K Saraswathi Amma : Ramani (Part 3)

“Great!” Sushama said with a smile. “She who was ready for a pure Gandharva marriage, what fear of social humiliation can she have? In any case, what secret existed in the world that her father’s wealth and power could not hide? The world today worships the God of Wealth. Money can kill a lover, make a virgin pregnant, turn a whore into a chaste woman, and a criminal into an innocent, and besides, throw the sand in the eyes of the world in general.”

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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.”

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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.]

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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.

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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]

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)

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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