Living history

Members of the oral history team from the Department of History, University of Kerala with freedom fighter K.U. Unni in Thrissur   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

E.K. Narayanan Nambiar still carries the wounds of his encounter with British colonialists in his mind – and in his body. He recounts the heroism of his compatriots during the Kavumbai struggle against imperialism and feudalism and his imprisonment at Velloor Jail, with such animation and attention to detail as if it happened yesterday, rather than in the 1930s, during the height of the freedom struggle.

Listening to him in rapt attention are a team of city-based historians of the Department of History, University of Kerala, who are documenting the oral history of the freedom struggle in Kerala, straight from the mouths of of freedom fighters like the 89-year-old Narayanan and many others. “A bullet and shrapnel from those days are still lodged in his body and he was game enough to show us scars on his arm and leg,” says A.S. Vysakh, with near wonder.

“It’s a one-of-its-kind project to recreate the history of the freedom movement in Kerala, bit by bit, through word of mouth,” says Suresh Jnaneswaran, head of the Department and lead investigator of the project.

“There are official oral records of the freedom struggle in the state, by way of intelligence, police and bureaucratic reports. Our project is a people’s memory, intended to supplement, enrich and corroborate the official narrative. Moreover it is history from the perspective of ordinary participants, which many a time challenges the rather elitist view of the freedom struggle that exists today,” he adds, as MetroPlus meets up with him and his 17-member team, including faculty members P. Jinimon and Sajna A., and Dr. Vysakh, project assistant, during a break in the project schedule.

“We’ve only ever known history through textbooks, which are impersonal and indirect at best. And here right in front of us were living, breathing examples of the men who actually made history!” says Dr. Vysakh. “Their sacrifices for a higher cause, their courage and boldness in the face of adversity, the simplicity with which they led their lives post-Independence, their social spirit, their idealism, their unadulterated vision and faith in their motherland... are all worthy of emulation, particularly by young people of today, most of whom barely react to what’s happening around them,” he adds.

The team had prepared a set of 60-plus questions to ask each freedom fighter, ranging from their family history and early education and political influences to their impression, comparative qualities, and modus operandi of leaders such as Gandhi, Subash Chandra Bose, K. Kelappan, P.Krishna Pillai, A.K. Gopalan, and the likes, the ‘ambience, excitement and romance’ of those days, women comrades and their role in the movement, details of underground political activities, life in jail, caste during the freedom struggle... “We talked to each person for three to four hours, recording the exchange on tape and on video for posterity,” says Dr. Jinimon.

To ensure that none of the living legends was left out, they visited Sadirikka Blathur from Kannur when he was in hosptial. “He is 95 years old but his memory is still sound – as is the case with most of the people we talked to. He amazed us with minute details about working against the aggression of the landlords, participating in the Kavumbai struggle and spending time underground with revolutionary leader PKP,” adds Dr. Jinimon.

Odakkal Muhammed from Kondotty, Malappuram, who participated in the Quit India Movement, Goa Liberation Movement and Royal Indian Navy Mutiny turned out to be another fount of information. “He told us how, as a young man, he met and carried food to A.K. Gopalan when the latter spent time hiding in a mosque in Kondotty, and how he and his fellow prisoners in jail helped save women activists from molestation by British soldiers during the Goa liberation movement,” says Dr.Vysakh.

A majority of the freedom fighters are from the Malabar, which was part of the Madras Presidency at the time, hence under the direct, authoritarian rule of the British. The southern part of the state, what is known as Thiru-Kochi of yore, was ruled by Kings under colonial patronage, till after Independence. Nonetheless it has its share of freedom fighters and the team interacted with several of them such as 92-year-old Gandhian Gopinathan Nair, 94-year-old K.E. Mammen, an associate of Netaji who participated in the Quit India Movement, advocate Ayyappan Pillai, 101, one of the early members of the Travancore State Congress...

However, the “star interview,” according to the team, was that of 101-year-old K. Madhavan from Kanhangad, Kasaragod, who joined the Salt Satyagraha whilst in school, the youngest of the volunteers under Kelappan. He was arrested and jailed for six months when he was only 15 and later rose to lead the Kayyur revolt.

The findings, say the team, was “surprising” in many instances. “For instance, unanimous was the opinion that caste and religion were never an issue during the struggle and reiterated – with examples – how everyone, Hindu, Christian and Muslim, worked together for the common goal of a free nation,” says Dr. Suresh.

The team also plans to type the sessions out as ‘Oral History Transcripts, complete with signatures of the freedom fighters. “These would be alternative primary documents preserved at the University for the reference of researchers, scholars and people interested in history,” adds Dr. Suresh.

Eventful encounters

In the seven trips they’ve already taken since the project, sponsored by Kerala University and the University Grants Commission (and a decade in the making), was kick-started a couple of years ago, the historians have talked to over 100 freedom fighters, most of them in their 80s and 90s, and plan to complete recording the tales of the remaining 150 or so people, shortly. So far, the team has pieced together information on important events of the freedom struggle, by talking to trade unionists, Royal Indian Navy Mutineers, Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army ranks, Goa liberation fighters, participants of the Salt Satyagraha, the Vaikom Satyagraha, Quit India Movement, socialists, communists, Gandhians...

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 1:09:04 PM |

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