When my grandmother, Achamma, cried out for Kunjumon on her deathbed, I thought she was calling my father. But when he
came forward to hold her hand, she pushed him away, saying “Not you!” and kept calling out for Kunjumon. My father wept. Then he took me aside and told me about Kunjumon, Achamma’s eldest son. I had never heard anyone, including Achamma, mentioning such a child before. The child died when he was four, before my father was born; my father had been named after him. When I asked my father how the child had died, he said that in those days, children died like leaves falling off trees. It could have been hunger or lack of nutrition or any common disease that went undetected because the mothers had no time to take care of children after a long day of hard labour. I didn’t know what was more harrowing—the matter-of-fact tone in which he said all this, the sound of Achamma sobbing in the other room for her child who had died half a century ago, or the fact that I, her granddaughter, was discovering something as important as this when she was hours from her end.
Achamma passed away later that day, and it was only then that I realised with a jolt that I had never once asked her about her life. Achamma had lived through the freedom movement, the formation of Kerala, the famine of the 1960s and the Emergency, and made it to the millennium. I would never know what all of it had meant to her as a Dalit. I looked at her vettilachellam, her betel leaf box, and the empty chair which seemed so forlorn without its proud owner, and realised how until then, she had only been an old woman for me.
It was only when I heard bits and pieces of her story from my father that I truly began to see Achamma’s struggles for what they were. Here was a Dalit girl who had gone to school defying societal norms; a 12-year-old who was married off to a 40-year-old and who ran away from him; a young girl who fell in love and found her own partner when she was ready for it; a young widow who had to raise her sons and daughters on her own; a mother who lost her firstborn and carried the pain to her deathbed.
It was with this new realisation that I frantically tried to collect memories of my foremothers from their sons and daughters. I was determined to write about it all. Every memory mattered; they were the undocumented, ever so invisible chronicles of my ancestors’ lives. The more I heard, the more upset I became.
I learned, for instance, that my great grandmother and her sisters were hunchbacked from a lifetime of agricultural labour and from not being allowed to stand upright in front of the thampranmar, the “lords”. They hid from pants-clad men almost on reflex, as their experience of such men had always been that of abuse and torture. My great grandmother fainted in shock and fear when she saw her own son wearing pants for the first time.
Achachan, my father’s elder brother, told me the story of how he had taken his grandmother and her sister on their first bus ride. They were to apply for the Karshaka Thozhilali pension in the Collectorate in the city. Ulaki and Alaki, my great grandmothers, held on to the railings of the bus with all their might throughout the seven-kilometre journey to the Collectorate, racked with fear. When they were offered seats in the bus, they refused to sit. At the Collectorate, they sat on the floor, despite the many vacant chairs in the waiting room. They refused to eat at restaurants because they could not believe that they would be allowed to sit and eat from plates inside. Those women, my great grandmothers who had been taught to cower in fear all their lives, had no idea how the world around them had changed. Or comprehend a time where they could claim their own seats and demand to be treated with dignity as human beings, as equals. It was all very new to them. The only constant in their lives was fear. They feared that their grandson would get thrashed for wanting to go inside a restaurant to eat. The menial pension they received for spending their entire lives on agricultural labour was finally made use of at their funerals.
My father told me how his family had survived the famine twice, thanks to Achamma’s determined efforts, and how common roots and even grass could become food. My great grandmother began to crave delicacies by the time Achachan had started earning. But she was too scared to go inside the local restaurant, so she would stand outside the door and ask for “tandu sosa” (two dosas). I was told she craved food even after they had plenty to eat; and that she used to steal from her own kitchen. That was when I remembered how Achamma always ate a full meal before anyone else, fruits, fish, meat, sweets, everything, and how she forced us grandchildren, too, to eat as much as possible. One of my cousins, a chubby kid who ate pretty much anything she gave him, soon became her favourite. She used to save sweets for him. I now understood what it all meant. Hunger was the only thing our grandmothers had known for a large part of their lives.
They had worked all their lives to feed their children, and when they finally got a chance to eat as much they wanted, all they wanted was to eat. Only some of them were fortunate enough to live through a period where they had someone ask them “Mathiyaayo?” (“Had enough?”) Such were my grandmothers. These fleeting glimpses also made me realise how history books at school had told me nothing about how women like my Achamma and her mother had lived their lives. If the stories of a Janaki or Alaki or Thirumala or Mala go untold, nothing will change for the world as we know it. But archiving it will change things for my people. Memory is a powerful tool, and archiving it challenges our invisibility, our non- existence, our oppression. I am the granddaughter of all the women you made to stand outside your history books. I inherit my strength from their memories, and I will continue writing their sto