Madras Week: S. Manjubhashini


S. Manjubhashini


Swarna Rajagopalan

I am not a Madrasi, as anyone who has met would have heard me assert. For most of my life, I associated Madras with obligatory visits, admonitions about appropriate conduct common to all diaspora-come-home experiences and a redoubtable person called S. Manjubhashini. We called her ‘Rajamma’ at home and her children at Bala Mandir knew her as ‘Manjumma.’

A Congresswoman until her last breath, Manjubhashini was one of the countless women to step out of the home to participate in Quit India protests, to court arrest, to learn Hindi and adopt Khadi. She had a sense of the moment, and beyond her own actions, she saw to it that the young people in her family did not live like zombies through this important moment. They took part in rallies and prayer-meetings and those who were lucky, even got pulled out of school to volunteer in the Seva Dal.

Manjubhashini and Congress leader, K. Kamaraj, founded the Bala Mandir Kamaraj Trust in 1949. What is now a sprawling campus with a home, school, dispensary, laundry, carpentry unit, auditorium, research centre and resource centre, began with one cradle and one child. Manjubhashini gave the organization all of her formidable organizational ability and under her disciplined leadership, hundreds of children, over more than three generations, have blossomed into happy and productive citizens.

On Founders’ Day, Bala Mandir kids perform skits where the child playing Manjumma will often castigate someone for describing them as orphans: How can they be orphans when I am there?

I happened to be in Madras during the 1996 May cyclone–floods, power outages, the works–and none of us could step out at all. Manjumma, almost ninety years old, found her way through the floods to Bala Mandir, made calls, arranged for milk and bread and other essentials to reach her children. When I asked her how she had done it, she said: If  I don’t, who will? She died less than five months later.

Today, living in Madras, trying to build something from nothing, I think of her often. I think of that spirit, that courage, that determination and frankly, that willingness to be the unpopular person who takes the tough decision.

Manjubhashini brought the same values to her personal life. She had a routine that never wavered. She related to people and her garden with the same disciplined ‘tough love’ that she brought to her institution, and rebel or not, people and garden blossomed under her care. She was unflinchingly fair and uncompromisingly principled.

Khadi, Hindi, protest marches, politics, music lessons, scouting, camping outdoors, training by INA officers–all entered her very large, joint family household under her leadership, and enriched the lives of those younger than her immeasurably. Good, healthy, tasteful but not wasteful living–this was the core of her family legacy. A very unusual work ethic and a strong public-spiritedness were other gifts. How could creativity not thrive in the circumstances? The large community of cousins who grew up in that house wrote, composed and performed, at home and outside, with her complete encouragement.

And writing about Manjubhasini, how can I not write about K. Meenakshi, her sister-in-law, friend, colleague and support system, who worked with her at home and outside to help achieve her goals? Meenakshi brought humour and warmth to the same causes. They complemented and supported each other over a lifetime of social service of the old-fashioned kind: simply helping whoever came their way, without fuss.

In later years, getting over my shyness around this awe-inspiring person, I got to discover that she had a very sweet singing voice, that she could giggle and that she knew an amazing array of ‘Patience’ games! (She must have needed a lot of patience!)

For me, above all, it is the quest to align both public and private life into one principled way of being, that is most impressive about Manjubhashini’s story. To live as you work, to work as you believe, and to be true to your beliefs–those who struggle with this are those who form the bedrock, not just of a city, but of a society.


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