On 30 May 2021, Comrade Mythili Sivaraman quietly passed away in Chennai following a Covid-19 illness.
For about a decade before that, she had been out of action from the cultural-public sphere, owing to Alzheimer’s. Only a very few people were able to participate in her last rites, however, she was widely mourned.
Who was Mythili Sivaraman?
Mythili was a Communist leader in the true sense of the word. She abandoned a life of comfort and privilege and decided to dedicate her life to the working class.
She exposed the horror of the 1968 Keezhvenmani massacre (where 44 Dalit agricultural labourers from the communist movement were burnt alive) to the world.
She edited a magazine called Radical Review along with N Ram and P Chidambaram.
Mythili was also a fiery trade union leader. She was one of the founders of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and spearheaded the movement.
She offered deep insights into caste politics, feminism, and ecology in the context of a changing socio-political environment. Mythili expanded the horizons for the CPM and AIDWA.
She lived life on her terms, without compromising her ideals.
Where did her journey start?
Mythili was born on 14 December 1939 as the last child of Sivaraman, who had worked as an engineer at the Madras Corporation. When she was 23, Mythili went to New York for her higher education.
The struggle of the blacks and the protests against colonisation and imperialism ignited her young mind.
When working as a researcher at the United Nations, Mythili crossed several hurdles to visit Cuba. The visit determined her future.
An uncompromising war against injustices
She chose her path on the day of her brother’s marriage. A news item broadcast on a radio amid celebrations laid the road to her future. On 25 December 1968, 44 Dalit agricultural labourers owing allegiance to the communist movement were burnt alive by their feudal landlord at Keezhvenmani, a hamlet in Thanjavur.
To this day, Keezhvenmani remains a symbol of the supreme act of rebellion by agricultural labourers demanding decent wages and the horrific feudal crushing of the rebellion.
Proceeding to Venmani on hearing the news, Mythili remained consistent in documenting the injustices through her writings and laid them bare to the world.
Her activities naturally drew her to the CPM and along with Marxist leader VP Chintan, Mythili became a trade unionist.
Reader, lover, partner
From 1969 to 1973, Mythili ran Radical Review along with her friends N Ram and P Chidambaram.
CE Karunakaran met her as a reader of the magazine. They soon got married.
The couple named their only daughter Kalpana K, after freedom fighter Kalpana Dutt. When other parents were busy telling stories from the Ramayana and Mahabaratha to their kids, Mythili told the story of the cruel landlord to her daughter.
“Amma was different, not just by her work outside. She never wore silk to any family function. She’s never worn any jewellery. She doesn’t wear a mangalsutra because her marriage was unconventional. She would wear the same sari that she wears to an AIDWA meeting, to her niece’s wedding too. Looking at my amma, I realised how the ‘fascination of women towards gold and silk’ was manufactured,” Kalpana, now an associate professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras, says.
CPM leader and Mythili’s peer SA Perumal recounts an interesting incident: “Mythili had visited Thiruvarur once for party work. She had visited a village where some women shed tears seeing her. Mythili was a young leader who wore no jewellery and the women presumed she was a widow.”
“Mythili was worried about the kind of world we were living in. I told her that our people have always believed in these things, change comes slowly. So she should try and wear some artificial jewellery. But Mythili refused and said, ‘We work among the people; they should understand us’.”
Mythili’s role as a trade unionist, strengthening the movement in Chennai, remains unparalleled. At the party’s request, she started working for the women’s movement. Along with KP Janaki Ammal and Pappa Umanath, Mythili founded AIDWA and worked towards building the movement across the country.
Mythili continues to inspire anyone keen to work in socio-political and women’s movements. She was quick to reach the spot soon after an issue broke out and worked with the people towards a solution.
When the cops raped and harassed the people of Vachathi in Dharmapuri district on the pretext of ‘hunt for Veerappan’, the then chief minister Jayalalithaa continued to maintain that the incident never happened.
Mythili, along with her comrades in AIDWA, reached Vachathi on 31 July 1992, documented the atrocities, and sent representations from the survivors to the Scheduled Tribes Commission.
“The representations were a turning point in the Vachathi case,” says CPM leader P Shanmugam, who tirelessly fought for justice in the case till the court punished the guilty.
Mythili also worked in the areas of dowry, sexual harassment, police excesses, and child labour.
“When the Arivoli movement was at its peak, Mythili Sivaraman would visit Virudhunagar often to meet child labourers in the cracker and matchbox industries,” recalls educationist S Madasamy, who had closely worked with the movement.
“Something striking happened during one of her visits. Mythili hugged a young child and kissed her on the cheek, only to be greeted by a queue of children waiting for a similar expression of love. Mythili was moved to tears as she hugged and kissed every child. I will never forget her tears.”
Mythili Sivaraman, Haunted by Fire
Mythili was as equally a writer as much as a field worker. Her writings brought together several hearts that beat for human liberation.
Says Sudhanava Deshpande, managing editor of Leftward books: “Mythili is a shining example of a first-class intellectual who was also a first-rate organiser. Her book, Haunted by Fire, which we had the privilege to publish from LeftWord, is a tour de force.”
“She moves from one theme to another — from the class exploitation of factory workers to the caste oppression of Dalits and landless labourers, from issues of gender and violence to development in China, from Dravidian politics to analyses of electoral outcomes to detailed reports of assertion and resistance by the oppressed — with supreme agility and intellectual sophistication.”
A rebellious soul
“In the last 13 years of her illness, I have had the great joy and blessing of being a mother to her. In Mythili’s passing, I lost a mother, a comrade, and my child. This threefold loss is very hard to bear,” Kalpana says, but also draws comfort from Mythili’s words.
The words are a guiding light to anyone working among the people: “You cannot get anything that you cannot give. You need to give yourself. You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot manufacture a revolution. You need to be the revolution. It lies in your soul. If it is not there, it can’t be anywhere else.”
She spoke for us.
(Selva is an activist with CPM. He is currently the district secretary of the Central Chennai Committee)
(The article has been translated from Tamil by Kavitha Muralidharan)