K R Gouri Amma was affectionately called 'Kunjamma' in Alappuzha's Aroor area. The revolutionary leader from Alappuzha had a softer side that might have come as a surprise to many people.
As part of a movie crew shooting a documentary about Gouri Amma in 2013, I came face to face with a 93-year-old who was as energetic as an 18-year-old. She could recount every episode right from her childhood with photographic details. She never faltered on dates and time. She showed us around her house at Chathanatt, near Alappuzha, which was replete with the pictures of her late husband and party colleague, T V Thomas. Books and saris were stacked atop a big cot in her bedroom. There was a smaller cot for sleeping. Wedding photos with Thomas adorned the walls.
She led director K R Mohanan, cameraman Jayan and me through each of the photos, explaining the stories behind each of them.
Life in solitude
Gouri Amma belonged to the Kalathiparambil Family which held hundreds of acres of land. Yet the only luxury she indulged in was to treat visitors to a grand feast. Since she did not have any help in kitchen, she bought fine food whenever she received a guest. But for the cop on duty, Gouri Amma was alone at the time of our visit. Her domestic help was visiting a relative. Someone from the families of her party colleagues frequented the house at daytime. A girl who was a relative spent the night with her. She seemed to be reliving the life with Thomas in her solitude. She returned to him again and again during our chats.
Gouri Amma started her days early in her twilight years. She would go through the newspapers and take rest for some more time. Soon she would get a line of visitors, including party members, friends, relatives and people with some problem or the other. Someone wanted help with a transfer. Someone wanted her to mediate in a land dispute. Another was worried about an imminent eviction.
The old warhorse did not rely on any permanent aides. She had a secretary in Shyamaprasad. Gouri Amma was very particular about her ways. She did not like to deviate from her routines. She always wore white. She preferred to sit on a chair facing the entrance door, looking at a Krishna idol and a picture of her singer-sister. She read newspapers on a chair by the window in the dining room.
CPM leader M A Baby and wife Betty were always treated to rice with karimeen curry. The couple were like her children. His colleague T M Thomas Isaac, who represented the assembly constituency, always made it a point to visit her when he was around. So did G Sudhakaran. They never considered her as the leader of a rival party. She remained the dear 'Kunjamma' for the people of Alappuzha.
Gouri Amma cleared the air on the widespread perception that she is short tempered. When I asked on that she looked at me with a smile and replied: "Do you feel that I am short-tempered? I speak my mind. I always tried to correct erring officers, no matter how senior they were. I am friends with even IAS officers.
"Some people have been trying to project me in this light since the day I became a minister. Some of the communist party members and some officers started it. I am not a doll to sport smile all the time. I am a woman," she explained.
Soon, our conversation veered back to her roots. She started speaking about her father, brother and family. "My father held 250 acres of land, which the Tirumala Devaswom had entrusted to him for cultivation. Father wanted me to become a lawyer and judge. We were visited by many prominent persons, including Narayana Guru and Kumaranasan. Whenever Kumaranansan visited, both children and elders thronged our house to listen to him reciting poems. Everyone in that village was familiar with his poems. They had not gone to a school. They were farmers and coir workers. Yet they were well-versed in Kumaranasan's poems.
"We had an outhouse near our house where my father received visitors. He would shout out for me as 'Gouri Ammal'. Mother never called me so. Maybe that is how I later became Gouri Amma," she guessed.
The diehard communist also revealed the origins of the family and her student days.
"We were originally from Kochi. My father belonged to the Thandar community, a section of the Ezhava community in Travancore-Kochi. I used to go to school in a row boat. I went to Maharaja's College, Ernakulam, after I passed the tenth exam. My favourite subject was Mathematics. I always got good marks for it. I was bad in English though. It was tough to get admission to a college. Though I was good at Maths, I was selected for Economics. I later earned a B A Economics degree from St Teresa's College, Ernakulam. I used to stay at the SNV Sadanam, a hostel, which was close to the college. I was the darling of the nuns who ran the college because I was good at public speaking," Gouri Amma reminisced.
Gouri Amma's tryst with Thiruvananthapuram began after she shifted there for studying Law.
"I went to Thiruvananthapuram to join a BL course. There too I stayed at the SNV Sadanam near the Vanross Junction. The Law College was then housed in the present-day office building of the Accountant General. Rosamma Punnoose and C M Stephen's wife Thankamma were my classmates," Gouri Amma recalled.
After studies, Gouri Amma commenced legal practice.
"I started practice as my father wished. I was living and working in Cherthala. I never won any criminal cases, but I was good in civil cases. Those were the times the communist party was banned. My elder brother was a communist. All the leaders were in hiding. My house was a place for them to hang out. Vaikom Vishwan's father was a frequent visitor. My father used to give him money everyday for the boat trip back home.
“One day, Krishna Pillai visited us. He was exiled from Travancore. He took refuge in my house. I was invited to take part in the discussions in the cellar but I could not stand the stink of bidi smoke. Both Krishna Pillai and his wife took refuge in our house.
I was asked to distribute party pamphlets since diwan C P Ramaswami Iyer had banned the party in Travancore. After the court hours, I went to the Cherthala bus stand and got the alms-seekers to distribute those pamphlets. I wanted to help out my brother. Later, Krishna Pillai and others persuaded me to join the party. But I was a bit worried because I would not be able to fulfil my father's wishes. I was the first law graduate in my community and yet I abandoned my legal career to join politics. Those days, at the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s, there weren't many women to work in the party. There were hardly four women, including me and Devayani, the wife of A V Kunjambu," Gouri Amma remembered.
Love and marriage
Gouri Amma had a lot to talk about her former husband. She fondly narrated their life together as communists and ministers before their party and even life was torn asunder.
“We got married as the party asked us to. The wedding was held in the ministerial residence. Thomas's father was against the wedding but he later lived with us. In the morning, there was a commotion outside our house. A madman had come to marry me! The tea party in the evening was attended by thousands of party workers and public figures.
When the party split in 1964, I was with the CPM and Thomas was with the CPI. We bought this house in Alappuzha after our wedding. We were living together even after we pledged our loyalties to different parties. When we joined the 1967 ministry, we went to live in two houses in Thiruvananthapuram. We would drive from Alappuzha to Thiruvananthapuram and go on to live in separate houses. Thomas used to get food cooked but I relied on a nearby restaurant. The party wanted us to live separately in Thiruvananthapuram. Probably they were against the idea of rival factions coming together in one house. Anyway, we split up after some time," Gouri Amma shed light on a significant phase of her life.
"Our rift was deepened by the wife of a prominent CPI leader. I knew Thomas's weaknesses. I could understand him. But that woman tried hard to weaken him and separate us. I had gone to look after him when he was in a hospital in Bombay but I was not with him in his final hour. I was busy with election campaign. I could also look after his father," she said before being silent for some time.
Minutes later she regained her composure and was back to her lively self.