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India: My Mother, My Comrade

Friday 30 March 2018, by siawi3


My Mother, My Comrade

Kalpana Karunakaran

published March 27, 2018

Growing up as Mythily’s daughter meant discovering, early on, that my mother was different from anyone else I knew; it meant being part of a household that was different from most other households. One of the earliest memories I have of my childhood is of my mother seated at her typewriter. I grew up hearing the familiar clickety-clack it made. I would stand beside her, waiting for her to finish a line, so that I could press the carriage return lever that would allow her to start typing the next line. For me, it was as natural to see my mother speak at a public meeting as it was to watch her type, write, argue, and have night-long discussions with the many friends and comrades who frequented our home. I grew up with the sense of an open home. Assorted young friends of my mother, annas and akkas — elder brothers and elder sisters to me, visited all the time. They often showed up late at night, after I had fallen asleep; and I would wake up to find them sleeping on the sofa in our hall. In the mottai maadi, top floor balcony, of our old house, Amma’s comrades would sit in a circle and rehearse Madhar Sangam songs as I pedaled around them on my blue tricycle. I recall my mother’s gentle voice singing,

Madhar Sangam,
ladies clubbu yaarukkaga?
Thozhi, yarukkaga?
Unnai pola, yennai pola, pennukaaga

The Madhar Sangam,

the ladies club, who is it for?

Comrade, who is it for?

For a woman like you, a woman like me.

I came to realise that my mother was an unusual woman not only because of what she did in the world or as part of her “office” work. There were other ways in which she was different. For instance, she had a strong aversion to silk sarees, fine clothes, and gold jewelry; this, when it was considered natural for women to love these things. Her bare dressing table at home reflected her resolve to wear cotton sarees at family weddings and to not buy or own a single piece of gold. One particular summer morning, I woke up late and heard my next door friend — who lived in the compound we shared with many other families — shouting, ‘‘Come, see! Mythily Aunty is speaking into a mic!’ I rushed to the window to find my mother at the auto stand right outside our house, standing on top of a makeshift drum and hollering into a mike. All my neighbourhood friends, and their parents, were glued to their windows, gaping at the strange sight my mother made. I realised that it was May 1st and that she was delivering rousing May Day greetings to the auto drivers and the others who had gathered. She was balanced precariously on the drum; I prayed she would not fall off the drum and embarrass me even more.

There were other such incidents. One day, as I was getting ready for school, I heard a commotion outside. Women from the Jagannathapuram slum, which was behind our residential compound, had spontaneously gathered with their empty water pots to stage a “water protest” on the main road. The traffic policemen were wielding their lathis in an attempt to disperse them. My mother, who had been combing my hair, dropped the hair-brush and ran out of our house, shouting, “Nadu roadliye utkaarunga! Busu poga vidatheenga! Kalaiyatheenga! Sit in the middle of the road! Don’t let the buses go! Do not disperse!” Another time, I remember my mother, furiously calling the police commissioner’s office to demand that he immediately order the release of a woman — a domestic maid in a neighbour’s house — who had been detained illegally in the police station. It was late in the evening. “Don’t the police know that a woman cannot be detained overnight anymore?” she rebuked him on the phone. In the Chetpet slum, many knew that a communist leader lived nearby and could be approached for help in case of emergencies.

How I saw my mother also came to be shaped by how others saw her. When I was a very young child, I remember a TV interview in which she explained how important pengal sangam, women’s organisations, are and how they could help women. I was playing in a friend’s house once, when, on watching my mother’s interview on TV, in which she talked about AIDWA’s agitation for women’s toilets in public places so that working class women may relieve themselves in safety and dignity, my friend’s grandmother commented, “I hadn’t stopped to think, before now, of what women working on the streets do to answer the call of nature. Our keeraikaramma, vegetable seller, is always on the move — where does she go?” My mother’s political world did not end at the doorstep of our house. I was about two or three when I heard the story of the polladha pannaiyaru, the evil landlord, from my mother, along with the stories from Ramayanam that my grandmother told me. When I was asked to narrate the Ramayanam by my extended family, who regarded me as a story-telling wonder-child, my mother would immediately order me, “Now tell us the story of the polladha pannaiyaaru.” She made her point well. After all, many stories of bloodshed, war, martyrdom, injustice can move us and make up our memories. Why is the story of a prince who was denied his throne more worthy of committing to memory than that of 44 landless poor who were burnt alive inside a hut in Keezhvenmani?

Even the battle to name me was political! My parent’s first choice was Ajitha. K Ajitha was a young Naxalite. She was in the news in the late 1960s for conducting armed raids on police stations in Kerala. Interestingly, on my mother’s first visit to Keezhvenmani a week after the massacre of 26 December, 1968, the local police believed that she was Ajitha and was planning to stir trouble. The name was dropped when my paternal grandfather raised strong objections, accusing my parents of “corrupting” an innocent child. As my father wanted a Tamil name, his choice was Thamarai (lotus). This time my mother objected. She thought that Thamarai denoted beauty and passivity and she didn’t want her daughter to feel she had to be either! Finally, my mother named me after Kalpana Dutt, a freedom fighter and member of the armed independence movement who participated in the Chittagong Armoury Raid of 1930. In 1987, my mother bought me an illustrated book, published by the West Bengal government to mark the 40th anniversary of India’s independence. Featuring lesser-known heroes of the anti-colonial struggle, the book carried an inscription from her, “For Kalps, in honour of the other Kalpana, after whom she was named.”

Having a young child to look after could not have been easy for my mother in the 1970s and the 1980s — the most intensely packed years of her political activism. While my grandmother’s constant presence and care-giving allowed my mother to travel frequently, it came at a price. When I was 10 months old, she returned from a visit to find me happily playing in my grandmother’s lap. Apparently, I took one look at her and burst into tears, which made my grandmother rebuke my mother sharply, informing her about how wrenching her absence had been for me. I was told that, when I was about two years old, I would sit on my mother’s lap, surrounded by her friends and comrades, and close her mouth with my hand saying, “Pesakkoodathu, don’t speak.” Sometimes, I would follow it up by throwing anything I could find at them — pens, books, coffee tumblers, dabaras — hoping to chase them away. During the Emergency period, when I was two and a half years old, she went underground. She spent two months in South Africa in her brother’s house. There was this one time when she called home and said to me, “Naan amma pesaren da, this is Amma speaking.” I believe I replied with, “Yentha amma? Which Amma?” leaving her guilty and more than a little sad.

Growing up, I lived in the family home of my maternal grandparents, surrounded by uncles, aunts, and cousins. This meant that a familiar adult could easily keep an eye on me, when required. This must have been a comfort to my mother. But, it also meant that her parenting style was more closely scrutinised, evaluated, and criticised by the extended family. My grandmother fed me growth vitamins, high-protein biscuits, omelettes, and health drinks in the most conspicuous manner possible to counter the supposed maternal neglect. According to family lore, I was admitted in a private school by my aunt to preempt my mother from admitting me in a corporation school, which she had, apparently, “threatened” to do; the only reason my school uniforms kept pace with my growth spurts was my grandmother’s timely intervention; I had my grandmother to thank for new clothes during Deepavali, and certainly not my mother, who didn’t care that I was poorly dressed, and, perhaps, even wanted me to be wearing “rags” so as to advertise her communist sympathies; and so on. I know that my mother did feel this unfair narrative, about her child languishing without care, while she “blissfully” attended meetings and lived out her political life.

In 1980, she was invited by the All China Women’s Federation to visit and spend a month in China. During this visit, she sent a postcard to my father in which she wrote, “I am trying to not worry about Kalps. Please take her for a haircut — a proper girl’s cut.” She told me later, wincing when looking at old photographs, that she felt guilty about how “badly” my hair was cut during my childhood. “I made them give you the shortest ‘boy cut’ they could, to make it easy for me to manage your hair.” She constantly worried that I might be bad at written Tamil as she had sent me to an English medium school. We had a small blackboard in the bedroom on which I would do Tamil dictation under her supervision. Everyday. My mother, who declared that she did not care about my academic performance, lost her temper if I got my Tamil spelling wrong. She didn’t even seem to care that I wasn’t doing well in Maths, a subject that would later become my great nightmare!

However, she was very concerned about what I read. I had a steady supply of children’s books in English and Tamil. I remember the 25 paise books from the Soviet Raduga Publishers quite well. One day, she came home triumphant. She had bought 20 books for five rupees! In the powerfully-illustrated children’s books from the People’s Republic of China, little children performed acts of great valour, such as hiding, sheltering, and nursing wounded soldiers of the Red Army; and spying upon and exposing the conspiratorial meetings of counter-revolutionaries. The stories would usually end with the group of children, or the exceptional child-hero, waiting eagerly to be greeted by a Party leader visiting their village. The last panel of the book would show the leader turning around to see the children, and, to their great delight and excitement, they would discover that it was Chairman Mao himself, come to honour their heroic deeds! Ours was a communist house — framed pictures of Marx, Lenin, and Mao adorned our walls. I grew up knowing them as Marx thatha, Lenin thatha, and Mao thatha. I certainly identified with them more than I did with my Sivaraman thatha, or Ekambaram thatha, who paled in comparison!

My memories of public meetings, where my mother spoke, are somewhat disjointed. In an air-conditioned hall (perhaps the Russian Cultural Centre), she spoke of the child labourers of the Sivakasi fireworks units who died when their bus met with an accident. “Was it an accident that they were woken up at 4am daily and transported to the factories? Was it an accident that they usually returned at 7pm, half-dead with fatigue? Was it an accident …?” she continued. The audience sat transfixed. I recall her introduction to a Russian film on four women heroes of the Soviet Liberation (anti-Nazi) struggle. I also recall her condemning the custodial rape of Padmini, from Chidambaram, at a meeting of several women’s organizations. Some years later, I remember her addressing a street meeting of women’s groups to condemn the rape of Bhanwari Devi of Rajasthan. As I was studying in a women’s college in Chennai, I would bring my close friends and interested college-mates to these meetings. As a well-known women’s rights activist in the city, my mother has been invited as a guest speaker to both the schools I went to and my college.]

I was embarrassed, sometimes, when the “famous social worker,” Mythily Sivaraman, visited my turf, my school or college, as a guest of honour. But my mother took great pride and pleasure in my efforts to partake of her world. In my high school years, I was a member of a CPM-organised music choir group that was trained by a student of M B Srinivasan — I was first a member of the Samantha Smith choir for children and, later, became a part of the Nelson Mandela Kalai Kuzhu, which had adults too. We would sing to galvanise the crowds, before election meetings, on May Day events, and at public forums organised by the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association. During the election campaign performances that preceded the State Assembly election of January 1989, there were times I was dropped home at 12 in the night. When I was in the tenth standard, I often fell ill with throat infection and high fever. Everyone thought it was a result of the additional stress that came from my regular participation in the choir group performances. I remember my aunt saying to my mother, “Why not spare her this year? She is in Class Ten!” I clearly remember my mother’s response, “We don’t think this is any less important than her public exam.”

What she meant was that the opportunity to be a part of a world that would give me experiences, friendships, and learning beyond anything that school or extra-curricular activities could offer was too precious to be stymied by the prospect of public exams. She was thankful to the Party for expanding the horizons of my life beyond a sheltered middle class existence. She certainly had no illusions that my singing voice could make a difference to the electoral prospects of her party! She relished many of the songs we sang. Two of her favorites, that I sang often at home at her demand, were, “Vidhuthalai Porinil Veezndha Malare”(The Flower That Fell in India’s Independence Struggle), a song in memory of the martyrs of India’s independence struggle, and “Paadhai Mudiyum Munne, Payanam Vellum Munne,” composed to honour the death of Ho Chi Minh. She repeatedly let me know, throughout my school and college years, that neither she nor my father cared about my marks in school exams, and that I didn’t have to get into any prestigious institution. There was no pressure on me to be a doctor or an engineer. The marriage rules were equally straightforward. “If you ever decide to marry, you will find your own husband,” she would say. “It is not my business to find one for you. I simply refuse to do it.” But she would add, “Make sure that whoever you choose, the two of you react the same way to the news in the morning papers on a daily basis. That’s the most important thing.” And, just to make sure I hadn’t missed the point, on a few occasions she followed it up with, “If you marry a Congress chap, we will disown the son-in-law. If you marry an RSS/ VHP/ Hindu Munnani type, we will disown you.” Apart from these reasonable restrictions, I could be whoever I wanted and do whatever I wanted to in life.

But, she was a worrier and prone to excessive anxiety, quite often on my account. During my college years, there was a Tamil play I had acted in, which was performed every Thursday for four successive weeks, in the Narada Gana Sabha Mini Hall. She was too nervous to attend the first show but my father came. After hearing from him that all had gone well, that I did not forget my lines or trip and fall on the stage, she came for the second show the following Thursday. Another source of some anxiety for her was the question of my friendship and interaction with boys during my teen years. Studying at a co-educational school, I had several close friends in my class, some of who were boys. They would come home, play shuttle with me, and call to chat on the phone as well. I would stand at the gate of our compound chatting with my school friends, making the neighbours unhappy at the “bad example” I was setting for their daughters. That I had the parental permission to do this was rather unusual at the time, around mid-to-late 1980s. My mother told me that she and my father had discussed the issue with each other, “We thought, the times are changing, and so must we. As progressive parents, how could we tell you that boys can’t be your friends?” As I would remind her later, when I grew older, my rights extended to not only having boys as friends but having boyfriends too. I realise now that she was not entirely comfortable. When I was in my teens, around the time when I started developing an interest in the opposite sex, she would refer to an incident widely reported in the newspapers involving an acid attack on a girl by a boy whose advances she had spurned. This had truly frightened her.

In 1987, her mentor V P Chinthan suddenly died. His demise left a void in her life. The Soviet Union had also started to disintegrate and my mother’s moods would often darken at the slightest provocation. Unhappily enough, I was on the threshold of my teens at the same time. During this period, we would have many fights. Sometimes, she would sit at my bedside in the evenings, arguing with me, and weep in a manner that I had no way of responding to. I did sense that this was not really about me, although I also felt aggrieved because I felt targeted. Looking back on this period, I feel that she was perhaps lonely, grieving for V P C, and maybe even seeking my companionship. But I was too young and too self-absorbed to give it to her.

If I am not able to separate the political and public figure that Mythily has been from the mother she was to me, it is because I have always seen her typing, reading, writing, making notes, organising meetings, arguing with friends, or giving interviews. I have seen her fully relaxed only during our out-station holidays. These were made possible because of my father’s LTC facility at work. We would laugh a great deal together on these holidays. I have seen her laugh herself silly, especially when she mimicked and made fun of my father’s idiosyncrasies and his pathetic efforts at speaking Hindi! But, equally, and perhaps more, I have witnessed her bouts of violent illnesses that involved retching, stomach pain episodes, and severe migraines. I remember a Party comrade approaching her at a meeting and asking her to come speak in his district for a Party event. She said she wouldn’t be able to make it, that he must ask someone else. He retorted, “But everyone insists they want Mythily.” This time her refusal was sharp, taking him by surprise. It was in moments such as these that I sensed her exhaustion and frustration at the demands made from her. But I was also annoyed with her for saying No. Even though I was still young, I was already invested in the idea of Mythily the leader, the public figure.

Sometime in the mid-1990s, when I was a Masters student in Jawaharlal Nehru University, my father finally read about clinical depression in a journal article. It seemed to explain the chronic pain that my mother had often complained of, which none of the doctors had been able to treat. There was a time when we suspected that she had colon cancer. She could not even tie up her petticoat or her sari at the waist without wincing with pain. The medical tests revealed nothing. When I was in high school, I had even asked a cousin, who was something of an amateur astrologer and palmist, to ascertain my mother’s longevity. It didn’t seem like she could go on much longer, given her accelerating and intense illnesses. But anti-depressants helped her immensely, which she started taking from the mid-1990s onwards. The immediate effect was dramatic and they seemed to have bought her time. My father was outraged that my mother’s physicians had not even suggested that we get a psychological assessment done through the many years of her suffering. When he told me about my mother’s depression for the first time, I was shocked to hear that the mind could impact the body. The domain of the mind was not something my communist household ever discussed.

Do Marxists acknowledge that the mind may sometimes have suzerainty over the body?

In January 1999, at the AIDWA state conference conducted in Nagercoil that I attended as a representative from the Tamil Nadu Science Forum (TNSF)-associated SAMAM movement, my mother said to me, “This time, I marginalised myself.” She was unable to speak at the public meeting. She hardly had the energy and stamina for it. Around 2002–2004, I began to become increasingly aware of my mother’s unease with herself and her sense of dislocation in her familiar universe. This period also coincided with my own emergence as a public person, a public speaker, and a young activist into a world that overlapped, but did not entirely coincide, with her world of Party politics. At a “Women Oppose Globalisation” meeting organised in the run-up to the Asian Social Forum (ASF), held in Hyderabad in January 2003, I heard my mother speak in a large hall, addressing a huge crowd of rural women. Her speech was a bit off-key, I felt. She referred to a prominent political leader’s public statement, but did not tie it up with what she said subsequently. “I don’t even want to think about what I said today,” she said to me in the evening. But she marched with the women in their procession. It was a long walk that day. While I had heard my mother’s harsh judgements and declarations of unworthiness several times in the past, I heard them more frequently during this period. By then, I had lost my own anxiety in making public speeches. It felt effortless to me. It hurt me to see my mother struggle to do something that seemed so effortless to me.

At the AIDWA State Conference held in Virudunagar in 2002, she stepped down as Working President of AIDWA. She wanted to devote herself to researching and writing a book on her grandmother, Subbalakshmi. The book, Subbulakshmi: Fragments of a Life: A Family Archive, was published by Zubaan in 2006. But I resented her move and wished that she had not stepped away from the limelight. However, later, I was surprised to see the enthusiasm with which she worked on the book. Several days in a row, she would reach the Egmore Archives at 9am and spend a whole day doing research and reading. Although she gave me a draft of the book, wondering loudly how she was going to proceed if no one gave her feedback on the on it, I couldn’t bring myself to read it. When Urvashi Butalia, the publisher of Zubaan, expressed an interest in the book and sent her an email saying, “Mythily, you write beautifully,” my mother kissed me in excitement and joy. While I was surprised and happy for her, I didn’t know how to respond. By then, when it came to her, I would feel crippling anxiety that would make me clench my stomach.

Sometime around mid-2004, she suddenly began suffering from fevers. All the tests were done, and yet, we had no answer. I saw her in bed most days and felt a great sadness and fear that her public life was at an end. She had a heart surgery to repair a leaky valve in August 2005, but the fever returned right after. In August 2007, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in Bangalore diagnosed her with Alzheimer’s Disease. By that time, she had crossed the early stage and was in the mild-to-moderate stage. We were warned that the disease would erode not only memory, as is popularly understood, but also the capacities of perception, cognition, judgement, abstraction, and reasoning. Familiar tasks and chores would seem like insurmountable challenges. We were told that Alzheimer’s, like depression, was brought on by an interplay of genetic and environmental factors. Continuing and unaddressed high stress levels actively harm the brain, shrink brain size, and are a predisposing factor for Alzheimer’s. Chronic depression itself was another predisposing factor. Reading up on Alzheimer’s, I wished that my mother had paid more attention to her mental, physical, and emotional well-being over the years; had made stress and anxiety-soothing practices and routines a part of her lifestyle; exercised regularly and meditated; received medical care and psychological counseling for depression much earlier in life; and had been less self-deprecating as a person and claimed her space more assertively, with a sense of entitlement. I knew, of course, that none of this might have made a difference to what came to be. But I wished them all the same. I still do.

After her diagnosis, I began to notice that my mother did not participate in family conversations. So we argued over politics and discussed the daily news in her presence, but not with her. She seemed to have become invisible to us in some ways. She would often express her frustration at not being a part of public life anymore, and at having lost that world. I would say to her, in some anger, “You have had a full life, Amma. Why can’t you retire? Just read books, watch movies, listen to music. Haven’t you earned the rest?” She would respond, “Who retires amongst us? Did Jyoti Basu retire? Or did Com Surjeet retire?” Since the doctors had warned us to not divulge the prognosis to her, for fear that it would add to her depression, we concealed the news from her. I found this withholding of information futile and eventually told her that her memory loss had a name. By this time, however, Alzheimer’s was just another word that had no meaning for her. One day she said to me, ”Words are leaving me.” And yet, it was during this difficult period, in March 2010, that my mother spoke at a public meeting on the launch of the Tamil translation of her book on her grandmother, Subbalakshmi’s life. The translation was published by Bharathi Puthagalayam. I remember exiting the hall just before her turn to speak. My stomach was in knots and my palms were sweating. When I heard later that she had done well, despite some struggle and lapses in the narration, I immensely relieved.

In the last few years, I have come to feel, and be grateful for it, that I have discovered my mother in some new ways, even as I lost her in other ways. Shortly after my mother was diagnosed in 2007, I began rehearsing for a Tamil play, Kalakkanavu, staged by the feminist theatre collective Marappachi. The play traced the multiple political moments in history that had enabled women’s emergence in the public sphere in the early part of the 20th century. My great-grandmother, Subbalakshmi, was also a character in the play; I played her role. Reading my mother’s book on Subbalakshmi for the first time, I was moved by the book, and ashamed to be reading it so late. In early 2011, urged by V Geetha, we started to put together a collection of the essays my mother wrote in the Radical Review and other journals from the late 1960s to the early-1980s. This book was called Haunted by Fire, and was published by LeftWord Books in 2013. To initiate work on this book project, Geetha gave me a deadline to locate and gather all the pieces of writing in English that my mother had done throughout her life; she’d spent four decades of her life writing. The deadline was useful; I scrambled to make sure that I left nothing out. This process was an eye-opener for me. While I, of course, knew that she had edited and written for the Radical Review, I was not prepared for the depth and the erudition of her writing or her painstaking research. I would often stop and start reading particular pieces even before the work of putting them together was done. I was haunted by the visual image of a wispy young woman visiting village after village, all wracked by class-struggle, in Thanjavur and Nagapattinam, documenting whether the red flag flew there, and if not, asking when it would fly again.

As part of the shooting for the documentary film that the historian Uma Chakravarty made on my mother, we took her to Keezhvenmani in September 2011. On the way, I recalled my first visit to Keezhvenmani in the company of my parents and K Chandru and Bharathi, who were newly-weds then, in January 1992. It was a road trip and we reached Keezhvenmani on Pongal. Recently Bharathi told me that, on that journey, my mother and Chandru had reminisced incessantly about Nagammal. Nagammal was a peasant woman from South Arcot district who was confined and brutally tortured by the police during the Emergency. She had sought AIDWA’s assistance and my mother had followed up on the case, helping her with legal assistance and writing about it. Incidentally, Nagammal’s quest for justice is now the theme of a play scripted by Geetha and directed by Mangai. A teenager preoccupied with myself, I had paid little attention to Chandru and my mother’s recollections and conversations on this trip. I think, now, I understand my mother’s regret at not having recorded her grandmother Subbalakshmi’s memories about her own fascinating life, lived mostly in shadows and silences. She expressed this regret in the Preface to her book on Subbalakshmi’s life, Fragments of a Life: A Family Archive.

She starts the Preface by saying that she had always regretted not having a ‘”typical” Indian grandmother who would tell her thrilling stories during meal hours, gently rock her to sleep, sing her lullabies, indulge her tantrums, and protect her from the bullying of her older siblings. In 2007, when I was returning to India after a three month stint abroad, I was asked by a friend whether I was yearning to put my head on my mother’s lap, pour out my stories to her, and eat home food made by her. Little did the friend realise that, for me, coming home meant returning, instead, to the familiar gnawing worries about my mother’s health. I did not know how to tell him that I couldn’t remember ever having eaten something cooked by her. I think she had forgotten how to cook by the time I was born.

My mother was not a typical Indian mother by anyone’s standard. But there is nothing to regret here. In fact, there is much to celebrate. She has given me a rich legacy of memories that I am still struggling to make sense of. Her life-choices, personal and political journeys, constantly force me to ask myself whether I am living a life that is worthy of her. Who could ask for more?

K. Kalpana

11th January 2015