas, known as a writer in her own right, but also in connection with two patriarchs of Malayalam literature — her father was the well-known literary critic M P Paul and husband, the redoubtable playwright, literary critic, public intellectual and all-round rebel, C J Thomas. In Malayalam, the work Ivan Ente Priya CJ (translated by G Arunima as He, My Beloved CJ (Women Unlimited, 2018)). I remember being dumbstruck by the original Malayalam title when I first heard it — its Biblical connotations were of course unmissable. The Gospel of Mathew – this is the disembodied voice of the divine that sounds from above after Jesus is baptised. A woman, pronouncing these words of her late husband, celebrating him thus? So what sort of relations of power does that imply?

Arunima’s translation and her introductory note brings out beautifully and carefully the nuances and complexities of an utterly modern conjugal partnership, in which the tensions of modern gender as it unfolded in those times are evident. Her reflections on Rosy Thomas’ deployment of the form of autobiography are actually relevant for women’s autobiography of those times, from B Kalyani Amma’s Vyazhavatta Smaranakal to Anna Chandy’ autobiography serialised here. Though it is beyond doubt that Rosy’s account — the way it acknowledges desire – is perhaps unique for the times.]

“…The impediments between Rosy and CJ Thomas were immense and seemed never to end. Her family was very unhappy about their relationship and did not actively support their marriage. This was in part induced by denominational differences (she was a Catholic, and he, a Jacobite), as much as their sense of loss of family honour and prestige. In 1940s Kerala, a publicly conducted love affair of this kind was as scandalous as it was uncommon. Her intricate narrative weaves in complex emotions, where respect turned slowly to love, and love blended with desire. That this love was as erotic as it was emotional does not appear to have created much conflict in her; indeed her candour in speaking of her unfulfilled fantasies and deep desire for CJ is as open as it is astonishing. For Rosy, especially, their love seems to have become, at once, a moment of defiance, and of self-definition. To marry the man she loved despite parental opposition strengthened Rosy’s faith in herself; he, on the contrary, complied with all her family’s demands so that they could overcome all objections and get married. One such was that he convert to Catholicism. In CJ’s case, this was particularly harsh, as it was well-known that he had distanced himself from the Church because of his political beliefs. The description of the conversion ritual, though narrated with great humour, reveals in harrowing detail the humiliation they had to suffer in the cause of love. It also revealed the stranglehold of tradition that communities, in the name of family honour, religious beliefs and kinship norms, keep alive. The “recanting” demanded of CJ Thomas hinted on the public disavowal of his political, religious, and literary views. Yet for marriage to be acceptable, family and community sanction were a must, even if they entailed self-erasure and a loss of personhood, especially of the kind that was demanded of CJ Thomas.

In many ways, Ivan Ente Priya CJ is a love story, but one that resolutely refuses to either romanticise or sentimentalise love. In fact in her brief Preface to the book, Rosy Thomas says that she could write this book only nine years after her husband’s death, as she did not want her text to be needlessly “sentimental”. One way in which she succeeds in doing this is through the use of humour and irony, which act not only as devices that permit a distancing from the subject under discussion, but also keep the tenderness light and playful. Throughout the book Rosy Thomas moves back and forth between their early days, and their subsequent life together. As CJ was involved in a variety of different literary and cultural ventures (theatre, illustrations, writing, even some cinema) they moved to different parts of Kerala, and for short stints to Madras. Their home was the hub of cultural and political life and we are given glimpses of the range of people and ideas that made up the everyday life of families that emerged in the wake of the Left and Progressive Writers’ Movements in Kerala. Though she was deeply supportive and appreciative of CJ’s writing and creative life, she was also distraught at his inability to hold down a job, resulting in constant dislocation, and at their financial difficulties, thanks to a family that grew quite rapidly. This ‘unsentimental love story’ , therefore, is also a record of their many quarrels, big and small. What is evident is that even though CJ was quite opinionated and headstrong, she was no wilting wallflower, was often assertive and forthright. At other times, in order to avoid needless conflict, she could be circumspect and judicious. Her story, that interlaces intimacy with domestic discord, the public political with quotidian domesticity, is in fact a complex social biography of a marriage, and of a particular time. Marriages like theirs were a product of changes in ideas and attitudes about love, life, and families. Yet these were not the result of either the activities, or the ideology of the Communist Party, or of the other ongoing progressive movements of that period. In fact the Party never really articulated a radical critique of marriage and family, and would often try and interfere in people’s private lives.

Additionally, this biography is as much about CJ Thomas and their marriage, as it is about Rosy as a writer. The act of remembrance is also about fashioning her own self and subjectivity, both as a ‘loving subject’, and as a writer and raconteur, observing, weighing, annotating, their life as a text…”

(G Arunima , ‘Introduction: On Translating Ivan Ente Priya CJ‘, from her translation of the same, He, My Beloved CJ, Women’s Unlimited, New Delhi, 2018, pp. 7-10)

[G Arunima is a pioneering historian of women and gender in Kerala. She works at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and is currently with the Kerala Council for Historical Research.]

The Autobiography of Anna Chandy: Part 3 Continued

I was given charge of the Criminal Bench in recognition of my experience of conducting criminal cases as a lawyer and a Sessions Judge. In that area, my principle was of justice tempered with mercy. If a mother’s heart did make itself present in the judgments of the woman judge that is neither surprising nor a cause of complaint. Modern thinking about punishment and the aims of punishment stress the need to convince the wrongdoer of the seriousness of his crime. And that also means, offering a chance to live a life without repeating the crime, of course.

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The Autobiography of Anna Chandy – Part 3 Continued

[The next part of this chapter is of the many congratulatory letters that senior lawyers — the Advocate General K V Surianarayana Iyer and Taikad N Subramonia Iyer- published, and felicitatory reports in the Kerala Law Times]

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