A life lived in shadows and silences

This is the Foreword to Mythily Sivaraman’s memoir of her grandmother Subbalakshmi, Fragments of a Life: A Family Archive, published by Zubaan in 2006. You can also read Kalpana Karunakaran’s essay on her mother on our website here, or some excerpts from the essay here.  

When Mythily Sivaraman first spoke to me of her grandmother Subbalakshmi, I felt a jolt of recognition. The specific contours of Subbalakshmi’s life were unique to her; so was her accomplishment of carving out a small political space for herself. But there were, in her life, those other achingly familiar features that have shaped so many women’s lives: the overwhelming opponent of convention Subbalakshmi had to wrestle with every day of her life; the inevitability of her dreams being thwarted in the end. The rigid boundaries that hemmed in Subbalakshmi were what I recognised first. I knew them well, I knew, almost firsthand, what their power could do. All I had to do was remember; remember the mother who went on a hunger strike – without success – so she could go to college; the grandmother whose worth was defined entirely by her inability to produce a son for many years; the great-grandmother who was married when she was seven, and whose curiosity about the world could only be expressed in a desire to eat and drink whatever was forbidden to her as a Brahmin widow. I could even remember a great-aunt, a child-widow, marginalised in both family and community despite the “compensatory” degree and teaching job, her eccentricities making her something of a figure of fun.

But the sense of recognition I felt did not end with the shared memories of these circumscribed lives. It was also there in who was doing the remembering, why, when and how. The route Mythily has travelled to write this account is familiar to me, as it is to many women. This route involves travelling from the place of daughter or granddaughter to a wider one of ideas and understanding, a place where it is possible to carry ideas through to action, to life-choices; then, with maturity, making links between the larger political world and the personal, including in our own histories the half-forgotten lives we have left behind. Perhaps this is the point when we realise that all along, in our many journeys, we have had these women as our private icons, our private cautionary tales, and our private measuring tape of the distance we have travelled – or, sometimes, not travelled.

This is why Mythily’s account of her grandmother is valuable, and on many counts. It provides a voice to the women of our recent past, women whose daily struggles and modest achievements built a foundation for our own attempts at occupying a larger world. By reliving Subbalakshmi’s life, Mythily does something all of us need to do. She vindicates the efforts of women like her grandmother, efforts that have to be appreciated within the limits of their times. She also acknowledges – in both historical and personal contexts – our debt to them. The advantages we have had, the head start of formal education, and of larger political, economic and social spheres, have ensured that we have been able to open doors that remained shut to them.  At the same time, it is important to recognise that the passage of time, and the piling of individual struggle on collective struggle, have not meant a straightforward path to progress. This Mythily does constantly on our behalf. Our lives, thank goodness and our grandmothers, have moved ahead. But not only do we still have many miles to cover; we also see, all too clearly, that too much has remained the same for women from Subbalakshmi’s days to ours. We see that sometimes this terrible unchanging oppressive context has only slyly changed costume. If Subbalakshmi and her sisters were colonised, we are in the clutches of various neo-colonial rulers. And the spectre of communal prejudice and division has still not been laid to rest.

So while Subbalakshmi is at the centre of Mythily’s reconstruction of a life, the larger background, and its links with our own times, is always there. There is another aspect of Mythily’s approach that has significant implications for the actual exercise of remembering. Reconstructing a life invariably involves some speculation. But in this narrative, speculation is firmly tethered by the known; the speculative goes only as far as facts will allow. There is no room for the romantic or the sentimental. The result is a cluster of hints, a series of linked questions that lead us to consider possibilities. This I find especially important. It is not only the certainties of a life like Subbalakshmi’s that help us understand them and place them in time. The questions posed about the unknown aspects – questions that look between the lines of austere, almost secretive diaries, questions that look deep into old trunks and half-buried memories – complete our sense of who we are.

Mythily has allowed us to see Subbalakshmi in a range of situations and moods. We see a sensitive, intelligent girl married at eleven and a mother at fourteen. We see the cold silences and loneliness of her marriage and the grief of losing her two sons. We see the pain of the crippling epileptic seizures that followed and that marked her for life. But throughout we also see her spirited attempts to fill this bleak emptiness with the beauties of nature, friendship, art and books, the cause of her daughter’s education, and most impressive of all, the peripheries of the freedom movement. We cheer her on as she tries, with amazing courage and determination, to make a life for herself and her daughter – an intellectually stimulating one that has room for beauty. Even as we admire her fervour for life, from bird watching to waving a black flag when the Prince of Wales visits Madras, we can sense that this flowering is going to be all too brief.  The odds she is up against are just too many and too powerful. Forced back into the small conventional space sanctioned for her, Subbalakshmi’s spirit is maimed. Her mind recedes along with the denial to the larger world she sought. Most poignant of all, her political participation now shrinks to a recurring dream of herself as the saviour of indentured women labourers in South Africa. The one feature of the young Subbalakshmi that survives this exile from life is her determination not to compromise on her values.

All along, from the beginnings of Subbalakshmi’s youthful desires and aspirations, to the way in which they grow, only to be thwarted midway, the biographer’s voice underlies and strengthens that of her subject. The story comes full circle for us. We hear Subbalakshmi’s voice, admire and sympathise with it. But we also hear Mythily’s, a voice in which there is not only love and personal understanding, but also the intellectual understanding that has come with a lifetime of political commitment.

Githa Hariharan
New Delhi, April 2005