Sunday, November 23, 2008

Loss and despair

(A series on childhood memories)

Her father’s untimely death and the damage to her eye were some of the experiences of R. Sreelekha, the first woman from Kerala to be a member of the Indian Police Service

By Shevlin Sebastian

“My father used to make beautiful kites,” says R. Sreelekha, the first woman from Kerala to join the Indian Police Service. It was during Onam that Prof. N. Velayudhan Nair would buy the paper, glue and the sticks. “Then he would go to the terrace of our house in Thiruvananthapuram and fly the kite,” she says.

One day, while he was handling the string he realised he needed to put some glue. He asked Sreelekha to bring a bottle of glue. As he was applying it, his hand slipped backwards and his elbow hit Sreelekha just above her eyelids with great force. Blood sprouted out and Sreelekha, in a daze, pressed her hand over the right eye. “It seemed as if my eyeball had come out,” she says.

Sreelekha’s father rushed her to an opthalmologist, Dr. Subramaniam, who lived nearby. The doctor pressed the eye back but there was one lifelong impact: “I have a squint,” says Sreelekha. “However, whenever I look into the mirror I feel proud because it was something given to me by my father.”

Sreelekha has other memories of her father. On weekends the family -- which included her elder sisters Geetha, Kala and younger brother Sunil – would play the card game, rummy, with their parents. “We played with money,” she says.

The children noticed something odd: their mother would keep losing, but she would never run out of cash. “Later, we understood the reason why,” says Sreelekha, with a smile. “My father would pass the money under the table to my mother.”

Her father, a softie at home, was a tough man in the outer world. Once, as the principal of Sree Chinmaya College at Thiruvananthapuram, he slapped a boy who was eve-teasing a lady teacher.

The next day the students came in front of the house and began shouting, “Principal, go back!” and threw stones. “My father said, ‘Ignore them’ but we were very scared,” says Sreelekha. “For three days we did not go out, but Acchan coolly went to work.” Finally the students gave up.

Peace returned to the family but not for long. On November 11, 1977, Prof. Nair, only 56, suffered a massive cardiac arrest and died. “It was like being on a boat in the middle of the sea and suddenly being abandoned,” says Sreelekha, who was 16 years old then.

At the cremation Sreelekha saw a young man crying loudly. “We came to know he was the boy my father had slapped for eve-teasing,” she says. Later, he told the family, “The headmaster was right in hitting me, because I had done something wrong.”

Following her father’s demise life became a struggle for the family. “Suddenly there was no income,” she says. “My father’s pension was meagre.”

There were many days when the children would go to bed hungry. “We would hope there would be some food to eat the next day,” she says. “It was very traumatic.”

Her mother, Radhamma, would collect coins and put it in a Cuticura powder tin. “Frequently, she would have to empty it, to buy certain things, and it was a painful sight for us,” she says. “My mother sold the utensils, the jewellery and, finally, she would take out the kasavu (golden threads) from her Kanjeeveram sarees and and sell it.”

There were many times when Sreelekha would come across her mother crying silently in the kitchen.

Apart from the day-to-day struggle to keep body and soul together, Sreelekha suffered from several painful incidents because of her dusky complexion.

“I had a classmate called Durga who was fair and pretty,” she says. “Once when the class photograph was being taken, she said, ‘Sreelekha looks like a Negro, while I am so fair.’” Durga continued to pass snide remarks at Sreelekha whenever she got the opportunity.

Her aunt also showed similar discrimination. One day Sreelekha was standing with a cousin, whom her aunt called, “Pungi Mole.” When Sreelekha asked whether she was also a ‘pungi mole’, her aunt said, “You are a monkey.”

Her grandmother was also biased. When Sreelekha wrote a short story about love, her grandmother read it and said, “Is this what young girls think about?” and tore the pages into small pieces. “It was a big shock for me,” she says.

But there were some pleasant moments too. “I met my husband, Unni (Dr. S. Sethu Nath), when we were classmates in nursery class at Model school,” she says. Sreelekha’s father and Unni’s parents were professional colleagues. “For games and other activities, the class teacher would make small groups,” she says. “And I would always go and sit next to Unni and start talking.”

She remembers one day when her father could not take her to school, Sethu’s mother, Kanakam, took them to school. “She held both our hands as we walked to school,” says Sreelekha.

She was in Model School for a year and, thereafter, she moved to the Cotton Hill Girls School. It would be years later, in college, that Unni and Sreelekha would meet again, fall in love and marry.

Today, Unni is a professor of paediatrics at Allapuzha Medical College, while Sreelekha, an inspector-general of police, is the managing director of the Bridges and Roads Development Corporation. The couple have a son, Gokul, 17, who is studying in Class 12 at Toch-H school.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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