When Kalathiparambil Narayani Raman kick-started the Royal Enfield, applause and catcalls revved up. Unfazed by the crowd around her, she negotiated the machine out of the Madhathilparambil House onto the streets of Cherthala. Children ran after the strange rider.
What was so strange? It was sometime in the 1930s. Even bicycles were not common those days. Motorcycles were a rarity. Yet Narayani went riding. A definite head-turner.
Narayani’s achievement was later eclipsed by her younger sister – K R Gowri, who went on to be the first woman minister of Kerala.
The only person to shed light on Narayani’s life is Gowri Amma. Since the veteran leader could not be disturbed in her old age, we have to rifle through her autobiography. Narayani was born somewhere between 1900 and 1904, according to the indications in Gowri Amma’s autobiography.
Narayani’s husband, advocate N R Krishnan, has also written a memoir. That book is available in the collection of advocate K Radhakrishnan, the son of Krishnan’s first wife Maniyamma and former MLA P S Karthikeyan. Even that book does not have too many details on Narayani.
Let us go back to Gowri Amma’s autobiography. “The first wedding in the family that I remember was my sister’s. The bridegroom was a Cherthala native, Kesavan, who was an engineer in a British oil company in Persia.” Gowri Amma says her sister’s son Chakrapani was 3-4 years old when she was 7-8 years. So, Narayani’s wedding was probably in 1922 or 1923.
Narayani was into singing, fiddle and veena. “She would get up early in the morning and smash a herb called ‘kudakan’ and eat it with rock sugar (kalkandam). Then she would practice singing. The singing and music continued until she fell ill. My father and later her husband had appointed musicians to coach her,” Gowri Amma wrote.
After marriage, Kesavan wanted to take his wife along to his workplace. Those days, it took days of voyage to reach West Asia. Narayani decided to stay back in Cherthala.
She gave birth to a baby in her house. After delivery, Narayani was taken to the Kochikotta hospital with a high fever. She was hospitalised for three months. Kesavan returned home. He stayed back for a long time until Narayani recovered. He returned to his workplace and did not visit his family four about three years.
When he returned, he bought a house near the munsiff court in Cherthala. That was the Madhathilparambil house from where Narayani rode her motorcycle.
Gift from England
Kesavan had a curious gift for Narayani. An imported Royal Enfield with a sidecar. He hired someone to drive Narayani and son who would sit in the side car. However, Narayani wanted to ride it herself. She persuaded the driver to teach her how to ride the motorcycle. She dared to ride it around, unmindful of the attention that followed her everywhere.
“There was a crowd to see her riding,” Gowri Amma wrote. “Some of those men even booed her. She was angry sometimes. She would make us sit in the sidecar and ride up to the 11th Mile, which was known as Anatharaveli those days. The place was so sandy that it could sink an elephant. Nowadays you can see the Green Gardens Hospital and the St Michael’s College in that area.”
The riding, however, did not last long. Narayani’s father dissuaded her from the adventure. He told her that it was not yet time for her to ride a motorcycle. She obeyed him.
Gowri Amma stayed with her sister when she was in the sixth grade. Taking that cue, the riding days must be in 1929 or 1930. Nobody has heard of a woman riding a motorcycle in Kerala before that period.
When Narayani divorced Kesavan, she married N R Krishnan, a prominent lawyer and a leader of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Sangham. It was rare for even widows to remarry those days. Gowri Amma was in the seventh grade at the time of that wedding. Narayani and Krishnan have two children - Shubha and Shobha. Shobha is 86 now. She lives with her son in Ernakulam. Shobha passed away.
Krishnan was comfortably placed with his legal practice, chit business and banking. He had land holdings too. He was a member of the Sreemoolam assembly and the Sree Chitra State Council. Narayani also became active. She supported the work of Krishnan who was one of the founders of the Sree Narayana Mission Hospital in Cherthala.
She died in 1946 after months of treatment for tuberculosis in Nagercoil. Krishnan bought an X-ray machine in the mission hospital so that Narayani did not have to stay away from their house. That was the first X-ray machine in a private hospital in Alappuzha. The place where the hospital stood is now known as X-ray Junction.
When Cherthala went through a famine in the 1940s, Narayani set up an orphanage. She joined other women to form the Young Women Hindu Association. She secured permission from the government to start a nursing training centre attached to the mission hospital under the aegis of the association.
Gowri Amma also remembers how her sister supplied food for the poor in the war years. She helped out the destitute women by giving them coconut husks from her property and buying back the coir the women made out of it. She sold the produce when coir was in demand after the war. She even made a profit of Rs 14,000. She used the proceeds to build a maternity ward in the hospital. The ward was inaugurated by the then dewan C P Ramaswamy Iyer.
Narayani was ahead of her time. Unfortunately, most of her achievements are lost in time.