Book Title: My Life as a comrade
Author: KK Shailaja, with Manju Sara Rajan
Two months before the lockdown was enforced across the country, a rapid response team was ready to fight Covid-19 in Kerala. A medical team was stationed at each airport in the state. Medical students returning from Wuhan in China were tested and quarantined. On January 30, 2020, Kerala confirmed its first positive case. A health emergency was declared in the state on March 11. Strategies were in place to deal with up to 50,000 daily cases. By the end of the deadly second wave, the mortality rate was 0.5 per cent. Kerala had turned out to be the best performer in a crisis, and there was one woman in limelight: Health Minister KK Shailaja.
Her memoir, written along with writer Manju Sara Rajan, is about her life as a comrade and her term as a Cabinet minister. It is also the story of Malabar, where she was born, and of the growth of communism in Kerala. These intertwined histories make for an engaging read.
Shailaja was born in Kannur, one of the six districts that make up Malabar — a region “imbued by a rebellious and egalitarian sensibility”. Malabar played a major role in embracing communism, a philosophy to which Shailaja was “anointed” before she was born. Landowners’ cruelty and the chokehold of the caste system forced people like her maternal grandmother (Ammamma) to rise against oppression. She defied social mores in wearing a mundu. She would attend the Communist Party’s health classes on dealing with smallpox and put the lessons to use when she nursed a 20-year-old patient left to die, as was the norm those days.
Ammamma’s tales — of the Communists, of the Malabar Special Police’s atrocities, of her activist uncles, of the agitation for land — are inspirational and overwhelming. It is these tales that prepped Shailaja, a teacher, for a life in politics, first as a legislator from Kuthuparamba in 1996 and then as a minister in Pinarayi Vijayan’s Cabinet in 2016 where health was one of the key social sectors the government wanted to focus on.
If her stints as an MLA made her understand the government’s functioning and taught her how to deal with problems of a larger magnitude, her term as a minister was fraught with challenges. Cyclone Ockhi and Kerala floods were followed by Nipah two years after the government was formed, readying the health workers in reading symptoms, contact tracing, geomapping contacts, mock drills, safety protocol, et al. A well-developed system came handy during Covid, earning Shailaja the epithets of ‘Rockstar’and ‘Covid slayer’. However, she calls the victory a vindication of the communist dream. Which is why when she wasn’t chosen to be a part of the next government, she went back to being a comrade, and continues to be one.