Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj Shobha Warrier in Cherthala, Alleppey district
Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier keeps pace with India's oldest election candidate K R Gowri Amma, who has been campaigning vigorously in her 17th election
At 92, K R Gowri Amma still campaigns by foot.
It was 9.30 in the morning and the sun was already at its fiercest best. Gowri Amma, the oldest candidate in India, had started her campaign at seven in the morning and had covered all the shops on the highway.
Coverage: Assembly Elections 2011
Her campaign is quite unlike other politicians'. Waving from an open jeep is not her style.
"I have never done that in my life. When we started our political career way back in the late 1940s, the only way we could meet our people was to go to each house and talk to each one of them. I still follow that pattern," she said later.
On the National Highway 47, her car stopped at each shop and she spoke to each person on the road. She shook hands with them and asked for their vote in her quivering voice.
The Tsunami Colony owes it to her
The only sign of ageing is the quivering voice. Otherwise, she is as agile as a 65-year-old.
When we met her, she was in the area in Cherthala where she was born.
The area became a separate constituency after the new delimitation of constituencies. She was going to meet people at a fishing village called Tsunami colony.
During the 2004 tsunami, many of the fishermen in the area had lost their homes and it was on her initiative that houses were built for them, slightly away from the sea.
The Tsunami colony is surrounded by picturesque greenery, tall coconut trees, the backwaters and the Chinese nets.
Most voters were not even born when she contested last from Cherthala
The area, close to Vayalar and Punnapra (famous for the Communist revolution), is known for its Left leanings as both men and women are involved in the coir industry and fishing. No wonder a woman like Gowri Amma from the area became a well known Communist.
But in 1994 when she was expelled from Communist Party of India-Marxist for anti-party activities, she started her own party, the Janathipathya Samrakshana Samithy, and joined hands with her rivals for decades -- the Congress-led United Democratic Front.
Now, she is a candidate of the JSS in Cherthala for the 17th time in her career.
The first time she contested was in 1948 at the age of 29. In her last 16 electoral contests, she has lost only three times.
Gowri Amma last contested from her native place Cherthala in 1960 from where she contested earlier in 1948, 1954 and 1957. She is returning to Cherthala after 51 years. Most of the men and women who had gathered there to see her were not even born when she contested last!
'How can we vote for somebody else?'
Gowri Amma is known as Kunjamma, a legend to all in the locality. They grew up listening to stories about her exploits.
Like 77-year-old Prabhakaran. He first met her when he was in the 4th standard.
"Gowri Amma is a part of our lives, our growing up years. There are instances of people from opposition parties asking me to vote for others. I said, when Gowri Amma is contesting from our area, how can we vote for somebody else? There is only one person for all of us and that is Gowri Amma."
After eating a banana at the temple that was gearing up for the annual festival, Gowri Amma's first major stop was at a prawn peeling centre, where around 25-30 women worked.
A few plastic chairs were brought and Gowri Amma and the prominent local party workers and the panchayat president sat there.
'I will take care of all of you. But you have to vote for me'
It was not necessary for them to prod the workers to air their problems to Kunjamma.
All the women surrounded the leader and started talking about their grievances, all in one voice.
"Why don't you talk one by one," the leaders tried to control the situation in vain.
"I have been doing this work for years. There has been no change in my life even after so many years. Amma, can you make our living conditions better not only at home but our working place too? There is no bridge to connect the islets we live on to the town. If someone falls ill, we have to take them to the hospital in a boat. We cannot go to the church in the morning. We have been clamouring for a bridge for several years. Nobody has listened to us till now."
"Let the new government come. I will solve all your problems," Gowri Amma tried to pacify the group.
"We have lost our jobs in the coir units that have closed down. The income we now get peeling prawn is also not going up, but prices of every small item are all going up," another lady complained.
"That is all because of the misrule of the LDF government. You listen to me. I will take care of all your problems if you vote for me. Let the UDF come to power. I will take care of all of you. I will see that you live a better and dignified life. But you have to vote for me," Amma assured them in a stern voice.
'She is a part of Kerala history'
At the Tsunami colony also, the same scenes were repeated. Here the women who surrounded her complained about lack of drinking water, poor drainage and no power.
Asokan is an angry man. "My daughter is studying in the 12th standard. She has got a lot to study but after 5 pm, there is very low voltage in the whole area. How will students like her study? Whoever comes to power should address this issue first. It is not that we have not complained about this before. All of us will vote only for Gowri Amma, and we are 100 per cent sure that she will win."
But he, like all the others in the area has a soft corner for 'their' Gowri Amma as she has been a part of their lives. They proudly pointed out the house where she grew up and the primary school where she started studying.
"She is a part of Kerala history and we are proud that we are a witness to all that."
By making her victorious, they feel they also will become a part of history.
After visiting almost all the houses in the Tsunami colony and meeting hundreds of men and women, she moved to Andhakaranazhi, another area where even cars find it difficult to go to.
'Let our government come to power. Everything will be okay after that'
In the hot sun, she got out of the car, walked to the houses, sat under trees and listened to their woes. To everyone, she said, you vote for me. Let our government come to power. Everything will be okay after that.
Old people narrated the stories of getting land under the Land Reforms Bill in 1957. Gowri Amma was the revenue minister then in the world's first-ever elected Communist ministry headed by E M S Namboodiripad
The party workers and the panchayat president are confident that like in the panchayat elections, they will create history. They are also sure that Gowri Amma will be a minister in the next government.
With a minister from there, their area will prosper, they are sure of that.
Will the grand old lady of Indian politics continue her victorious journey?
The Primary Health Centre was the last stop that morning. The centre was clean, there were four doctors and several nurses to attend to the patients of that area. There was no shortage of any medicines, a patient who has come to the OP said.
"Ever since VS (Achuthanandan) came to power, the functioning of the primary health centre has improved. Except that there are no doctors at night, we have everything. There is nothing to complain about the centre."
It was almost 2 pm by then. It was amazing to see the energy of a 92-year-old walking in the hot sun and talking to hundreds of people endlessly from 7 in the morning. After a quick lunch and rest for half an hour, she was ready for her next meeting, a Kudumba Mela (meeting of families), which was to be attended by Congress leader Oommen Chandy as well.
The question is, will the grand old lady of Indian politics continue her victorious journey which she started way back in 1948?