Remembering Lakshmi N Menon, a lady diplomat

LAKSHMI Nandan MENON (1899–1994)

Few would remember this unassuming, khadi clad diplomat who handled external affairs for India during and after the Chinese debacle. She held together with great dignity, the fraying edges of the visible Indian fabric, the declining clout in the international scene and the last vestiges of the NAM or nonaligned movement. Lakshmi Menon was instrumental in a determined defense of the fort after the mood went south at Delhi’s South block, led by the downcast Jawaharlal Nehru, deeply hurt and depressed after the Chinese betrayal. Lakshmi who was in the thick of things, her words and actions deeply rooted in Gandhian principles, chose not to pen her autobiography, nor did well known colleagues and writers doting on populist figures, mention her in their writings. That was always what she was famous for, working quietly behind the scenes, trying to usher order amidst chaos.

Crisscrossing the world, meeting and hobnobbing with world leaders and dignitaries did nothing to her ego and she chose to let her work do the talking. An intense and skillful orator, she easily held her ground in parliament debates and rapid-fire but sometimes foolishly crude questioning by politicians of lesser intellect. Reading about her, my only feeling is the sadness that people of my generation and those in the future never saw people of stupendous character like her. In the end, sadly, history books and collective memory tend to leave out women of such superlative talent and ability, women like Lakshmi Menon, who carried on quietly and effortlessly with their path breaking work in that cacophonic Delhi world of politics.

As AIWC’s Shobana Ranade wrote, she was not only at home with the rich and famous but also well accepted by the lonely and the lost labor class women in her home state. Perhaps it was all these qualities which made the higher being bestow upon her a long 95 years in this world among us and well, she spent each of those years as one should, in selfless fashion and with strict honesty, whilst crusading for women’s rights.

Lakshmi N. Menon was a teacher, lawyer, politician and activist. Born in March 1899 at Trivandrum to the famous reformer, and educationalist - Rama Varma Thampan and Madhavikutty Amma, the little girl lost her mother at the age of 6 and was brought up by her grandmother Lakshmikutty Amma.

Lakshmi studied at the Maharajas school in Trivandrum, continuing on at the Maharajas arts college to attain her BA in history in 1920, together with the University medal for proficiency in English. She then took to teaching at the Maharajas high school, while at the same time pursuing a master’s degrees in economics and social sciences, which she got in 1922. She then moved to Lady Willingdon training college, Madras and sailed across the seas to the Maria Grey training college London, acquiring high qualifications as an educator. During the 1920’s and 30’s, a number of luminaries influenced her thought, people like Annie Besant, Margret Cousins and Sarojini Naidu. She was in London when the ‘Mother India’ book furor erupted.

Lakshmi began her teaching career at Queen Mary’s College, Madras, where she taught till 1926 after which she moved to the Ghokale School in Calcutta. In May 1930, she was married off to the well-known Prof V.K. Nandan Menon, then a professor at the Lucknow University. She followed her husband to Lucknow where she taught at the Isabella Thoburn College until 1932 by which time she also picked up a law degree from the Lucknow University. She then practiced law till 1935 and picked up a diploma in French language from Paris in 1939. When her husband took a senior position at Patna, Lakshmi became the principal of the women’s training college in Patna 1951-53. She would always encourage community lunches cooked in one hour while teaching at the Patna College. In those lunches, they sang, debated, joked and handled more serious subjects. That was her method of team creation and empowerment of women and breaking student teacher barriers.

It was in London that Lakshmi Menon met Nehru for the first time, perhaps in one of Krishna Menon’s many gatherings at the India league. Later they traveled for a seminar together in Russia and it was while she was in Patna that Nehru who remembered the bright, intelligent and chirpy lady, convinced her to join politics and nominated her to the Rajya Sabha, getting her elected from Bihar in 1952. He later appointed her to the UN general assembly and as his minister for external affairs.

At the White House
Her exposure to the world scene started in 1948 when she was an alternate delegate to the UN general assembly's 3rd session. She then attended conferences in Beirut and other places, while continuing on her work with the UN. Overcoming initial reservations she served well, also attending to UN affairs a number of times as Alternate Delegate from India. In 1949-1950 she headed the UN Section on the Status of Women and Children. She started with the Indian government in 1952 as a deputy minister for external affairs, then as parliamentary secretary to Nehru 1955-59, continuing on as the Deputy Minister of External Affairs (Nehru was Minister for External affairs). She held the foreign affairs portfolio during the Chinese invasion and worked closely with Nehru to promote the concept of Panchsheel and the Non-Aligned Movement. Lakshmi was also involved in handling the American VOA installation issue and the problems which cropped up. In recognition of her services, the nation awarded her the Padma Bhushan in 1957, the second Keralite after Vallathol and one year before KPS Menon.

Nehru’s cabinet and working team was crowded with a number of Malayali’s and many of them are well known and much talked about. KM Panikkar, KK Chettur, VP Menon, KPS Menon, VK Krishna Menon, ACN Nambiar, NR Pillai, N Raghavan, MK Vellodi, TN Sheshan, A K Damodaran, KR Narayanan, Thomas Abraham (but I shudder adding MO Mathai to this list)... The list goes on and on. But Lakshmi N Menon, who is hardly mentioned, stood out as the lone serving female diplomat from Kerala. Nehru would often joke that the bureaucracy was afflicted with menon-gitis those days, but adding that jokes apart, they were always good at their work. In the periphery there were other women diplomats and politicians from Kerala, such as K Rukmini Menon, Ammu Swaminathan, Kuttimalu Amma, Leela Damodara Menon etc…

Following Nehru’s death, she also had a brief stint in LB Shastri's cabinet (though they had some issues when Shastri was inserted between Lakshmi and Nehru as External affairs minister while Nehru was sick) but left Delhi after Indira Gandhi took over, retiring to Trivandrum. Her stay at Delhi and as the president of AIWC (All India Women’s conference) is well remembered by all her peers and many recorded their memories, affection and immense gratitude in one of the AIWC souvenir publications.

It was in 1955 that Lakshmi Menon who had all this time been working for AIWC became its president. When reading about anecdotes written about her by her AIWC colleagues in the small booklet issued after her death, one would not miss the paragraph written by Lakshmi Raghu Ramaiah where she mentions how furious Lakshmi was during an excursion, when the men sat in one car and the wives sat in another car while setting out for a trip to see the Hampi ruins, tartly remarking that these were not the Ramayana days for such divisions.

She is often remembered as a great cook who took pains to cook special dishes with her own hands even in the middle of her busy schedules and when somebody visited her, and everybody noticed her humility- for example many remembered that even as a powerful minister with close association to Nehru, she would clear her own baggage at an airport and roll it out in a trolley herself. She was also remembered for her love for Bengali food and her promotion of simple Malayali cooking.

Another interesting anecdote is around Rajaji’s visit to Patna to speak at the university. He was met by Dr Nandan Menon, (Lakshmi’s husband) the vice chancellor at the airport, who was introduced by another local minister to Rajaji as the husband of Lakshmi Menon. Apparently Rajaji was annoyed at hearing this and in typical fashion he retorted that in Delhi, Lakshmi Menon was known as Mrs Nandan Menon. This of course went badly with the university students who demonstrated when he tried to speak at the senate hall.

At the UN
She is remembered as a tall woman with an infectious smile. She wore white khadi sarees all right, but when she went abroad it was a silk saree, as can be seen in the White House photo with Kennedy, (perhaps it was khadi silk). She would always look directly at the person she talked to and Leela Damodara Menon recalls an instance when Leela introduced herself as Mrs KA Damodara Menon (Menon incidentally was known to Lakshmi and was related to her). Lakshmi just smiled and asked her ‘But what is your name’? She was not a thunderous orator according to her peers, but logically clear in eloquence. Lakshmi was a voracious reader and a versatile writer. Her published articles are treasures, and if some of you ever get a chance to read them, as I have had, take the opportunity.

She always brought on new ladies into positions of power, though never mastering Hindi even after years in Delhi. Her dream was to see all Indian women literate by 2000 AD. Many narrate visiting her at her home at 13 Ashoka Rd., eating her home cooked food and recall the story of the establishment of the AIWC headquarters and the purchase of the building from the tough seller, after encashing her husband’s provident fund certificates (read the referenced Hindu article for the full story). People say she was a tough task master, a perfectionist, humorous, and never a ‘party faithful’ toeing any dictum. She always sent hand written replies, and never depended on a stenographer. All her friends refer to her as Didi, akka, kuttiedathi, amma or my friend, a true testament to a likeable and affectionate soul. As a minister, she did weekly AIR broadcasts on world affairs. Ask yourself, which minister does that today?

Another cause she campaigned for was prohibition, after seeing the many woes in Travancore. She was the Vice President of All India Prohibition Council along with Morarji Desai. She later took up addiction issues, and in 1988, along with A. P. Udayabhanu and Johnson J. E, established the Alcohol & Drug Information Centre (ADIC) and served as its President till her death. She also served as President of the All India Committee for the Eradication of Illiteracy among Women and also the Kasturba Gandhi Trust, New Delhi. After retirement from Delhi politics, she took to social work and writing, penning a book on Indian women. She helped found the Federation of University Women in India, and was behind the concept of Mother’s Day in India, appreciating the work of women at their homes.
With Mme Soong Chin Ling and BC Roy
She was also involved in setting up ISRO in her home state of Kerala. "On January 21, 1963, Lakshmi N. Menon, a Minister of State in Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet, replying on his behalf to a question in Parliament, announced that India would be locating its first rocket-launching facility at Thumba, a fishing village close to Trivandrum."

Once she put up this poignant question while at Bombay - How can Bombay the most affluent city sleep with a conscience having Dharavi, such a slum, in its middle?

Nandan Menon
Vadakke Kurupath Nandan Menon, Esq., B.A. (Hons.) (Mad.), M.A. (Oxon.) her husband, was a luminary himself. He served as a professor in various universities and was Vice Chancellor of Kerala and Patna universities. Short-statured compared to the tall Lakshmi, they made an interesting and wonderful couple. During the late 60’s Prof Nandan Menon spent some time at Honolulu, duly superannuated after his tenure at the IIPA, to the institute of advanced projects.

Lakshmi lost her partner and husband in 1974 and had no children, perhaps resulting from issues over an early miscarriage. Towards the end she got a bit depressed seeing the decline in true voluntarism and the demand of volunteers for compensation and positions, she even suggested that the election commission get rid of symbols on ballot papers forcing the illiterate to at least learn enough to read names.

Later in her life she was prone to falls and after one such fall in 1994, she had fractured her femur and got hospitalized. In fact her last appearance was when aged 95 to felicitate Election commissioner TN Sheshan with a Ponnada (gold brocaded shawl) at Trivandrum. Shortly thereafter, she had a fall in her bathroom. Complications arose during confinement at the hospital, she picked up a chest infection and succumbed to it. Perhaps it was time…..

Her house ‘Plain view’ located in the heart of Trivandrum was donated to the Sharada mission after her death. She also donated her late husband Prof. V. K. Nandan Menon's collection of over 4,000 books to the Trivandrum Public Library.

Until the end of her time, she had but one question and that was her main driver – why should women be denied things which are easily available to men?????

All I can do in conclusion is to reiterate what one colleague mentioned - that she belonged to the vanishing breed, the last among stalwarts. Sometimes I wish I could listen to her speech and read her handwriting, and I will always remember her fondly, a person I got to know from reading many volumes and books covering the Nehru years.

That was Lakshmi Menon, yet another giant from the past, on whose shoulders we stand….

Profiles of Lakshmi Menon – AIWC publication 30-11-1995
Women pioneers in India’s renaissance – Ed Sushila Nayar, Kamala Manekar
Learning from Life – Dharni P Sinha

NB – It is said that Lakshmi Menon is one of the signatories of the constitution of India document, an 80,000 word document (signed by all 284 members of the constituent assembly) which you can see in Delhi. However I am not so sure about that since she was elected into the Rajya Sabha only in 1952. Perhaps she signed one of the later amendments.

The Indian Constitution incidentally is the longest-written constitution that any sovereign country has. It has 448 articles, 12 schedules and over 100 amendments. It took the members of the Constituent Assembly two years, 11 months, and 17 days to draft the Constitution for Independent India. The original document of the Constitution of India which was hand drafted in both Hindi and English language, contained approximately 80,000 words.  The Constitution was signed by 284 members of the Constituent Assembly two days before it came into effect on 26th Jan 1950.

White house pics - Robert Knudsen, Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, AIWC souvenir

Adding an excerpt from one of J Devika’s brilliant and incisive articles, linked here

Writing to C.W.E. Cotton, Agent to the Governor of Madras in response to his inquiries regarding a certain Lakshmikutty Amma from Tiruvitamkoor, M. E. Watts, the Dewan of Tiruvitamkoor remarked:  “This clever young Nair lady has got on by her own efforts. She is headstrong, mannish and full of the perfervid spirit that espouses lost causes”. The young lady in question was the daughter of a retired senior official in the Tiruvitamkoor Education Department, and had taught at Queen Mary’s College, Madras, before she proceeded on leave to London for studies in 1926. There she is said to have completed studies in a year and then set off all by herself on a tour of Europe, with the help of friends, she claimed. Watts observed that Lakshmikutty had made friends with K. M. Panikkar and the “Strickland crowd”, and her antecedents made her rather suspect. Watts had been informed that early in the 1920s, as a schoolteacher in Thiruvananthapuram, she was deeply interested in Gandhi and non-cooperation, and even tried to popularise these subjects among her pupils. He, however, remarked that now she was on her way back to Thiruvananthapuram, the best place to cool her ardour.

Ref - E. Watts to C.W.E. Cotton, 13 January 1928, 317/ 877,Bundle No. 18, Confidential Files, Tiruvitamkoor, Kerala State Archives. The young lady in question did not cool her heels, really. She became well known later as Lakshmi N. Menon, Parliament Secretary to the Prime Minister of India from 1952-57, and Minister in the Foreign Affairs Department from 1957-66.

Some time ago, my pageviews crossed the million mark (this is after the google-stats came in, I had another counter whose stats I lost, midway). My heartfelt thanks to all the readers, those who came with a purpose and also those who stumbled by. Some continued on, some stuck to reading what they liked and some became my good friends.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart….