05/07/2016 6:32 PM IST | Updated 19/07/2016 8:45 AM IST

Malayalam Journalism In My Time Was A Man's World: K.R. Meera

Courtesy Penguin Books

K.R. Meera is one of Malayalam's most popular writers, known to readers of English for the much-acclaimed 'Hangwoman' (2014), described as a contemporary epic. In her latest novel in translation, 'The Gospel of Yudas', she looks back on the Emergency and its effect on Naxalites in Kerala.

The protagonist, Prema, is obsessed with 'Yudas', a former Naxalite, who is living with the guilt of having spilled information about his comrades under police torture, and is atoning his lapse by retrieving dead bodies from lakes. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

At the end of 'The Gospel of Yudas' you say that the idea of the story came to you from a comment made by a friend. Can you elaborate on that?

The unfurling of the Gospel began in February 2007, during an international colloquium in Delhi bringing together about forty writers. That was a difficult phase of my life as I had lost my job only three months ago. We were in the auditorium chatting, waiting for Gloria Steinem to speak, when my friend and well-known poet, Anitha Thampi, said she had heard of a Naxalite who was tormented by the guilt of giving in and blurting out what he knew under police torture. We couldn't speak more about it as Ms Steinem had appeared on stage by then. But while sitting there, I experienced the tremor of a great egg of a story hatching and struggling to spread its wings.

Does the character of 'Yudas' have a real-life inspiration? Is his profession – retrieving drowned bodies from lakes – common in Kerala?

There are 44 rivers and many lakes and ponds in Kerala and naturally there are many deaths by drowning. So, yes, there could be someone in every village who is daring and efficient in diving and retrieving dead bodies. But no, my Yudas has no specific real-life inspiration. Yudas is one of the garbs my ridiculously utopian love has sought to drape itself with.

If the Left government fails us this time, I am afraid that in another five years Kerala will be like any other North Indian state, ridden with caste politics, communal riots, honour killing and even militancy.

How old were you when the Emergency was called? How did it affect your life then and after it was lifted?

Like Prema in the story, I was only five. It didn't have any direct impact on me but I do remember the word resonating so much that I was familiar with it ever since. I can recall an old woman who was a cashew factory labourer calling Indira Gandhi names and someone explaining it was because of the Emergency. Once it was lifted, in the years that followed, I frequently chanced upon the word in my reading. By the time I became a journalist and started observing the machinery of the State from close quarters, the idea of fascism became more palpable. Power, be it political or corporate or patriarchal, all through history has manifested itself via two weapons – terror and manipulation.

Was party politics, especially Naxalism, a part of your life when you were growing up?

Personally, I can never touch a weapon ever or physically attack anyone. The only weapons I can ever use are words and my creativity.

My grandfather was a freedom fighter and was the member of the Congress party in the beginning. Later, he drifted to communism and helped to build the party in Central Travancore, but he fell out with it too. I grew up hearing stories about him and his colleagues from my mother. Also, Sooranad, the land of agrarian uprising in the 1940s and 50s, was our neighbouring village, and there were many stories about the sacrifice and heroism of the early communists which had great influence on me.

It was in my teens that I read about Naxal Varghese and he became my icon, like some of the early communists like P Krishna Pillai, Kottathala Surendran and Chelakkottethu Kunjiraman. When I found out that Naxal Varghese was killed on 18 February 1970 I had goosebumps. I loved to believe I was his rebirth because I was born the next day! I was a fan of the legendary K Ajitha, who is now a social worker, and over the years, my love for her has grown stronger. I had been fascinated by the stories of K Venu and Gopinath Kurikkal. K Venu also figures in the Gospel. And I love Madhu Mash, who accompanied me to Kakkayam and showed me around.

How do you feel about the state of contemporary politics in Kerala?

If the Left government fails us this time, I am afraid that in another five years Kerala will be like any other North Indian state, ridden with caste politics, communal riots, honour killing and even militancy.

You joined 'Malayala Manorama' when there were few women working in the newsroom. Can you talk about your experiences as a woman journalist in Kerala and some of the work you did?

When I joined journalism I had dreamed of reporting war, quakes and terrorist attacks, but I was not even assigned a beauty contest. Malayalam journalism in my time was a man's world. I am not sure how it is now. My first major investigative story was about the plight of the women labourers in the unorganized sectors. Since the story idea was turned down by the senior news editor, I did it on my own. After a big fight, it got published. The story provoked the weaving mafia and one of them threatened to kill me. I translated the story myself and sent it for the PUCL Human Rights Award for Journalism and it won.

During the CPM-RSS political riots in Kerala, I was asked if I can report on the plight of women in the area. My story, published as a series, was widely appreciated. By then whatever misunderstanding the senior news editor had about me had vanished. Many stories followed and my byline started becoming popular.

Of the offbeat stories I have written, one was about the only lady lorry driver in the country, called Malarkkodi. I travelled along with her in the lorry and wrote it. I was asked to wear a turban so that other lorry drivers and cleaners would think I was a man.

In 2005, six women journalists were invited to suggest ideas on 'How Safe is Kerala for Women'. I said we should travel to different parts of the state on the same day at the same time and record our experiences, and I was assigned to lead the project. I don't think there was another series in the history of Manorama or any Malayalam daily which made such an impact.

How do you think the status of women have changed in contemporary Kerala?

When my series on sexual harassment at workplace was published in 1999, I used to get a number of abusive calls from readers, mostly men. When we published the series 'How Safe is Kerala for Women', the reaction from a senior lady police officer was shocking. She wrote no unfortunate incident would happen if the women reminded the perpetrator gently that he too had a mother/sister. I am not blaming her, but this was the attitude of educated and empowered women even in the 2000s. We have come a long way in less than a decade. The cyberspace has opened up a platform for many women to voice their observations and statements on politics, society and gender.

Still, has the status of women changed? Not much. The imbalance between empowered women and unempowered men is so alarming that an increase in gender-related crimes can be expected in the coming days.

Do you work in Kottayam or do you have to get away to another place in order to write?

I have made it a rule that I will go out of the house to write anything serious or long. I can't stand my family while I write.

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