Growing up in Kerala, I had of course heard of Sugatha Kumari. She is famous there, as a poet and as the one who saved the Silent Valley. But outside of her home state, the enormity of her work is shockingly unknown. Sugatha Kumari or “Teacher” as we call her has been instrumental in pushing for the Forest Conservation Act, thanks to which India’s forests continue to stand. In Kerala, once bare hills are now green because of her. Teacher is one person who, for me, offers the strongest proof that a single person can create a big change. Teacher is still the consummate poet. But she has been able to use literature to mobilise people and join her in the Save Silent Valley struggle and later, with Abhaya, her organisation that takes care of destitute women, mentally ill women and their children.
I met Teacher at Abhaya. There are always people waiting to see her. She meets everyone. Somehow she also finds time to write poetry, speeches and articles. There is an air of immense strength about her and everyone knows and respects her. An alcoholic husband whose wife is sheltering at Abhaya is creating a racket outside. Teacher steps out and he slinks away. Everyday she comes face to face with huge problems but she seems to be able to tackle them head on. “If I start crying, I am useless to anyone. If you want to help these people, you have to be strong,” she says. Her face doesn’t betray emotion but she is listening to everything and everybody. I mention a fish that I like and a few days later, she cooks it for my lunch.
Her protests have been Gandhian in nature. Years ago, she tells me, while protesting in Silent Valley, a group of hired goondas came to scare the protestors. Teacher who was leading the protest was sitting by a wooden pillar. One of the men came up with a sickle and started hacking away at the pillar, close to Teacher’s head. He was trying to send a message. Teacher refused to move, or show emotion. The protestors would not leave from fear. It’s not only an entire forest that brings her to the fore. While I was there, one morning I found her sitting under a tree on the road. A few other people were with her. They had been informed in the middle of the night that the tree was going to be felled and she was there to make sure it wouldn’t happen.
With her work, Teacher has shown that the pen is mightier than the sword, that art can change the world.
My father, Bhodheswaran, was a poet, activist, freedom fighter… he was an old Congressman, an idealist who was a poet of the freedom movement. My mother, Karthiayini Amma was the first postgraduate in her village, Aranmulla, in north Travancore. In 1920, she got a scholarship to study in Madras. When she came back, she joined the Women’s College as a lecturer and the family settled in Trivandrum. My sisters followed suit – my older sister retired as Principal, Women’s College and younger sister teaches English. I have taken after my father. He was a patriot and he was passionate about a lot of causes. My childhood was filled poets, writers, social activists freedom fighters gathering in my house. I grew up listening to their discussions.
Why poetry? Man’s deepest emotions are expressed in literature. His goals, his dreams, his loves, his disappointments, his sense of beauty, his sorrows… all that can affect a man’s life is transformed into poems and literature. Imagine a world without it!
I read a report on the Silent Valley, Kerala’s beautiful rainforests, and was deeply moved. I began to write about it and the response was immediate. That’s the power of words – poets and writers can communicate with people where science journals don’t.
Things were bad. But even losing battles need soldiers and I joined. We would go around singing about Silent Valley. We filed cases. The Kerala government and the Marxists were against us. When Indira Gandhi was released from jail, she formed the Swaminathan Commission. It took 7 years for their report but it led to the creation of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA). Silent Valley was declared a national heritage in 1986. The fight for Silent Valley was the first of its kind in the world. Rajiv Gandhi made the FCA stronger. Indian forests still exist because of this act.
In 1980-85, Attapady was 50% bald hills with dry canals and skinny cattle. The only source of water was the Bhavani river. When I visited Attapady, I saw traces of dry waterfalls, dead tree stumps, dry streams… the forest department was planting eucalyptus, which would further make the region dry. I had another wild dream… I secured permission for afforestation which came easily thanks to the FCA. But now we needed money for the project. Someone advised me to apply for funding from KAPAAD. We got the money, planted trees in Attapady. The tribals collected seedlings from the nearby forest and we planted them. The tree stumps started to grow. At Malleswaran Hill, a young girl named Maruti formed a women’s group to plant trees. In 6 years, the forest grew. On one visit, someone said, “I will show you something.” We walked through the forest. He stuck a rod in the soil and water spurted. A depleted water source was now revived. There is a dense forest in Attapady today. I was there to celebrate the 25th year of Silent Valley struggle. In Nelliyampatty, a stream had formed that flows into the Bhavani. I cried when I saw it.
It was in 1985 that a young man came to me and said that young women were being sold at the Trivandrum mental asylum with the help of the staff. I could not sleep that night. These women were coming here for treatment; they didn’t know what was happening to them. The next day, with a friend and with permission from the higher authorities, I visited the asylum. It was the second turning point of my life after Silent Valley.
There was a foul unbearable smell, I realised soon enough that it came from the open toilets in each cell. There were pools of faeces and urine. Rice was scattered on the floor. There were no beds or mattresses or even a pillow. Each cell had 3-4 women in it, and they were mostly naked. Some wore a torn petticoat or a torn shirt. They had matted hair and were all scratching their heads. Their bodies were covered in sores. In the 4th cell lay an old woman, maybe about 80 years old. She was totally naked. I thought she was dead and her skeleton was lying there. And then she raised her head, looked at me and said, “Daughter, I am hungry. Daughter, give me some rice.” The old woman began to repeat this over and over again. And the cry was taken up by the women in the next cell, and the next, and the next… hundreds of women started crying, “We are hungry, give us some rice.” I closed my ears and ran out, weeping.
I met the doctors and fought with them. They gave many excuses – lack of funds, union problems, government issues… Nothing can be done. this is a mental hospital, not a central school, they said. I was still crying when I left the hospital. That evening Abhaya was born. I called my Silent Valley friends and they asked, “We have a lot of work with Silent Valley. Do you want to do this also?” KV Surendranath who was also an MLA with the CPI became the President and I became the Secretary. With 3-4 others, we started Abhaya. The first thing we did was go to the Press. They supported us. We sent telegrams to ministers. The health minister had never seen the asylum. He asked the health secretary, Krishnamurthy Aiyer, who said, “I have given a report a long time ago. You all should do something.” He gave us permits to enter the mental asylums.
Political parties themselves are not interested in mental patients as they have no voting rights. When we had meetings and demonstrations to highlight the plight of the asylums in Trivandrum, Trichur and Calicut, no political or religious parties supported us. The Gandhians and Naxalites came in support of the cause, and so did the students of Calicut Medical College. A huge meeting was held in front of the Calicut Mental Asylum. On the advice of IAS officer Jeyakumar, we filed a PIL in the high court. A judicial enquiry was ordered by Justice Narendran Commission. And after that, the asylums started to repair themselves.
In the Trichur asylum, a fallen compound wall was the spot where the staff would “sell” the patients. Some of the women were dressed in cheap nylon sarees with big bindis and wilted flowers. They looked well fed and bathed. I asked the workers, “Aren’t those the patients who are fed to the police?” They brushed it off. “Would you keep quiet if they were your sisters?” I asked. There were no answers and I was ready for another fight.
We testified to the Commission, which led to many changes. The asylum was opened to the public who could come in and see how it was run. The doctors had claimed that the patients will use cloth to commit suicide. They had said the toilets should not be separate. But the commission ordered for clothes. They asked for the toilets to be separate, for dorms to sleep in. The matted hair on the patients’ heads was shaved off. Of the 1500 to 1800 patients at the asylum, those without major mental illness were discharged and allowed to return to their homes. Some of the girls returned to their homes but their families were no longer ready to accept them. Some others had forgotten the addresses of their homes and had nowhere to go to. So we started a home for them. Other women too came here – pregnant and destitute women, rape victims, women who needed help. We separated the Home into one for mentally disturbed women and another for women in distress. We also started a day care centre for mental patients. For the children of the mentally ill or the distressed women, we started Abhaya Bala to house them.
I went to a meeting in Delhi on Women and Prostitution. When I met some of the women, they said, “Don’t try to change us, we are already lost. You can save our daughters.” One Bengali girl stood up and said, “I have a young daughter. Will someone look after her?” No one said anything. So I raised my hand and said, “Give her to me.” Fifteen children came with me that day and Abhaya Bala grew.
Women came to us with problems of alcoholic husbands. We started a deaddiction centre. Somewhere along the way we got some land from the government. I too went around with a begging bowl. As a writer and poet I am invited by Malayalis all over the world. Now I go for these talks or meetings but ask for a donation to Abhaya. Since we are neither a political nor a religious organisation, it is very difficult to get money. We have managed to construct these buildings for our work. It has been a labour of 25 years. Now I am tired.
All Photographs – © Jyothy Karat