By Chitra Ajith
"This Neermathalam tree is none other than Madhavikutty for us,” says Geetha Nazeer, the deputy coordinating editor of Janayugam.
The love that Kamala Das, also known as Madhavikutty, had for the Neermathalam, called the Caper tree in English, is legendary. It finds space is almost all of her works.
So it was natural that when a group of women from Thiruvananthapuram decided they deserved a public space of their own, they planted a Caper tree on Manaveeyam Needhi and fondly named it Madhavikutty.
“It was our dream for a long long time to have such a space where we could celebrate womanhood. We now sit under the tree and read, chat, debate, sing,” says KA Beena, a senior official at the Indian Information Service.
These women, who are part of other fora, such as the Women Writers Forum, Idam, Vanitha Kalasahithi, etc., used to regularly meet and hold public, literary functions. These fora see the coming together of women writers, mediapersons, government employees, students and homemakers. But what they really wanted, the women say, was a space for them to loiter – a space for them to sit, read, chat, make phone calls, or not do anything at all. And this space could be anything – a tea shop, local reading rooms, bus stops or even bus stops and bazaars.
After Madhavikutty passed away, the state promised to build a memorial. But, years passed, and this never came into being.
“Let us plant a Caper tree and its shade will be our meeting space,” suggested Geetha then. This was received enthusiastically by the women.
These women fanned out to find a place to plant this tree; this was when someone chanced on the space in Manaveeyam Veedhi, considered Thiruvananthapuram’s cultural corridor.
On the fourth death anniversary of Madhavikutty, on 31 May, 2013, poetess Sugathakumari and freedom fighter Koothattukulam Mary jointly planted a sapling on the road in memory of the indomitable writer.
The women now guard this tree as their own baby – watering it, clearing the weeds and worms, even monitoring its height and growth. The local authority constructed a platform around the tree, where people can sit.
Initially, this idea was scorned at, but now locals are starting to come around. “I always wondered what these ladies are doing here,” says a tea seller nearby. But now, “he’s warmed up to the tree so much, he’s even watering it,” giggles Beena.
Today, the tree is a part of every activity around the corner. It’s not just the women from the fora who meet here, but cultural activists, students, theatre personalities, transgender people and activists, office workers, everyone who wants to can come and enjoy its shade.
“We love having tea under its shade,” says one student, as another adds, “Whenever our friends come from other places, we bring them here.”
The tree has now witnessed many discussions, protests, dances, dramas, painting exhibitions and felicitation programmes over the years. An active participant, Sheela Rahulan, even arranged her son’s wedding reception here. And, of course, Madhavikutty is always in focus here. Geetha released a collection of poems here. When a prominent Malayalam actor was sexually assaulted, people gathered here to protest.
The tree turns 5 on May 31.The date also marks Madhavikutty’s demise.
Its birthday has always been celebrated grandly. It is decorated with bangles and ribbons and balloons. Madhavikutty was known for her bangles, silk sarees and big bindis – the tree too is festooned with these items. Someone invariably brings payasam and distributes it. Songs are sung and dances are performed.
“We share our smiles and tears here,” says Meera Ashok, one of the women behind this idea. “This is a place where many women come to breathe and just be. Some come here during their morning walks, some come after work. You can read here or just stare into space. No one will bother you. This is our space.”
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “One couldn’t imagine such a space for women to spend their leisure time,” says Geetha. “Someone once poured hot water over the sapling to kill it, but we never gave up. We nursed her (the tree) back to health.”
She smiles and pats its trunk. “She is in her adolescence now.” A student sitting nearby cuts in, “We can’t always go to malls and other crowded places. We need a quiet public space where we can gather or wander about.”
A Mangosteen tree was planted next to the Caper in July 2015. Vaikom Muhammad Basheer was particularly fond of the Mangosteen tree. He was known to have spent many hours under the shade of the Mangosteen tree that grew in his front yard.
“We are planning to plant more trees down this road,” smiles Meera. “Each tree should be linked to one writer. Let Manaveeyam veedhi honour writers with this special tribute.”