The Subaltern Environmentalism of Mayilamma

Reading and Translating Mayilamma: The Life of a Tribal Eco-Warrior

The Plachimada struggle against Coca-cola, and its leader, Mayilamma, speaks to a broader ethos of environmental activism by those who are most directly impacted by it. R. Sreejith Varma reflects on the project of translating and interpreting Mayilamma’s narrative.

R. Sreejith Varma

‘What is the point in saying that we are free if the land, water and air over which we have the right are not freely available to us? We are all slaves even now’.

– Mayilamma (Pariyadath 2018, 70)

Few environmental justice struggles have so widely captured the public imagination of Kerala as the anti-Coca-Cola struggle in Plachimada since, perhaps, the high-profile ‘Save Silent Valley’ campaign in the 1970s.1 The Plachimada struggle was launched against the operation of the Coca-Cola Bottling Plant established in 2000 in the titular, predominantly tribal, village that used up to 0.8 to 1.5 million litres of water per day (Bijoy 2006, 4333). However, barring their shared concern for the environment and their proximity—both Plachimada and Silent Valley are in the Palakkad district—both these ecojustice movements are poles apart in terms of their leadership and participants.

While the Plachimada struggle was spearheaded by Mayilamma (1940-2007), an unlettered local woman of Eravallar tribal community, who was directly affected by the ecocidal activities of the Coca-Cola Plant, the Save Silent Valley movement was led by a posse of environmentally prudent writers including Sugathakumari, N. V. Krishna Warrier, and O. N. V. Kurup. If the Save Silent Valley movement can be regarded as a part of mainstream environmentalism, the Plachimada struggle needs to be seen as a significant expression of ‘subaltern environmentalism’. Subaltern environmentalism is a concept made popular by the US-based academic Laura Pulido (1996) who differentiates it from mainstream environmentalism thus: ‘Mainstream environmentalism typifies an NSM [New Social Movement] in that it attracts people concerned with an issue who have only a limited personal connection to it [. . .]. In contrast, subaltern environmental struggles draw people who already exist as a social or spatial entity in some way—perhaps as workers, a village, or a racialized class’ (25). In many ways, ‘subaltern environmentalism’ resonates with the more popular critical framework of ‘environmentalism of the poor’. The latter phrase was proposed by Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martinez-Alier to refer to the environmental justice battles waged in the Global South that ‘combine[] livelihood, social, economic, and environmental issues with involvement in extraction and pollution conflicts on the side of environmental justice’ (Martinez-Alier 2016, 99).

In 2018, Swarnalatha Rangarajan and I collaborated on the English translation of Mayilamma’s life narrative titled, Mayilamma: The Life of a Tribal Eco-Warrior. A paradigmatic ‘woman-writing-nature’ narrative (Rangarajan 2016), the book, originally published in Malayalam, chronicles Mayilamma’s transition from her familiar ‘home space’ or oikeion to politikon, ‘the public space where all action takes place’ (Lyotard 2000, 445). Mayilamma’s life narrative could be called an ‘oiko-autobiography’2 as the narrative gives equal prominence to both the environment and the self that it seeks to write about. The book aptly throws light on the fluid boundaries between environmental issues and health issues (Shiva 1994) as Mayilamma describes how, soon after the plant began its operation, the water quality in the village wells dropped, making it unfit for drinking, cooking and bathing, and forced the villagers to make frequent trips to hospitals seeking treatments for various ailments. Mayilamma’s life narrative, in this manner, also becomes an ‘ecosickness’ narrative that employs the vocabulary of emotion to forge ‘an embodied engagement with [the] environment[]’ (Houser 2014, 4). The kernel of Mayilamma’s ecoactivist message, in her own words, is this: ‘Wherever I go [to deliver speeches], I have only one thing to say, “Our air, water and soil belong to us alone! We will always fight against those who try to destroy them”’ (Pariyadath 2018, 57).

The book makes seamless transitions between current events and Mayilamma’s girlhood days spent shortly at school and mostly by grazing cattle, playing with her friends in the forest or toiling in agricultural fields. This nonlinear narration helps bring into sharp focus the marked difference in Mayilamma’s environmental experiences over the years just as it also reflects the oral nature of the narrative that was originally transcribed by Jothibai Pariyadath, a renowned Malayalam poet. The narrative also contains a number of songs ranging from lullabies to those sung during rituals associated with festival (such as Pongal), marriage, and death. All these songs are laced with nature imagery that seems to gesture towards the intricate nature-culture continuum that constitutes the tribal worldview.

Rangarajan and I took up the translation project in order to highlight the close imbrication of local and global environmental movements by taking Mayilamma’s life narrative to a broader audience. We were spurred by the fact that only a few published English translations of indigenous writings appearing in the many regional languages of India are currently available. Mayilamma’s life narrative, in keeping with its glocal tenor, needs to be read in conversation with the life-writings of other subaltern socio-ecoactivists from Kerala like C. K. Janu (Mother Forest), Leelakumariamma (Jeevadayini)3 and Kallen Pokkudan (Kandalkkadukalkkidayil Ente Jeevitham and Ente Jeevitham)4 as well as by placing it in a global oiko-autobiographical tradition to which the life narratives of Wangari Maathai (Unbowed: A Memoir), Lois Margie Gibbs (Love Canal: My Story), and many others belong.


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  • Bijoy, C. R. “Kerala’s Plachimada Struggle: A Narrative on Water and Governance Rights.” Economic and Political Weekly 41, no. 41 (2006): 4332-4339. JSTOR. <> Accessed 20 Feb 2018. 
  • Dattatri, Shekar. 2015. “Silent Valley—A People’s Movement that Saved a Forest,” Conservation India, 25 Sept. 2015, <>. Accessed 24 Sept. 2019.
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  • Houser, Heather. 2014. Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
  • Leelakumariamma. 2011. Jeevadayini [Life-giver]. Prepared by T. Ajeesh. Kottayam: DC Books.
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  • Pokkudan, Kallen. 2010. Ente Jeevitham [My Life]. Prepared by Sreejith Paithalen. Kottayam: DC Books.
  • ———. Kandalkkadukalkkidayil Ente Jeevitham [My Life among the Mangroves]. 2010. Edited by Thaha Madayi. Kottayam: DC Books.
  • Pulido, Laura. Environmentalism and Economic Justice: Two Chicano Struggles in the Southwest. U of Arizona P, 1996.
  • Rangarajan, Swarnalatha. 2016. “Women Writing Nature in the Global South: New Forest Texts from Fractured Indian Forests.” Handbook of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology, edited by Hubert Zapf, 432-58. Berlin: De Gruyter.
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  • Shiva, Mira. 1994. “Environmental Degradation and Subversion of Health.” Close to Home: Women Reconnect Ecology, Health and Development, edited by Vandana Shiva, 60-77. Oxon and New York: Earthscan. 
  • Varma, Sreejith R. and Swarnalatha Rangarajan. 2018. “The politics of land, water and toxins: reading the life-narratives of three women oikos-carers from Kerala.” Women and Nature?: Beyond Dualism in Gender, Body, and Environment, edited by Douglas A. Vakoch and Sam Mickey,  167-184. Oxon and New York: Routledge.

About the Author: R. Sreejith Varma obtained his PhD from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras in 2018. Along with Swarnalatha Rangarajan, he is the translator of Mayilamma: The Life of a Tribal Eco-Warrior. He works as Assistant Professor at the Department of English, School of Social Sciences and Languages, Vellore Institute of Technology. He can be contacted at <>

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