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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 16, April 10, 2010

Remembering Miss C.B. Muthamma

Saturday 10 April 2010, by Lalit Uniyal


Outstanding diplomat C.B. Muthamma who, as a distinguished member of the Foreign Service, headed Indian missions in several countries, passed away in Bangalore on October 15, 2009. She was a person endowed with a vision and sense of purpose—an extraordinary thinker having the interest of the nation at heart. In a few days times it will be six months since her departure from our midst. We belatedly offer our sincere tribute to her abiding memory with the following piece written by an admirer and by reproducing one of her our articles that appeared in Mainstream (April 26, 2003). ]

Miss Muthamma was one of the sincerest persons I have ever met. In 1989 I had organised a three-day seminar in Aau village at the behest of Mr. P.N. Haksar. Miss Muthamma stayed in Aau for the full three days of the seminar. Transcending the barriers of class and language (she needed a translator), she mixed with the poorest of poor women as though she was one of them. She became convinced that my work merited general support and sought to persuade those who had come from cities to participate in my work, or at least support it. She herself did what she preached to others. After that stay, she maintained a regular correspondence with me and unfailingly sent generous donations for my work. The last donation was sent in July 2009, when she was very ill and needed to spend large sums on her own health care.

She didn’t mind making long-distance calls and talking at length. When she found me coughing during a telephone conversation, she insisted that I immediately buy an Ayurvedic medicine called Pankajkasthuri. And she rang me again and again, offering to send the medicine to me. So I began a frantic search for that medicine, found it in Allahabad, and informed her accordingly.

Whenever she found it difficult to contact me she would speak to my adoptive mother in Allahabad with whom she got along well, both being of the same age. In this way she gradually became familiar with the terrific problems of my work, and my financial condition. She was already contributing to the work; she wanted to contribute to my personal finances also. When I declined such assistance, she met (in Delhi) my father, whom she had never before seen, and requested him to convince me to accept her help. My father simply said: “Lalit doesn’t listen to me.” After that it would be her constant refrain that I ought to listen to my father. When my father passed away in 1992, she came for the cremation—even though none of the family members were known to her.

Miss Muthumma was constantly and unselfishly thinking of the well-being of others and of our society as a whole. Her mind was full of ideas for regeneration. Great thoughts, said Vauvenargues, come from the heart; and there is no doubt that Miss Muthamma’s intellectual insights arose from her pure, good heart.

She had a deep faith in our civilisation, which she regarded as the wisest of all civilisations. Its wisdom lay in its core values and in its capaciousness, which engendered an aptitude for resolving conflicts and arriving at syntheses. Accordingly, what worried her most were the following:

i. The straying away from the civilisational moorings to which we had adhered during the freedom struggle. She was extremely critical of extremist Hindus for threatening our civilisation by treating its capaciousness as a mistake, and weakening our capacity for synthesis. “The Hindus are being spoiled,” she would often say.

ii. The divisiveness of our politics, which prevented rational discourse and exacerbated problems.

The remedy for the second problem was simpler: it required a reform of the electoral system, which was a subject on which she had much to say. But the cure for the first was more complex and protracted.


To refer constantly to one’s civilisation in this day and age may seem a type of conservatism. But she was anything but conservative. She believed that we would be stifled and ruined if we treated our civilisation as a static, self-complete, and unchangeable entity. On the other hand, we could not cease to be ourselves; we could not grow by imitation. Our civilisation was the medium in which we had our social and cultural being; hence it was the proper vehicle for our onward journey. Progress and development meant progress and development of and within our civilisation. For this reason she criticised Nehru and the Marxists for becoming outsiders and abandoning the field to the extremists.

She was probably right on the main point. For no one knows how deeply and in what subtle ways a civilisation affects its members. In his reflections on the crisis within the communist movement, Mohit Sen writes:

For too long we imitated the Russians and the Chinese because, after all, we had not succeeded and they had. This was an important reason for our failure…. We should not imitate others, nor just try to be different…. We have to change, but we do not need to give up our history and our identity. (Italics added)

Similarly, one reads the lament of a contemporary Chinese philosopher, Tu Weiming:

…the modern fate of Chinese intellectuals was much worse than that of their Indian counterparts. While centuries of colonisation did not break the backbone of Indian spirituality, the semi-colonial status prompted the Chinese intelligentsia to reject in toto and by choice all the spiritual traditions that defined China’s soul. We have only just begun to see indications that Chinese thinkers are recovering from this externally imposed and internally inflicted malaise.

Since religion is an important ingredient of our civilisation, it is essential that new intellectual channels be created within each religion for the expression of the deep emotions excited by religion. There has been a great failing and an intellectual abdication on this front. Perhaps we need to learn from two of our great mystics, Kabir and Ramakrishna. Kabir was a happy-go-lucky, blunt-speaking saint who saw and railed against the falsehoods within all religions. Rama-krishna, more sensitive and delicate, saw and preached the truth within all religions. To rescue ourselves from the menace that religions have become, we need to reflect upon the layers of meaning concealed in the paradox – all religions are false; all religions are true. In this may lie the solution to the problem posed by Miss Muthamma of keeping true to our civilisational moorings, yet being progressive.

In all her thoughts and actions Miss Muthamma displayed a boldness and moral independence which none but the pure-hearted and unselfish can possess. People who have knowledge of the government structure only from outside cannot conceive the numerous subtle ways in which that structure saps the strength and weakens the individuality of those within. Only a person as strong and bold and as pure and untouched as Miss Muthamma could have taken on the entire establishment to secure equal rights for women IFS officers.

Her nature was characterised by an innocence, which, being beyond the comprehension of the worldly-wise, was the chief cause of her being misunderstood in certain circles. But in fact this innocence (entirely unexpected in a person of her age, rank, and experience) constituted the principal attraction of her frank nature.

To contemplate this simple, strong, good, genuine, innocent woman is to bring the light of truth into our own false and pretentious lives. May her soul rest in peace!

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