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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 48 New Delhi, November 21, 2015

Knowing K. Madhavan in his Own Words

Saturday 21 November 2015


by B. Surendra Rao

On the Banks of the Thejaswini: An Autobiography by K. Madhavan (translated from Malayalam to English by Dr P. Radhika Menon); National Book Trust, India; New Delhi; 2011; pages 340; Price: 175.

A good autobiography bares the man as much as it unveils the world he lived in and transacted with. It also reflects on the relationship between the two, with full awareness of the forces that impinge on such reflection. The past cannot be reflected upon in isolation. It is the present which reflects on the past and makes sense of it. Any good autobiography should vouch for it.

Autobiographies and their variants like memoirs, reminiscences and confessions come in various forms and carry different burdens. In them the authors watch themselves in the mirror and view the world around to write about it. They install their perception as a possible, and often the legitimate, perception of the world. The worm’s view of the world becomes the world. It is a human predicament, since god’s eye-view is not available to us. But we can yet bring together many such individual perceptions to get a larger picture. Often, however, autobiographies tend to raise their authors and subjects to an unreal status. The English language has allowed a major concession to the first person singular, ‘I’ in upper case. But autobiographies tend to have oversized ‘I’s. Many of them desperately seek to show that the world revolved around them.

K. Madhavan’s Autobiography scrupulously avoids this temptation. He writes less about himself than about his experiences, about the men and matters that made them possible, the choices he made and the choices he missed, and this is all done in a mood of critical introspection but never with self-pity. The author appears in the book as an authentic but not an egotistic figure, as a part of the political and social changes taking place in Malabar, Kerala and India. That makes the book not just a simple autobiography but an account of lived history, a portrait of an era in which society, economy, political ethos and practices and even human relations seem to undergo convulsive changes. It is an account of pervading idealism and indefatigable struggles to achieve it, of self-doubts and self-assurances, of frustrations and search for alternatives, of ideologies and methods, of struggles within struggles and a welter of sentiments that has gone into the making of our freedom and making sense of it. For, our freedom struggle always had a meaning beyond driving the entrenched British out. That is why it always seemed to be an incomplete project, before 1947, and even after. Its frustrations were expressed then, even as they are felt now. K. Madhavan’s Autobiography reflects it candidly.

The book describes, without sliding into romantic profligacy, the events of the Freedom Struggle, and later the peasant struggles in local contexts. Some of the more famous events like the Salt Satyagraha, Guruvayoor Satyagraha, the Kayyoor Incident and others evidently are described in more details; but what strikes us more is an attempt to highlight the growing awareness of the ordinary people, in the nationalist context or in the changed peasant consciousness. The Madikkai Harvest Case, the fight against the outbreak of smallpox and famine or the struggle for firewood are described as part of such changes in the context of north Malabar. The more prominent leaders like Kelappan, Krishna Pillai, AKG, EMS and others appear and reappear in the book, but the activism of the ordinary Malayali, ordinary peasant, women and others who would not otherwise figure in the nationalist or revolutionary canvas is emphasised, not as condescending footnotes but as genuinely affectionate description. He records the silent sacrifices made by many women, who gave refuge to many who lived incognito, who held the fort when their men or sons were on the run or who braved the police torture to support the cause of freedom and revolution. The many months of underground life which the hunted comrades lived are described not with bitterness or resentment but as a kind of schooling that taught them the stark realities of rural poverty, loyalties that neither poverty nor state oppression could break and the intense humanity that transcended all divisions of caste and religion.

This experience of the author is particularly significant against the feudal background from which he came. That not only holds his ideology and activism in high relief but also mirrors the tensions and changes that the feudal order itself was experiencing in Kerala. Though none expected it to dissolve itself happily, the awareness of its irrelevance and unacceptability was the work of not just its class enemies but also of some introspective and critical insiders. They, no doubt, were looked upon as heretics, and like all heretics they were anathematised. K. Madhavan’s Autobiography gives us a peep into the goings on in feudal tharavads, estrangement of relatives and the souring of personal relationships and re-negotiation of the old feudal order with the newly emerging socio-economic climate. It is a document which a sociologist can use with profit.

Of late we have heard people lamenting over the demise or irrelevance of ideology in politics, or the blurring of boundaries between one and the other if they indeed exist. But K. Madhavan’s politics was intensely rooted in ideology, although he strongly believed that no ideology or practice was exempt from critical review. Respect for an ideology does not mean an unquestioning acceptance of an ‘ism’, but an ability to interrogate it in the context of place and time, of precept and practice, and to insist on having one’s precious space for his/her conscience. Otherwise loyalty to ideology may run the risk of becoming a kind of response that rats and children had shown to the Pied Piper’s tune. But such an independent attitude does not often fit into politics, which Madhavan found to his cost. When he found that Gandhism that he admired did not quite meet his expectations, he first leaned towards the Congress Socialists, and then towards the Communist Party. There too, for all the sacrifices he had made and the leadership he provided, he found himself declared a black sheep when the party was, for a while, seduced and taken over by the Calcutta Thesis. Again when the Communist Party was divided and when he did not join the CPI-M, he became a persona non grata and lost the friendship and won the enmity of many of his comrades. Even when he joined the Marxist party, he did not quite fit into its scheme. Before soon he realised that independent thinking and power-politics go ill together, and decided to find peace in quiet retirement to cultivate his own garden. In fact, K. Madhavan’s experiences and the way they are narrated in his Autobiography not only reflect the fortunes and predicament of a man in politics who chose to march to the music of his own drummer, they are also a commentary on the changing political ethos that is overtaking the country.

K. Madhavan’s fond and strong association with Gandhism and Left politics has convinced him that the best way forward for the country is a marriage between the two. In politics the proposal found few takers, but his conviction has not flagged. He is convinced that “in the Indian circumstances, Marxism cannot have an existence completely divorced from Gandhism... At the 1956 State meet at Mahe I initiated a resolution requesting that Gandhiji be acknowledged as the Father of our Nation and that his picture be hung in all Communist Party centres. The resolution was rejected summarily and most of the representatives were full of scorn for me. I was opposed to their labelling Gandhiji as a mere bourgeois leader. It was Gandhism that moulded the social awareness and influenced the character formation of Communists like me, much before Marxism. Even after coming under the sway of Marxism and despite my reservations about certain aspects of Gandhism, I believe that India requires a confluence of both ideologies. It is my conviction that if the Communist leadership had adopted such an approach, Communism would have sent down deep and widespread roots in the Indian soil.” (p. 327)

It is not important to find out how many genuine, uncontaminated Gandhians and Marxists you will find today, much less how many will agree to a marriage between the two ideologies, for, after all, politics of today is merely the art of the possible and sanctions nothing more than live-in relationships. What is important to note is that K. Madhavan’s strong conviction is born of his life-long experience as both a Gandhian and a Marxist, and is not expressed for political encashment. When both Gandhian and Marxist ideologies and practices have lent themselves to cynical reviews and judgements, Madhavan’s viewpoint at least deserves an audience.

Another thing that impressed me most about the Autobiography is that it brings out the character of its author without it being projected artificially or forcibly. K. Madhavan had ridden the rough waves of political and social changes in Kerala; he had come into contact with an assortment of humanity, from different social and economic backgrounds, ideological affiliations and tempera-ments. He had his active and passive sympathisers, steadfast collaborators, honest opponents and dishonest supporters. He had some moments of fulfilments and many of frustrations. He went through many trials and tribulations, of arrests and imprisonment, insults and beatings at the hands of the police, humiliations from his own men and comrades when his conscience did not allow him to toe the line of the party and when he had occasions to feel that he was hitting a dead-end in politics. Yet, Madhavan’s book carries no bitterness, no recriminations. Since he staked no claims to power, he shows no trace of bitterness towards those who gained power.

He has nothing but appreciation for the first Communist Ministry and for the quiet efficiency of C. Achutha Menon. He is also able to appreciate the strong idealism that informed the functioning of his comrades. He is grateful that he could associate himself with such charismatic and committed people such as Vidwan P. Kelu Nair, A.C. Kannan Nair, K. T. Kunjiraman Nair, P. Krishna Pillai, Keraleeyan, Subramaniyam Thirumumbu, E.K. Nayanar, Ganapathy Kamath and many others. He is not bitter about those who disagreed or parted company with him. He is sympathetic to the transformation that overtook Thirumumbu; he applauds the steadfast loyalty of Ambu Nair, cries over the death of Ganapathy Kamath, laments the neglect of the Kayyoor martyrs and notices the sacrifices made by many poor peasants in the face of great adversities. But Madhavan’s narration of events has a flow that is not broken by self-adulation or self-pity. He finds humour in the most trying of situations, and he is not averse to laughing at himself, at his own misjudgements or the predicaments he lands himself in. He is fully in control whenever he digresses in narration. His digressions are only pauses for, or points of reflection, or consciously taking to the by-lanes to join the main road of narration.

K. Madhavan’s Autobiography is an intensely human document, and there lies its value as lived history. It configures history as what people chose to do and what they did, and what the leaders did to create and mobilise the political consciousness of the people while yet showing what the people in turn did to mould the leadership. It is a thoroughly human document not only because it is so candidly and so joyously willing to bring in the ordinary people as makers of history, but also because the author himself is an embodiment of honest humanism. He chose to pitchfork himself into politics in defiance of his inherited social highbrow status and dared to bring politics to the service of the toiling peasants. He was one of the rare kinds of men who would not barter away their conscience in search of power or hypothecate it to any frozen ideology. That made him a Communist among Gandhians and a Gandhian among Communists. He remained an honest dissenter, knowing full well the cost he had to pay for his dissent.

Though he gained no power, either for its own sake or as a means to things equally mundane, his ideals and ways have assured him an honour that not many are entitled to in this cynical dog-eat-dog world. K. Madhavan’s Autobiography is worthy of the man who wrote it, and I am sure there are many like me who are grateful that he wrote it.

Professor B. Surendra Rao, formerly of Mangalore University, is an erstwhile member, Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR)