Self-portrait of a thinking woman

Kochattil Kalyanikutty Amma’s two books paint complex portraits of a period of great change, and of travel and life lived without any compromises.

December 31, 2015 01:07 pm | Updated March 24, 2016 12:55 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

In the year 1935, few women would have opened a conversation with Mahatma Gandhi thus: ‘ It is my feeling, especially after attending the All-India Women’s Conference at Karachi, that the women’s movement in India is not a representative one. It only represents the aristocracy and upper middle class. Can you suggest practical measures to make it a real mass movement? ’ She follows this up with other pressing questions like, ‘ Do you not think that co-education from very early days till the end of the education, will help a great deal in removing the sex obsession that we see in our midst today?’

We get the impression that she is not entirely satisfied with the response she gets from Gandhiji and raises another critical issue: ‘ On discussing the question of birth-control with many a married woman, I find in many cases, especially in the case of those with large families, that motherhood is often thrust upon them. A Woman has no freedom in the real sense of the word if she has no right over her body ….’

Protracted issues of women’s representation, co-education, birth-control, compulsory motherhood, woman’s right over her body, and so on that Kalyanikkutty Amma raises receive barely perceptive answers from Gandhiji. The interview that Kochattil Kalyanikutty Amma (1908-1997), better known during her life time as Mrs. C. Kuttan Nair, had with Gandhiji gives valuable insights into the conservative views espoused by the nationalist leadership and the radical views of a feminist public intellectual. History has recorded that undeterred by the words of Gandhiji, Kalyanikutty Amma continued to champion the causes she considered crucial to women’s freedom.

Kalyanikutty Amma is remembered for two of her books: Njan Kanda Europe (The Europe I Saw) published in 1936, that gives an account of her travel to Europe immediately before the onset of the Second World War, and Pathikayum Vazhiyorathe Manideepangalum (A Wayfarer and a Few Beacon Lights) brought out in 1991, which sketches the major events of her long life. It is the nature of the travel, the place and time at which it is undertaken, the class and gender of the person undertaking it and most important, the intent and purpose behind it that make one travel different from another.

Njan Kanda Europe engages the readers through the transnational dialogue it initiates with the turbulent political milieu of the times, problematising the very genre of travel writing for the first time in Malayalam. The boldness of the language employed has the characteristic of a public speech, something Kalyanikutty Amma was very fond of in her life, probably due to the immense power of agency that it guarantees to the speaker during the performance. Pathikayum Vazhiyorathe Manideepangalum traces the personal encounters that shaped the intensely political self projected in Njan Kanda Europe, a second journey that the writer’s self undertakes while working through the recesses of her memories where the gaze falls upon the self, unlike the gaze of the self.

Njan Kanda Europe begins with the statement, “It was my first journey by ship.” It is a matter-of-fact report and leads us to the details of life in the ship before embarking on an account of the cities of Europe. Interestingly, major sections from Njan Kanda Europe find their way into Pathikayum Vazhiyorathe Manideepangalum that opens with an account of the untimely death of Kalyanikutty Amma’s beloved brother. The journey of life was never the same for her or her parents after that. We can see here that the travelogue and autobiography become intimately connected in her mind. The routes/ roots they traverse complement each other. The traveller, the wayfarer as Kalyanikutty Amma prefers to call herself, sets us thinking of the course of the journey of her life from a starting point to the final destination that all journeys follow. ‘Travel’ can be here identified as a trope to signify the accidents s of a life survived the hard way.

Writing at a time when the nationalist consciousness was at its peak in India, we can see in Kalyanikutty Amma's autobiography a virtual parade of the leaders of the national movement from Mahatma Gandhi to Annie Besant, Sarojini Naidu, Subhash Chandra Bose and V.K. Krishna Menon. However, there is a reticence on the part of Kalyanikutty Amma in giving her personal impressions, even when she is talking about V.K. Krishna Menon, for whom she expresses great regard. It is as though Kalyanikutty Amma shared a particular idea of what should be made known to the public and scrupulously kept to it. However, in the second half of Pathikayum Vazhiyorathe Manideepangalum, Kalyanikutty Amma recounts the traumatic experiences she had to undergo because she was cheated by those whom she trusted. One almost gets the impression that she wrote the autobiography in her late eighties because she wanted to leave a record of how those who had power took advantage of her essential goodness. Traditionally an autobiography is understood as a formal document where the narrator describes the events and personages who may have influenced her towards an awareness of the self. Simultaneously it also constructs a certain image of the self the narrator wants to project to the world. Njan Kanda Europe and Pathikayum Vazhiyorathe Manideepangalum present a complex portrait of epistemic shifts and political change, the making of a nation and the unmaking of principles, of travel and life lived the uncompromising manner, but what remains with us is the picture of a woman, proud, obstinate, unyielding and lonely.

(The author edits Samyukta and is professor and head of the Institute of English, University of Kerala)

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