“My pen,” Sugatha Chechi often told me, “is my only weapon.” And what a weapon it was! If ever there was a symbol of an Ahimsa activist it was the iconic poet Sugathakumari who proved time and again that the pen can indeed be mightier than the sword.
As a young woman journalist – an unknown species in Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) those days – my mentor was Sugatha Chechi. Her beautiful old house stood behind the Trivandrum Public Library hidden behind tall trees and beautiful flowering shrubs. It was there that I had some of my most interesting conversations with her. I’d listen rapt as her serene and beautiful face became animated and her eyes flashed as she spoke of the social injustices around us.
Sugatha’s involvement with activism began when she jumped into the fray to save Silent Valley. Before that, the reclusive and sensitive poet’s work had only reflected her own inner angst. With the Silent Valley movement, she began to channelise that angst to save the environment and fight social injustice.
“They think we stand in the way of all progress,” she told me once. “They think all these big schemes… big hydroelectric projects, tall buildings, hill highways… all these things are marks of progress. We say these are all wounds in the heart of nature. And we have to remember that some wounds never heal.”
Some of Sugathakumari’s earlier poems like the award-winning ‘Rathri Mazha’ are delicate, mature and intensely feminine. In this poem, she depicts the thoughts of a sick woman lying awake in the hospital who relates the sound of the night rain to the sound of human pain. “She realises it’s subjective,” she told me, “as she remembers happier nights when the same rain made her laugh with pleasure.” When I asked her if this was based on a personal experience, she refused to comment.
And that was Sugatha Chechi. Intensely private and yet out there in the forefront when it came to fighting causes close to her heart. When she got involved with the Silent Valley movement, she told me that for a long time she had mourned the disappearance of greenery in Kerala. Every time she returned home from Delhi, where she lived for 13 years in the 1960s, she saw more trees were gone. And now she had a chance to fight for the last remaining rainforest in Kerala.
And so was born the Silent Valley Samrakshana Samithi. This was an organisation of poets, writers and journalists who fought against the proposed hydroelectric project that was to be set up in the pristine Silent Valley. The poems, articles and essays flowed from the pens of these committed writers who had to fight the might of all the politicians who were united in favour the project. Finally, things reached a crescendo at an international level and the project was stopped. Silent Valley survived. Some of Sugatha’s most memorable poems were penned then. Like ‘Marathinu Stuthi’, which became the anthem of all environmentalists in Kerala.
By this time Sugatha had got involved with many other social issues and soon environmental concerns got intertwined with their impact on women. On one occasion, she spoke to me sorrowfully about the “fossilised waterfalls and dead land” of the tribal Attappadi region in north Kerala. She spoke of women forced into sex work and of greedy contractors who built roads “to nowhere”. Of ruined green forests and the flak she received from politicians for speaking about it. But she stood strong and wrote about it as she felt supported by her growing army of fans and followers.
She got more and more involved in women’s issues. When a woman named Sulekha Bibi was ordered 101 lashes by the Beemapalli Jamaat, she questioned why the shariat was enforced only when it came to women. A visit to the Trivandrum Government Mental Health Centre made her take up the cause of women patients there who were kept in the most inhuman conditions.
In 1987, Sugatha Chechi took me to visit the Mental Health Centre to show me the changes that had taken place over the past year after she and her supporters fought a court battle to get things changed. I had visited the same centre five years ago and come away horrified by the scenes I saw. Naked, wailing women stretching their arms out of stinking cells full of faeces. Walls covered with frightening charcoal sketches of naked women running, enormous serpents, foul words. A young nurse had pointed to a wall that was adjacent to the centre. Policemen jumped over the wall and the wardens “supplied” them with patients from the centre, she whispered, confirming newspaper rumours.
The centre was now transformed. No naked patients. Clean cells. Books, cots and recreational facilities. Sara Thomas, the popular Malayalam novelist who was Sugatha’s friend and neighbour, was with us. Some years ago, she told me, she had employed a tuition teacher whose husband and children were locked up in the centre. “After hearing about the inhuman conditions there, I had asked Sugatha to intervene,” she said, “but in those days she was too absorbed with trees. I kept telling her people are at least as important at trees!”
Sugatha organised her followers and went to court only after hearing the story of a young man who came from Ernakulam to tell her about the inhuman treatment of his friend at the mental health centre. Soon she and her supporters made their presence felt everywhere. The security of the women came first. The broken boundary wall was rebuilt. The women were rehabilitated in safer quarters. The frightening old walls were coming down and the cells were cleaned. A prayer room was set up with a table on which a cross, an Om and a picture of the mosque at Mecca were placed side by side. She talked of setting up a home for people with mental illnesses who had recovered enough to no longer need institutionalisation but had nowhere to go because their families didn’t want them. She spoke to the patients as a mother would speak to her children.
Sugatha Chechi was never afraid to take up a cause that was controversial or to stand in front of the Secretariat with agitators demanding justice. In 1986, a member of her Prakriti Samrakshana Samithi (as it had been renamed after the battle of Silent Valley was fought and won) complained to a colleague about a noisy new cabaret that had opened in a hotel next to his house in Trivandrum. It might have ended with that, but the colleague he complained to happened to be Sugatha, who, as everyone in Kerala knew, had a penchant for taking up what looked like lost causes.
It started with a signature campaign signed by the who’s who of Trivandrum asking for cabarets to be banned. This had no impact. But though Sugatha Chechi had started off protesting against what was a noisy social nuisance, she soon got involved with the human aspect – the exploitation of young women. She wrote a letter to Mathrubhumi deploring a situation where young girls were forced to “sell their youth and innocence” in order to survive. This started off a spate of letters for and against what she said. Many were hate-filled. They asked her what right she had to deprive women of their autonomy and their jobs. Could morality be defined by the length of the skirt, someone asked. But Sugatha was unfazed. Were the women really exercising autonomy over their bodies by subjecting themselves to assault by drunken strangers night after night?
Sugatha Chechi fought many such epic battles, but as she aged she became exhausted mentally and physically. Nothing daunted her, however, and till the very end she took up the causes of the weak and the vulnerable and those fighting for social justice. Even at the age of 84 she joined the protesters at the Secretariat gate in a wheelchair in solidarity with the nuns asking for justice for the nun raped by Bishop Mulakkal.
Gita Aravamudan is a journalist and the author of Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide.
Views expressed are the author’s own.