Lakshmi, a Traveler, a memoir

translated from the Tamil by Kalpana Karunakaran

Extract from Lakshmi Yennum Payani (Lakshmi, a Traveler) 1

Note: Kindness or its absence can take many forms and manifest in myriad ways. If the willful withholding of everyday acts of care and affection can wound us, the acts of kindness that ambush us from unexpected quarters can redeem our faith in a shared humanity. The life of Lakshmi Amma (1955 – ), a woman born into a small peasant, Bahujan household in Tamil Nadu, testifies to how compassion may be nurtured as an ethic that grounds one’s politics. Suffering neglect and cruelty at home, Lakshmi, as a little girl, took the initiative to seek out for herself the social experience of schooling that her family would not give her. As a young factory worker in a garment company, she found herself thrust into a world of trade unionism and left politics. Marrying a man who was (then) a full-time Communist party worker, Lakshmi Amma raised her children and engaged in grassroots mobilization of women and workers, with very little economic support. Through her life Lakshmi Amma has remained politically active, a fellow-traveler of left-oriented and Tamil nationalist groups.

In her memoir written when she was about 60 years old, Lakshmi Amma gives us valuable glimpses of sisterhood, comradeship, solidarity and a shared love born of a collective striving to transform the world. Amidst the maelstrom of political life, we see everyday life unfolding as women feed and care for each other’s children, share moments of connection that sweeten the strangeness of new places, respond to suffering and distress and heed each other’s situation, within the limits of their own.

Extract from Lakshmi Yennum Payani (Lakshmi, a Traveler)2

06.03.1955. I was born to a mother who was suffering dire poverty. Before my birth, my family had been affected by the big cyclone that ravaged Tamil Nadu. My parents called me the blight of their lives. As far back as I can recall, hunger and neglect were my constant companions. I shadowed anyone who spoke to me with some affection. Only occasionally did I stay at home. When I saw children on their way to school, I thought I must also study. My parents did not want to educate me. And so, I begged Parvathi, the daughter of the cobbler on my street, to admit me to the school she studied in.

One day, picking up a half-broken slate lying on the ground and kolam powder lumps as sticks to write with, I went to the Xavier Secondary School nearby. Parvathi also studied here. Parvathi was older than me. When I went looking for Parvathi’s classroom, I found an unpleasant shock waiting for me. Parvathi’s teacher looked at me with disgust and pushed me out of the room. She shouted, ‘Who are you? Why do you want Parvathi? Is this how you come to school?’.

I realized that there was a big difference between the students in the class and me. After I saw the students, I looked at myself. Unoiled hair, a torn skirt and blouse, a dirty appearance. How could I be their equal? I asked myself, standing at the entrance. Parvathi did not come out of her classroom. I feared what Parvathi’s class teacher would do to me.

She repeated, ‘Who are you? Why did you come here?’. I replied, ‘Teacher, please admit me to the class’. The students in the class created an uproar with their mocking laughter. Their laughter did not matter to me. My aim was to join the school somehow. Parvathi’s teacher called her and sought details from her. Parvathi told her about me. ‘Come to school tomorrow. But before that, come to my house this evening with Parvathi’, the teacher said consolingly and sent me away.

The same evening, I went to the teacher’s house. She made me sit down and said, ‘First, I will buy you two skirts and shirts’. And she bought them for me. I joined the first grade. The class teacher was Arogya Mary. The teacher’s son also joined the first grade. His name was Louis Anthony Raj.

I made friends in the first grade. Angayarkanni did not know how to tie the skirt properly at her waist. If a teacher said something in a threatening tone, she would stand up with agitated fear. Her skirt would immediately come undone. Louis teased her a great deal. She would cry. I got my noon meal from the school. More than education, the school changed the feeling that I was an orphan. I got along with every student, boy or girl.

There was a small pial inside the cowshed at home. I lived there. I have never called my mother ‘Amma’… At the break of dawn, I would bathe in the pond, carry my bag of books and kneel before the shrine of Mother Mary in the school ground. So far as I was concerned, she was my mother.

***

The eighteenth agricultural union conference took place in Aathur on the 13 th and 14 th of October, 1978. I carried Senthamizhan 3 with me to the conference. It was a two-day affair. Senthamizhan ran around the conference dais and ran riot in general, attracting the attention of the delegates. He climbed the dais and started to take the soda bottles that were kept for the leaders. Mischievously, he picked up the bottles and surveyed the audience around him. I was afraid to go up on the dais and bring him away. I stood not knowing what to do.

At that moment, a woman suddenly snatched him from the dais and brought him to me. She said that her son was of the same age, she had left him behind and that her breast milk had hardened. She asked if she could feed my son. She introduced herself as Jhansi. I understood that she was Comrade Balakrishnan’s wife. Jhansi took Senthamizhan away with her.

Calmed by the feed, the boy fell sound asleep. Jhansi announced with pride, ‘I feel relief only now. He drank the milk without a fuss’. The other women teased me that my son eats no matter which pot the food comes from.

***

In 1979 Pe. Ma 4 was very busy with the organizing work for the third All India Conference of the CITU. He was away most of the time. If there was no food or if Senthamizhan fell ill, I sought out Comrade N. Seenivasan of the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) for money. There were several occasions when I took the child along and spent long, tiresome hours waiting for him. I had no job. I could not go to work with a young child.

More than hunger, the real famine was that of clothes. Occasionally, someone would buy me a sari, a blouse. Some bought me only a sari. No blouse. And I had no money to buy one. Comrade Nagan’s wife sometimes bought me a blouse. It began to tear with constant use. I wore the same blouse for three months, washing it repeatedly and wearing it wet. On one side, the outside, it started to fray and come apart. As if I was shivering with fever, I pulled the edges of the sari over myself, in an effort to protect my modesty.

Pe. Ma did not concern himself with how I fared.

From Thanjavur, I went to the trade union conference in Chennai in this covered up state. Mythily Sivaraman 5 had apparently noticed me. Vijayalakshmi, the wife of Comrade Jayaraman of Chennai, came looking for me. I was amazed. How is it she comes looking for me in such a large crowd, I wondered with joy. Vijayalakshmi seemed to know who I was. She took me with her in her car. I enquired and found out who she was. She took me to Chennai’s Moore Market.

Moore Market seemed to me a wonderful world that contained all kinds of things. Mountains of old books were piled up. A variety of clothing, luxury items, I didn’t know what to look at. I followed Vijayalakshmi tugging at my sari that threatened always to slip away. She said to me, ‘It is only a father and a mother than you cannot buy in this place. If you have money, you can buy everything else’.

She took me to a readymade garment store. She selected half a dozen blouses that were my size. I could no longer hide the tears that burst forth. Viji embraced me, took me to an enclosed room to try on the blouses and rejoiced that they fit me well.

‘I don’t know if Krishna really showed up to save Draupadi’s honour. But Viji, you have saved mine today,’ I said.

‘You have proved that you are Maniarasan’s wife despite your suffering’, she said.

Four different types of saris. Some clothes for Senthamizan. That night I stayed at Viji’s house. Before she went to sleep, Viji casually removed her hair and placed it on the table next to her bed. I was shocked when I saw this. In her night clothing, she resembled a luminous wax doll. She laughed at the startled look in my eyes.

‘You rustic girl! This is a wig. All my hair has fallen. I am using this wig. You have your own hair and cannot remove it like this. But I can buy a variety of wigs and use them whenever I want to,’ she said.

That night I had a dream. I am abandoned somewhere, a forest or in the sea. I do not know where. The wind is blowing fiercely around me. I fall down. The sea carries me away in a whirl of water. A woman puts out her hand and lifts me out.

The dawn broke. I woke up. Viji was standing before me with a cup of coffee in her hand. After the coffee and a bath, I got ready for the day, putting on my new clothes. That is when I found out more about Viji.

When Pe. Ma was in the students’ movement, Jayaraman, Viji, the Hindu journalist Ram, Comrade Ramachandran, Rajaraman, Comrade Parvati and others were not only comrades, but also close friends.

Viji took me to meet Mythily in her car. I had the opportunity to meet Mythily with her family, her husband and her child Kalpana.

‘Lakshmi, why have you become like this! An old sari. And from the way you were wearing it, I could tell you were in distress. That is why I sent Viji to you. Shouldn’t Maniarasan see the condition you are in?,’ Mythily said. All I could do was cry.

After she repeated her questions several times I replied, ‘Pe. Ma is a full-timer. I have no income. He also has just two dhotis and two shirts. He is not concerned about this either. What can we do?’.

‘You cannot do anything. The party is fully responsible for this’, she said.

I gave her a piece of news. ‘I am going to become a mother again. I am going to suffer even more’. I opened up to her. Mythily could not respond. ‘We will do something’, she said.

‘I need to find some work. After Senthamizhan’s birth, I have had several abortions. I have to keep this child. But I don’t know what to do without an income’.

‘Don’t worry. We will speak to your district secretary and make sure you get some financial support on a permanent basis’, she said.

***

I stayed with Comrade Kunjitham Bharathimohan. She was the president of the madhar sangam (women’s organization) of Thanjavur. Bharathimohan’s gigantic figure and Comrade Kunjitham’s wiry build and soft nature seemed to be at such odds with each other. She always spoke softly and gently like a nun in a convent.

That night, after the conference ended, Kunjitham and I went to drink tea nearby. Chennai was a new city for me. I found myself in the city described variously as the cinema world, a civilized haven, heaven on earth and so on. All that had happened so far and was happening, was it real or a dream, I wondered.

There was a crowd at the tea stall. In the distance were cartloads of green bananas. Vehicles that disturbed the peace of the night. The shifting play of light and darkness presented a kaleidoscope of magical images. Kunjitham and I were sitting in the tea stall. Many conference delegates were also there.

‘Is the tea single or double?’ the supplier asked.

Kunjitham said ‘single’ and I, not understanding the meaning, said ‘double tea’ at the same time. A large glass brimming over with tea was brought to me. The people around me gave me a funny look. I had made a mistake and felt embarrassed. I swallowed two gulps and quickly left the shop.

‘Why did they laugh?,’ I asked.

‘I don’t know this dialect either. In our place, we ask ‘light or strong’ right? Maybe it’s like that. They may have laughed because you said ‘double tea’.

1 Lakshmi Yennum Payani was published in August 2015 by Maitri Books, an Ambedkarite feminist publishing house, managed by Prema Revathi, a writer, activist and educationist.
2Lakshmi Yennum Payani was published in August 2015 by Maitri Books, an Ambedkarite feminist publishing house, managed by Prema Revathi, a writer, activist and educationist.
3 Lakshmi Amma’s son
4 Pe Ma or Pe Maniarasan is Lakshmi Amma’s husband.
5 Mythily Sivaraman (1939 – 2021) was a well-known left political activist, trade unionist, writer and a leading figure in the women’s movement in Tamil Nadu.

Lakshmi

 
Kalpana Karunakaran is an Associate Professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department, IIT Madras. Kalpana’s research and writings lie in the domain of gender, development, labour and collective action/ social movements. Kalpana writes in Tamil and English. Her books include ‘Women, Microfinance, and the State in Neo-liberal India’ (Routledge, 2017) and a memoir, Comrade Amma: Magal Parvaiyil Mythily Sivaraman (Comrade Mother: A daughter’s portrait of Mythily Sivaraman) published in 2018.
 

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