Gouri Amma leaves a void hard to fill

The legendary couple of Kerala politics:  KR Gouri (R) and TV Thomas (L), two iconic figures of the communist movement.

The vernacular dailies and the New Indian Express almost forgot the raging Covid-19 pandemic in Kerala. Obituaries to KR Gouri — better known as “Gouri Amma” (Mother) — is their lead story. 

As I waded through the avalanche of obituaries, memories from childhood and youth stealthily began creeping up from the attic of the mind. My father was a fellow comrade of Gouri Amma in the undivided Communist Party. And my mother was a personal friend of hers, and, if I recall, there was family kinship too, as both my mother and Gouri Amma were born into prominent Ezhava families with deep roots and extensive branches in Southern Kerala who had significantly contributed to the social reform movement in this region in the early part of last century. 

Two obituaries caught my attention — one was KR Gouri: Heroine of the working class by Prakash Karat (New Indian Express) and the second was ‘I shouldn’t have separated with TV’, when Gouri Amma opened up about her marriage, reprint of a rare interview of Gouri Amma with Mathrubhumi in July 2019.  

On Prakash’s obituary note, I would like to make some observations and I would offer an addendum to the candid interview featured in the Mathrubhumi. Of course, both are on a personal note and truthful. 

Prakash eulogises Gouri Amma as a “revolutionary woman who became a heroine of the working class movement.” He gives fulsome praise to this iconic figure but then singles out her “rigid individualism which landed her in political trouble.” The reference presumably is to Gouri Amma’s expulsion form the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 1994 after having been eased out from the state committee in the best traditions meted out to fallen angels in the pantheon of communist heroes. 

Prakash also makes it a point to touch on the debris of Gouri Amma’s private life. He claims that Gouri Amma’s “political convictions and ideology” trumped her marriage to TV Thomas, another Colossus of the communist movement in Kerala. 

What is painful is that Prakash actually lauds that particular slice of her life to be “remarkable for its sheer audacity — a revolutionary assertion of woman’s agency.” I don’t know whether Prakash ever got to know Gouri Amma. It seems to me he wrote on the basis of resolutions and documents in the party archives. The human touch is lacking. And, the effect it produces on the reader is inevitably one of caricature. 

The heart of the matter is that Gouri Amma was above all a humanist. She was capable of a level of human compassion that is rare today among politicians. Plainly put, she saw people as human beings, much more than eligible voters — as men and women with joys and sorrows, successes and failures. 

Like any tragic figure, she too had a flaw in her character — her forthrightness and transparency. I know this as I have had occasions to observe Gouri Amma from close quarters in my childhood when her favourite nephew with family lived next door to the Kerala Kaumudi compound in Thiruvananthapuram and she often visited them. 

No matter what the CPM documents drafted by EMS Namboodiripad might say, whatever be the CPM’s official line, it was not Gouri Amma’s “rigid individualism” that was to be blamed for the sordid political skulduggery culminating in her expulsion from the party. Most Ezhavas believe that she was done in by EMS with great deliberateness and cunning and political chicanery.

The Ezhava community chose to forgive and forget that act of great injustice (and doublespeak) — winning a mandate in the 1987 state election by chanting Gouri Amma’s name but only to sideline the charismatic figure who formed a trinity with EMS and AKG. I won’t be surprised if it rankled. Gouri Amma was not a robot. 

Prakash’s dogmatic view of “individualism” as the ultimate crime overlooks that the mainsprings of Gouri Amma’s Marxism were to be found in Sree Narayana Guru. She could synthesise Karl Marx and Gurudevan from an intellectual perspective, being a rare communist of her generation who was well-educated, and as a humanist in the best sense of the term. 

Erudite Ezhavas tend to get attracted to Marxism, as the ideals of justice, equality, resistance, collective struggle, etc. are very much what Gurudevan espoused. To my mind, if Marx had ever sat face to face with Gurudevan, that would have made a great conversation. Gurudevan might have helped Marx to get a more rounded view of the human condition. 

What is wrong if an individual comes to epitomise an ideology in the popular perception? Ask any Malayali who voted for the LDF in the recent Kerala election and he or she would instinctively compliment the “Pinarayi government”. How many decades did Jyoti Basu rule West Bengal? Alas, Gouri Amma’s contribution to the communist movement was cut short far too prematurely. 

Second, Prakash finds it hard to admit still that the Party forced Gouri Amma to break up with TV Thomas. What the Party did was an act of cruelty. My mind goes back to circa 1976-77 — my first posting in the Moscow embassy as a diplomat.

One afternoon, my father called me to say that TV was reaching Moscow. He cautioned me that TV was very ill and might not live long as the cancer had reached the terminal stage. My father said I should do all that is possible to make TV feel comfortable, especially attending to his food requirements.

I felt shattered as TV was more of an uncle to me than my father’s friend and comrade. Fortunately, IK Gujral who was the ambassador allowed me unhesitatingly to discard diplomatic protocols and coordinate with the CPSU Central Committee officials in the Kremlin.

The most poignant episode was our visit to Lenin’s Mausoleum. I explained to TV that the visit entailed a fairly tiring walk on the Red Square but he insisted that the very purpose of his visit — first and only visit to Moscow for the communist veteran — was to pay homage to Lenin’s embalmed body.  

As we were taking leave of the Mausoleum, I spotted TV leaving something in a corner. TV was lost in thoughts and we didn’t speak till we reached the Central Committee hotel. As we alighted, sensing my curiosity, perhaps, he said it was a ring, and added something to this effect: ‘I gave everything to the communist movement, including my marriage.’ I didn’t say anything. 

My parents had told me that but for the rude intervention of the party leaderships, that breakup wouldn’t have happened. TV might have had some imperfections as a man and husband. (Who doesn’t have?) But that never stopped him from caring deeply for Gouri Amma.

TV made that trip to Moscow solely in remembrance of his marriage to her. For Gouri Amma too, as the Mathrubhumi interview testifies, despite all that happened — and although they were not destined to live together — TV remained the love of her life even at the age of 100.

Today, it all looks very unfortunate that the Party bosses — EMS in particular — behaved like imbeciles to mess around with the private life of a party leader they disfavoured. Compared to the colourful lifestyle of some communist leaders today, Gouri Amma and TV were lily-white. Frankly, after leaving the Foreign Service, I toyed with the idea of writing a biography of EMS that would have done Lytton Strachey proud. I even told Prakash about it. But then I duly changed my mind.