Anna and Anupama: The Kerala Conundrum
The world last week witnessed in stunned disbelief a phenomenal struggle in Keralam by a 22-year-old mother for her right over her own baby. Though Anupama Chandran did triumph finally in her relentless mission, the incident exposed the 'progressive Kerala’s‘ dark underbelly. A woman had to fight so hard for her basic human rights even in this 21st century in a state like Kerala which is supposed to be India's most progressive. And worse, all those sinister forces which had colluded to deny Anupama her baby, were part of not just the state government which is supposed to safeguard its citizen's basic rights but the CPI(M) too, the loudest claimant to the legacy of Kerala's renaissance and progressive tradition.
The past few days had more in store for Keralam to be ashamed about. A Dalit woman student's struggle against ongoing caste and gender discrimination at the MG University and also a law student's suicide owing to alleged harassment by her husband have raised further questions on Kerala's smug claims of enlightenment.
The week witnessed another less-noticed event too. The Indian Postal Department released postal covers to honour three eminent Keralam-born scientists including a woman - Anna Modayil Mani. The other two were P R Pisharody and R Ananthakrishnan - all India's most prominent meteorologists. Among them, Mani's achievement is singularly spectacular because she excelled in a field totally dominated by men not just during her time but even today.
Anupama and Anna although are parted by generations, they exemplify a pervasive contradiction of Keralam. The Keralam women's remarkable achievements on the one side and the extreme forms of discrimination they face on the other, widely debated today as the 'enigma of the Kerala woman'. There is yet another shocker too to ponder over. Compared to the spectacular achievements of Keralam women like Anna Mani and others who were born during the early decades of the 20th century, the gains of their later generations pale starkly. So, at least with respect to women's achievements, is Keralam walking backward? Is Keralam no more a place for women to excel? Or is it that women from other parts of the country have caught up with Keralam women who definitely had a lead over all others in the past?
Not just the rest of India, but even Keralam knows very little of Anna Mani (1918-2001), one of the most prominent names that made India self-reliant in meteorological and atmospheric studies. A student of Sir C V Raman, the Nobel laureate in Physics, at the Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc), Bengaluru, she was one of the world's very few women who excelled in designing, developing and manufacturing a wide range of meteorological measuring instruments like rain gauges, barograph, radiosonde, ozonesonde, anemometer, pyranometers, etc. 'My only regret is that we didn't have an annamaniometer!' once beamed Oliver Ashford, the first editor of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) bulletin who called Anna the 'Queen of Meteorology'. She was the pioneer to study ozone, solar radiation and was responsible for setting up met stations, telescopes, etc in various parts of India including ISRO in Thiruvananthapuram at the request of Vikram Sarabhai who was her close friend. 'She was dedicated to science, accuracy, and perfection,' wrote Ashford who had known Anna since the 1940s. Delivering a memorial lecture on Anna last week under the auspices of Intromet 2021, her colleague and ace meteorologist C R Sreedharan said she led India to be one of the first countries to develop ozonesonde, an instrument to measure ozone.
Anna and diamonds had a special relationship. A voracious reader from her childhood who finished all the books in the local library, she opted for an Encyclopedia Britannica as her 8th birthday present instead of diamond ear rings. Years later when she joined research, Raman directed her to work on his favourite topic - the fluorescence of diamonds. Born in Peerumedu to a prosperous civil engineer, Anna had her schooling in Thiruvananthapuram and Aluva. After graduating in Physics from Presidency College, Madras, she joined IISc’s Raman Institute when she published five independent articles in international journals. However, citing lack of a Masters degree (she was an Honours graduate) Anna was denied her PhD. Her thesis remains still in the shelves of the Institute. She later sailed to London on a scholarship to be trained as a meteorological instrumentalist at the British Meteorological Office. Anna later said it was by accident that she turned meteorologist since the UK scholarship was available only for that stream.
On her return, she joined the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) at Pune to begin her historic innings as 'India's weather woman' to build the country's capability in the field. Anna retired in 1976 as Deputy Director-General. Subsequently, she joined as a visiting professor at IISc and laid the foundation for India's studies on alternative sources of energy like solar and wind. Her three books are considered the bible in this field. She also set up her own factory in Bangalore to manufacture meteorological instruments.
Anna held high positions at WMO, Indian Natural Science Academy, International Solar Energy Society and was awarded the KR Ramanathan medal too. Besides her professional achievements, Mani was known for her unflinching nationalism (she wore Khadi from her young days) and also Socialist ideals. In an interview with her, Dr. Hassan Taba of WMO said that India was in the forefront of meteorological data studies thanks to her. Abha Sur, in a fascinating study on India's women scientists, said Anna represented the confluence of the modernizing aspects of sciences, nationalist and gender ideologies. 'She is a success story to which no women (or men) could aspire'.
Interestingly, Anna was one of the many Malayali women who were pioneers in India's diverse fields in stark contrast to the present when they are conspicuous by absence in positions of power. She belonged to the quartet of four formidable Annas of Keralam. They were the first women to occupy some of India's most exalted positions through sheer dedication, talent and hard work. Anna Malhotra (1927-2018), the first woman IAS officer, Anna Chandy (1905-1996), the first High Court Judge, and Anne Mascarene (1902-1963), first parliamentarian and a member in the constituent assembly. Although the quartet's sharing a common name was a coincidence, that they belonged to Keralam - Thiruvithamkoor to be exact - and to its Christian community, was hardly so. For, Thiruvithamkoor’s women were beneficiaries of deliberate state policies which imparted education and health to them since the beginning of the 19th century. Being Christians gave them the added advantage of having embraced Western modernity with open arms thanks to initiatives from the Christian Missionaries and also the local churches too.
Besides the awesome Annas, Thiruvithamkoor 's Christian community provided the country's first Surgeon General (Dr. Mary Poonen Lukose, 1886-1976), first chief engineer (P K Thressia, 1924-81), and, of course, one of Travancore's greatest freedom fighters- Akkamma Cherian (1909-1982). Except for Mascarene who belonged to the Latin Catholics, all others were the economically and socially powerful, Syrian Christians.
There are six more names from the period who too can be included in the Kerala women’s 20th Century Hall of Fame. Ammu Swaminathan (1894-1978) and Dakshayani Velayudhan (1912-78), both members of the Indian Constituent Assembly; E.K. Janaki Ammal (1897-84), India’s first prominent woman botanist; Captain Lakshmi (1914-2012), INA revolutionary and minister in Azad Hindu government, and K R Gouri (1919-2021), who fought and defied all glass ceilings in politics and also authored Kerala’s ground-breaking land reforms. The last link to this glorious pantheon who is still among us is M. Fathima Beevi (94), India’s first woman Supreme Court Judge and the first Muslim woman to be appointed to any higher judiciary.
Is it just a coincidence that all these women belonged to Keralam? Is it also a coincidence that Keralam doesn't witness such a phenomenon now? Instead, what we see today are the excruciating wars waged by Anupama, Mofiya Parveen, or Deepa Mohanan for even their basic rights as human beings.