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Updated: March 20, 2014 16:42 IST

Igniting memories of a fiery past

Meena T. Pillai
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Kanaleriyum Kaalam
Special Arrangement Kanaleriyum Kaalam

Sometimes the life of an individual collates with that of an epoch and a land. But it is indeed rare to come by autobiographical narratives that have women as the protagonists. The Communist revolutionary Kuthattukulam Mary’s Kanaleriyum Kaalam from Lead Books is a woman’s story that offers fascinating glimpses into the history of her self through acts of remembrance that seek to critically examine a past in order to recuperate a present and envision a future.

The autobiography begins with a poignant recollection. When she wandered the land in the sweltering sun, ignited by her political ideals, and with her little child in hand, many chided her for putting the infant through so many hardships. But her passionate rejoinder was that when her little girl turned 20, socialism would have arrived in this land. But as her daughter crosses 57 she asks in anguish where has it fled now, the glory and the dream of socialism?

The life, which was inspired by a visionary gleam, through the act of writing an autobiography, seems to make a final valiant effort to kindle in the new generation memories of the blood and sweat of those pioneers who had walked ahead to shape the destiny of this land. One of the first questions that haunt the reader of this autobiography is how a life of such magnitude could possibly be compressed in such a slim volume that almost seems an apology for a full length autobiography.

Here is a voice that would strike a chord in every Malayali heart for narrating the history of a land and its people, a history that is neither eulogic nor tragic but pulsates with the throbbing raw energy of ordinary men and women, who are conceived of as the real agents of history, striving tirelessly in the hope and possibility of a new future. Mary’s memories take the reader right into the heart of a moment when an old and decadent order of life was slowly yielding to the collective efforts of the socialist reform movement to carve out new notions of the individual and the social.

However it must be pointed out that while remaining firmly rooted in the traditions of the political autobiography, nowhere does Mary permit her narration to be co-opted as a pedagogical tool for advancing a political party. It is political writing of the highest order that combines honesty with emotional appeal, boldness and integrity.

A number of instances which could break a woman physically, morally and emotionally are narrated. But Mary’s reactions are all intensely political in that she is able to successfully field torture, anger, frustration and pain by subjecting them to ideological scrutiny, rational analysis and immense socio-political mediation. Here is a life which is intricately linked to the anti-colonial struggles against the British, the history of the reform movement and the Communist movement in Kerala, as well as the political lineage of an illustrious family that included names such as the multifaceted genius and iconoclast C.J. Thomas and the poet Mary John Kuthattukulam, all of whom figure prominently in the narrative. This is a romantic yet factual, lyrical yet critical journey into the cultural and political memories of Kerala.

It leaves an indelible mark upon the reader of an age that is irretrievably lost, the fading away of the local and the provincial, and the break up in the Communist Party, which, for many, was the most heart-wrenching experience that would shatter the very core of their identity and become a blot on their visionary ideals. All this is written in a language that is burnished in the smithy of devastating experiences which only a writer who can mix rebelliousness with artistry is capable of.

Highly engaging, this is the story of a woman’s moral courage and ethical commitment to social change, narrated with the simple élan of a short story writer and a brilliant historian’s unswerving command over the socio-political and cultural contexts of narration.

That a woman could become the local committee secretary of a yet undivided communist party, which seems like an impossibility today, speaks volumes about the dynamics of gender in Kerala in that age. It is significant to note that Mary’s first revolt was against the practice of child marriage when as a young girl of 12 she was displayed rather unceremoniously before a prospective bridegroom. In a chapter filled with mostly humorous and satirical, yet often plaintive notes, she narrates her close encounters with the rituals of marriage that had the potential to immure her for life and her narrow escape from its clutches.

Lucid, pithy, anecdotal, often bordering on the genre of the memoir, the fragmentary nature of the narration is probably one of the attractions of the book. Mary’s thoughts and what notes she had scribbled down for posterity are compiled by Vineetha Gopi with the skill and dedication of a devoted admirer, a tireless researcher and a balanced editor. Many voices other than Mary’s, including those of P.K. Pokker, P. Govinda Pillai, K.P.A.C. Lalitha, George Onakkoor, C.K. Omana, K.R. Meera and so on are incorporated, lending this autobiography the scope and resonance of a biography.

One can read in Mary’s afterword the anxiety of forgetting, and the perception that remembering or fuelling one’s memories is an intensely political act. Undaunted by the frailties of old age, one sees a staunch mind in these pages daring to dream of a re-united communist party, where all the different factions would merge into a politically organic whole striving for social progress and human emancipation.

One can hear a sensitive voice that stands testimony to the fact that gender is not an insurmountable barrier for women who exercise their choices in how to live a politically conscious and liberated life. It is commendable that the strategies of self construction and self affirmation adopted by Mary in her autobiography offer active modes of resistance to all kinds of oppression that today’s generation, especially women, might be facing. Here is a revolutionary woman’s inviolable voice that needs to be heard and given its rightful place in the tradition of autobiographical writing in Kerala.

Kanaleriyum Kaalam

Kuthattukulam Mary, Lead Books, Rs. 150

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