Ms Popuri Lalitha Kumari (b 1950), better known as Volga, is a famous name in the field of contemporary Telugu literature. Besides authoring several novels, most notably Sahaja, Akasamlo Sagam, Gulabilu, Manavi and Kanneeti Keratala Vennela, and short story collections, she has written several screen plays as well as songs for ballets and co-directed couple of films.
Her best known novel to date is perhaps Svecha which sold over 50,00 copies and won her the prestigious Chatura Award in 1987. Centered round woman called Aruna who fights for her personal and political space, the novel attracted a lot of controversy as well. But to those who are familiar with Volga personal convictions as well as her career graph (she resigned her college teacher’s job in 1985 to become a full-time feminist-activist), it is easily evident that women’s empowerment is a subject close to her heart. It is a theme she has sought to present and analyze in story after story. Her non fictional work Mahila Varanam is an attempt to highlight women’s role and place in the history of Andhra Pradesh in the last 150 years.
In the four fictional autobiographical notes that follow, we see the same theme presented in a very intense and fiery manner. Volga gets under the skin four women and thrashes out certain burning social issues like women inequality, illiteracy, poverty, exploitation and so on. In one voice, they betray certain disillusionment with institutionalised power structures and state that if our corrupt, debt-ridden and illiterate society is to improve, women have to play a more pro-active role at the grassroots level. And what makes these accounts especially interesting is that even while glorifying the role of women as redeemers, they avoid stereotyping men as villains.
I am Kandukuri Rajyalakshmi. Have you heard of me? Hm . . . it is good to see all of you here. I can share some of my feelings with you. After a hundred years when I listen to your ideas I feel I must tell you a few things. Especially about social reform. When I hear men talking about social reform I feel like laughing. They think it means giving lectures, writing books and collecting money. So when you hear the word social reform you think only of men.
Ask me what social reform is and tell you. Reform means that our lives as women change completely. It means breaking your bonds with close friends and family. You know how difficult it is for us women? Men who are working for social reform have many friends to help them. Society is full of friends and well-wishers. For us it is impossible to find friends. How I longed for a friend with whom I could share my ideas as an equal! Just one. It was only after I met Bhandaru Acchamamba and Unnava Lakshmi Bai that my loneliness grew less. Before that I was enveloped by loneliness. Sometimes my heart would long for my family.
When we are working so hard to reform society, his people, our in-laws, will arrive to stop us. They will abuse us, shed tears, plead with us, grieve and leave cursing us swearing never to set foot on our threshold again. They will refuse to eat the food we serve. Do you know what a stout heart it needs to bear all this?
All our relatives used to come to me and say, `Rajyalakshmi! You just say no and all this unorthodoxy that goes by the name of reform will stop.’ It could be true. Not could be —that was the truth. But when I see people interpret my refusal to say no as wifely duty, pativratya or as a docile temperament I want to laugh. If I didn’t believe firmly that my whole life, my goal, my very existence, all of it – lay in social reform why would I do all this? I am not one who can do any work without conviction.
Work! So much work. You all know how much work a wedding means. The marriages in our house were widow marriages. On the one hand they had to be completely secret. On the other they had to follow all the traditions and customs. If the customs were not followed for the marriage they would say it was not a real marriage. You know how much I suffered to bear that burden? Well? Who else would bear it? So many difficulties! Do you think our respected Veereshalingam Panthulu would even have dreamt of them? On the day of the wedding everyone would suddenly get up and leave saying they could not bear this breach of orthodoxy. The servants would all get together and quit deliberately.
How many pots of water I have carried from the shores of the Godavari? How many people have I cooked for? Served? Speeches are not the only part of social reform. Carrying water and cooking are equally important, believe me.
Mark my words. If you don’t believe me and grumble at cooking and look down on housework do you think women will believe your talk of reform and come to you? They won’t trust you and even we will think you Girishams, you know the character that the Vizianagaram writer Gurazada Appa Rao created?
Anyway do you know how far girls and their mothers travelled to reach us? If they had not had that courage, that determination to better their lives how do you think this society will change? Have you ever spared a thought for those heroic women and those girl children? Rejecting all familiar customs and traditions, they left their families and came in search of their dreams of a new life. Those girls and their mothers were the real reformers. The way they came! They walked, came in bullock carts and travelled on trains. Not knowing what unknown dangers lay ahead, they just came! To draw these women to my bosom, teach them to raise their heads and wipe their tears! Was it a small task? I tended to their every comfort. Taught them to read and write. Taught them to worship one god, sing kirtanas. Some of them were pregnant. I delivered their babies. True! Delivering children and looking after them is as important to social reform as writing books.
I remember one girl called Sitamma arrived from Ganjam that is beyond Vishakapatnam. Poor thing, she started off along with a friend. But after they reached Vizianagaram that girl became frightened and refused to come. Sitamma sold her bangles and proceeded, walking some distance, riding bullock carts part of the way, and travelling on a train. So many hardships but still she came. When I saw that girl’s large eyes full of anxious hope my heart melted and overflowed.
Yet another woman who came was pregnant. I took her to a hospital. She delivered a girl and went away, leaving the child. Poor soul! How much trouble she must be in to leave her own child behind? I brought up that child and called her Premavathi. But none of the servants would touch the child or clean up her mess. Children eat, vomit, wet clothes and have motions. I managed it all alone. So social reform is not only about speeches, it is also about washing children’s soiled napkins. Why am I telling you all this? Because when I see you talk about reform and revolution and I see your small thoughts, thoughts that are neither ‘ here nor there, then I feel I must tell you a few truths. Don’t forget the women. If you forget the women then how will you know these truths? I want to tell you if that you must think about these things. If you don’t you will only find new chains . taking the place of old ones. New chains for old. I am here to caution you.
I am Durgabai. I was born on the shores of the Godavari, and I grew up there. Even as a girl I loved reading. When I watched young girls reading books, saw them performing countless tasks and saw the interest and dedication on their faces my heart grew warm. When I heard of the hard work that Kandukuri Rajyalakshmi, Bhandaru Acchamamba and Unnava Laxmi Bai did for girls’ education, I was inspired to do the same for girls. At ten I knew Telugu and Hindi well. I used to invite illiterate girls to my house and hold classes for them. We would all join together reading, playing, and singing. What fun it was those days! If we mastered one new lesson we celebrated as if we had scaled a peak.
Around this time there was an upheaval in our town of Kakinada, Big people came and went. There was a lot of commotion in Bulusu Sambamurthi’s house. That is when I first heard that freedom is our birthright. When the Congress office was started in our town was there with all my friends decorating the place with rangoli colours and leaves. Soon they said there was a Congress Conference at Kakinada. How can I describe that excitement, that eagerness? Leaders from all over the country would come. They wanted women volunteers. I went from village to village recruiting hundreds of volunteers. They held training camps for them_ But what was the use? I was not yet fifteen, so I couldn’t become a volunteer. I was bitterly disappointed. Yet I can never in my life forget those meetings and celebrations. So many women thronged there. It was so wonderful to see them moving freely and proudly in those pandals.
But the elders there — they did not like the sight of women moving freely, laughing heartily, talking freely to men and walking with them, holding hands. They said it was against tradition, disrespectful and pulled grim faces. They began to watch the women, censored their movements, even took disciplinary action against some of them. When I heard that these women had come from far and wide in search of their dreams of a new society I was filled with grief. It was like telling birds in the sky that it was wrong to fly; it was like cutting off their wings. That day I wondered whether women would ever be free even if the country were free. The conferences were over. When we raised our voices to sing Vande Mataram people flocked to us from miles away. They were roused by the speeches. We heard that Gandhiji was coming to the Godavari belt. He had come once when I was small. I gave him all my jewels. Now he was coming again. Oh! My joy knew no bounds. I felt that this time women should get a chance to hear Gandhiji without the control and watchful eyes of the men. They should have a separate meeting to listen freely to Gandhiji’s message. I asked the Congress elders and they said ‘Impossible, Gandhiji’s time is precious. He can’t spend so much time in our town. Anyway, why do you need two meetings What is so special about women? Come and sit to one side in our meeting. I was furious. I was determined. I said, ‘There must be a separate women’s meeting! They replied, ‘We have collected many thousands of rupees for Gandhi’s fund to arrange this meeting. You go and collect five thousand and we’ll give you five minutes time.’ They must have thought, ‘Where will that girl collect five thousand?’ But I would have given up even my life for a women’s meeting. What was five thousand? When I collected the amount, they were astonished. Then they said, ‘Alright, he will address the women for five minutes.’
The day Gandhiji came, women streamed in like the Godavari in flood, rising higher and higher. Only five minutes. Not even half a second to waste. Gandhi came. I translated his speech. Joy, fear, and excitement welled up in me. Only five minutes. Gandhi began his speech. I translated. Time stopped. Really! Time came to a stop. No! Women stopped time. They swore to fight for freedom and wear khaddar. They gave away their jewels. Gandhi said hereafter only Durgabai will translate my speeches in Andhra. Stree Shakti triumphed.
Duvvuri Subbarna, Visva Sundaramma and I used to go around selling khaddar. No time to breathe. Police, lathis, jails. I was in Madras during the Salt Satyagraha. There I used to mobilise people and encourage them to perform Satyagraha. I trained volunteers. I used to avoid the police and travel from one place to another. This was my work. I had forgotten about home and family long ago. Not just me, even the women who were with me had one foot in jail and the other in the house. What about the families? Well, some survived! Some didn’t! My husband married again because I was eternally roaming around villages and going to jail. Good. So I was completely free. Instead of serving one man, producing his children and preserving his family I could serve my country and train other volunteers like me. I felt this was far better.
You should have seen the Rayvellore jail in those days. It was not a jail. It was a political school for South Indian women. They learnt English, Hindi, passed exams, delivered babies. We were so thrilled with the thought of Satyagraha in jail. How many of us were There? Achanta Rukmini, Margaret Cousins, Saraswathi, Kutti Animal, Rajyalakshmi. So many?
You must do Satyagraha together for your country at least once and go to all together. Just go and see Vellore jail and touch its walls and see.
Those days the jail authorities would smash our bangles the moment we entered. The earth has absorbed the blood that flowed from those wounds. The tears women shed at the plight of their country has soaked the earth. The fragrance of the women, who delivered there, fills the air of Vellore jail.
After some years I longed to study again. The movement was dominated by men. To hold my own I needed education. I wanted to study political science at Banaras but they wouldn’t take me. They felt that a woman should not study political science! So I studied at Andhra University. As long as women lack education and economic freedom they are slaves. So I wanted to start an institution at would give them power and knowledge. The Andhra Mahila Sabha was born. Women were educated and taught vocational skills. Unnava Lakshmi Bai’s ideals. Soon I became a member of the Planning Commission. Whatever task I took up was a struggle. I worked hard at it.
I met Chintaman Deshmukh when I was in the Planning Commission and we got married. I felt two instead of one — it meant more work and more strength.
I wanted the Andhra Mahila Sabha to change women’s lives, give them, strength, courage and power. Help them to stand on their own feet and straighten their backs.
The world is full of my children today. Girls from the Andhra Mahila Sabha are going everywhere doing great deeds. And that fills me with pride. But I still have a fear, an anxiety. Countless number of girls in the villages and towns live lives of darkness deprived of education and health — they need thousands of Andhra Mahila Sabhas. They need volunteers to work day and night. When will that desire of mine be fulfilled?
They call me Kommaraju Acchamamba but ask me and I’d say my name is Rebel Acchamamba. It was the year 1916. I was just ten. My grandmother was disturbed. She wanted me married before puberty. The Sharada Act was not yet in operation. My father Kommaraju Lakshmana Rao was a man of progressive ideas. He believed in women’s education, opposed child marriage and worked with Veeresalingam Panthulu. He refused to get me married. My grandmother threatened to leave for Kashi if he kept an unmarried daughter at home. My father said ‘I will not ask you to go. But I will not get Acchamamba married.’ Grandmother set off for Kashi. The only thing that would stop her was my marriage. My father loved his mother dearly but he was not willing to sacrifice my tenderly blossoming life to her obstinacy. She left for Kashi and never returned. Not even when he died. He bore the weight of that loss till that day.
When I was a student I called my house Revolt. Those days were like that. Revolt echoed in the veins of all young men and women. Before I joined the Medical College in Madras I used to practise speaking loudly at the beach. My voice had to rise above the sound of the waves. That training was necessary in those days when there were no mikes. Our voices had to inspire hundreds and thousands of people to jump into the surge of the freedom struggle.
Then came the Salt Satyagraha. The whole country was in an uproar. It was the women mainly who rose. Sarojini was arrested. Durgabai roamed around observing satyagraha and escaping the police. In Guntur Lakshmi Bayyamma made volunteers of even little girls. We were thrilled with the news of the Komaravolu ashram and the Angaluru ashram. In Artgaluru a ten —year- old girl was arrested. She refused to listen to the police or to the elders. Lathis were breaking on the backs of women who were making salt on the seashore. I then began to prepare groups of medical student volunteers to treat the satyagrahis. In my education, my struggles, my higher studies and my trip to England my friend Vajjhala Venkatasastri stood by me. At a time when friendship between men and women was unknown we shared a strong bond. We read Marx together and became Communists. I set up practice in Bezwada. What days those were! In village after village women rose in revolt. Mahila Sanghas everywhere. Women yearned for knowledge of the world. In Telangana the Communists were firmly supporting the struggle that Ailamma began for her land. Swaraj yam, Brijrani, Lalitha, Anasuya, Priyamvada, Salamma – all seised guns and jumped into the struggle. Here in the coastal areas Udayam, Koteswaramma, Anasuya and countless others went underground. Ceaseless work, medicine, meetings, arrests, arrangements for the underground. In the middle of all this commotion my friendship with Vajjhala was agitating people! They insisted that we get married. There was no disobeying a party decision. Our friendship changed into a bond of marriage.
It was in 1946 that the elections came. I contested from Eluru. All the mahila sanghas canvassed for me. The Congress went around saying ‘Your Acchamamba had a contract marriage.’ Then Moturi Udayam, always hot tempered, swung the brass pot in her hand and-hit them on the face. Blood flowed freely. But the Congress didn’t stop with that. They spread rumours, printed pamphlets and wrote in the newspapers. Once there was a huge Congress meeting in progress. I just walked up to the stage, grabbed the mike and said, `What is this behaviour? We are all fighting for our political principles. Talk about politics, not about Acchamamba’s character.’ With that, they were as quiet as squashed lice.
In the year 1949, the Communist Party was banned. There was commotion in Bezavada. Women took out a huge rally protesting the ban. Section 144 was on. We led a group of 1000 women along. The police used teargas. But the I women were so young. They had no experience at all. The minute the police used tear gas the women thought it was gunfire and ran helter-skelter. What t confusion! 60 women were taken in the van. It grew dark. We didn’t know where I they were taking us. Finally they took us to Nandigama jail. Tapi Rajamma, Sarojini, Koteswaramma, they were all there.
One year in jail gave me time to think. I had many differences. The party .I was afraid that my differences would influence the women who were close to e me. Soon there was a distance between us. Suryavathi stopped talking to me. Others wouldn’t even recognise or greet me. I couldn’t eat. But none of them came to me and said, Acchamamba come let us eat together.’
I resigned and moved into full time medical practice. I believed that I must to go to the people and talk to them about health. Night and day. People, people. No rest. No time for my daughter. When Dr. Ranganayakamma died, my work increased further.
The election came again. Alluri Satyanarayana who had joined the Congress came to me and asked me to contest on a Congress ticket. I was a political person. So I contested. Now it was the turn of the Communists to defame me. The very people who had signed on my marriage contract got ready printing pamphlets. But my work as a doctor stood me in good stead. The people supported me. I won by huge majority. But soon I realised there was very little one could do in Parliament. I am against group politics and corruption. I protested to Nehru but he said he was helpless. Afterwards I moved far from politics.
I cannot live without work. I must work without rest. But the body needs rest to survive. It will not obey me. At least I can die happy that I have lived a Le full and useful life.
Anti Arrack Woman
I know. You are going to ask me who I am. No! I am no great woman. No! I haven’t done any great deeds. I can barely hold the threads of my own life together. My name? You don’t know it? You’ve forgotten? So soon? My name is hunger. Family name violence. My pet names are slavery and poverty.
My village? Oh! I am everywhere in Andhra in every village and town. It’s a long time I have been waiting, yes. I waited patiently for many years thinking someday someone would recognise me and bother about me. Many years I waited. Fed up with waiting I rebelled. You ask me against whom? I didn’t know. Not for many years. Who to turn against? I wanted to turn against everybody. But I would calm down. Finally I turned on arrack.
That arrack bottle looms in front of me like a demon that will devour my life. After breaking my back working the whole day, I was hurrying to the shop to buy a little grain to cook a meal for my children. The ten rupees in my hand made my feet faster. Those ten rupees would fill my children’s bellies today. At least my troubles for today are over, That’s all. Everyday is a new day. And day by day add to a hundred.
Aw! Oh! Whose hand is that on my belly? What cruelty is this? What is it! Oh you dog! It’s you!
My husband has taken that ten to burn it at the arrack shop. What misfortune! How can I face the children at home? From whom will I beg for a handful of rice to fill their bellies? We tucked our legs into our bellies and tried to sleep — the children and I. But how to sleep?
So much noise in the street. Some drunken idiot creating a problem. Quarrels, fights, blows, weeping. Even sleep is a luxury for our women. There he comes that dead fellow! Now my body will be pulped.
How long? How long? How much longer? All of us ask the same question. And all of us shouted together in our voice, how long?
That shout shattered all the arrack bottles. It burnt down all the arrack shops. The earth trembled at that shout, The government shivered.
Did we stay in our houses? Women everywhere. Poor women. Hungry women. Women suffering violence, dalit women. We were groups and groups and groups. And we turned our anger on arrack. We rebelled.
No night, no day, no home, no shelter. We mustn’t let arrack into the village. Arrack must go. The ten rupees in hand should feed our children’s hunger, not go the arrack shop.
May their lives be destroyed! These damned arrack rascals, they crept into the village though our eyes red as torches were watching.
They dropped the packets into the well in the village and left. We heard about it at midnight. We took off our saris, tied them into a rope and went into the well. That’s all. Think of something and you can give up your life.
And so we flooded all Andhra and stopped the auctions of arrack. Nellore, Ongole, Medak, Karimnagar, Cuddapha, Kurnool. Was it one village or town? I was everywhere. I met everyone, officers, leaders all of them. MROs, Collectors, MLAs, Ministers, Chief Ministers, Governors. I saw them all. The police came. Beat us with lathis. Put us in jails. Booked cases.
Just now Durgabai said go to jail for your country. Oh we went. I beg of you. We went to jail. The white men put you in jail. The black men put us in jail. What was our crime? Nothing! We went to jail for our country.
In the villages, the elders, men and everyone said we were bazaar women. We were like kites. Free flying whores. You have left home and family, they said. We were bad women. When we were fighting for the cause when they said such things we suffered.
When Durgabai said it was like this in the Kakinada Congress, I thought So that’s the story.
When Acchamamba said the Communists did the same thing I understood. When men want to push women back they talk like this.
What is good? And bad? Once you have a right to vote who can prevent ou from stepping into the bazaar to demand? If you can’t demand from the treet then what is the use of the vote? Should we who vote not think of good and evil in the country? They, those big men know it. We are their vote banks d so they know it. They are scared.
When the vote came we women got together and knocked down the government. We brought a new government in.
Why? Because they stopped arrack. They stopped arrack and our homes were full of peace. Our bodies grew healthy. Our minds were at rest. Our children ate. We slept soundly.
But could they bear it? If our bellies fill then don’t their bellies bum? hey brought arrack back. They said that without arrack they can’t run the government. Not enough money. That is something I can’t understand. They study so much. They think such high thoughts and yet they can’t run a government without the money we poor spend on drink?
Aren’t you ashamed? If they don’t take away the handful of rice from our mouths this government gaadi (carriage) won’t run? Slowly, stealthily, the arrack came back. Slowly, like a thief. The story was as usual. Alright, the arrack won’t go. Even if we pay for arrack and earn a little more to eat.
No work anywhere
No subsidies left
No fertile land
No current to use
Oh my father. Is this a fight with arrack?
What should we fight? Whom should we fight? The government lifts its hands and points to the private. Where are those privates? In this country? What is it? They say it is debt.
We tremble at our own debts. When my husband wants to drink pesticide and die I say what about the children and stop him.
Now the whole country is in debt. Not a day can pass without debt. They get it from some bank. The bank fellow who gave us a loan took our house, cattle, plough and auctioned them all off.
Will this World Bank auction off our country? Is pesticide our destiny?
What a knotted tangle is this? Where do we start? How do we unravel it?
Amma Rajyalakshmama — you said girl widows should be married and girls educated. You turned against tradition. May you rest in peace. My mother Amma Acchamamba, swarajyam — you said land to the tiller and took to guns. Great work, my mothers.
You know who to rebel against. Our story is so different.
We don’t know where to start this story.
Arrack, power, loans, bad seeds, fair prices, subsidies, employment, companies locked up, the lands that companies grab?
Where to untie this noose? We must start somewhere. How can I cut the noose that tightens around my neck? I must. I must. I will.
Translated from Telugu by Vasanth Kannabiran.
VOLGA. The pen name of Popuri Lalitha Kumari. She worked as a lecturer in Telugu at VSR & NVR College, Tenali from 1973 to 1986. Between 1986 and 1995, she worked as a senior executive for Usha Kiron Movies, Hyderabad. She was the executive president for Asmita Resource Centre for Women from 1991 to 1997. She has a number of novels, stories, plays, edited works and numerous articles to her credit.
VASANTH KANNABIRAN. One of the pioneers of the women’s movement in India. A member of Stree Shakti Sangathana, one of the earliest women’s collectives in India. She set up Asmita, a women’s studies center and is the founding member of Hderabad Ekta and the women’s programme at Deccan Development Society. She has been an advisor at the national level to several government initiatives and works with networks like the Asia South Pacific Bureau of Adult Education as well as pre and post Beijing networks of women on issues of gender, human rights and violence.