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The Gouri Amma I Knew

By Ambassador M K BHADRAKUMAR
Last updated on: May 12, 2021 17:53 IST
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She was capable of a level of human compassion that is rare today among politicians, recalls Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar, who knew the Communist legend K R Gowri, who passed into the ages on May 11, from his childhood.

IMAGE: Gowri Amma, right, during her election campaign for the 2011 assembly election in Chertala, Alazpuzha district. She was then 92 years old. Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj for Rediff.com
 

The vernacular dailies and the New Indian Express almost forgot the raging COVID-19 pandemic in Kerala. Obituaries to K R Gouri (external link) -- better known as Gouri Amma -- is their lead story.

As I waded through the avalanche of obituaries, memories from childhood and youth stealthily began creeping up from the attic of the mind.

My father was a fellow comrade of Gouri Amma in the undivided Communist party.

And my mother was a personal friend of hers, and, if I recall, there was family kinship too, as both my mother and Gouri Amma were born into prominent Ezhava families with deep roots and extensive branches in southern Kerala who had significantly contributed to the social reform movement in this region in the early part of last century.

Two obituaries caught my attention -- one was KR Gouri: Heroine of the working class (external link) by Prakash Karat (New Indian Express) and the second was 'I shouldn't have separated with TV', when Gouri Amma opened up about her marriage (external link), reprint of a rare interview of Gouri Amma with Mathrubhumi in July 2019.

On Prakash's obituary note, I would like to make some observations and I would offer an addendum to the candid interview featured in the Mathrubhumi.

Of course, both are on a personal note and truthful.

Prakash eulogises Gouri Amma as a 'revolutionary woman who became a heroine of the working class movement.'

He gives fulsome praise to this iconic figure but then singles out her 'rigid individualism which landed her in political trouble.'

The reference presumably is to Gouri Amma's expulsion from the Communist Party of India -Marxist in 1994 after having been eased out from the state committee in the best traditions meted out to fallen angels in the pantheon of Communist heroes.

Prakash also makes it a point to touch on the debris of Gouri Amma's private life.

He claims that Gouri Amma's 'political convictions and ideology' trumped her marriage to T V Thomas, another Colossus of the Communist movement in Kerala.

What is painful is that Prakash actually lauds that particular slice of her life to be 'remarkable for its sheer audacity -- a revolutionary assertion of woman's agency.'

I don't know to whether Prakash ever got to know Gouri Amma.

It seems to me he wrote on the basis of resolutions and documents in the party archives.

The human touch is lacking. And, the effect it produces on the reader is inevitably one of caricature.

The heart of the matter is that Gouri Amma was above all a humanist.

She was capable of a level of human compassion that is rare today among politicians.

Plainly put, she saw people as human beings, much more than eligible voters -- as men and women with joys and sorrows, successes and failures.

Like any tragic figure, she too had a flaw in her character -- her forthrightness and transparency.

I know this as I have had occasions to observe Gouri Amma from close quarters in my childhood when her favourite nephew with family lived next door in the Kerala Kaumudi compound in Thiruvananthapuram and she often visited them.

No matter what the CPI-M documents drafted by E M S Namboodiripad might say, whatever be the CPI-M's official line, it was not Gouri Amma's 'rigid individualism' that was to be blamed for the sordid political skulduggery culminating in her explosion from the party.

Most Ezhavas believe that she was done in by EMS with great deliberateness and cunning.

The Ezhava community chose to forgive and forget that act of great injustice (and doublespeak) -- winning a mandate in the 1987 state election by chanting Gouri Amma's name, but only to sideline the charismatic figure who formed a trinity with EMS and AKG (the late Marxist leader A K Gopalan).

I won't be surprised if it rankled. Gouri Amma was not a robot.

Prakash's dogmatic view of 'individualism' as the ultimate crime overlooks that the mainsprings of Gouri Amma's Marxism was to be found in Sree Narayana Guru.

She could synthesise Karl Marx and Gurudevan from an intellectual perspective, being a rare Communist of her generation who was well-educated, and as a humanist in the best sense of the term.

Erudite Ezhavas tend to get attracted to Marxism, as the ideals of justice, equality, resistance, collective struggle, etc are very much what Gurudevan espoused.

To my mind, if Marx had ever sat face to face with Gurudevan, that would have made a great conversation. Gurudevan might have helped Marx to get a more rounded view of the human condition.

What is wrong if an individual comes to epitomise an ideology in the popular perception? Ask any Malayali who voted for the Left Democratic Front in the recent Kerala election and he or she would instinctively compliment the 'Pinarayi government'.

How many decades did Jyoti Basu rule West Bengal? Alas, Gouri Amma's contribution to the Communist movement was cut short far too prematurely.

Second, Prakash finds it hard to admit still that the party forced Gouri Amma to break up with T V Thomas. What the party did was an act of cruelty.

My mind goes back to circa 1976-1977 -- my first posting in the Moscow embassy as a diplomat.

One afternoon, my father called me to say that TV was reaching Moscow.

He cautioned me that TV was very ill and might not live long as the cancer had reached a terminal stage.

My father said I should do all that is possible to make TV feel comfortable, especially attending to his food requirements.

I felt shattered as TV was more of an uncle to me than my father's friend and comrade.

Fortunately, I K Gujral who was the ambassador allowed me unhesitatingly to discard diplomatic protocols and coordinate with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union central committee officials in the Kremlin.

The most poignant episode was our visit to Lenin's Mausoleum.

I explained to TV that the visit entailed a fairly tiring walk on the Red Square but he insisted that the very purpose of his visit -- first and only visit to Moscow for the Communist veteran -- was to pay homage to Lenin's embalmed body.

As we were taking leave of the mausoleum, I spotted TV leaving something in a corner.

TV was lost in thoughts and we didn't speak till we reached the central committee hotel.

As we alighted, sensing my curiosity, perhaps, he said it was a ring, and added something to this effect: 'I gave everything to the Communist movement, including my marriage.' I didn't say anything.

IMAGE: Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, centre with Gouri Amma. Photograph: PTI Photo

My parents had told me that but for the rude intervention of the party leaderships, that breakup wouldn't have happened.

TV might have had some imperfections as a man and husband. (Who doesn't have?)

But that never stopped him from caring deeply for Gouri Amma.

TV made that trip to Moscow solely in remembrance of his marriage to her.

For Gouri Amma too, as the Mathrubhumi interview testifies, despite all that happened and although they were not destined to live together, TV remained the love of her life even at the age of 100.

Today, it all looks very unfortunate that the party bosses -- E M S in particular -- behaved like imbeciles to mess around with the private life of party leaders they disfavoured.

Compared to the colourful lifestyle of some Communist leaders today, Gouri Amma and TV were lily white.

Frankly, after leaving the Foreign Service, I toyed with the idea of writing a biography of EMS that would have done Lytton Strachey proud. But then I duly changed my mind.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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