When I learnt of the passing away of veteran communist leader K.R. Gowri, on Tuesday at the age of 102, I recalled the many conversations I had with her, when she seemed set to become the first woman Chief Minister of Kerala in 1987. It didn’t happen then. And 30 years later, it still hasn’t happened. Kerala has never had a woman at the helm.
In 1987, however, it seemed a very distinct possibility. K.R. Gowri, then nearly 70, was a veteran communist leader who had ushered in the path-breaking Land Reforms Bill 30 years earlier. She seemed to be on the verge of becoming chief minister, but her comrade E.K. Nayanar won a last-minute, behind-the-scenes power struggle. Had she really declined the chair citing ill health, as party sources said, or had she been edged out because she was a woman?
“Nayanar is more experienced,” she laughed when I asked her about it. When I said, “So are you,” she countered it with, “But as you must have heard, I lose my temper. Nayanar is more diplomatic. He will make a better CM.”
Back then, Gowri Amma was a diminutive 68-year-old who commanded both awe and respect. Her hair was still black with just a couple of streaks of silver. Her face was smooth and unwrinkled. Her expression impenetrable. But, her temper was notorious. Even veteran politicians were afraid of her.
My first encounter with her was in her official residence during Onam. I had sought an interview with her. She was not talking to the press, but thanks to one of her protégés, Lily Muricken, she agreed to talk to me. To my surprise, Gowri Amma answered the phone herself and asked me to drop in any day. It was an informal visit and I got a glimpse of the rarely-seen, softer side of the veteran leader.
On that Onam day, she welcomed me into her house which was overflowing with her nieces and nephews and “grandchildren” (she had no children of her own). It was also the first (and last) time in my journalism career that a cabinet minister went into the kitchen personally to get me tea and homemade tapioca chips!
It was through her proteges that I learnt of that unseen, softer side. For instance, when Lily Muricken was alone and abandoned, forced to stay in a hostel because her brother denied her the right to stay in her family home in Thiruvananthapuram, Gowri Amma had come to her rescue. She helped her to occupy the house, which was vacant and locked. I also learnt that when her sister was dying of tuberculosis, Gowri Amma took a year off from full-time politics to care for her. It’s something no male politician would have done.
K.R. Gowri was the first woman law graduate from Kerala. She remained a staunch advocate of independence for women all her life and used her legal knowledge to help them.
Right from her student days, she participated actively in all kinds of demonstrations and worked “night and day like a man”, her comrades told me. When I asked her about this, during a formal interview, she brushed it aside saying that unlike other women, she had never been hampered by domestic commitments.
Her activism exposed the worst side of life to her. She had spent time in prison and experienced extreme police brutality. She had been sidelined time and again by her male colleagues. Many said her marriage to her party colleague T.V. Thomas—which took place when she was in her late 30s soon after she was sworn in as Kerala’s first woman minister, heading the revenue ministry in 1957—was engineered by the party. When Communist Party split in 1964, so did their marriage. Gowri became a CPM member, while Thomas remained with the CPI.
In the late 1970s, when Thomas was losing a battle with cancer, both of them were ministers in the Left coalition government and lived in adjacent official houses. Her visit to his house on the eve of his death made headlines, but Gowri would not talk to me about this. She would only give me the dates in a matter-of-fact manner and tell me that her wedding photographs were taken away by a journalist.
Though she was a staunch supporter of women’s rights, her policy decisions were not always popular with women. Her brilliant mind and strong will kept her two steps ahead of her time. She urged women to burn the Manusmriti at a time when such opinions were sacrilegious. She was against prohibition even though it was supported by women. When I asked her about this, she said, “Women are not always for prohibition. What about those whose families depend on the tapping and sale of toddy for their livelihood?” She later changed her stance on prohibition when she came to know that 60 percent of alcohol-related deaths are due to illicit distillation.
I asked her once if as a woman in politics she had encountered any special problems and she reacted sharply: “Of course, I have had problems because I am a woman. Women have been subjugated so long that they cannot come up easily. Society does not recognize a woman’s worth however good she is. This will take a long time to change.”
Truer words were never spoken.
Gita Aravamudan is an author and journalist based in Bengaluru. Her books include Colour of Gold, a murder mystery set in the KGF mines, Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide and Baby Makers: The Story of Indian Surrogacy.