“Why is that name hidden in my consciousness?”

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I just finished reading a translated anthology of Lalithambika Antherjanam’s stories and autobiographical essays. The excellent introduction by the translator, Gita Krishnankutty, opens the evocative world of her writing. As I read these stories, I was in the villages of Kerala, eavesdropping on conversations and soaking in the smells and sounds. I might add, I have never been to Kerala.

I strongly recommend these stories. Just as stories. And then if you are so inclined, you will get a lot out of them here and there.

What I really want to share here is a short extract from one of the stories in which the protagonist is a prominent social worker. The story is called “Come back” or “Thirike Varu.”

“Whenever I think about women’s associations, Bhanumathi Amma comes to mind. Not that it is important in any way, I just think of her, that’s all. I’ve called a number of young social workers Bhanumathi amma by mistake, and then corrected myself. How forgetful I am! Why is that name hidden in my consciousness? Young girls today know very little about Bhanumathi Amma. I wonder what they would think of her?

There have been no women in our part of the country whose names posterity found it worthwhile to cherish. And even if there were, no one would ever have heard of them. A young poet once teased me, “Here they come, the great ones, claiming descent from the Rani of Jhansi and Padmini Devi! Tell me, is there a single Malayali woman who has distinguished herself for her contribution to art or literature, or social service, or even music?”

I was furious. I said, “There were mothers who bore children who did these things. Isn’t that enough?”

This retort may have been made purely in self-defense, or in utter helplessness–for I had no answer. Anyway, I didn’t bother to invent a list of names that one could conceivably be proud of. Or condemn.”

I will leave it to you to discover the rest of this story, but I was so struck by this piece. This is the way it often is when we talk about wanting to document the work of women in the public sphere.  A little mocking. A little dismissive. A little questioning: is this really necessary? And doubting for sure, like the narrator in this story: are there any women who have actually made a difference?

Of course there are. And they are often people in our own lives. Political acts are not always big acts. Public-mindedness is not always publicity-seeking. So who are these people whose names we carry with us but whose accomplishments are hidden in our consciousness? Who are these people in your life? Do write in and tell us. And send a photo too if you have one.

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