|Parameswaran Pillai Govinda Pillai or PG as he is fondly known, was born on March 25, 1926 in an upper middle class land-owning family in Pulluvazhi village in Perumbavoor in Kerala’s Ernakulam district. A traditional Nair landlord of the times, his father M N Parameswaran Pillai and his god-fearing mother K Parukkutti Amma, a house wife, had cherished conservative values of the day although they were known for their compassion and concern for others. Gods, religion and spirituality had a major presence in his family.|
Those were the days when feudalism held sway in rural Kerala and its worst victims were the lowly agricultural workers. The landlords owned all the land which was tilled by the workers who had no share in either the property in which they worked all their lives or even in what they produced. Moreover, the landlords could at their sweet will, drive out any worker from the homesteads where he lived for generations as there were no tenancy rights either. The most common sight those days was the physical torture often publicly inflicted by the landlords and their cronies on the poor farm workers who try to resist or question their cruelty. PG has often cited an incident which left an indelible mark on his impressionable mind as a school boy. While he was returning from school one day PG was struck by a scene where a worker who was known to him closely was being subjected to severe whip-lashing by a local landlord after tying him onto a coconut tree. His wife and children were seen wailing inconsolably as they were being driven out from the hut in which they lived for generations. The memories of the chilling scene has never left him ever since. PG has often mentioned this as the first incident which made him take note of the plight of the poor around him.
PG’s school education was mostly in neighbouring Christian schools and one of his favorite teachers was a priest who made a lasting influence on him in many ways. The schools had also inculcated in him a deep and life long interest in Christianity and Bible, subjects on which he wrote and spoke so much later in life. Simultaneously, owing to his devout Hindu family background, PG grew up as a god-fearing young boy attending local Hindu religious festivals and also going on pilgrimage to temples far and wide. As he was entering adolescence PG’s spiritual interest began to grow more and he even joined the Advaita Ashram at nearby Kalady- Adi Sankara’s birth place- run by Swami Agamanandan to learn Brahmasootra. PG’s famed love for books also began here as the Ashram had a well-stocked library. He got familiarized with many of the world classics here which included even many books on rationalism, science, modernity etc. Ironically, by the time his stint was over in the Ashram, PG had become a budding agnostic, suspicious of the existing certainties about god and the other world.
By the time PG joined for his pre-graduation course in the Union Christian College, Aluva, one of the state’s best educational institutions, he had developed a serious interest in politics and social affairs. Struggle against colonialism was attracting millions of young Indians like a magnet from all over the country. PG also was overwhelmed by the passion and joined Congress as a student worker and was in the forefront of the Quit India movement which rocked the country in 1941. However at that time in the U C College as elsewhere in the state, younger generation of political activists was fast moving towards the Left and to the nascent Communist Party of India. They included most of PG’s close college friends like P K Vasudevan Nair who later became a top Communist leader and kerala’s Chief Minister (besides becoming PG’s brother-in-law), Malayattur Ramakrishnan who became a prominent civil servant and noted novelist.
Even after they became active members of the All India Students Federation, the pro-CPI student organization, PG continued for some more time with the Student Congress. However long hours of discussions and debates with the legendary Communist leader P Krishna Pillai who used to frequent the college to talk to students gradually turned PG also towards the Left. Other major influences of those days which PG always used to point out as having shaped his personality and perspective were of Kuttippuzha Krishna Pillai, a celebrated writer and rationalist who was his teacher in the UC College and also of N V Krishna Warrier, a prominent scholar and writer who used to work those days with nationalist movement’s radical wing. Another teacher whom PG fondly remembers is Prof. M P Paul, noted literary critic in Malayalam who had a major role in nourishing his interests in arts and letters.
By the time he completed the college, PG was fully immersed in student politics and had even become a formal member in CPI in 1946. It was in order to wean him away from the dangerous world of politics and also to chalk out for him a brilliant future, PG’s father sent him to the elite St Xavier’s College in Mumbai for graduation. His father’s dream was to see his eldest son as a barrister or an ICS officer and he had plans to send PG to London after his graduation. However the son had already decided on his course by then. Immediately after arriving in Mumbai he started associating with the CPI even as he had enrolled for B A (Hons) in Politics in the St Xaviers. Bombay was the hub of Left Trade union and student movement those days and PG threw himself headlong into it. His colleagues in AISF then included stalwarts like Rosa Deshpande, Mandakini (Narayanan) etc.
The CPI was banned during the time and at the time of university examinations, PG was inside the Arthur Road prison arrested in connection with certain agitations. Later he was moved to Yervada jail in Pune where his prison mates included Balraj Sahni who subsequently became a prominent cinema actor, Y S R Chari, a top lawyer later, S S Mirajkar et al. It was his first arrest and on his release after 16 months PG returned as per party instructions to Kerala without the university degree for which his father sent him to Mumbai.
On arrival in Kerala, the party entrusted him with work among the agricultural workers and peasants. PG started his association with the Kisan sabha , CPI’s farmers organization, along with work in the student movement as well. The first democratic elections after the country won independence was held to Travancore-Kochi assembly (Kerala as yet unborn was divided into Travancore-Kochi and Malabar regions) in 1952. CPI fielded PG to contest from his native Perumbavoor and he won the seat despite its traditional anti-Left background to become one of the youngest legislators.
PG was soon elevated to the CPI state council at the age of 25. After the end of his first legislative term in 1954, party sent PG to Delhi to work in the CPI headquarters. It was E M S Namboothiripad, then a Poliburo member who handpicked PG to assist in his work. Here PG also worked with New Age, the party weekly with which began his life in journalism. It was during this time that he had closely worked with the legendary Communist, A K Gopalan who was Opposition leader in Loksabha. As noted Communist and writer Mohit Sen observed in his autobiography it was then that PG had provided the ‘intellectual ballast for AKG’. PG fondly remembers his association during the period with Leftist intellectual and eminent journalist Nikhil Chakrabarti whom he considers as his first ‘guru’ in journalism. On September 9, 1956, PG married M.J.Rajamma, a college teacher (Philosophy) and niece of M N Govindan Nair, the tall Communist leader and then CPI state secretary.
The first assembly elections held after the formation the state of Kerala (unifying Travancore-Kochi and Malabar) in 1957 saw the historic victory of the CPI. The first ever Communist government of the country was formed under Chief Minister E M S Namboothiripad and among the 60 party legislators was PG too who won again from Perumbavoor defeating veteran Congress leader and senior journalist K A Damodara Menon. PG played a stellar role in and outside the legislature, in many of the path-breaking moves of the first Communist government. The government however was short-lived as the anti-Left forces in the state led by the Congress, Christian Church, Muslim and Hindu organizations etc had unleashed a major agitation for its ouster which culminated in the central Congress government dismissing it in 1959. In the ensued general elections which saw the grand anti-Communist alliance’s victory, PG too was among the many defeated Communist contestants. K M Chacko of Indian national Congress won the Perumbavoor seat in the election.
The onset of sixties saw PG leaving Kerala again for Delhi on party instructions to work with the head quarters and as an editor with the Peoples Publishing House, a party institution. “I picked my first editing lessons at PPH” says PG whose associates there included young intellectuals like Mohit Sen and TKN Menon. The momentous split in the party occurred in 1964 when PG was in Delhi and he stood with the CPI(M) even though his close relatives like M N Govindan Nair and P K Vasudevan Nair remained with the CPI.
As PPH fell under CPI’s control PG soon returned to Kerala and promptly got arrested along with hundreds of other CPI(M) leaders across the country in the wake of Indo-China war. While in prison PG like many other CPI(M) leaders contested the elections of 1965 and emerged victorious. However as no party had won majority to form government the state came under President’s rule. After more than an year behind bars PG came out and took up the Chief Editorship of Desabhimani the party mouthpiece which the CPI(M) wrested from CPI. He remained Chief Editor for two decades during when Desabhimani acquired a quality and professionalism much beyond what could be expected of a party organ. In 1967 the party again asked him to contest assembly elections and he won for the third time from Perumbavoor. But the second EMS-led government which came to power after the elections too could not complete its term as it fell in 1969 owing to differences within the ruling coalition.
PG who was also CPI(M)’s state committee member continued his editorship of Desabhimani in the seventies during when he also emerged as one of the key ideologues of the party and a leading voice in Kerala’s cultural world. He was considered as the Left spokesman on cultural affairs next in importance only to EMS. PG also emerged during this period as a major educationist and served in various committees and panels on the field including the syndicate of Calicut University.
In 1975 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared state of internal emergency when all democratic rights to differ and dissent were brutally repressed. Stringent restrictions were clamped on media’s freedom and most leaders of the Opposition including those of CPI(M) were put behind bars. Desabhimani though had tried initially to put up valiant resistance against the trampling of democratic rights could not continue on the same vein due to the repressive ways of the state. PG found it was not worthwhile to be at the helm of a paper which could not exercise even basic rights of expression and freedom. With permission from the party he decided to utilize the time better –while continuing as editor- and pursue one of his favorite academic interests. He undertook a project to do research in folk arts and culture and joined Mysore University with a fellowship. PG however remained active in the political and cultural activities in the state during the period and was instrumental in bringing up Desabhimani Study Circle as a major cultural movement which tried to push the envelope and challenge the authoritarian ways of the government.
After the emergency was lifted and the Congress party was trounced in the elections, all the fundamental rights and freedom were re-established in the country. Even as he continued as Desabhimani editor PG took major initiatives to nourish the world of good cinema in Malayalam. It was PG who took initiatives along with many others and party’s support to form two film societies - Janasakthi and Kairali- which ventured into producing and distributing meaningful and committed cinema in Malayalam. Manninte Maaril, a film produced by Kairali and directed by P A Backer attempted new initiatives in cinematic form and content. The series of film festivals organized by Janasakthi across the state helped nourish the vibrant film society movement in Kerala.
1980s marked a watershed in PG’s political career. His relationship with the party underwent some major upheavals during the period. PG first faced disciplinary action from the party for having given asylum in his house to K Venu, top CPI(ML) leader who was on the run during the Emergency. It was not so much for PG’s affinity towards the CPI(ML) as it was for his personal friendship with Venu which made him offer him shelter. For PG was one of Venu’s early mentors in politics before he joined CPI(ML). PG however justifies the party’s disciplinary action against him as he admits his act was unbecoming of a disciplined and responsible party leader. PG had to quit Desabhimani’s editorship in 1983 as a punitive action by the party.
On another occasion PG attracted punitive action from the party again for his alleged carelessness in financial management during his association with Kairali film Society. Subsequently PG again rubbed the party the wrong way when he openly stood against the party position on the issue of Silent valley hydel project. PG publicly threw his lot with the environmentalists to oppose the project which was in direct conflict with the party’s stand. Later PG once again fell out with the party when he openly criticized the repression of the student revolt in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It was some of these incidents which made him lose his membership in the party state committee more than once although he was reinstated later.
By the middle eighties the party had assigned him along with some others to build up the AKG Centre for Research and Studies as part of the party state head quarters in Thiruvananthapuram. During the period he also worked as chairman of the Kerala Press Academi, a state-run institution which worked towards increasing quality in journalism. He also won during those days his first Kerala Sahitya Academi award for his seminal book in Malayalam; ‘Marxist Aesthetics; History and Growth”.
During the Left Democratic Front (1987-91) government led by E K Nayanar, PG was entrusted with a new job as Chairman of the Kerala State Film Development Corporation. He was assigned to take the post again during the next LDF government’s period 10 years (1997-2001) later when he founded the Centre for Development of Imaging Technology (C-Dit) a state-of-the-art institute in the frontier area of new media. It was also during his term as chairman the KSFDC set up a string of movie theatres in different parts of the state. Another major achievement during PG’s second tenure at the helm of KSFDC was the successful conduct of the Filmotsav, the international film festival at Thiruvananthapuram.
The party for the first time fielded PG to contest in the 1998 parliamentary elections. However PG tasted defeat -his second in six electoral outings- then from Mukundapuram Loksabha seat at the hands of A C Jose of Congress (I). However it was one of the narrowest Communist defeats in the traditionally anti-Left seat.
The year 2003 saw PG attracting the severest punitive action from the party. Reason was his sensational interview published in Bhashaposhini in which he made some critical remarks on EMS and the party. PG was dropped from the party State Committee and directed to start functioning at the lowest levels of the organization. He was also divested of his post as general editor of the Collected Works of EMS. PG once again accepted the party verdict whole-heartedly; “As a state committee member I should not have publicly spoken anything different from the party line”. However he does not subscribe to the charges that he attempted to tarnish EMS. “How could I do that to some one who was my mentor in life and politics ? I had only made certain remarks which were critical of some of his deeds. He had always tolerated such criticism when he was alive and that was his greatness”.
PG devoted most of his subsequent years for writing some important books. Within a span of highly productive 3-4 years PG completed 4 major books including the political and intellectual biographies EMS, Engels, Bishop Mar Gregorios and also one on Kerala renaissance. “I consider these four as my most important books” says PG. The period also saw PG as a major foreign affairs analyst on television as he used to anchor a popular weekly programme called ‘PG and World’ on the Kairali television channel besides being a regular face on other channels.
Year 2007 was not a good year for PG’s health. Early in the year he met with a road accident in which he broke his ribs. Though he could recover within months and become active again PG had to undergo a cataract surgery for his falling eyesight worsened by a diabetes-induced retinopathy. Soon after the surgery PG had to encounter another disaster when he met with sudden hearing loss. Even as he was on a process of recovery from hearing disability PG had a nasty fall too and broke his thigh bone. Thanks to timely surgery and more importantly, his indomitable will which refuses to surrender to advancing age or ill health, PG is on a fast track of recovery and never skips his weekly articles to at least three major publications including Desabhimani, Mathrubhumi and Pachakkuthira.
PG’s son –M G Radhakrishnan- and daughter –R Parvathi Devi- are both journalists. His son-in-law V. Sivan Kutty is a CPI(M) leader and legislator from Trivandrum East and daughter-in-law A. Jayshree is a scientist with the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre of the Indian Space Research Organization. He has three grand children; Govind Sivan, Tejaswini and Mukulika.