The contributions of Swadeshabhimani K. Ramakrishna Pillai (1878-1916), whose life embodied the highest ideals of duty to humankind, are integral to the making of modern Kerala. He was the editor of several newspapers and magazines in the early decades of the last century, the most notable being the newspaper Swadeshabhimani that he edited from January 1906 to September 1910. His biography of Karl Marx in Malayalam was the first life-text of Marx in any of the Indian languages. He also introduced the life and works of Mahatma Gandhi to the Malayalis through a biography. Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai was deported from erstwhile Travancore on September 26, 1910 on charges of treason. The details of Pillai’s life are still fresh in the public memory of Malayalis. But the distinctive self of B. Kalyani Amma, Pillai’s life-partner, who was with him all through the most eventful years of his life, has not yet become part of the cultural imaginary of the Malayali. The account left by Kalyani Amma of the 12 years they spent together, Vyazhavatta Smaranakal (Memories of a Cycle of Twelve Years) gives a graphic picture of a couple bonded together intellectually and emotionally. Their life-story as narrated by Kalyani Amma supplements the version of his life as sketched by Pillai himself and numerous other biographers. We can consider them as collective acts of remembrance that shed light on the cultural processes of memory. We learn much about our ways of remembering and forgetting, the material practices of memory, the relationship between politics and memory and even the aesthetics that colours memory from such collective acts of remembrance.
Kalyani Amma was born in Kuzhivilaakathu House, Kuthiravattom, Thiruvananthapuram, on February 22, 1884. She was the daughter of Subbraayan Potti and Bhagavathy Amma. Brought up in a traditional Hindu Nair household, Kalyani Amma married Ramakrishna Pillai in 1905. They had become acquainted through literary discussions and letters the previous year. Their life together was marked by the tensions in the career of an iconoclast who was yearning to reform society at one go. Kalyani Amma shared Pillai’s passion for social reform, believing as he did that no country is going to prosper if the people are timid, crafty and mean in their ways; “Bhayakautilyalobhangal valarkkilloru naadine.”
Kalyani Amma was a noted litterateur, penning books like, Ormayil Ninnu (Reminiscences), Mahathikal (Great Women), Thamarassery, Karmaphalam (Fruits of One’s Actions), Veettilum Purathum (Inside the House and out of it), Arogya Shastram (The Science of Health), Arogya Shastravum Grihabharanavum (The Management of the House and the Science of Health) and so on. However, the most significant work of Kalyani Amma is undoubutedly, Vyazhavatta Smaranakal. The 1998 edition of Vyazhavatta Smaranakal, published by DC Books, Kottayam, contains introductory remarks by Tharavath Ammalu Amma (14.12.1916), preface to the first edition by B. Kalyani Amma (20.12.1916), introduction to the 1948 edition of Ende Naadukadathal of Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai by D.C. Kizhakemuri (15.12.1948), preface to the tenth edition of Vyazhavatta Smaranakal , by K. Bhaskara Pillai (5.09.1957) and preface to the twelfth edition by K. Gomathi Amma (27.06.1982). These narratives that frame the text, particularly the observations by Tharavathu Ammalu Amma that compares Kalyani Amma’s act of following her husband in exile to the selfless act of Sita, who followed the footsteps of Sree Rama to the forests, set the tone for the reading and reception of the book in subsequent years.
Dhanyayayi Njaan (1979), (Blessed am I) by K. Gomati Amma, daughter of Kalyani Amma, that recounts the events of the fateful years from 1910, renders touching images of both her father and mother, along with that of Tharavathu Ammalu Amma, who acted as a foster mother to the exiled couple. Modes of recording the life of an individual and critical discussions on them abound in both English and Malayalam. The scope and function of such life-texts sometimes spill beyond our interest in the life of the person they sketch, colouring entire periods of history. A slim book of less than one hundred pages, Vyazhavatta Smaranakal continues to interest us 99 years after its publication, precisely because it engages with the history of Kerala in making.
(A fortnightly column on the many avatars of women in Malayalam literature. G. S. Jayasree is head of the Institute of English, and editor of Samyukta)