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Lakshmi Sahgal and Free Will

Patriot, communist and a free will. A tribute to the iconic Lakshmi Sahgal (1914-2012) who died last month.

The period was between the two world wars of the last century. The Madras Presidency was a mammoth, comprising the whole of present-day Tamil Nadu, a big chunk of present-day Andhra Pradesh barring the territories coming at that time under the dispensation of the Nizam of Hyderabad, present-day Karnataka minus the area that then formed the state of Mysore and, finally, the large Malabar region of Kerala as it is today.

Madras, now Chennai, was the admi­ni­strative headquarters of the presidency and the high court based at Madras was flooded with countless lawsuits both civil as well as criminal. Subbarama Swaminathan was one of the legal luminaries in the Madras High Court with a roaring practice. Some years earlier, while on a visit to north Malabar, he had a chance encounter with a saucy slip of a girl from a Nair family, got enchanted and carried her back to Madras as his bride. She, Ammu, had a mind of her own, was full of dreams and determined to carve a distinct niche for herself in life. She tutored herself in English and quite a few other foreign languages, learned the conventions and mores of society’s upper stratum, spurned conservatism of all species, was fond of rich, heavy silk saris as well as jewels and diamonds. Fond of throwing afternoon garden ­parties and planning elaborate dinner sessions, she would insist on serving western cuisine as well. Myla­pore ortho­doxy seethed with resentment but the Swaminathans were much too rich. Ammu Swaminathan yet could not ­resist the magic Mahatma Gandhi’s message began to spread. Apart from organi­sing the fledgling All-India Women’s Conference, she was soon busy, signing up house­wives for four-anna membership of the Indian National Congress. Subbarama was a loving, proud husband and indul­ged her all the way even as he kept minting money and even more money.

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