KK Shailaja's 'My Life as a Comrade' is a lesson in the makings of a power woman

We speak with co-author ​Manju Sara Rajan on the coming together of the book. ​

Harper's Bazaar India

“We first met at her home, and I remember thinking how simple and unassuming it was,” recalls Manju Sara Rajan, the former CEO of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, a journalist, and co-author of MLA and Kerala’s former “rockstar” health minister, KK Shailaja’s new book, My Life as a Comrade

Rajan details her first impression of the MLA’s house, a tall communist flag—a sign of allegiance of the family, the cornerstone of their family’s life and history—hoisted in front of the house, greeting her from far away, and nothing but the government vehicle out front telling of a minister staying inside. And the minister sitting out on the verandah, talking to her husband, no gatekeepers around her, no frills of being a state minister. “It was a very welcome surprise to see a senior politician being so grounded and real,” Rajan says. 

Perhaps the simplicity can be traced to Shailaja’s early life, which began in a settlement in Malabar where she was born into a family that had been fiercely political for at least two generations. In the 1930s, her granduncles participated in the early stages of communism in Malabar, fought for farmers’ rights, and courted arrest several times. One of them even died from injuries sustained while incarcerated. Simultaneously, Shailaja’s grandmother also became part of the agitation, helping hide party workers and looking after the needy. And thus, Shailaja’s fate in politics was sealed. 

Yet, her career in it started small—a teacher by day, a social activist by the evening until 1996, when she got a ticket to fight the Assembly election. She won. When she didn’t get a ticket for the second term, she went back to her life as a teacher and social worker. Again, until 2016, when she got a Cabinet position and became the minister of Health, Family Welfare, and Social Justice. 

In the book, Shailaja and Rajan detail her political strive as she joined the office at a time when the state was ravaged by cyclones and diseases, only to battle it with such meticulousness that she was ready when Covid-19 hit, winning herself the title of “rockstar” by UK’s Guardian newspaper. 

In tandem shines her light as a feminist. Shailaja’s grandmother and mother were single women, as much opinionated and strong as fearless and hardworking, unafraid to stand up for the right—their own and of others. When her mother found out that her husband had another partner and wife, she chose to get a divorce even at a time when people were not visiting courts over family matters. 

Following suit is Shailaja, whose own marriage has had an unconventional power balance, with her husband encouraging her to work while he stayed home. 

As we read through the book and carve out the arc of this powerful yet humble woman, we see the calm of a laser-focused politician, the warmth of a mother, and the authority of a teacher. But what would it entail to sit down with someone like Shailaja to pen down a memoir? We speak with Rajan to find out. 

Harper’s Bazaar: From the first time you wrote a profile on KK Shailaja, to working with her on the book—can you trace the journey for us? 

Manju Sara Rajan: It was simple, almost. I wrote a cover story on her as ‘Leader of the Year’ for a magazine and Juggernaut Books offered us a book deal based on the story. 

My years as a journalist gave me a sense of what would be interesting for people to read. Initially, we intended to entirely focus on Covid, but I knew that the story of how Kerala’s relationship with communism, her family’s relationship with communism, and the tale of Malabar shaped her is more interesting. Most people do not know the history of Malabar, and to have this fascinating successful woman be a vehicle to talk about this region and its unique culture was a great opportunity. Also, I had a sense of how her story related to the larger struggles that women face as working mothers, and how interesting it might be to know how she’d managed it. 

HB: What was the process of collaborating on this book with Shailaja like?

MSR: Ours is a very unusual collaboration. As a co-author of her autobiography, I knew her voice needed to come through. It wasn’t about writing it my way, but rather ensuring her manner of speaking and style was evident as the voice of the book. The process of collaborating was quite complicated because we met during the peak of Covid, when she was very busy. After that, there were the elections and then she became an MLA and remains one of the most popular politicians in the state. Thus, working around our schedules was the trickiest part of our collaboration. We did a lot of the work over Zoom calls, I have a zillion WhatsApp voice notes from her, and we met several times in Thiruvananthapuram at her government quarters and a guest house. Once we were able to spend two to three days together at my home in Kerala, and we would just talk and write. I would record her talking about different phases of her life, and then, like a jigsaw puzzle, connected the pieces. I would transcribe her interviews, work with that material, and once I was happy with a chapter or two, I would send it to her for review and then incorporate the changes. We did a lot of back and forth, an it was a time-consuming process. 

HB: What are the things that you've learned about Shailaja during this process that your research didn’t lend to?

MSR: I don’t think she likes cooking very much. She loves green tea, and she’s a very light eater. She remembers small details about people. She’s got this capacity to get people to rally around her, and that makes her a great team leader. 

HB: What are the few things that haven't made it to the book?

MSR: Everything that was relevant to our story has made it to the book. That said, during her term in Kerala’s health ministry, she did a lot of great work, and we weren’t able to talk about all of it as it is a book in itself. 


Feature & Square Image: MAKERS India