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With a song in her heart

REBECCA CHANDY remembers Mrs. K.M. Mathew who died recently.

ON a sunny afternoon in mid-April 2002, my sister and I dropped in at Roopkala to see Annamma (Mrs. K.M. Mathew). We had heard that she was not well. We found her gracious and smiling as ever. I almost thought she was about to go out when I noticed the wheelchair. Her mobility was limited now, she told us, yet she went to the office to see to the publication of Vanitha. After a while, when we rose to go, she called her maid and instructed her to give us her special curry of the day and a gift-wrapped packet of palaharams (snacks), her habitual gift to every visitor.

In the week since her death on July 10, Malayalam newspapers have been full of her expertise in cookery, her innovation in kick-starting the widely published women's magazine Vanitha and her involvement in many social concerns. The affection she extended to all was part of her charm. She was extremely sensitive to the needs of people. When my sister, having spent most of her life in North India, settled down near Kottayam, she felt at odds in her new milieu. But Annamma invited her to be a judge in cookery competitions; flower shows, inducted her in the translation of Malayalam books into English and thus befriended her. She did not believe in handouts, but helped people to help themselves. All her social work had the same slant.

Many people who knew her as a young girl might have thought that she would make a mark as a singer. Her father, a civil surgeon in the Madras Civil Service, saw to it that his only daughter (she had three brothers) was not only well educated, but also trained in music. She played the harmonium and violin. After her marriage to K. M. Mathew, she used to sing at house parties and family celebrations. But a severe throat and ear infection necessitated a 14-hour operation in the United States. She survived the ordeal, but lost her singing voice. But she never lost the song in her heart. She remained a blithe spirit till the end, despite indifferent health.

Annamma had inherited a love and talent for cookery from her father. In Bombay, where she lived in the early years of her marriage, she attended many cookery classes, which gave her a professional outlook. A chance request from her father-in-law, the illustrious K.C. Mammen Mappillai, to prepare a recipe for publication in the Malayala Manorama, was the starting point of her prodigious contribution in the field of cookery. The date was 1952. One recipe followed another. She also began a regular media column Pachaka Vidhi, which gave "tips" for new recipes in the Malayala Manorama.

It was only natural that these recipes and others should be collected and printed in book form. Annamma published, in the last 50 years, 24 cookery books — 20 in Malayalam and four in English. Annamma's books on the art of cookery were instant bestsellers.

The launching of Vanitha (a woman's monthly in Malayalam) in 1975, with Annamma as the Chief Editor was a stroke of genius. The women of Kerala were insular. There was hardly any interaction with the outside world. Annamma opened the doors for them to a world outside their backwater frontiers. Modelled on the best of women's magazines of the day, Vanitha had something of interest to every woman. Overnight, it catapulted the Kerala woman into the sophisticated world of the 20th Century.

Its circulation increased by leaps and bounds. And Annamma won a number of accolades and awards. The Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's description of her as "a journalist who espoused socially relevant issues especially those related to women and who followed the noblest ideals and traditions of journalism" must remain the best tribute to a life so well lived.

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