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The Golden Girl

An interview with the golden girl of KALA, Mrs. Gouri Menon, was on the cards for quite some time.  When I phoned her up to fix a date and time, she modestly said I was trying to make a mountain out of a molehill!
When I met up with her on an autumn evening, she was in her usual self, very enthusiastic, lively and talkative.  After shutting Rocco, the family's pet Staffordshire terrier, out of the living room, she sat back on the sofa to talk to me.

Ponnu from Ponnani

Mrs. Gouri Menon is Amma to everyone who knows her well.  Her childhood pet name, “Ponnu”, literally makes her a golden girl!  And she is originally from "Ponnani" in Malabar.  She may now be in her seventies, but her intelligent eyes have the sparkle of a seventeen-year-old.  She is an attentive listener and is never afraid to correct anyone who says something factually incorrect.  When I pointed out to Amma that she has an in-depth knowledge of Indian mythology, she played it down merely as a matter of memory, saying, “I have a good memory.  I don't forget things very easily.  I remember even those things told to me by my father.”  Amma is right in saying that she has a good memory; her ability to recollect every detail of information is quite impressive.

Childhood memories

I asked Amma about her childhood.  Her original tharavadu (family home) is in a village named Sukapuram near Ponnani.  But she spent her childhood away from there as her father, a gold medal winner from the Madras Agricultural College, transferred between locations during his successful career as a class 1 officer of the then British province of Madras.  She was born in Coimbatore when her father was a farm superintendent there.  He later went on to become a deputy director of the agricultural department in the province which covered much of southern India.  Under British rule Indians were not given the director posts.  When Gouri was a little girl, her father was transferred to Tellicherry, then the head quarters of the Malabar district.

As Amma's conversation drifted off to life at the various locations where the family had lived, I brought her back to her memories of the village.  She vividly remembers the atmosphere in the family home, where she stayed during summer holidays.  The sights and sounds of several children praying together at dusk.  The Akshara sloka sessions.  It was an environment where children respected the elders in the family.  The young Gouri was shocked to see the differences between life at Tellicherry, a progressive town, as it was the district head quarters, and the life of people who worked for the household in Sukapuram, a village.  In the village, she was able to see social inequalities and caste barriers at close quarters.

Amma is a treasure trove when it comes to mythology and epics.  When talking about the place name Sukapuram, her eyes brightened up and she became very enthusiastic, as the village had a myth associated with it.  The village is named after a sage named Suka.  There is a Siva temple where the deity is facing southwards.  As Suka was distracting Siva, the story goes, the sage was ordered to sit facing northwards in the village whilst listening to Siva!

Influences

The family moved again with her father’s transfer to Madras.  Her face brightened up each time she talked about her studies in Madras.  It was quite clear that young Gouri's character and personality was very much influenced by her years at Besant Theosophical School.  The school was founded by the Theosophical Society in the name of Dr Annie Besant, an India-based Irish intellectual.  Mrs. Besant was a leading light in the Theosophical Society movement, with its head quarters in Adayar, Madras.  She campaigned vigorously for self-rule for India.

So, who were the main influences in your early years, I asked.  Amma's answer was quite clear.  First and foremost, it was her father.  Then comes Mr. Sankara Menon, headmaster of the Theosophical School during her time at the school.  In the headmaster's view, young Gouri could do no wrong.

Amma was getting very animated as she began to talk about Kalakshetra, a world-class fine arts academy founded by Mrs. Rugmini Devi Arundel.  Her husband, Mr. George Sidney Arundel, an Irishman, was the president of the Theosophical School.  

The newly established Kalakshetra and the school were in the same campus.  As a result, the pupils at the school became very interested in fine arts.  She talked about several of her contemporaries who went on to become well-known musicians.  Apart from M.D. Ramanathan's name, I wasn't able to recognise the individuals because of my ignorance about classical music.  Her face quite clearly showed that the years at the school had a lasting impression on her.

To study for intermediate, Gouri joined the Victoria College in Palghat.  As she had been educated in English throughout, she had to work hard to improve her Malayalam.  She fondly remembers her Malayalam teacher at college who encouraged her, the writer Pallathu Raman.

As we talked about India's freedom struggle that was boiling over at the time, she said that Annie Besant was an advocate of struggle within the law.  Gandhiji was using civil disobedience as a peaceful method of protest, by urging people not to pay levies such as the salt tax.  Annie Besant's view was that, once you go against the law, it is very difficult to get things back on track.  Mrs. Besant was a softie who would have been ignored by the British, I told myself.  Amma's uncle was a nationalist where as her father was a law-abiding senior officer in the British service.  How did they accommodate each other, I asked.  She said her father's choice of school for her daughter showed that he was not against the nationalist cause.

I asked her about her father and mother.  Young Gouri respected her father very much.  He founded Edapal High School after he retired from civil service.  He also used his influence to bring other facilities such as hospital and library to the village.  His work must have made a big difference to an area which was educationally backward, I thought.  I asked about the influence of Amma's mother on her.  Amma was much more influenced by her father because he was held in such high esteem.  My mother must have contributed to his success, she said.  “She was a very gentle and kind lady.”  It is evident that Amma has inherited those qualities from her mother.

It was my intention to ask her about what her views were about the matriarchal system that was prevalent in Nair families until early part of this century.  “At times, the (matriarchal) system could be misused; lack of respect of men is a possible effect,” something that she disliked.

An active mind and soul

As the conversation moved on to her voracious reading habit, Amma talked about Vikram Seth's novel “A Suitable Boy”.  She liked the novel because the characters looked so real.  She is planning to read it again, in spite of its mammoth size - fourteen hundred pages.  She liked Arundhathi Roy's best-seller set in Kerala, “God of Small Things”.  I thought Roy's book had been over-rated and said so, arguing that there are several authors who write much better books in Malayalam and that they don't get international attention only because their works are not in English.  At that point, the conversation switched to MT’s “Randamuzham”, my favourite Malayalam novel.  Amma felt that MT was using fictitious stories to interpret Mahabharatha.  She disapproved of MT's interpretation that mere mortals fathered the Pandavas.  The conversation then drifted off to Sankaracharya's “Soundarya Lahari” and other favourites such as Swathi Thirunal and Vivekananda who had meteoric lives.

Then she invites me to have some dosa.  As we walk into the kitchen, Rocco wags her short tail to acknowledge me and tries to climb all over me.  As the dosas roast on the griddle one by one, we continue our conversation and I finish off the dosas as soon as they come off the griddle!

Amma is very keen on astrology.  She explained to me the similarities between Indian and Western astrological techniques.  I listened carefully even though I am not a follower of astrology because I have some interest in a related science, Astronomy.

Family life and career

Did you have a role in selecting your husband, I asked.  Amma's father chose the groom and told her about it!  The boy was no stranger, though.  He was Amma's cousin, an Army captain.  She was a firm believer in astrology and someone told her that the signs for a long matrimony were not very bright.  They had a daughter, Parukutty.  Not long after, the astrologer’s words were proven right.  Capt. Menon passed away, leaving Amma to bring up her daughter.

Amma concentrated on her job as a school-teacher, after turning down the position of a college lecturer.  After a few years, she joined the school founded by her father.  For her, teaching in English was easier than in Malayalam and the school sought permission from the education authority to start English-medium classes.  The authority agreed and it enabled her to enjoy teaching.  Even though Amma taught science, she was more interested in fine arts, she said.  She says she should have given sufficient attention to not just the bright pupils but also the others.  She served as head teacher in two different schools.  She enjoyed the nature of a head teacher's job more than that of a teacher's.

What were the high points in your teaching career, I asked.  The reply was a moving story about one of her pupils when she was the head teacher.  It was about one of her pupils, who came first in school in the final examinations.  On his way out of the school after he collected his certificate, Amma, then head teacher, asked him about his plans for higher studies.  He replied that his father won't be able to afford to send him to college.  Amma, who thought highly of the pupil, gave him money to go to Palghat to see his uncle.  She advised him to see if his uncle was willing to provide accommodation and food, making it easier for his father to find money to pay just the fees.  A few days later, the pupil came back and said that his uncle had agreed to meet all the costs.  A few years later she heard that the boy came 1st in the state for his intermediate examinations and again, 1st for his degree course after a couple of years.  Amma heard years later that he had justify for America!  As we all know, no one forgets a good teacher; it is a privilege reserved for teachers.

Out of India

While at school, as a group of friends went to the local aerodrome for a brief excursion flight, an astrologer from Mahe told her that she does not need to go on the flight because she will get her chances as a grown up!  Years later the astrologer's prediction came true and Amma often travels between India, Singapore where her son-in- law's relations live, UK and other countries.

I asked Amma whether England lived up to her expectations.  She has high opinions about the politeness of the British people. Then she added, “Culturally we Indians are richer; we help others without expecting anything in return.”  She said she had expected England to be cleaner and that Liverpool was a bit of an anticlimax when she first arrived there from the spotless Singapore.  Does she miss India? “I missed it a lot initially.  Once in a while, I like to go to Kerala to feel the atmosphere in there,” she added, “… the community spirit, the social set up of people showing interest in each other.

A sense of satisfaction

Then I asked Amma about her most satisfying achievement.  “I have never been very ambitious”, she says. “My students love me.  When I'm in Bombay, my students find out about my travel plans and they organise themselves to meet up with me.  They insist that I go and stay with them.”

She was advised to choose a career in medicine but she chose not to.  Her husband then told her to encourage their daughter Parukutty to become a doctor, a wish that came true, Parukutty, now a senior doctor, is married to Vasu, another doctor.  They have two children, Sheela and Anita.  A taste for fine arts runs in the family.

What are your regrets, I asked.  Amma's main regrets are that she never used the opportunities that came along to study Sanskrit and classical music.  Having said that, she is more knowledgeable in both these subjects than most people I know!

As I ran out of questions to ask, Rocco came to my rescue.  She forced the door open and stormed into the room.  Amma persuaded her to leave the room and sat back on the sofa.

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