Around two years before his death in January 2018, journalist Gnani Sankaran chanced upon old video recordings of two interviews he had filmed in 2000 that were stashed in a pile of fungus-ridden pneumatic tapes in his edit suite. In those years, Sankaran and his wife, Padma, would shoot interviews of people who inspired them whenever they had the time and a little money. Over the years, reels of unedited interviews piled up, since it was too expensive to convert them into accessible formats.
Two interviews, in particular, caught Sankaran’s attention. These were of two Communist Party of India (Marxist) members, Mythily Sivaraman and Paapa Umanath, both of whom are stalwarts of the women’s movement in Tamil Nadu. The videos were released on YouTube on March 7.
Running for upto an hour each, the films stay focussed on the subjects. Sankaran can be heard only occasionally in the background, asking a question or two but mostly staying silent and letting Sivaraman and Umanath unravel layers of their fascinating lives.
Sivaraman and Umanath both founded and headed women’s organisations during their lifetime. Even though they had very different backgrounds, they shared the same passion for equal rights and social justice for women.
Umanath remembers a childhood of poverty, uncertainty and many hungry days and nights. Originally named Dhanalakshmi, she was born in Ponmalai in Tiruchi district. After her father died, Umanath and her mother joined a railway worker’s union. Umanath was 12 years old at the time. “This was where I was taught many lessons in politics,” she said.
In many instances through the interview, Umanath, who was 70 then, drew upon memories of being brought up by a strong-willed and determined mother who eventually died in jail after being arrested for a demonstration. Umanath, who was also incarcerated at the time, was not allowed to see her mother’s body. “Till date, we don’t know where she was buried,” she said.
Umanath’s interview is speckled with anecdotes, narrated in her simple, matter-of-fact manner even while describing grim events. With a touch of dry humour, she describes her experience of growing up amidst railway workers and fighting for fair wages and better working conditions in a union office that a railway carriage. She recalls the excitement she felt when she thought she was going to be jailed with her fellow comrades during a protest. But when the judge heard that she was 14, he reprimanded her and sent her home, much to her disappointment. “Don’t worry, you’ll get to be jailed next time,” was all her mother said to her.
Umanath’s education was brought to a halt in the eighth standard for lack of money. But her early association with Communist leaders such as S Kalyanasundaram instilled in her a passion for working towards change. Although she did not know much about women’s rights and equality, she felt strongly against the ill-treatment of women and formed an organisation to prevent wife-beating. Later, while heading a women’s union, she led many demonstrations demanding compensation and justice for victims of rape and abuse.
Periyar’s ideas of self-respect had a profound impact on Umanath. “In those days, nobody used to talk so much about women’s rights, work and wages, only Periyar did,” she says in the documentary. Over the years, Periyar and Umanath developed a close relationship. Umanath married a comrade from the party, who was incidentally born into a Brahmin family. This fact disturbed Periyar, until Umanath explained to him, “In our party, we don’t belong to any caste.” He proceeded to bless the couple at their wedding.
Mythily Sivaraman’s journey towards her eventual role in trade unions and women’s movements took a different route. Born in a middle-class family, Sivaraman studied in the United States of America in the 1960s, where she was deeply affected by the civil rights movement in America and the protests against the war in Vietnam. “I was enraged by the US government and its imperialism,” she says in her interview. “I saw racism as an integral part of this imperialism. When I returned to India back then, I thought, ‘Who are the people who are primarily resisting imperialism?’ And the answer led me to the communist movement quite naturally.”
Sivaraman came back to India in 1968. This was around the same time the Keezhvenmani massacre happened, when 44 women and children from families of Dalit labourers on strike were locked in a hut that was set ablaze by an upper-caste gang. After researching and writing extensively on the incident, Sivaraman worked with the CPI(M) as a trade union organiser for more than a decade. She then spent 12 years with trade unions, and was the vice-president of Metal Box, Union Carbide, a quarry worker’s union and many others.
“In those days, we all thought that we were going to create a new society that transcended and went beyond the current one. I felt as if I was shouldering a huge responsibility, as if a historic responsibility had been placed on my shoulders. That enthused us to act and gave us hope.”— Mythily Sivaraman.
It was when the Indian government introduced the Towards Equality manifesto in 1975, in line with the International Year of Women, that Sivaraman became truly involved in women’s issues. In addition, the life of her grandmother, who was always interested in politics and anti-imperialist movements, affected her deeply. “Not being able to progress just for being a woman and being oppressed, my grandmother’s life has been a big influence,” she says.
Sivaraman then went on to be the Vice President of the All India Democratic Women’s Association. “Patriarchy is not only the domination of men as individuals but it is a material reality, a social barrier,” she says. “We have to stand against this and create a fully transformed society.”
In the interviews, both Umanath and Sivaraman confess that the vibrancy in the Communist movement of the ’70s ceased to exist in the later decades. In terms of women’s rights, Umanath felt that her generation at least had an impact in educating and moulding new leaders from the grassroots level.
Sivaraman, however, feels that her generation has to be blamed for the decline of the Left movement in the ’80s and ’90s: “When we faced a huge setback, when historical events moved at a pace and in a fundamental way that we did not anticipate, my generation did not provide the answers to come to terms with these changes.”
Yet, she remains optimistic. “The thing is in spite of this disillusionment I see that in several places, so many people with hope in the future join the movement...with an unusual courage,” she tells Sankaran. “That’s because they have faith, because they are able to see what they ask for today as being just demands and justice will prevail.”
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