My Mother, Comrade Mythily

Growing up as Mythily’s daughter meant discovering early that my mother was different from anyone else I knew. It meant being part of a household that was different from most others.

One of the oldest memories I have of my childhood is of my mother seated at her typewriter, of hearing the familiar clickety-clack it made and of waiting at her side for her to finish a line, so that I could return the carriage (lever) that would allow her to move to the next. For me, it was as natural to see my mother speak at a public meeting as it was to watch her type, write or argue, and have night-long discussions with the many friends and comrades who frequented our home.

I grew up with the sense of an open home. Assorted young friends of my mother, annas and akkas to me, visited all the time, often showing up late at night after I fell asleep so that I would wake up to find them sleeping in the sofa in our hall. In the mottai maadi (top floor balcony) of our old house, amma’s comrades would sit in a circle and rehearse a madhar sangam song as I pedalled around them in my blue tricycle. I recall my mother’s gentle voice singing ‘madhar sangam, ladies clubbu yaarukkaga? Thozhi, yarukkaga? Unnai pola, yennai pola, pennukaaga (The madhar sangam, the ladies club, who is it for? Comrade, who is it for? For a woman like you, a woman like me)’.

I came to see that my mother was an unusual woman not (only) because of what she did in the world outside or as part of her ‘office’ work. She conveyed to me her strong aversion for women’s supposedly natural love for silk sarees, fine clothes and gold jewellery. Her bare dressing table at home reflected her resolve to wear cotton sarees at family weddings and to not buy or own a single piece of gold.

One particular summer morning, I woke up late to hear my friend next door (and co-resident of our large compound with many families) shouting, ‘‘Come see – Mythily aunty is speaking into a mike!’ I rushed to the window to find her standing on top of a makeshift drum and hollering into a mike in the auto stand just outside our house. All my neighbourhood playmates and their parents were glued to their windows gaping at the strange sight my mother made. I realised that it was May 1 and that she was delivering the rousing ‘May Day’ greetings to the auto drivers and others who had gathered. As the drum kept shaking, I kept praying that she would not fall and embarrass me any more.

Another day when I was getting ready for school, we heard a commotion from outside. Women from the Jagannathapuram slum behind our residence had suddenly and spontaneously gathered with their empty water pots to stage a ‘water protest’ on the main road. Even as the traffic policemen wielding their lathis tried to disperse them, my mother, who was combing and plaiting my hair, dropped the hair-brush and ran out of our house shouting, “Nadu roadliye utkaarunga! Busu poga vidatheenga! Kalaiyatheenga! (Sit in the middle of the road! Don’t let the buses go! Do not disperse!).”

One late evening, I remember my furious mother calling the police commissioner’s office to demand that he immediately order the release of a woman, a domestic maid in a neighbour’s home, who had been detained illegally in the police station. “Don’t the police know that a woman cannot be detained overnight any more?,” she harangued him on the phone. In the Chetpet slum, many knew that a communist leader lived nearby and could be approached for emergency help.

How I saw my mother came to be shaped also by how others, the world around us, saw her. When I was a very young child, I remember a TV interview in which she explained why a woman’s organisation (pengal sangam) was necessary and what it might do for women.

Listening to her story of the All India Democratic Women’s Association’s (AIDWA’s) agitation for women’s toilets in public places so that working class women may relieve themselves in safety and dignity, the grandmother of my friend (in whose house I was then playing) commented, “I have not thought so far of what women working on the streets do to answer the call of nature. Our keeraikaramma (vegetable vendor) is always on the move – where does she go?”

The boundaries of my mother’s political world were never drawn at the doorstep of our house. I was about two or three years old, when I heard the story of the ‘polladha pannaiyaru’ (evil landlord) from my mother, along with the Ramayanam from my grandmother. When I was asked to narrate the Ramayanam by my extended family that regarded me as a story-telling wonder-child, my mother would ask immediately, “Now tell us the story of the polladha pannaiyaaru.” She made her point well.

After all, many stories of bloodshed, war, martyrdom, and injustice can move us and make up our memories. Why is the story of the prince who was denied his throne more worthy of committing to memory than that of 44 landless poor burnt alive inside a hut in Keezhvenmani?

Even the battle to name me was political! My parents’ first choice was Ajitha. K. Ajitha, a young Naxalite, was in the news in the late 1960s when she conducted armed raids on police stations in Kerala. (On my mother’s first visit to Keezhvenmani a week after the massacre of December 26, 1968, the local police believed that she was Ajitha and was planning to stir trouble).

The name was dropped when my paternal grandfather strongly objected, accusing my parents of ‘corrupting’ an innocent child. As my father wanted a Tamil name, his choice was Thamarai (lotus). This time my mother objected. She thought that Thamarai denoted beauty and passivity, and she didn’t want her daughter to feel she had to be either!

Finally, my mother named me in memory of Kalpana Dutt, a freedom fighter and member of the armed independence movement who participated in the Chittagong Armoury Raid of 1930. In 1987, my mother bought me an illustrated book published by the West Bengal government to mark the 40th anniversary of India’s independence. Featuring lesser-known heroes of the anti-colonial struggle, the book carries this inscription from her: ‘For Kalps – in honour of the other Kalpana after whom she was named!’.

Having a young child to look after could not have been easy for my mother in the 1970s and 80s – the intense, packed years of her political activism. While my grandmother’s constant presence in my life and care-giving allowed my mother to travel frequently, this came at a price for her.

When I was 10 months old and she returned from a visit to find me happily playing in my grandmother’s lap, I looked at her and reportedly burst into tears. This evoked some sharp words from my grandmother on how wrenching her absence had been for me.

When I was about two years old, I am told that I would sit on the lap of my mother, surrounded by her friends and comrades, and close her mouth with my hand saying ‘pesakkoodathu’ (Do not speak). Sometimes, I would follow it up by throwing anything I could find at them – pens, books, coffee tumblers, dabaras, hoping to chase them away.

During the Emergency period, when I was two and a half years old, she went underground and spent two months in South Africa in her brother’s home. When she called home once and said to me, ‘Njan amma pesaren da’ (This is amma speaking), I believe I said, ‘Yentha amma?’ (Which amma?), leaving her guilty and more than a little sad.

Living in the family home of my maternal grandparents, I was surrounded by uncles, aunts and cousins while growing up. This meant that a familiar adult could more easily keep an eye on me when required and that must have been a comfort to my mother. But it also meant that her parenting style was more closely scrutinised, evaluated and criticised by the extended family.

My grandmother fed me growth vitamins, high-protein biscuits, omlettes and health drinks in the most conspicuous manner possible to counter the maternal ‘neglect’ that I supposedly suffered. Family lore has it that I was admitted in a private school by my aunt to pre-empt my mother from admitting me in a corporation school that she had apparently ‘threatened’ to do, that the only reason my school uniforms kept pace with my growth spurts was my grandmother’s timely intervention, that I had my grandmother to thank for new clothes during Deepavali and certainly not my mother, who didn’t care that I was poorly dressed and perhaps even wanted me to be ‘wearing rags’ so as to advertise her communist sympathies, and so on.

I know that my mother did feel unfairly framed by this narrative about her child languishing without care while she ‘blissfully’ attended meetings and lived out her political life.

In 1980, she was invited by the All China Women’s Federation to visit and spend a month in the country. During this visit, she sent a postcard to my father in which she wrote, “I am trying to not worry about Kalps. Pl take her and give her a hair cut – a proper girl’s cut.”

She told me later, wincing when looking at old photographs, that she felt guilty about how ‘badly’ my hair was cut during my childhood. “I made them give you the shortest ‘boy cut’ they could to make it easy for me to manage your hair.”

She constantly worried that I might be bad at written Tamil as she had sent me to an English medium school. We had a small blackboard in the bedroom on which I would do Tamil dictation under her supervision. Everyday. My mother, who declared that she did not care about my academic performance, would lose her temper if I got any Tamil spelling wrong. She didn’t seem to care that I wasn’t doing well in Maths, later to become my great nightmare!

However, she cared very much that I read and that I had a steady supply of children’s books in English and Tamil. I remember well the 25 paise books from the Soviet Press (Raduga Publishers?). She came home one day triumphant and delighted. She had bought 20 books for Rs. 5!

In the powerfully-illustrated children’s books from the People’s Republic of China, little children performed acts of great valour such as hiding, sheltering and nursing wounded soldiers of the Red Army, and spying upon and exposing the conspiratorial meetings of counter-revolutionaries. The stories would usually end with the group of children or the exceptional child-hero waiting eagerly to be greeted by a party leader visiting their village. The last panel of the book would show him turning around to see the children and they would discover, to their great delight and excitement, that it was Chairman Mao himself come to honour their heroic deeds.

Ours was a communist house – framed pictures of Marx, Lenin and Mao adorned our walls. I grew up knowing them as Marx thatha, Lenin thatha and Mao thatha. I certainly identified with them more than I did with my Sivaraman thatha or Ekambaram thatha who paled in comparison!

My memories of public meetings where my mother spoke are somewhat disjointed. In an air-conditioned hall (perhaps the Russian Cultural Centre), she spoke of the child labourers of the Sivakasi fireworks units who had died when their bus met with an accident. “Was it an accident that they were woken up at 4 a.m. daily and transported to the factories? Was it an accident that they usually returned at 7 p.m., half-dead with fatigue? Was it an accident .…?,” she continued. The audience was transfixed.

I recall her introduction to a Russian film on four women heroes of the Soviet Liberation (anti-Nazi) struggle. I recall her speaking at a hall meeting of several women’s organisations condemning the custodial rape of Padmini of Chidambaram and some years later, at a street meeting of women’s groups to condemn the rape of Bhanwari Devi of Rajasthan.

As I was studying in a women’s college in Chennai, I would bring my close friends and interested college-mates to these meetings. As a well-known women’s rights activist in the city, my mother had been an invited guest speaker at both the schools I went to and my college as well.

While I was sometimes embarrassed when the ‘famous social worker’ Mythily Sivaraman visited my turf as a guest of honour, my mother took great pride and pleasure in my efforts to partake of her world. In my high school years, I was a member of a Communist Party of India (Marxist)-organised music choir group that was trained by a student of M.B.Srinivasan. I was first a member of the Samantha Smith choir for children and later became a part of the Nelson Mandela Kalai Kuzhu that included adults too.

We would sing to enthuse the crowds before election meetings, at May Day events and at public forums organised by the TN Progressive Writers’ Association. During the election campaign performances that preceded the state Assembly election of January 1989, I would sometimes be dropped home at 12 a.m.

As I was in the 10th standard then and fell ill often with throat infection and high fever, it was thought that the added stress came from my regular participation in the choir group performances. I remember my aunt saying to my mother “Why not spare her this year? It is the 10th.” I clearly remember my mother’s response, “We don’t think this is any less important than her public exam.”

What she meant was that the opportunity to be part of a world that would give me experiences, friendships and learning beyond anything that school or extra-curricular activities could offer was too precious to be stymied by the prospect of public exams and that she was thankful to the party for expanding the horizons of my life beyond a sheltered middle class existence.

She certainly had no illusions that my singing voice could make a difference to the electoral prospects of her party! She relished many of the songs we sang and her two favourites that I sang often at home on her demand were ‘Vidhuthalai porinil veezndha malare’ (The flower that fell in India’s independence struggle) in memory of the martyrs of India’s independence struggle and ‘Paadhai mudiyum munne, payanam vellum munne’, composed to honour the death of Ho Chi Minh.

She repeatedly let me know through my school and college years that neither she nor my father cared about my marks in school exams and I didn’t have to get into any prestigious institution. There was no ‘doctor, engineer’ pressure on me. The marriage rules were equally straightforward. “If you ever decide to marry, you will find your own husband,” she would say, adding, “It is not my business to find one for you. I simply refuse to do it.” She would add, “But make sure that whoever you choose, the two of you react the same way to the news in the morning papers on a daily basis. That’s the most important thing.”

And just in case I had not got the point, she followed it up on a few occasions with, “If you marry a Congress chap, we will disown the son-in-law. If you marry an RSS/ VHP/ Hindu Munnani type, we will disown you.” Apart from these reasonable restrictions, I could be and do whatever I wanted to in life.

But she was a worrier and prone to excessive anxiety, quite often on my account. When a Tamil play I acted in during my college years was performed every Thursday (four times successively) in the Narada Gana Sabha Mini Hall, she was too nervous to attend the first show that my father came for.

After hearing from him that all had gone well, that I did not forget my lines or trip and fall on the stage, she came for the second show, the following Thursday. Another source of some anxiety for her was the question of my friendships and interaction with boys during my teen years. Studying at a co-educational school, I had several close friends amongst the boys in my class. They would come home, play shuttle with me and call to chat on the phone as well. I would stand at the gate of our compound chatting with my school friends, making the neighbours unhappy at the ‘bad example’ I was setting their daughters. That I had the parental permission to do this was rather unusual at that point of time (mid-to-late 1980s).

My mother later told me that she and my father had discussed the issue with each other. Much later she said to me, “We thought the times are changing and so must we. As progressive parents, how could we tell you that boys can’t be your friends?.” As I would remind her later, when I grew older, my rights extended to not only having boys as friends but boy friends too.

As I recall now, she was not entirely comfortable and would refer to an incident widely reported in the newspapers (when I was in my teens), involving an acid attack on a girl by a boy whose advances she had spurned. This had truly frightened her, coinciding as it did with the period I developed an interest in the opposite sex.

In 1987, her mentor V. P. Chinthan died, suddenly leaving a void in her life. The Soviet Union started to crack and my mother’s moods often darkened at the least provocation. Unhappily enough, I was on the threshold of my teens at the same time. During this period, we would fight suddenly and she would sometimes sit at my bedside in the evenings, and argue with me and weep in a manner that I had no way of responding to. I seemed to sense that this was not really about me, although I did feel aggrieved that I was being targeted.

Looking back on this period, I feel that she was perhaps lonely, grieving for VPC and maybe even seeking my companionship at the same time. But I was too young and too self-absorbed to give it to her.

If I am not able to separate the political person/public figure Mythily has been from the mother she was to me, it is because I have always seen her typing, reading, writing, making notes, on the phone, organising meetings, arguing with friends or giving interviews at home.

I have seen her fully relaxed only during our out-station holiday travelling made possible by my father’s LTC facility at work. We would laugh a great deal together on these holidays and I have seen her laugh herself silly, especially when she mimicked and made fun of my father’s idiosyncrasies and his pathetic efforts to speak Hindi!

But equally and perhaps more, I have witnessed her bouts of violent illnesses that involved retching, stomach pain episodes and severe migraines. I remember a party comrade approaching her at a meeting and asking her to come to speak in his district for a party event. She said she couldn’t and that he must ask someone else. He retorted, “But everyone insists they want Mythily.” Her refusal was sharp and took him aback. I sensed her exhaustion and frustration at the demands on her. But I was annoyed with her for saying no. Although still young, I was already invested in the idea of Mythily the leader, the public figure.

By the mid-1990s when I was a Masters student in JNU, my father finally heard of depression (clinical) through a journal article. It seemed to explain why the chronic pain that my mother had often complained of, had not been addressed by any doctor. There was a time when we suspected that she had colon cancer. She could not knot up her petticoat or tie her sari at the waist without wincing with pain. And yet, the medical tests revealed nothing.

When I was in high school, I had even asked a cousin who was something of an amateur astrologer and palmist to ascertain my mother’s longevity. It didn’t seem like she could go on much longer given her accelerating and intense illnesses. But anti-depressants did help from the mid-1990s. The immediate effect was dramatic and they seemed to have bought her time.

My father was outraged that my mother’s physicians had not even suggested that we get a psychological assessment done through the many years of her suffering. When he told me about my mother’s depression for the first time, I was shocked to hear that the mind could impact the body. The domain of the mind was not something my communist household ever discussed. Do Marxists acknowledge that the mind may sometimes have suzerainty over the body?

In January 1999, at the AIDWA state conference conducted in Nagercoil that I attended as a representative from the Tamil Nadu Science Forum (TNSF)-associated SAMAM movement, my mother said to me, “This time, I marginalised myself.” She was unable to speak at the public meeting, losing the energy and stamina to do it.

In 2002–04, I began to increasingly perceive my mother’s unease with herself and her sense of dislocation in her familiar universe. This period also coincided with my own emergence as a public person, a public speaker and a young activist into a world that overlapped but did not entirely coincide with her world of party politics.

At a ‘Women Oppose Globalisation’ meeting organised as run-up to the Asian Social Forum (ASF) held in Hyderabad in January 2003, I heard my mother speak in a large hall, addressing a huge crowd of rural women. Her speech was a bit off-key, I felt. She referred to a prominent political leader’s public statement, but did not tie it up to what she said subsequently.

“I don’t even want to think about what I said today,” she said to me in the evening. But she marched with the women in their procession – a long walk that day. While I had heard my mother’s harsh self-judgements and declarations of unworthiness several times in the past, I heard them more frequently during this period. By then, I had long lost my own anxiety at public speech making. It felt effortless to me. And so, it hurt me when I sensed my mother’s effort.

At the AIDWA state conference held in Virudunagar in 2002, she stepped down as Working President of the AIDWA. At the time, she wanted to devote herself to researching and writing her book on her grandmother Subbalakshmi (published by Zubaan in 2006). But I resented her move and wished she would not step away from the limelight.

Subsequently, I was surprised to see the enthusiasm with which she threw herself into working on the book. Several days in a row, she would reach the Egmore Archives at 9 a.m. and spend a whole day in reading and research. Although she gave me a draft of the book to read, wondering loudly how she was going to proceed if no one gave her feedback on the book, I was unable to read it.

When Urvashi Butalia (of Zubaan) expressed interest and sent her an email saying, ‘Mythily, you write beautiful’, my mother kissed me in excitement and joy. While I was surprised and happy for her, I felt unable to respond. By then, the anxiety that clenched my stomach on all matters to do with her had become routine.

Her fever began in mid-2004. All the tests were done and yet, we had no answer. I saw her in bed most days, and felt a great sadness and fear that her public life was at an end. She had a heart surgery to repair a leaky valve in August 2005, but the fever returned right after.

In August 2007, NIMHANS in Bangalore diagnosed her with Alzheimer’s Disease. She had crossed the early stage and was found to be in the mild-to-moderate stage. We were warned that the disease would erode not only memory (as is popularly understood), but also the capacities of perception, cognition, judgement, abstraction and reasoning. Familiar tasks and chores would seem like insurmountable challenges.

We were told that Alzheimer’s was brought on by the interplay of genetic and environmental factors, rather like depression. Continuing and unaddressed high stress levels actively harm the brain, shrink brain size and are a predisposing factor for Alzheimer’s. Chronic depression itself was another predisposing factor.

Reading up on Alzheimer’s, I wished that my mother had paid more attention to her mental, physical and emotional well-being over the years, made stress and anxiety-soothing practices and routines a part of her lifestyle, exercised regularly and meditated, received medical care and psychological counselling for depression much earlier in life, been less self-deprecating as a person and claimed her space more assertively and with a sense of entitlement.

I knew of course that none of this might have made a difference to what came to be. But I wished them all the same. I still do.

Subsequent to her diagnosis, I began to notice that my mother did not participate in family conversations. So, we argued over politics and discussed the daily news in her presence, but not with her. She seemed to have become invisible to us in some ways.

When she often expressed her frustration at not being a part of public life any more and at having lost that world, I would say to her in some anger, “You have had a full life amma. Why can’t you retire? Just read books, watch movies, listen to music. Haven’t you earned the rest?” She would respond, “Who retires amongst us? Did Jyothi Basu retire? Or did Com. Surjeet retire?”

Since the doctors had warned us to not divulge the prognosis to her, for fear that it would add to her depression, we concealed the news from her. I found this withholding of information futile and eventually, told her that her memory loss had a name. By this time, however, Alzheimer’s was just another word that had no meaning for her. As she said to me one day, “Words are leaving me.”

And yet, it was during this difficult period (in March 2010) that my mother spoke at a public meeting held to launch the Tamil translation of her book on Subbalakshmi’s life, published by Bharathi Puthagalayam. I remember exiting the hall just before her turn to speak. My stomach was knotted and my palms were sweating. When I heard later that she had done well, despite some struggle and lapses in the narration, I was hugely relieved.

In the last few years, I feel grateful that I have discovered my mother in some new ways, even as I have lost her in other ways. Shortly after my mother was diagnosed in 2007, I began rehearsal for a Tamil play, Kalakkanavu staged by the feminist theatre collective Marappachi. The play historically traced the multiple political contexts enabling women’s emergence in the public sphere in the early part of the 20th century.

My great-grandmother Subbalakshmi was a character in the play and I played her role. Reading my mother’s book on Subbalakshmi for the first time, I was moved by the book and ashamed to be reading it so late. In early 2011, urged by V. Geetha, we started to put together a collection of the essays my mother wrote in the Radical Review and other journals from the late 1960s to the early-1980s (This book Haunted by Fire was published by LeftWord in 2013).

To initiate work on this book project, Geetha gave me a deadline to locate and gather all the pieces of writing in English that my mother had done through her writing life that spanned four decades. The deadline was useful and I scrambled to make sure that I left nothing out. This process was an eye-opener for me.

While I knew of course that she had edited and wrote for the Radical Review, I was not prepared for the depth and the erudition of her writing or her painstaking research. I would often stop and start reading particular pieces even before the work of putting them together was done. I was haunted by the visual image of a wispy young woman visiting village after class-struggle wracked village in Thanjavur and Nagapattinam, documenting whether the red flag flew here and if not, asking when it would fly again.

As part of shooting for the documentary film that the historian Uma Chakravarty made on my mother, we took her to Keezhvenmani in September 2011. On the way, I recalled my first visit to Keezhvenmani in the company of my parents and K. Chandru and Bharathi (newly-weds then) in January 1992. It was a road trip and we reached Keezhvenmani on Pongal day.

More recently, Barathi told me that my mother and Chandru had reminisced incessantly about Nagammal on that journey. A peasant woman from South Arcot district who was confined and brutally tortured by the police during the Emergency period, Nagammal had sought the assistance of the AIDWA and my mother had followed up the case, helping her with legal assistance and writing about it. (Nagammal’s quest for justice is now the theme of a play scripted by Geetha and directed by Mangai).

A teenager preoccupied with myself, I had paid little attention to Chandru and my mother’s recollections and conversations on this trip. I think I understand now my mother’s regret at not having recorded her grandmother Subbalakshmi’s memories about her own fascinating life, lived mostly in shadows and silences. She has expressed this regret in the preface to her book on Subbalakshmi’s life, Fragments of a Life: a Family Archive.

She starts the preface by saying that she had always regretted not having a ‘typical’ Indian grandmother who would tell her thrilling stories during meal hours, gently rock her to sleep, sing her lullabies, indulge her tantrums or protect her from the bullying of her older siblings.

In 2007, when I was returning to India after a three month stint outside, I was asked by a friend whether I was yearning to put my head on my mother’s lap, pour out my stories to her and eat home food cooked by her. I was returning instead to familiar worries about my mother’s health. I did not know how to tell him that I could not recall eating anything she had ever cooked. I think she had forgotten how to cook by the time I was born.

My mother was not a typical Indian mother by anyone’s standard. But there is nothing to regret here and much to celebrate. She has given me a rich legacy of memories that I am still struggling to make sense of. Her life-choices and personal/political journeys constantly force me to ask myself if I am living a life that is worthy of her. Who could ask for more?

(The author is an associate professor at IIT, Chennai. The article was written on January 11, 2015. The views are personal.)

First published by Newsclick.

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