KK SHAILAJA
VOGUE India|November 2020
During her tenure, Kerala’s forward-thinking minister of health and social justice has adeptly handled fi rst the infectious Nipah virus, and now the pandemic. Today, her name features among the small set of women in power who are lauded globally for their response to the crisis.
Manju Sara Rajan

There are five of us at the table, a party of unlikely companions. At the head sits my trusted taxi driver Sudheer T, I am to his right, then Dr. Latheesh KV, a public health official; on the opposite side, KK Shailaja, the minister for health, social justice, and women and child development in Kerala’s Left Democratic Front-led government, and K Bhaskaran, the minister’s husband. We are seated around an oval table at the minister’s home, eating a late lunch on the first day of the Onam holiday season: two kinds of matta rice, turmeric-hued nadan fish curry, fried river fish, two kinds of vegetables, and three different payasams for dessert, laced with the twang of north Kerala’s Malabar region of Kannur. Sudheer and I have been to many places over the years, but we had never shared a table, and it is for the first time, as guests of KK Shailaja, that we sit and eat together.

Shailaja has come home after months away in Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital. When I enter, I notice the boundary wall surrounding her two-story home is short; over the tops of the potted bougainvillea, you can see the health minister sitting in the verandah with her husband. There’s no security detail or mark of pomp. Just two things give a hint of affiliation and significance of the household: the Kerala government-issued Toyota Innova that looks more impressive because of the narrow driveway and a flagstaff with the white-sickle crimson-red flag of the Communist Party. “Have you ever seen a chenkodi in front of a house?” asks her husband. ‘Chenkodi’ is a portmanteau Malayalam word for ‘red flag’. “It is there because it represents everything that our life is about,” he tells me.

To hear this couple tell their story, leftist politics, and its egalitarian approach towards many things—from their marriage to their hospitality—informs the way they approach the world and run their home. It is this outlook that has transformed this former school physics teacher into a global icon in India’s fight against COVID-19.

TROUBLED TIMES Over these past five years, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s government has dealt with unprecedented crises. A few Biblical disasters short of the whole list, there have been two floods, a cyclone, and two infectious disease outbreaks, first the Nipah virus in 2018 and now COVID-19. The health department’s early planning and prescient action saw Vijayan enforce a partial shutdown, even before the WHO categorized COVID-19 as a pandemic, and weeks before India’s central government announced a lockdown.

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