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Updated: October 2, 2013 19:18 IST

A hero of our time

Budhaditya Bhattacharya
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Committed to humanity: Mythily Sivaraman (left) and Brinda Karat releasing the book in New Delhi. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar.
The Hindu
Committed to humanity: Mythily Sivaraman (left) and Brinda Karat releasing the book in New Delhi. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar.

“Haunted by Fire”, a collection of Mythily Sivaraman’s trenchant writings, was launched in the Capital recently

In 1968, in one of the worst instances of caste and class violence in Tamil Nadu, 44 Dalit agricultural workers were huddled into a small hut in Kilvenmani village, and burnt alive by feudal landlords. The sheer pity of the incident would haunt Mythily Sivaraman, who visited the village and wrote about it subsequently, for the rest of her life.

“The smell of smouldering ash and the eerie wail of a dog looking for and missing the family that had been there until the night before remained with her from that time,” write V. Geetha and Kalpana Karunakaran in their introduction to a collection of Mythily’s writings on caste, class, exploitation and emancipation, titled “Haunted By Fire” (Leftword). Launched recently in the Capital, the book is an archive of people’s struggles over two decades as experienced by Mythily, a former Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) activist and vice-president of All India Democratic Women’s Association.

The idea for the book came to Kalpana, Mythily’s daughter, in December 2010, as she was putting together photographs from her mother’s life, “to spin a narrative about her life for myself”.

At her co-editor V. Geetha’s urging, over the next four months, Kalpana started looking for her mother’s writings. Soon she realised the enormity of the task at hand. “There were letters people had written her, letters she had written, there were profuse notes she had made before every public meeting…I found the diaries she had kept, which became the fodder for the pieces she wrote, the balance sheets of different companies she had worked out which fed into the material exposing the hypocrisy of industrial management. It was like a treasure trove…”

The essays in the book are divided into seven sections. These include writings about the Dalit poor, on the ideological content of the Dravidian movement, on questions of land and labour, essays on workers and unions written during the 1970s, a period marked by industrial unrest in Tamil Nadu, on electoral politics, on state violence, including an essay on the murder of Seeralan, and finally on socialism, including a piece written on Cuba, which she visited while working in the U.N. in the U.S., at the height of friction between the two countries. These pieces have been drawn from various journals and magazines, including The Radical Review which she edited from 1969-1974.

The launch was accompanied by a discussion between writer Githa Hariharan, historian Uma Chakravarty, who has also directed a film on Mythily (Fragments of a Past) and Indu Agnihotri, Director, Centre for Women’s Development Studies. All three reflected on the influence Mythily has had on their lives.

While Githa spoke about Mythily’s political commitment, which wasn’t in the abstract, but forged on the basis of lived experience, Indu referred to her skill at combining activism with analysis. “When you read the pieces you wonder ‘is this an activist?’ The pieces on MRF strike give you everything you want — not just the history of the industry but the intricacies of capitalism, the crisis of capitalism and how it reinvents itself.”

Uma pointed out that while Mythily’s gaze was firmly directed at broader ideas and currents of history and politics, she was equally invested in excavating individual lives and stories.

In her concluding address, Brinda Karat, member of the CPI(M) politburo, identified the book as “the work of a woman ideologue of the Communist movement in India.”

“Mythily fought for every single idea without any compromise in every single ideological debate of the time. Mythily was not and is not a recipient of ideologically driven left politics, Mythily shaped that politics,” she said.

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