Portrait of a partner
Aruti Nayar

Annamma Mrs K.M. Mathew: A book of memories
by K.M Mathew
Penguin Enterprise Pages 67. Price not mentioned

Annamma Mrs K.M. Mathew: A book of memoriesTHIS one is not for those who like dazzling prose that either sweeps them off their feet or awes them into submission. A touching tribute from an 87-year-old man to his wife, after 61 years of companionship. The first book of a man for a woman who wrote 25 books. He, prosaic and practical and she, an aesthete who savoured the finer things of life. Mutual respect and willingness to adapt to and empathise with each other underlines their bond.

As K.M. Mathew, Chief Editor of Malayala Manorama, in the tribute to his wife (originally published in Malayalam on her first death anniversary) says about offering jasmine flowers every day to Annamma’s photo, "Consider it an old man’s longing to scent his wrinkled days with the fragrance of memories."

In this age of instant love, Annamma’s story has a quaint appeal. It is written, in an archaic language, straight from the heart but with a rare restraint. There is no artifice, no effort to deify the woman cherished.

This book of memories is not about nostalgia, soppy sentiments or moping but an affirmation of life and enduring love, subtle and understated. The 12 chapters are titled evocatively (example, Song in the Wind, A Lingering Hum) but no melodrama creeps in because the effort is to share, that too with a disarming simplicity. He does not make a meal out of tragedy even in passages that describe her loss of voice, especially painful for an accomplished singer for whom singing was a lifeline. Neither sickness nor age could dampen her enthusiasm or spirit. The pathos or touch of tenderness emerges from showing and not telling. The character of Annamma unfolds, warts and all, as her life graph is etched with fine strokes.

No firebrand feminist, she is quite capable of holding her own and carving out and defining a distinctive role within the family and the group’s magazine Vanitha, of which she was an editor for a record-breaking 25 years. With a stubborn streak of the youngest sibling that was indulged by her parents and brothers, she often got her own way.

Content to be known as Mrs K.M. Mathew, she felt that it packed more punch than her maiden name. From the time that a diffident K.M. Mathew wished to catch a glimpse of Annamma before the marriage, but could not, to the secret looks exchanged at the marriage to the partnership that evolved over the years, the story of Annamma’s life unravels along with the waxing and waning of the family’s fortunes. The Malayali Syrian Christian girl grew up in Tamil country as a Tamil. She even changed her name to Annammal in school because all her friends had names that ended like this. She learnt Carnatic music, took oil baths and drew kolam on the threshold. Resilient and gutsy, Annamma is endearing because of her oddities not despite them. If Mathew remembers her grit and wilfulness, he also recounts the irrational fears and superstitions—a legacy of her convent days in Madurai—that took a while for her to shake off.

It is love redefined. There is no excessive emotion or exuberance but a deeper commitment and respect. Like still waters that run deep, the bond between Apa and Annamma is nurtured by not trying to change or mould the other but by adapting and taking each other for granted.

Mathew was the taster for all her recipes and a keen observer of the way she dressed up the brides, most of who turned to Annamma for make-up tips. She was a pioneer in Kerala both for her recipes and grooming tips. The time spent in the coffee estate in Karnataka, where Annamma played the violin, did horseriding and learnt to drive are vivid. It was Bombay that brought out the best in her and she nurtured her singing, dancing and cooking. A turning point in her life was when she was arrested for picketing the collectorate in Kottayam in 1959. Those 10 days in jail transformed her outlook and laid the foundation for her involvement in social work.

Each small chapter ends with a line that lingers. "Memories of her are like a favourite song. I can never have enough of it." "I now understand what she left behind. The worth of it lends meaning to the rest of my life."

As Mathew says "Our life together was a confluence of contradictions. If there was anything unusual about our marriage, it was the merging of two lives that flowed in opposite directions. This book is an attempt to share the joy of that merging. It will not be a wasted effort if it helps a few readers to understand that joy."

The joy of that partnership filters across to the readers and very eloquently too.