Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2023 > Review of K Saradamoni’s ’In Search of Answers: A Memoir’ I B (...)

Mainstream, VOL 61 No 40 September 30, 2023

Review of K Saradamoni’s ’In Search of Answers: A Memoir’ I B Madhavan

Saturday 30 September 2023, by B. Madhavan


Book Review

by B Madhavan

In Search of Answers: A Memoir
by K Saradamoni

Tulika Books
August 2023
245 Pages
ISBN : 978-81-958394-0-7

Studying in the university, one meets students who are unsure where the discipline of economics would take them. Many see it as a degree that would land them high-paying jobs in consultancies and other corporate firms.

Fortunately, there are still a lot of people who are disillusioned by the model-building part of their courses and want to engage with improving the ground realities the common citizen faces today. K Saradamoni’s memoir, ’In Search of Answers’, portrays her as the latter.

Saradamoni was one of the first cohort of graduates from the Women’s College in Thiruvananthapuram and had completed her M. Litt in Economics from Madras University in the early 1950s. The book is split into several chapters as the author rewinds her life. The first few chapters cover her childhood during the national movement in the erstwhile Travancore state.

The author weaves through her memories in an interesting mix of personal stories, social realities and the changes happening in Kerala as the state went through the grip of the national movement. The world wars, Independence, and Gandhi’s death are some of the events she recalls. I would not do justice to her if I chose to leave out the author’s love for her Gopi, her husband. N Gopinathan Nair, one of the founding members of the Malayalam daily Janayugam, who remains a constant presence, like a warm undercurrent throughout the memoir. Theirs was a romance that started during the days of the national movement, through letters.

For those unfamiliar with the social dynamics of post-independent Kerala, the author offers concise and insightful explanations that reflect the ideals held by many during that era. It is noteworthy that her initial employment was with the Bureau of Economic Studies under the EMS Namboodiripad administration. Through her writing, the author provides us with a glimpse into the hopes and aspirations of the people, as well as the influence of the Soviet Union and China and its impact on how Malayalis thought.

The author says she reached a major crossroads in her life when she had to choose whether to shift to Delhi, where she had been offered a job at the Indian Statistical Institute. A few years later in Delhi, she witnessed the death of Nehru. She discusses the disillusionment with model building associated with the Planning Commission. During a trip to Benares with her mother, she observed undernourished people on the banks of the Ganga River. She wondered if the people at the planning commission were aware of the existence of these lives that were away from the horizons of Delhi.

What made the memoir even more engaging was the simple and lucid language that made me think as if I was talking to the author, rather than reading about her. Dotted with the little happy things that would happen in life, the memoir leaves you smiling in several places. An instance is when the author was against her daughter’s bringing home a puppy, with the help of a friend Nikhil Chakravartty because she knew she would end up taking care of it, instead of the kids. Later, she admits that she developed a strong bond with the dog. In fact, the dog was fondly given the last name Nair, in addition to his given name, which indicates how much he became a part of the family.

Working in the ISI in the 1960s, she goes on to describe her meeting with the Social Anthropologist Louie Dumont, who called her up and introduced himself. He had got to know about her through a mutual friend, Madeleine. Dumont’s work dealt with South India, whereas Saradamoni’s work also centred around Kerala and its socioeconomic and historical domains. The conversation took a turn when Dumont offered her a chance to do a PhD under him in France. After three months of being in a dilemma over being away from her family, she finally flew to France, while her partner Gopi and their kids stayed in Delhi. Within two years, she completed and presented her thesis in French, titled Histoire sociale et économique du Kerala depuis 1800: étude des Pulayas. After she returned to India, she rewrote the work in English and published it as The Emergence of a Slave Caste: Pulayas of Kerala. Later she would also go on to write on matriliny in Kerala in her work titled ‘Matriliny Transformed Family, Law, and Ideology in Twentieth Century Travancore’.

In the later part of the memoir, we see the author engage actively with academia both in India and abroad. Her engagements early on with the ICSSR led to various conferences that gave us an insight into how academia worked. The author also was chosen to lead the ISIWO, the workers union at ISI since she functioned without any hierarchies between the academic and non-academic staff. We also get to know about the efforts that led to the creation of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS). One important takeaway from the memoir for me as a student of social science, is the sense of working the author had with the people she met, be they academics, laypeople, or students. The openness with which she engaged helped her connect with diverse individuals from across the world, cutting through race, age, language, and culture.

K Saradamoni’s memoir serves as a memoir not only of her life but of a world of academic engagement that included scholars like V.K.R.V Rao, P.C Mahalanobis, and Vina Mazumdar amongst others. More important than personalities, it serves as a testament to a different way of working that is coming to an end in the present day. Academic conferences were held on a careful budget, the author gives us an example of how P.C Mahalanobis hosted an eminent academician at his home, as the resources were frugal. In today’s world where academic conferences have been reduced to ‘events’ held in lavish hotels, I believe we could learn one or two things about how the author and her generation of scholars who elevated academic activity to something more meaningful and poignant than an event, to a tool that brought forward answers.

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.