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.

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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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]

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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Trailblazers – The First Women Engineers in Kerala : Er. Joy Abraham Kallivayalil

Education was not something women in Kerala could aspire to, at the turn of the 20th century. Even educated and progressive parents thought it fit and right to marry off  their girls, once they completed their school education. Despite the odds, two girls, one in Thiruvithamkoor and another in Kochi State, were determined to go to College, that too to obtain a professional degree in Engineering. Fortunately their parents were able and willing to help the girls attain their near impossible dream.

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Nafeesath Beevi (1924-2015)

[In the 2021 elections, the disappointingly few women candidates fielded by the leading political parties became a hot topic. The candidature of the IUML’s Noorbina Rasheed, a first in that party in twenty-five years, has also been of much interest.

Noorbina’s candidature, however, must be placed in a longer history of Malayali Muslim women’s struggles to enter politics, which actually dates back to the late 1950s. It is here that Nafeesath Beevi’s name should be remembered. Along with K O Aysha Bai, she was prominent as an educated Muslim woman who entered politics. Nafeesath Beevi was born in Alappuzha, the daughter of a textile-dealer, Abdul Kareem, and Hawwa Umma. Her father died when she twelve but she overcame many obstacles, being a good student, to join the Government Women’s College for a graduate degree and subsequently, training as a lawyer. The following excerpts and discussion are from a short biography of hers by Anilkumar PY, titled Aankaalathe Penthaarakam [The Female Star in Male Times], Trivandrum: The New Media Space Books, 2017]

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A Conversion at the Deathbed: From the Memoirs of Miss Augusta Blandford

[Ever since I read this account in the 1990s, I have often thought of this young woman and her tragedy. Married to a prince of the Travancore royal family who was the oldest – and so the heir – yet unfit to occupy the throne because of mental challenges, the emotional agony she bore must have been terrible. Even as she was surely expected to bow to the restrictions imposed by traditional respectability and too isolated from her peers and others for human comfort, it is quite possible that she was almost a non-entity. The matrilineal succession that the Travancore royal family followed meant that she was just that: even having a child would not secure her a place in the community of royals without her husband. Her family would have secured honours and resources, sacrificing her.

I contemplated often of what Miss Blandford would have meant to this unhappy young woman who saw no future ahead of her, and of the agency that she tried to grasp on her deathbed. It must have not just been the teachings of Christ, but also the strength that friendships give. Clearly, this woman was at the edge of a modern self, and in her death, embraced an interiority through her independent profession of faith. The tragedy seems to just grow bigger each time I think of it.]

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From Princesses to Lace-Makers: Women in Travancore through Mrs Murray Mitchell’s Eyes

[Mrs Murray Mitchell, a missionary, visited the south Indian Christian missions in the 1880s and published a memoir of this journey in 1885 called In Southern India: A Visit to Some of the Chief Mission Stations in the Madras Presidency in which she made observations on women she met in Travancore, from princesses to the skilled lace makers of south Travancore who are probably among the first groups of skilled wage worker women in this region. Much of it, sadly, is less of observation and more of condescending approbation; however, there are some valuable passages. For example, her incomprehension of matrilineal marital and family norms which seemed to pose disadvantages to the husband is coupled with her observations about the extent to which caste practices were rampant among the apparently-cultured and well-off sudras (Nairs). She makes the former observation as a pure outsider, but the latter observation comes also from her own direct experience of being treated as a possible source of pollution by the upper caste people she met here! Some of her account is slightly mistaken too — for example, the princesses of Travancore did not marry men simply chosen for them. They were asked to chose from three young men who were found suitable for them (which actually put them somewhat close to marriage practices in 19th century Britain!)

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Kuttykkunhu Thangkachi: Kerala’s First Female Playwright and Carnatic Music Composer

In the nineteenth century, there was a generation of privileged women contributing to the traditional genres of Malayalam literature. Among them, Kuttykkunhu Thangkachi leads the list as the first dramatist and first-known female music composer from Kerala. While early historians may have tried to undermine her contributions as a capable homemaker and virtuous woman who managed to write poetry tolerable well, there is no denying her astonishing range of compositions in Carnatic music.

Read more at: https://www.sahapedia.org/kuttykkunhu-thangkachi-keralas-first-female-playwright-and-carnatic-musics-composer

The Labour of the Matrilineal Woman: From the Memoirs of P Kesavadev

[The well-known progressive writer of the early 20th century, P Kesavadev (1904-83) wrote his memoir titled Ethirppu in the late 1950s, when he was at the height of his fame. Born in a declining matrilineal Nair joint family from Kedamangalam in North Paravur, his memoir contains interesting recollections of women’s labour in his family, especially in the challenging circumstances which included those from internal dissensions in the family as well as external pressures such as those from the First World War. Below are translations of some relevant passages, about his mother Karthyayani Amma, who labored very hard to support her large joint family and steer it through excruciatingly difficult times – battling the senior men of the matrilineal families who no longer cared much for their sisters and their children, and the near-poverty of war times.

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