Taken at the Flood—A Memoir of a Political Life: Vasanth Kannabiran

Review by Kamakshi Balasubramanian

Originally published in The Book Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 8, August 2020. Reprinted with permission from The Book Review Literary Trust.

Vasanth Kannabiran’s latest book, described in this edition’s back cover as “a feminist memoir”, is a great deal more. There are at least three major narrative strands in the book: (1) central to it is Vasanth’s examination of her evolution from a conventionally married, well-educated woman into a feminist and peace activist; (2) there is the documentation of a powerful civil liberties movement in the then State of Andhra Pradesh, which in some ways has been a torch bearer for civil liberties and human rights in India as a whole; and (3) there is the gripping story of the love of a woman for a man, which rang in my ears like an ode to love itself.

In this story of Vasanth’s personal evolution, we read of her growth through various vignettes—of a little chatterbox of a girl with her pious Christian neighbours, of the early years of her marriage to a “briefless barrister”, and of the turn when their “lives were catapulted from the middle-class dream of a tidy house, a scooter perhaps, a film and ice cream for the children on Sundays, onto a completely different plane”.

“Catapulting” is a singularly apt metaphor for the incredible destiny that awaited Vasanth as her public life overtook her personal. The key factor in Vasanth’s personality, her strongest personal quality, is her extraordinary skill as a communicator—of emotional truths as well as abstract theoretical concepts in everyday language. Again and again, we read about her growth as an effective public speaker, as a writer of pamphlets, news reports, articles and essays, and as an interviewer of “invisible” people, and as a fact finder in troubled times.

Vasanth captures those seminal moments in her evolution briskly and crisply, with specific details of who, what, when, and where. Here a description of a speech she gave in 1975, a critique of a popular Telugu movie song idealizing the traditional Hindu wife, reads like the basis for a film script in its attention to succinct detail and its evocation of tension in the moment.

Vasanth’s story of how she evolved as a feminist captures the spirit of a time when many like her trod similar paths. Women (and men) who have refused to be sensitized to feminism would find her growth an eye-opener. The political person Vasanth became is closely intertwined with her feminism, which forms the bedrock on which she stood and called for justice, liberty, and peace for all. As she narrates her husband Kannabiran’s rapid emergence as a lawyer whose entire life was dedicated to the cause of civil liberties and human rights for all, we read of hardships they faced, the grimness of friends and comrades getting arrested, and the sheer terror of violence that threatened their home.

Working for justice and peace involves much more than fighting. More important than the inevitable fight against powerful oppressors is the sustained work of building institutions to serve oppressed communities and individuals. Vasanth’s role as an architect of such institutions is the main thread of her influential political life. In that work, Vasanth’s natural gift for communication found expression in the poetry and essays she wrote, the anthologies she helped assemble, the vast amounts of translation she did to connect people, and the extensive personal interviews she conducted with people whose voices would otherwise not be heard. She comes across as an instinctive journalist, a community leader, and a historian of her time.

In her narration, Vasanth often expresses wonder that regional, national, and international fora sought her out to speak to or on behalf of people working ceaselessly for peace and justice. Her exponentially increasing intellectual force, her passion for the truth she committed herself to, and the eloquence of her expression combined to project her as a voice to be heard. We read about how, during troubled times, she addressed street-corner meetings in the old city areas of Hyderabad, without anyone present physically for social and political reasons, but with “hundreds listening intently from inside their shops and behind the closed doors of their homes”.

In the context of Kannabiran’s involvement with the causes she embraced, Vasanth observes: “He was intelligent and hard working, but so are many others. What transformed him into the legend he became was that, when the moment came, he simply seized it and grew in stature to meet the challenges.” That describes exactly Vasanth also, we discover, as we read about her path-breaking efforts.

The third—and really moving—strand of the book is Vasanth and Kannabiran’s story of love, comradeship, and family life. By definition, theirs was no conventional family. It was as inclusive as a family could possibly be, and their home was a sanctuary to whoever had the good fortune to pass through their open doors. In that family, one ate delicious food, lovingly and fragrantly cooked by Vasanth herself for the most part. There was frenetic activity whenever work needed to be done to bring communities together as violent clashes broke out. There was song, poetry and the reign of the written word to be experienced in abundance. This last activity has a central place in Vasanth’s telling of her story, and it underscores the deeply embedded tradition of art and literature, both folk and formal, as a foundation in Leftist thought, and in people’s movements for equality and justice.

As Vasanth reminisces about friendships and the dynamics that influence the changing nature of many relationships, her candour is astonishing. In this, she is the ultimate straight-talk express. Her forthright opinions come across clearly, but without making her sound dismissive or resentful, as she factually recalls how she grew distant from a well-loved companion, collaborator, or friend. She describes how voluntary groups form and how, when the driving passion gets diluted over time, teams often come unglued, not necessarily broken. Since I know many of the people she talks about with her characteristic candour, I can say that, in all this, I did not feel that she was influencing me as a reader to share her likes and dislikes.

A few caveats, regardless of the fact that is so impressive: Vasanth’s book has for its sub-title, “A Memoir of a Political Life”. All memoirs are primary records for a historian. As such, clear and precise references would have served researchers well. For example, Vasanth often refers to several activists and co-workers by first name only, and that’s seldom enough to identify them correctly without a personal acquaintance. Perhaps that is for the editors to have thought about. Similarly, a one-page timeline would have been helpful.

Taken at the Flood is the personal story of an activist feminist’s political life, built on both intellectual sophistication and a broad humanity of spirit. Vasanth’s wok is an important documentation of the evolution of civil liberties and human rights movements in India at a time when our democracy was in peril. The timing of this publication is significant. When across the world there is a menacing threat to values of justice for all—and to the secular ideals that hold up democracies—Vasanth’s story is like a lightning streaking across the summer sky. Her voice is reflective, engaging, and above all, inspiring for anyone who believes in a just and free world.

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