Review: In Search of Answers; A Memoir by K Saradamoni - Hindustan Times

Review: In Search of Answers; A Memoir by K Saradamoni

BySyed Saad Ahmed
Apr 20, 2024 05:30 PM IST

An academic and activist associated most notably with the Indian Statistical Institute, K Saradamoni’s memoir illuminates a vanished world where tomatoes were uncommon and Americans persecuted by McCarthyism found asylum in India

“Everybody has a story to tell,” emphasises K Saradamoni (1928–2021) in the prologue and epilogue to her memoir. An academic and activist associated most notably with the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), she has a trove of stories that not only illuminate her life but also the world around her.

K Saradamoni in front of the Planning Commission in the mid-1950s. (Courtesy Tulika Books)
K Saradamoni in front of the Planning Commission in the mid-1950s. (Courtesy Tulika Books)

Born in Kollam, Kerala, where she did her schooling, she subsequently studied in Trivandrum, Madras (where she was the only woman student in the Economics Department), and Paris. Her first job was with the Bureau of Economic and Statistical Studies of the Kerala state government, following which she joined the Planning Unit of ISI in Delhi. She wrote her PhD thesis in French and later published it in English as The Emergence of a Slave Caste: Pulayas of Kerala, heralded as a pioneering work on caste slavery in the state. Her scholarship focused on caste, gender, labour and agrarian issues. A year after her retirement from ISI in 1988, she moved to Trivandrum, where she was part of many scholarly and social endeavours.

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260pp, ₹995; Tulika Books
260pp, ₹995; Tulika Books

Despite her professional achievements, the memoir is not skewed towards them. Saradmoni also delves into her formative years and experiences, such as growing up in a taravad, a matrilineal joint family home; her father’s death during her childhood; and her courtship with her husband over letters. The account of these earlier years is often more evocative than that of the latter ones.

What I found most interesting about the book is the glimpse it gives into the milieus and places the author inhabited. Saradamoni mentions seemingly unimportant but insightful details about the everyday, such as how tomatoes and footwear were uncommon while she was growing up in Kerala or how the train journey between Kerala and Delhi became easier over the years. Many of the people she mentions have fascinating trajectories, such as the Thorners, a couple who were forced to leave the US during the McCarthy era and found asylum in India thanks to the renowned statistician PC Mahalanobis. There are also interesting anecdotes, such as those about the Freemasons of Kollam. There was a rumour that it comprised a “group of men who secretly chopped off the heads of those who disagreed with them” and that members took an oath before a skull on joining.

Saradamoni travelled frequently for work and leisure and chronicles these voyages at length. Thus, her observations over nine decades also provide a sweeping portrait of the changes India and the world have undergone.

While she delves into her work extensively, there is no self-aggrandisement. I enjoyed reading about her preoccupations and contributions, but found the context occasionally lacking. For an amateur reader, it can be hard at times to assess how her scholarship contributed to academic discourses and the larger body of knowledge on a subject.

In the chapter on her life in France, where she pursued a PhD under the social anthropologist Louis Dumont, she talks about navigating a new country and culture, fostering friendships, and learning French, among other topics. However, she barely dwells on her doctorate. One of the few instances is when she touches upon the genesis of her thesis: “It all began with my finding [at the India Office Library in London] a dilapidated file with the caption, Slavery in Kerala — something I had never heard of. Neither did I have a deep knowledge of slavery or the slave trade.”

However, at other times, she is forthcoming. About her initial years in ISI, she writes, “I came to Delhi after getting a job, but not exactly knowing what I would be doing at ISI. It was difficult to understand what the Planning Unit as a whole did.” In a diary entry from 1968, reproduced in the appendix, she talks about her eventual disillusionment with economics: “Where is the political economy today? Econometricians and mathematical economists and statisticians have come to the forefront. To them, models, equations and high-sounding words are more important. Man does not find a place anywhere in their picture.” More than half a century after she wrote this, many contemporary students and practitioners of the subject continue to echo her concern.

K Saradamoni outside the Maison de l’Inde in Paris in 1969. (Courtesy Tulika Books)
K Saradamoni outside the Maison de l’Inde in Paris in 1969. (Courtesy Tulika Books)

After her return to India from France, Saradamoni became interested in gender issues and what eventually came to be known in academia as “women’s studies”. Along with research projects such as Changing Land Relations and Women: A Case Study of Palghat District in Kerala and Women and Paddy Cultivation, she wrote for dailies to reach a wider audience. She also organised and participated in conferences across the globe. In these accounts, she provides a comprehensive picture of her intellectual engagements.

Saradamoni is an earnest raconteur throughout, but her memoir can be patchy and droning at times. Towards the last few chapters, her account devolves more into a sequence of events rather than a cogent narrative. By and large, however, her story makes for an intriguing read, especially for those interested in history and sociology.

While she completed the first draft of the book in early 2015, there were challenges in bringing it to publication. Her daughter Asha writes in the foreword to the memoir: “For some, her life story was something that would be of relevance only to her family and immediate circle of friends, and not a wider audience. For others, she needed to fit into a ‘women’s studies’ slot for easier marketing. So they wanted her to rewrite the book!” Saradamoni’s work might not be easily pigeonholed, but as she reminds us that everybody has a story to tell. And hers is an insightful one.

Syed Saad Ahmed is a writer and communications professional.

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