The most significant turning point, which changed the entire course of my life came unannounced & without any fanfare half a century ago, in the form of an old newspaper which a tailor used to wrap my newly stitched blouse, that too in a sleepy town, Kollam in Kerala. Unbelievable but true!!
In the year 1962, I was working as an underpaid, under aged Tutor in the Department of English in Sree Narayana College for women, Kollam. I was actually a Postgraduate in Politics with a high First Class & rank from the University of Kerala & an ex-student of Sree Narayana College. But unfortunately, I could not get a lecturer’s post in the same College despite three vacancies there & my brilliant, record breaking performance in the Exam. Reason? I belong to the ‘Nair’ community, not ‘Eazhava’ & therefore ‘Eazhava’ candidates with a low second class were preferred by the SNDP Management, which is named after Sri Narayana Guru, strangely, whose principle is, ‘One Caste, One Religion, & One God’.
Of course there are number of ‘NSS’ colleges which belong to ‘Nair’ Service Society. But the Nair Society’s Services were not available for me because I did not have Rs15,000 demanded as donation. Even now, I hang my head in shame that during my interview in NSS college, I had to produce a letter from my father’s friend, a prominent judge which says, ‘Sreedevi is the daughter of Mr. Pillai , a renowned advocate & belongs to one of the ancient Nair Tharavadus in Kottayam.’ This letter was pinned on top of my degree, mark list & various certificates for interstate Debate, Oratorical & Essay competitions. Just Imagine!!
Gradually, all my dreams of going to ‘London School of Public Administration’ as my Professor insisted or writing IAS Exam were shattered due to the sudden & unexpected tragedy of my father’s irrecoverable paralysis & the abrupt end of our luxurious life style. The only income, rent from three houses was not enough even to meet the huge medical bills, my sister’s education & hostel stay.
Naturally, when I was offered a Tutor’s job with a sort of vague promise that I may be considered for a lecturer’s post in future vacancy by a prominent member of the SNDP, I joined rather reluctantly as an English tutor in Sree Narayana College.
But, soon, I started enjoying my popularity in the Staff Hostel, thanks to my ability to mimic, sing parodies about professors and entertain the ‘bored’ lecturers in the absence of the various modern sources of entertainment.
Then, on one fateful Sunday, I was summoned by Professor Kalyani Panikkar, a middle-aged, self-appointed guardian of all the youngsters, with a permanent frown of disapproval on her face. Naturally, I was expecting a lecture on the necessity of dressing up modestly (my fashionably stitched blouse was an irritant to her), frequenting the beach, giggling like a 16 year old etc. But to my shock, in a soft voice she asked me to sit down and went inside. Though surprised at her unusual hospitality, I started surveying her spacious single room with all enviable ‘luxuries’, like transistor, table fan, velvety bed covers & of course a huge picture of a smiling , much younger looking Kalyani & her ‘suited’, handsome Doctor husband, adorning the wall.
Without much preliminaries, Professor Kalyani came to the point, in her matter of fact tone, ‘Kutty, I selected you for carrying the banner of AKPCTA for the protest march next Friday, as you are the youngest member of our staff and..and’ she paused, almost stared at me & added, ‘attractive and you know it’.
I was on the verge of tears as I could feel her unmistakable sarcasm. And I did not even know what was this AKPCTA which she referred as though it was UNO.
As though reading my thoughts Professor explained, ‘Kutty, AKPCTA means All Kerala Private College Teachers Association. I’m the president of the Women’s wing. There is a protest march against Management Colleges for not implementing UGC scales of pay. We are going to march wearing black blouse, white sari & a black badge, clear?’ she smiled as though she was bestowing a great favour on me.
Anger, frustration & of course envy at the superior status of the ‘old’ woman in front of me, made my answer louder than the intended mumble & I said, ‘Sorry, ma’am. I can’t do that. I’m not even a permanent member of the staff & the leave vacancy is over in a week’s time.’ I paused, suddenly realizing my raised voice & added, ‘I don’t even have a black blouse.’
Professor gave a broad grin revealing for the first time her ‘gold capped tooth ‘ & came near me. Patting my back, she continued, ‘C’mon, don’t worry about trivial matters. Just get me your measurement & blouse material; I’ll make sure you get the blouse, oh yes, fashionably tailored by my tailor.’
And that black blouse came wrapped up on a newspaper bit which changed my entire life....
The newspaper showed a big Ad saying:
‘A new Women’s college, Maharajah’s College for Women in Vizianagaram, Andhra Pradesh, wants Lecturers in all subjects. UGC scales of pay. Eligible candidates have to attend an interview at their own expense.’
When confided in my close friend, Subha, my decision of applying to Andhra Pradesh to take my sweet revenge on the caste-ridden Kerala, she supported me whole heartedly.
That evening, I entertained my usual audience about my encounter with Professor Kalyani, adding flowers & frills. In between laughter, Subha announced about the newspaper wrap of
Kalyani’s tailor, my decision to apply for that job in Andhra Pradesh and my hesitation in attending an interview in Vizianagaram at my own expense.
Suddenly, Professor of Mathematics who enjoyed my jokes, ignoring her ‘superior status’ & named me ‘Honey’, said in a very serious tone. ‘Honey, I have a solution to your problem. Subha, get a paper & pen, write down the application I dictate, send it along with the copies of your certificates & let’s see what happens.’
Without a word, Subha wrote down in her best hand-writing the application with this concluding paragraph.
‘Sir, I am sending you all the true copies of my certificates & testimonials but unfortunately cannot afford to come for an interview at my own expense’.
Ignoring our chorus of ‘What, What?’ Jaya continued, ‘sh..sh… continue to take down what I say, don’t interrupt, next paragraph’.
‘Sir, may I ask, what is this interview for? I suppose, it is to have an idea of my personality. For that purpose, I am sending a clipping from the College magazine which again is a proof of my qualification. If you find any difference between the original & the true copies of my certificates, you can summarily dismiss me.’
The very next day, I posted Subha’s handwritten application along with a picture of an impressive, smiling young lady in two plaits with the caption:
‘They, while their companions slept
Were toiling upward in the night.’
In the evening, when Jaya announced that the letter was a joke, which she never, ever thought I would post, I became the laughing stock. But, I stoically accepted it for my ‘past sins’ of making fun of the elders. But, Jaya consoled me that I would at least get some marriage proposals from Vizianagaram & if not, she would get me married to one of her younger brothers. All my good friends reassured me that the ‘letter incident’ would be our great secret.
So, imagine our surprise to get a reply-paid Telegram from ‘MANSAS’ (Maharajah Alak Narayan Society Of Arts & Science) appointing me as Lecturer in Political Science with UGC scale of pay & requesting me to join immediately….
I was received at the Vizianagaram Station by none other than the ‘Diwaan’ of Vizianagaram. He showered compliments on my courage to send such a letter. He said, there were many candidates for that post but, Mr. P.V.G Raju , the then Education Minister of Andhra Pradesh & the last Maharajah of Vizianagaram who, donated his Palace for the Women’s College, found the ‘smart, intelligent candidate from Kerala, with her novel, impressive way application’, the most suitable candidate .
Three years later, when I was warden of the Women’s Hostel, I yelled at two young Lieutenants, who came inside the hostel mistaking it as a tourist spot. This triggered a stormy love affair between Lt. Krishnan & me and ended in our happy marriage of forty-six years.
Now, don’t you agree with me that Professor Kalyani’s tailor’s newspaper wrapper changed the entire course of my life?