“P K MEDINI still recollects the day when she first sang for the election campaign of the Communist party. Now, six decades later, the spirit isn’t one bit lost for the veteran singer. Medini, 78, says she sang first for Communist leader T V Thomas. Since then, she had been a regular presence at the election campaigns of the Communist party.” From expressbuzz April 1, 2011
Delhi-based journalist JACOB SEBASTIAN sent us his translation of a piece by PK Medini in Malayalam (published in the journal Mathrubhumi earlier this month ), along with a background note that he wrote for our readers.
The following piece was written by P.K. Medini, the one-time ‘singing sensation’ of the Communist Party in Kerala. It originally appeared in the Matrubhumi Weekly, as part of a series where people talk about their favourite books. It offers a glimpse of a time and place where literature and books and the whole culture of reading, mattered in an urgent and vital way.
She gives us an intimate snapshot of the new reading culture at the time when it was putting down its first tentative roots. For someone who readily admits that her own reading was ‘impoverished’, she shows a keen awareness of the power of ideas – and of books as objects of an almost talismanic power – andreveals their absolute centrality to the social and political transformations of the time.
If such a thing is unimaginable to us today, even more unexpected are the ways in which it actually played out – the many tortuous routes the word had to take before it could become flesh (she calls it ‘social reading’). She also has a sharp eye for how political propaganda actually works ‘on the ground’. Along with other movements, Medini’s party too can take some credit for the fact that life in Kerala isn’t so desperate today that a society could catch fire from a book.
In fact, the picture she draws is a study in contrast with the reading culture of today’s Kerala, where one could very well make the opposite case – that there are too many books, too much reading, too many ‘debates’(a situation the well-entrenched local publishers and media happily endorse) that suck up much of the political energy available . If the passing of the book-as-talisman needn’t be mourned, the prevalent culture of book-as-consumer-product and reading-as-lifestyle-statement isn’t anything to be proud of either.
The famous Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa– as far from a communist as one can get – wrote in a recent article that “Statistics tell us that never before have so many books been published and sold. The trouble is that hardly anybody I come across believes any longer that literature serves any great purpose beyond alleviating boredom.” Medini’ sfavourite book is Maxim Gorky’s Mother, a choice many of us (and Llosa himself, one suspects) would consider unfortunate. But let us hold back our Nabokovian literary judgments a little–and let Medini show us how books can matter to people in very different ways, and even when they are not readers themselves.
THE BOOK OF MOTHERS
I am someone who came into political work, into public life before I was of the age or maturity to live it, before I could begin to understand what such a life meant. Now I am eighty. To put it in the language of the stage, I have played many roles. But these other roles, different from those played on the stage, were played as much by the society in which I lived as by me – played in real life. To say it outright, it’s beena self-scripted life. How did we gain the courage to live that way?
Life for the majority of women is nothing but a constant race, running around in circles while tethered to a peg, carrying children and grandchildren along – until one day they tire and collapse. How then did my own life turn out to be different? Looking back at the many tumultuous stages of Kerala’s past, how did I find the courage to pull through those great upheavals, without ever turning back? I have an answer. It was because of the responsibility one felt for the lives around one as much as for one’s own.It was because of a certain view of life which one had. After all, it is such a view of life that we call politics. It must then be those who lack it who tire and lose the race inside that circle.
It is reading that created such a view of life for me. Whose reading? Not mine, but that of the many larger-than-life figures around me. To start with, my own father’s. My childhood had its own share of troubles and privations. And not just mine, but that of everyone whose parents did not own land, or were not employed in the British government. Achan was a barber. There were other barbers around, but Achan was different. For one, he was a regular reader of the Kaumudi newspaper. In fact, he would read just about anything that got printed. It made him another kind of man. In those days, people of low financial and social station like us, both men and women, would not use an upper garment. Yet Achan would wear a coat with gold buttons. It was his reading that made him do it.
Among my brothers, both Chakrapani and Sarangapani were readers. I lived among them, and in them too, I could sense a difference that I cannot really explain now. Reading does make you different. And it was among these people, who were different from the rest, that I lived the rest of my life.It was as if my life was drenched in their light. Or moved in step with their shadows. That includes great figures like P. Krishnapillai, E.M.S.,T.V. Thomas, Meenakshi Ashatti, Kedamangalam Sadanandan, P.J. Antony, RamankuttyAshan, and others. It was their reading that refined their certainties for themselves. P. Krishnapillai once handed me something, asked me to keep it safe; it was a banned work of E.M.S. I was little then, but it made me realize what a tremendous thing a book was.
But what really was my own reading like, me who grew up with such a keen awareness of what reading can do, who made many humble attempts to teach people about politics by singing songs about it, and who is now a full-time political worker? What book would I call mine? There can be no easy answer – not because of the profusion of the books I have read, but for the opposite reason.I, a fellow traveller of those great readers who took upon themselvesto set the world right, have done very little reading myself. How so? Why was my reading solimited?
The answer to that question would be the same you’d get if you were to ask why the reading of almost all women of my generation was so. For I have also lived the life of a poor housewife for whom life kept slipping out of her reach. Like a dog withscalded feet, I just had to keep running for a place in the shade. And not just me, every woman who had to look after their homeswas running along with me. One has to stand still before one can sit. Sit, before one can read. Now, it’s almost sunset, there’s a little shade, I could sit if I wanted to. But can I read? I think not.
Yet, our generation had ingested big books and the ideas in them. Communism, revolution, Russia, the exploitation that went on in every corner of the world, and things like that. You know how? From speeches. From songs sung by singers including myself. That was the way back then. Every speech was an event in itself. The language would be such that even ordinary people would understand, as simple as villagegossip. The subject would the Russian revolution or some such. The manner would be such that a mention of the Tsar would conjure up images of the Diwan or the local zamindar. One would feel as if Marx and Lenin were one’s neighbours, fellow Malayalam speakers. Such were political speeches back then. The world would be stewed and served like it were payasam.
The songs that were made for us to sing were no different. They were in fact ideas about equality and class struggle in song-form. Those were the ideas that ruled the progressive literature of the time, after all. When one listened to songs like Red Salute, one felt them intensely.
Even the plays and kathaprasangams* too were based on world literature. Thus, even those who couldn’t read a letter [the majority, in those days] would be awakened after hearing these big things. What I’m saying is that even when there wasn’t much actual reading, there was an atmosphere of reading. You could call it social reading; a situation where the light from one person’s reading would show the way to all. In other words, this note is alsoone of regret, at one’s inability to read and be the light oneself.
Because there weren’t many books, selection is easy. Like most people of my generation in public life, like most women of my generation, my book too is ‘Mother’. Maxim Gorky’s ‘Mother’. If I had read a lot more, what would have been ‘my’ book? I have no doubt – it would still have been ‘Mother’.
There are many reasons for this. Take a look at that book now. It’s an old edition, a red book translated by K.V. Manalikkara. On the red cover, that figure with her veiled head. Mother.Nilovna. To take us seven decades back in an instant, just that picture would do. Then that title, ‘Mother’. I have since become a mother and a grandmother, but what a mother isorhas been, I had never understood as well as I do now.This applies to everyone. By the time they understand, the mother may not be there anymore. Only those who have lost one would know all that was broken off with their mothers. The title of this novel, as if by magic, leads us to the house of our birth.
That’s one. For us, this book is also many other things. There is a joke about us that goes something like this: ‘It only has to rain in Russia forAlappuzha communists tohold up their umbrellas’. Those who say it would not have read ‘Mother’.Even now if you read it, it would seem as if Gorky wrote it sitting in the Kerala of our youth. How many Nilovnas I have known in Punnapra and Vayalar, and in the Kayyoor and Karivelloor I have only heard of. How many of their Pashas. You would find it hard to believe it now. The Kerala before the last half century was very different from the one now. Politics then was not what it is now. The conditions here were not very different from those described in Mother, especially that of the workers.
Don’t you remember Pavel’s father? There was one such man in every worker who had not received a political education. The bruises above Nilovna’s brow, the blackened welts on her cheeks, were also those of the mothers of most poor homes in those days.Let me quote a line from the book:
“She was tall and somewhat stooping. Her heavy body, broken down with long years of toil and the beatings of her husband, moved about noiselessly and inclined to one side, as if she were in constant fear of knocking up against something. Her broad oval face, wrinkled and puffy, was lighted up with a pair of dark eyes, troubled and melancholy as those of most of the women in the village.”
This is a general picture of the enslaved women workers of our time. The rain in Russia that they jokedabout,was the same rain that fell on Kerala.
I am someone who was around during the time of the Punnapra-Vayalar uprising. A lot has been written about those events in the history books. They have even included a singer like me as part of that history. Many other struggles that took place in Kerala to have been written about.Still, I feel something missing. It’s the mothers.
It was a time when homes were empty of men, who were all in hiding. If they fell into the hands of the police or the zamindar, they would be finished. Their corpses would found be floating in the rivers and the lakes. Those were deaths for one’s people. Today, a single martyr would throw the whole state into turmoil. Back then, they wouldn’t even call it martyrdom. Indeed, it was no time to be making such claims. But do we remember those women who held fort at home, those mothers who were broken and died along with them? It was Nilovna who stood Pavel up, sent him out on firm feet. Didn’t we too have those mothers, mothers who sent out thosenow illustrious sons? Any history that does not have their names in it is an incomplete one, in my view.
But it’s too late for all that now. The times are changing, and at great speed. Old things are being forgotten. Why, even those sons who set out to change the world, deliberately or otherwise, are receding from memory; so who,if at all, shall remember the mothers There will be no one left to recall them, to tell their stories. The very trace of their shadows shallnot be found anywhere. Maxim Gorky’s Mother is the book of mothers thus forgotten. Let us preserve it carefully so one day we could tell, that these were the mothers of this land too.
*Traditional storytelling performances that features songs and music, originally mythical or religious in content, but later used to great political effect by the Communist Party.
Courtesy: Matrubhumi Weekly, dated 8 January, 2012