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Ms. Annie Burleigh is one hundred years old today. The woman who was part and parcel of Kochi's progress, right from the Independence struggle to computer yug, happily basks in her family's attention.

Photo by Mahesh Harilal

FROM BOARDING the first flight from Kochi, sheltering political activists in her household, running a prohibition campaign that saw to the closure of arrack and toddy shops, and inspiring the Mahatma to visit Fort Kochi, from empowering women by the formation of a Mahila Samajam, starting a crèche for coir workers, and forming the Legion of Mary for the Cochin Diocese, Annie Burleigh's life, which enters its 100th year today, has been a saga of a life lived to the hilt.

At 100, Ms. Burleigh has seen the world change just as much as she has been a part of the change, in Kochi. Belonging to one of Kochi's prominent families, her life and times hold a mirror to the circuitous history of this little town. When she came to Fort Kochi, "during the October Revolution", as a 19-year-old bride, she was drawn into a whirlwind of Indian politics.

"The family she was married into was intensely nationalist and she got involved in the activities," says K. J. Sohan, former Mayor of Kochi and a relative.

An incident she reminiscences fondly is when her father-in-law, Chevalier K. B. Jacob, the first Malayali municipal chairman of independent Cochin, brought a group of workers unannounced with him. Young and with child, Ms. Burleigh says she rose to the occasion and cooked for 40, a lunch that made her father-in-law proud. She saw him for just another year, before the political and social duties passed on to her husband and brother-in-law. She matched the need of that hour too. Living in pre-Independent India, called for a different set of values. Ms. Burleigh moved along slipping easily into politics. While the men in the family involved themselves in hardcore freedom struggle, she took to social work. With groups of women, she organised picketing of toddy, arrack shops and bars. The effort paid off, so much so, that all toddy outlets in Fort Kochi shut shop. This drew the attention of the Mahatma himself who expressed his desire to visit the place where an experiment with `satyagraha' had succeeded. Armed with the success of this, Ms. Burleigh formed the Mahila Samajam, which worked then to empower women. Later she was elected councillor for three terms. Her work among the downtrodden women drew special mention.

But Ms. Burleigh is no politician. She is a woman of the world, whose zest for life has given her hundred years of varied experiences. It is a life greater than the sum of its parts. And behind the rough and tumble of politics was a young homemaker, mother of four sons, grown on Ms. Beaton's book of home management. "It was like her Bible," says daughter-in-law, Sophie. " She is proud of running an efficient household. Her culinary skills were outstanding. She had acquired a flair for western cooking from the English butlers who were here at that time. There are so many ladies here who tell me that the recipes they try out are my mother-in-law's."

And recalls son Santosh, "She was always forward in her thinking. My father was a frugal eater but she was particular that what little he ate was balanced. She specifically told Dr. Varghese Pullickan, when her husband was ailing, that he should not deny him soup as it was a dietary need. Particular in the ways of etiquette she taught her staff how to carve and serve meat and the small niceties. We were taught to eat with a fork and knife."

Hailing from Srambikkal family in Pallithodu, and with a sister and brother being doctors, was probably a reason why Ms. Burleigh had a strong interest in Medicine. Ayurveda was there but the efficacy of English medicines was what she brought in the household, says her son Mr. Santosh, recalling her constant reminder, "If I hadn't come in this house, many kids would have died."

" She lived life to the fullest, always dressing well. She loved coming out for movies. In fact, in her eighties, she continued to see late night movies, till her husband said, `Annie you should not go for late night films,'" recalls Sophie and Mr. Sohan remembers her in the kitchen scooping out jackfruit pulp to be stored carefully. He says she was troubled by the fact that the younger generation do not eat such healthy food. It seems she drew energy from the kitchen. It was her focal point.

And put tricky questions to Ms. Burleigh and her diplomacy comes into play. She guffaws and avoids answering which of her four daughters- in- law is her favourite. "None of them have a quarrel with me," says she with a smile.

At present recovering from a fall that happened six weeks back, Mr. Santosh Buleigh tells about a dream world his mother had slipped in for three months, when she kept talking of a farm with ducks and egg laying hens, of haystacks and milking cows. A wish he says she harbours.

At 100, Ms. Burleigh is cheerful, a picture of a life well lived as she basks in the fuss her proud children, grandchildren and great grandchildren make over her.


Photo by Mahesh Harilal

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