Fiction

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.

Continue reading “A Malayali Woman in Delhi : Lakshmi N Menon in Politics”

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.

Continue reading “Varaahan: A Chapter from Kamala Das’ Ente Katha”

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.

Continue reading “The Search for Love: Kamala Surayya”

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.

Continue reading “Memories of a Marriage: Kamala Das”

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.

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

More on Elite Women’s ‘Social Work’ and the History of Caste in Kerala

[This is a continuation from the post on the autobiography of Jooba Ramakrishna Pillai which gives us a glimpse into how educated neo-savarna women usurped all the opportunities for social intervention by or for women in the state. It gives us food for critical thought on why social conservatism came to be so deep-rooted in Kerala despite high levels of women’s education won through struggle. Interestingly, many leading first-generation feminists enjoyed the most amicable relations with educated neo-savarna women even when their own visions of empowerment were different — for example, the friendship between Anna Chandy and Mrs Ponnamma Thanu Pillai.

Below is an excerpt from a discussion on the Social Welfare Advisory Board constituted in Tiru-Kochi, during an assembly session of the Tiru-Kochi State Assembly, from the Proceedings of the Travancore-Cochin Legislative Assembly (vol.XIII, no. 2 ), 15 March 1955, Starred Question No. 30, pp. 93-6.

I am struck by how the discussion completely bypasses the question of dalit representation that Mr K Kunjan tried to raise in it. Indeed, he initiates this discussion but is completely ignored in the actual exchange that follows. Most of the women in the Board are neo-savarna; they have been chosen for ‘reasons that are not clear’. Yet no one really questions this appalling exclusion of avarna women! Smt K R Gouri intervenes not for Mr Kunjan or for dalit women, but for Mahila Sangham, the communist movement’s women’s wing, which she seems to think, can balance the neosavarna women’s overwhelming presence. Then the discussion deteriorates into frivolous questions. Also striking is the carelessness with which the Chief Minister answers questions in the debate, mixing up positions, even.

Once again, the absence of avarna women is ignored in so casual a way, it takes your breath away!

I do believe that this incident, and many like it, must be retrieved to build a history of casteist women’s empowerment in twentieth century Kerala.]

Social Welfare Advisory Board

Starred question 30 [15] Shri P Kunjan: Will be Chief Minister be pleased to state

(a) How many members are there in the State Social Welfare Advisory Board?

(b) who constituted this Board, this Government or the Central Government, and,

(c) is there any representation for scheduled castes?

Chief Minister (Shri Panampalli Govinda Menon): There are nine members in the State Social Welfare Advisory Board in Travancore-Cochin;

(b) the Board was constituted by the State Government with the concurrence of the Central Social Welfare Board.

(c) the representatives do not appear to have been selected on consideration of their caste.

Shri P Kunjan: May I know the names of the Members of the Board?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon: The names of the Members are these —

  1. Sry. P Thankamma, Secretary, Mahilamandiram, Trivandrum (Chairman)
  2. Miss Sosa Mathew, Secretary, Y. W. C. A, Kerala Branch, Thiruvalla.
  3. Mrs Leela Damodara Menon, Ottappalam.
  4. Mrs. Pattom Thanu Pillai.
  5. Shri Cherian Thomas, District Organiser, Bhoodan Committee, Kottayam
  6. Mrs. Pavizham Madhavan Nair, Ernakulam.
  7. Sry P Janaki Amma, Chairman, Municipal Council, Ernakulam.
  8. Mrs K A Mathew, Thiruvalla
  9. Secretary to the Government, Education Department.

Smt K R Gouri [in Malayalam]: On what basis were these persons made representatives?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon :[answers in Malayalam] The basis is not clear from the file. Four of them have been nominated at the recommendation of the Central Board. These are Miss Sosamma Mathew, Leela Damodara Menon, Mrs Pattom Thanu Pillai and Shri Cherian Thomas. It appears that the others have been appointed on the recommendation of this government.

Smt K R Gouri: Is Leela Damodara Menon a native of Tiru-Kochi?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : Shri Damodara Menon is of this State.

Smt K R Gouri: Will it be believed if I said that he is an elected MP from Malabar?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : The address given is of Ottappalam.

Smt K R Gouri: Was someone from Malabar selected because there are no women in Tiru-Kochi?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : I too have no idea about that.

Smt K R Gouri: Has any attention been paid to granting representation to a Mahila Sangham that is now active in Tiru-Kochi now?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : The Chairman of that organisation is the Secretary of this committee. [PGM has inverted the positions here]

Smt K R Gouri: That is the Mahilamandiram. It is a mere institution.

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : That must be an institution. Whether it is a mere institution, I do not know.

Smt K R Gouri: Do you know that it is run in Poojappura?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : Yes, I do.

Smt K R Gouri: Since the women’s organisation has not been given representation, will you make an effort to secure it representation at least now?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : I do not know if it is possible to add new members. This is run according to the Central Government’s plan. I cannot say now if new members may be added.

Smt. K R Gouri: Should not a member of an organisation that does social work among women be coopted?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : The numbers of positions fixed for the Board have been filled. But that does not mean that no other deserving people exist.

Smt K R Gouri: In that case, can speedy measures be undertaken to coopt such people?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : A reply is possible only after finding out if it is possible to add more members.

Smt K R Gouri: If it is possible to do so after due inquiry, will it be done?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : If so, will see.

Sri N G Chacko: Can the sole woman Member of this Assembly be coopted too?

Mr Speaker [in English]: That is a very pertinent question.

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon [in English]: And it is a good suggestion too.

(Laughter)

Shri T K Divakaran: Is there anything that says that only women should do social work?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : There is a male Member on the Board. Shri Cherian Thomas is a man. He does welfare work too.

Shri T K Divakaran: Is social work to be done only among women?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : It is mainly to be done among women and children.

Shri T K Divakaran: What social work does Mr Cherian Thomas do?

Shri Panamballi Govinda Menon : He is a Bhoodan organiser.

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.

Continue reading “Trailblazers – The First Women Engineers in Kerala : Er. Joy Abraham Kallivayalil”

To Work! Tozhilkendrathilekku!

[Of the many groups who were subjected to the torture of the Janma-bhedam order (the order of difference-by- birth – caste) in pre-modern Kerala, the women of the Malayala brahmin community figured quite high. If people condemned to live outside the varna order were structurally and physically coerced to produce the material means to reproduce the order of caste on an everyday basis, women of the Malayala brahmin community were structurally and physically coerced to reproduce the community and its core culture on a generational basis. For this reason, I think that the the struggle of the Malayala brahmin women to escape the ‘great hells’ – the mahanarakams – have to be reexamined carefully when we rethink the history of women as an intersectional one in which the historical shaping of caste and gender are closely intertwined. Too often, this struggle has been reduced to or recounted in, terms set up the Reformist-Man, as an alibi for the power of the new modernised masculinity.

Continue reading “To Work! Tozhilkendrathilekku!”

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).

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

‘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.]