Abject poverty, deprivation—in those days, these were the only things that flourished in my native Punnapra, in the Alappuzha district of Kerala. We did not suffer too much, though, because our father ran a grocery shop. He was a social activist respected by all. He had leased some land from some land-owners of Vendhalathara and cultivated it. He built a house there too. With the income from agriculture and the grocery store, we could make ends meet.
My school was in an area where upper-caste people lived and I had to walk past a temple to get there. The well-to-do, upper-caste folks would ridicule the less fortunate, beat and chase them away. Many children would discontinue their studies. I was once attacked and confronted with: “Who are you to walk this way to school?” I tried to stand up to them and return their abuses, but finally ran away. I told my father all this. He was not one to put up with any form of caste or religious intolerance. He made a chain for me to keep wrapped around my waist and told me to use it if I was stopped again. As expected, I was confronted again. I pulled out the chain and whirled it at my attackers. They ran away.
My parents passed away when I was very young. I gave up school to join the Aspinwall Company. Trade unionism was buoyant in Alappuzha and the coir workers’ union had successfully boycotted work. Their most important demand was an increase in wages by one anna. Some of our demands went unmet, and the union was divided about discontinuing the strike. However, the union president, Krishna Pillai, taught us that we should withdraw the strike, strengthen the union and then take up the other demands. He taught us how to deal with situations. I first heard ems speak at a public meeting on the Alappuzha beach in 1938. When akg was hiding in Muhamma, it was my responsibility to take secret letters and newspapers to his hideout. I knew him well. When I was 17, in 1940, it was my duty as a party member to organise the many unions—like the toddy tappers’ union, coconut-tree climbers’ union and so forth, and work among them as a leader. Three years later, I resigned from my job, established a Communist party chapter and became the secretary. We would eat what was given to us, bathe in the temple ponds and sleep wherever we could. In the mornings, we would set out for the paddy fields and speak to the workers there. We would go to their homes and understand their problems. We would invite them to join us at the party meetings. Many workers became cadres, and a strong paddy field workers’ union was created. We founded similar unions in other areas too. For three years, I was totally dedicated to this sort of work. We worked towards eradicating caste intolerance and because of the presence of the unions it gradually declined.
The paddy workers’ union was very active in the Mangalam wetlands. The land-owners employed permanent and temporary workers. The permanent workers were like slaves and were given only half the wages of what the temporary workers earned. During the harvest season, the permanent workers got a bundle of grain as the day’s wages, and at the end of the harvest, after some phony calculations, about 10 to 15 measures of rice was given to each of them. But this time, the permanent workers at Mangalam demanded 100 measures of rice. And they began to strike—the harvested sheaves of grain were left without threshing for 12 days. The strikers withstood all kinds of threats and beatings. In the end, the landowners came down on their knees and agreed to give 100 measures of rice as wages. I stayed near Kavalam and engineered the strike from there. This strike set off huge tremors both in Kuttanad—the rice bowl of Kerala—and outside. It was pivotal in building the paddy field workers’ unions.
As told to Minu Ittyipe
V.S. Achuthanandan: the last man standing against corruption (‘I had a chain at my waist’).
Prasanth Nambiar, Melbourne
And now all paddy fields stand without cultivation, most industries are shut down. Young people have to leave Kerala for jobs. All thanks to the rampant trade unionism espoused by the Left parties. Lal salaam.
Praveen Matt, Taupo, New Zealand
The annual issue was fabulous and cpi(m) leader V.S. Achuthanandan’s memories more so (‘I Had A Chain At My Waist’, Nov 5). The man is an institution who scares even the almighty politburo. Sad though that he clings on to an archaic view of Leftist ideology.
Your ‘Being Seventeen’ special is indeed a collector’s issue. The section on comrade Achuthanandan made for nice reading. Though only 17, the magazine shows a maturity in journalism beyond its age. Here’s to many more birthdays.
G. Anuplal, Bangalore
Apropos A City Rooted In Beginnings (Nov 5), life has changed so much in Chandigarh since I was born there 45 years ago. My parents, grandparents would tell me stories of Partition, early Independence. I talk to my children about life without mobile phones, 24-hour cable TV.
R.B. Jain, Delhi
I had the privilege of meeting Vishwanathan Anand at cst airport, Mumbai (Nights Full Of Chess, Nov 5). I mustered up some guts and walked across to ask for a photograph. Result: a handshake and a picture that will stay in my Facebook album forever!
Jayaprakash Bandu, Dallas
There seem somthing special with 'mallus'
They cry rooftop about rights. But responsibility
seldom touches them. At seventeen most are gullible,
but dare to dream going Gulf to do slavery jobs forgettingthe 'fists'
they aired, and slogan they shouted in village rally.
What a paradox?
I deeply appreciate Mr Achutanandan for his concern for the oppressed and his dedication in their welfare.For the modern generation that is chasing money and ending in vacuam,people like Atchnanadan are role models
I also would like to state one more aspect of union movement.While applauding communist party's work,unions are not answer to every labor problem.As a result industry and growth in Kerala and west Bengal where communism ruled has stagnated.Striking a balance would have resulted not only better social justice but also more happiness for people who look for growth too.
Thanks to the leadership of men like these ( alongwith a dead judicial system ), industry is dead in Kerala today, and no industrialist in his right mind will touch it with the end of a barge pole.
Malayalis resort to militant unionism @ home, but withstand the worst sub-human work-conditions in the Gulf. This shows their duplicity. If they felt the same way about their own land, they would have prospered with their own agriculture fields & industries instead of serving as bonded labour (yes, literally bonded because that is what the contracts are ...) in the Gulf. I hope the Marxists and the ruling Kannur clique realise this and tone down the unionism, so industries can re-start & agriculture prosper. The Gulf's loss could be Kerala's gain.
And now all paddy fields in Kerala stand without cultivation, most industries are shut down. Young people have to leave the state for jobs. All thanks to the rampant trade Unionism espoused by the leftist parties. Thank you once again to them for ensuring that Kerala has minimal industrial pollution as there are no functioning industries at all
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