When Tamil theatre activist A. Mangai’s Marapachi theatre group staged plays on Nagammal and Seeralan, two victims of Emergency excesses, some months ago in Chennai, among the audience was the frail woman who had recorded their histories for posterity. She had always “nourished her mind by remaining focussed on the struggles of the citizens of the world,” as Mary Wollstonecraft would say.
On that day, despite fighting a medical condition that “mocks at memory,” she had her eyes glued to the stage, sometimes reminiscing, sometimes looking lost. Soon after the performance — despite failing memory — she had something to share about Nagammal and Seeralan to friends who gathered around her.
Decades after fighting the cause of those wronged by the Emergency, Mythili Sivaraman witnessed their stories come alive on the stage from her own accounts of them. She looked emotional. And every bit haunted — a characteristic that unfailingly comes through in her essays on Caste, Class, Exploitation and Emancipation in her book Haunted by Fire.
Mythili Sivaraman’s essays, “Murder of Seeralan” and “Story of Nagammal,” published in the Economic and Political Weekly in 1977 and 1978 respectively, are chilling accounts of violations during the Emergency.
Seeralan, a Left activist who was accused of being a naxalite, was brutally tortured and killed by the police. Nagammal was detained on a false complaint made by members of her caste who were baying for her blood ever since she left her upper-caste husband to marry someone from the cheri. After spending over a month in prison and suffering inhuman torture at the hands of the police, Nagammal was released, only to set out on a quest for justice — a quest that led her to Mythili Sivaraman, who is known for her active engagement with issues relating to women and labour.
Mythili Sivaraman’s graphic descriptions of the murder of Seeralan by the police, and the torture inflicted on Nagammal, are stark and grim reminders of horrors that would otherwise have been forgotten.
Role of the Left
In her essays on Kilvenmani — the village in Thanjavur that witnessed the brutal murder of 42 Dalit labourers by landlords in 1968 — Mythili Sivaraman goes beyond facts that meet the eye to unravel the role of the Left in organising the peasant community to assert their rights against a very oppressive system. Shockingly, the courts had let the killers scot-free — prompting the author to satirically address them as gentlemen-killers.
In the essay “Venmani and the Free Press”, she offers a prismatic view of the treatment by newspapers of the Venmani issue, concluding how the objectivity of the free press had suffered a setback in its overt willingness to blame Marxists for the tragedy.
The collection has some 20 essays. It is broadly divided into seven topics: Dalits, Understanding the Dravidian Movement, Land and labour, Workers and unions, Repression and resistance, Electoral politics and Exploring socialism. Through each topic, Mythili Sivaraman expresses concerns that are wide-ranging and still relevant.
Her essay on Ratnapuri — a village where discrimination against Dalits was rampant — was written for Mainstream in 1969. Ratnapuri might have metamorphosed into Dharmapuri today, yet the issue remains largely unresolved. This essay, along with her elucidatory pieces on Kilvenmani, offers an answer to criticism levelled against the Left movement over its alleged indifference to Dalit issues.
While writing on the relevance of Periyar, the author duly acknowledges his contribution. Yet she does not refrain from criticising him on his ‘limited understanding’ of feminist issues and almost paternalistic approach on Dalit issues. Despite his radical positions on women’s issues, the author points out that Periyar failed to “relate the inferior status of women to the socio-economic system of exploitation and attributes it exclusively to manliness.”
Her extensive analyses of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in three major essays that decode its class character and industrial policy, offer a new, hitherto largely unexplored perspective of the major Dravidian party that has shaped the fabric of Tamil society one way or the other for decades.
In criticising the Communist party for its approach to the naxalite issue and urging a rethink, failing which “history would by-pass them,” the author comes across as a courageous Marxist who is willing to think beyond the confines of her party’s understanding.
In the absence of any major recorded document of a woman ideologue in the Left movement on the contemporary history of Tamil Nadu, Haunted by Fire is a book to reckon with.
The essays, on topics ranging from agrarian unrest to caste oppression, labour issues to women’s struggles, human rights violations to electoral politics, are a historical document that offers a Left and feminist perspective of socio-political issues that has affected Tamil society in the 1960s and 1970s.
Slice of history
The editors, V. Geetha and Kalpana Karunakaran, have taken great care in selecting essays that would not only enable the reader to comprehend the personality of Mythili Sivaraman and her angst, but showcase a slice of history that would have otherwise remain undocumented.
The brilliant introduction by the two editors offers the political and historical context of Mythili Sivaraman’s work and writings. It also sets the tone for the reader to travel into the world that the author leads us to.
Mythili Sivaraman’s unconventional genre of writing operates at two levels. One of these offers vivid personal accounts of socio-political issues she has been involved with; the other offers an intellectual approach to established socio-political norms. Thus, on both counts the book seeks to fill a void in the written history of the Tamil Nadu.
The Nagammals and the Seeralans will be difficult to forget hereafter.
(Kavitha Muralidharan is a journalist with The Hindu (Tamil) in Chennai)