In the nineteen sixties, women writers dominated the field of fiction in Andhra Pradesh. Visalakshi is one of those writers, who have captured large readership because of their ability to tell stories with charismatic elegance.
Historically, as a part of social reform movement and the country’s reorganization plans, women were encouraged to learn to read and write. And the women made the best of it by addressing contemporary social issues in their stories. The impact of western civilization on our values, women’s education, newly developed problems facing the educated women, their transformed status within the families and society, and the newly arisen challenges in arranged marriages—figured into the literature created by women writers at the time. Weekly and monthly magazines proliferated and the editors encouraged women writers with great enthusiasm. In that environment, a few women made their mark in literature, rightfully, I might add. Dwivedula Visalakshi is one of them.
Normally, there are two ways for writers express their views in their writings. Some writers present the issues as manifested in real life. Their goal is to highlight the inherent problems in society, which everybody knows yet ignores knowingly or unknowingly. They attempt to highlight the issues in order to create an awareness in the public. There are other writers, who identify the problem and position it in the environment of a hopeful future. They may not offer solutions yet present a positive vision nonetheless. Visalakshi belongs in the latter category. Her stories and novels leave the reader with a satisfaction that he has understood something about our society or human nature.
Dwivedula Visalakshi started writing short stories probably in the late forties. Her first novel, vaikuntapaali, won first prize in an annual competition held by a prominent weekly magazine, Andhra Prabha. It was serialized in the same magazine in 1963 and published as a book in 1965.
The core theme in the novel is adoption. In general, the word adoption carries a vague sense of suspicion. If the child is raised by a family without going through the ritual of adoption, it may create latter. Additionally, if the mother gives birth to another child after the first child is brought home, matters precipitate. I discussed this novel previously. (Click here for the full text.). It would suffice to say the novel illustrates the ensuing problems when a child is not legally adopted and the manner in which some people rationalize their actions.
In her second novel, maarina viluvalu [Transformed values], Visalakshi delineates the status of educated women in our society in the face of changing values both at home and in society.
Janaki is the eldest of five children—three boys and two girls. The novel opens with the second daughter Santha announcing that she passed the Intermediate exam. Mother is not happy however; she is sad since her third son, Sambu, failed the same exam. In her opinion, education for women is not important. Ironically, there is one educated woman in the family and they are enjoying the benefits from her education. Yet, mother does not see it that way. In our society, while the social reformers, both male and female, scream for education for women, there are also some who remain deep rooted in tradition.
A second angle to this theme is the use of women’s property called stridhanam by her family. In the old days, it was the money given to a woman as gift at the time of her wedding, and meant exclusively for her use when a crisis strikes in her life. Using that money by other family members is considered deplorable. In modern times however, this opinion has changed significantly. Families now allow educated women to go out and earn much the same way a man does. However, son continues to command higher status regardless of woman’s earning power. All these variations in the relationship of woman and wealth are built into this novel, providing the readers with a piece of history in the making.
In the next chapter, the pivotal incident, which led Janaki to take up a job, is explained. Previously, her marriage had been arranged and aborted in the middle of the ceremony due to her father’s failure to come up with more money to give to the groom. Since it happened after tying the tali around her neck was over, she was technically a “married woman.” Later at night, Janaki went to the railway station to persuade the groom to return to the wedding arena but to no avail. Eventually, she obtained a job in an orphanage and started supporting the family both economically and emotionally.
The eldest son, Surya Rao, is spineless and constantly worried about public opinion. He does not have the guts to encourage his brother, Prakasam, in his business venture, fearing it might hurt their social status. He cannot accept that his youngest brother, Sambu, is not up to the demands of education. He does not know how to handle the situation. He cannot allow his sister, Santha, into the house after she ran away, and returned home, deceived.
Janaki is the female hero in the novel. She takes on the responsibilities, which should have been Surya Rao’s. She understands Prakasam’s abilities to go into business, Sambu’s inadequacies to grow as an individual, and Santha’s daring spirit.
At the end, the man, who had left Janaki on the wedding day, returns, asks her to go back to him and take care of him and the children of his second wife, now deceased. Janaki tells him that taking care of the children at the orphanage is more satisfying to her than going back to him.
A striking element in this novel is the author’s portrayal of women as strong characters. They are confident and determined to achieve their goals. In contrast, men are portrayed as weak and ineffectual. Prakasam, the second brother, is portrayed as successful but not without plenty of support from Janaki, and his sister-in-law, Kanakam.
Second daughter Santha may have made wrong choices in life yet she is shown as having the courage to pursue what she thought was right for her. In that, she is not the typical naïve young girl, commonly known in our society.
There are two incidents in this novel that need scrutiny. In the first chapter, Janaki goes to the railway station alone in the middle of the night. Recently, a young woman asked me, “Would such act on the part of a woman not be considered inappropriate in the sixties?” From what I know, the readers of the sixties did not raise this question. Secondly, to answer this question, we need to consider the social conditions of the times.
As I mentioned at the outset, the society was swarming with social reformers and political activists who encouraged women not only to learn to read and write but also to participate in the movement. In fact, the active participation by women in all the social and political movements had started even before we achieved independence. Thus, while majority of the women were still rooted in tradition, there were also women, who showed independent spirit. And several writers of the sixties depicted those women in their fiction.
Janaki’s independent spirit and progressive views have been established with the incident at the railway station. Possibly, the elite created strong-willed female characters in fiction by way of providing comfort to the feeble women in our society, even to provoke them into action.
The second incident in this story is the husband’s reappearance. Janaki refuses to go back to him, which again is in step with her character. In those times, this also could be viewed as improbable yet the readers did not raise this question in the sixties.
Last August, I met with the author. She told me of another incident, which possibly happened much later. Visalakshi said that a prominent movie director, C. S. Rao, approached her for permission to make the novel into a movie. He was interested in making the movie but asked her to change the ending. Per his suggestion, Janaki should ask for her husband’s forgiveness and go back to him.
Visalakshi refused to make the change and the director the movie idea. Here I see the traditional mode of thinking in the director and the author’s progressive views in her refusal to change the ending. Strangely, the director had no objection to Janaki going to the railway station alone in the middle of the night.
In the novel, grahanam vidichindi [The Eclipse Ended], written in 1967, the author addresses two issues—firstly, a young woman, Bharati’s psychological trauma after her husband’s sudden and untimely death, and secondly, the ensuing complications brought by the money she had acquired after his death. All her family members, on her side and the husband’s side, offer to help her and protect her money through investments in the products of their choice. Bharati starts suspecting their ulterior motives. While struggling with her emotions, she gets involved with her husband’s best friend and, in course of time, finds out that he also is interested in putting her money to work according to his own preferences. Disgusted, she decides to go to Hrushikesh, where she finds Babaji consoling at first, and later as a man with suggestions to invest her money. Once again, she feels betrayed and packs to leave. Babaji gives her a note on the eve of her departure, which explains the real problem in her mode of thinking. While living in the constant fear of being cheated by everybody, she is doing the same, which is clinging to her money. She realizes that she should consider the alternative possibility—that all the people around her might be genuinely interested in her welfare as well as her money; genuine affection and their interest in her money need not be mutually exclusive.
In her preface to this novel, author made it clear that the argument for widow remarriage in this novel should not be construed as an argument that all widows must remarry necessarily. In her opinion, one may remarry if that contributes toward one’s personal growth and only if that is her choice. In other words, it should be the choice of an individual, and not a rule to be honored by all widows categorically.
In Visalakshi’s short stories, we find an unusual flair in her choice of themes and her narrative technique. She chooses the language and the milieu appropriate for her narration.
Two stories, ittadi binde [brass pot] and teerani korika [unfulfilled wish] illustrate two different angles in the psychology of the rich. In the first story, a wealthy woman goes shopping in her car, just to kill time, and buys a six thousand rupee necklace. On her way home, the car breaks down and she decides to take the bus “for fun.” In the bus, fellow travelers are fascinated by a brass pot, a working class woman bought for thirty rupees. The rich woman is surprised by their fascination of the pot. Eventually, she learns that the young woman is her servant’s wife. Almost impulsively, she invites the couple to live in her outhouse. The story revolves around various emotions the rich woman goes through while watching the couple express their love for each other. The crux of the problem is her inability to sustain her generosity. It is an interesting twist.
In the second story, “teerani korika”, we find a different angle, once again, in the generosity of the rich. The protagonist, Rangaraya Bahaddur is a wealthy zamindar, whose generosity knows no bounds. He never says no to anyone who comes to him with an appeal. A new gentleman, by the name Potti Pantulu, arrives in town. Potti Pantulu needs help but does not go to the zamindar. Zamindar waits since he does not extend his help unless the person comes to him. People around him notice that the zamindar is troubled about something but do not know what it is. While zamindar is waiting for Potti Pantulu to appear at his door, Pantulu wins a huge sum in a lottery. Thus the zamindar’s wish is never fulfilled.
In both the stories, the author did a good job in depicting the psyche of the haves. In both the case, the issues appear to be small for most of us yet of consequence to those who would have to face them.
Normally, a lazy person, who squanders away his life, does not admit he is squandering away his life. In the story, kadalika [The Change], narrated in first person, the protagonist has no problem admitting that he is wasting his life like a branded bull. In Andhra Pradesh, a branded bull carries a ritualistic significance. In some families, as a part of death ritual, a bull is branded and let go on the streets to roam freely. Traditionally, people are not supposed to stop the bull in any manner for any reason.
The young man aware of the resemblance between his conduct and that of the branded bull on the street yet has no will to change his ways. He whiles away his time at the bus stops watching beautiful girls getting in and out of buses. One day, he sees an old man in stinky, tattered clothes getting off the bus. Being old and clumsy, the man reels off the step and falls on the ground. Another bus hurries through the street, running over the old man. The young man notices a medicine bottle and a prescription slip on the ground. He debates for a while in his mind and decides to go out of his way and pick up the two items. He learns from the prescription slip that a girl named Malli is waiting in some hospital for that medicine. He goes to the hospital only to find that Malli is a little girl and she died the night before because the medicine was not delivered in time. The doctor tells the young man that the body will be thrown into the municipal cart if he does not take it. The young man, despite his carefree lifestyle, is moved (the change) for some unknown reason. He takes the girl’s body to the outskirts of the town, buries it and returns home.
At home, his older brother yells at him for returning home late and slaps him. For the first time in his life, his older brother punished him. He notices the change in his brother’s demeanor and is surprised. Both his brother and sister-in-law never punished him, not even so much as raise their voices as long as he acted like a wild, branded bull. Now, for the first time in his life, he acted like a human being, did a good deed and in return, was slapped. The older brother did not know of the young man’s humanitarian act yet instinctively, he acted as if he had recognized the human element in him at that point in his life.
Annayya lifted his hand and slapped me a few times. “I am being so patient but there is no use; your behavior is getting worse each day. Tell me, where you’ve been? What did you do with the money Vadina gave you for books?”
Annayya pulled all the strength in his body and beat me.
I did not reply. I was surprised. I stood there watching him.
This is the first time Annayya has ever laid a hand on me. He did not have the heart to lift a finger as long as I sported the signs of a branded bull. Probably, he was scared that I might squash him with my horns and make a mush of him. Now, the branded bull within me has moved away and I am showing the signs of a human being, he has gotten the strength and the interest to punish me.
Had he punished me like this before, I would have thrown my head indifferently and walked away. But, his chiding today got the better of me completely. With that whack, my stupor has gone completely. They would not believe me even if I tell them what happened. Annayya knows me only too well to believe my words; I would not stand a chance!
“I lost the money. I was searching for it all this while,” I said.
Annayya knew that I was lying but he did not have the strength to beat me anymore. I knew I lied to them. There was no point in telling the truth. The old man’s soul would know that it was a lie. Malli, who was lying alone in the tamarind grove, knew it was a lie. But, they are not in a position to show up here and say that it was a lie.
This is what I liked about the story. The author’s keep perception into human nature. Self-analysis in a self-centered person is not an everyday event. However, it is not completely unlikely. That is what stories do—bring out the corners in huma psyche that is ignored in everyday lives.
As long as he acted like an unfettered bull, his brother and sister-in-law treated him just the way they would a branded bull -feed him and let him roam on the streets. After he imbibed a bit of human quality—kindness, they viewed him as a human being. Implicit are two perceptions: First, one may sense the change in another person intuitively. Second is the human value, which is to acknowledge that there are consequences for one’s actions. If a person is considered a human being, the other valuses such as discipline follow. Discipline means reward for good deeds and punishment for bad behavior. In this instance, the young man came home late and for that reason must be punished. He has done a good deed but the brother is not aware of it. Maybe the young man will be rewarded after the elder brother learns of it.
On a slightly different note, I must say I ran into some glitches while translating this story. It is filled with long, meandering sentences, and, at times, too much information is packed into just a few lines. There are inconsistencies in a couple of places. For instance, the narrator says the stores were closed because it was Sunday. If it was Sunday, why did the young man go to the bus stop to watch the college girls get off the bus. Are not the colleges closed on Sundays?
This is one of the traits we see in the sixties’ stories. In the story, “Travelling in a Ladies’ compartment”, published in March 2010 on this site, the narrator switches between the first and third persons in a couple of places. When I pointed out the inconsistency to the author, Subbalakshmi, she did not mind my changing the lines to make the narrative consistent.
“The first sale” is a short short story (3 pages) woven around a single incident. In the wee small hours of dawn, a graveyard watchman is losing hope because he has not had even one sale in the entire night. Unless he receives one dead body and collects the fee, he will not be able to buy medicine for his sick child. In the last minute, he sees a man approaching him with a bundle in his hand. Much to his dismay, it is his child, for whom he was hoping to buy medicine. It is time for the next guard. The next guard comes, looks at the dead body and is elated that he has a sale even before he started his shift!
I believe this is one of the few stories where burial ground is used powerfully as background. The story should remind the native speakers of the story of Harischandra, who also is forced to insist on receiving the fee for burying his own son. The guard is aptly named, Veeri gadu, which reminds us of Veerabahu in the story of Harischandra.
Like the wealth, death has several angles and the author succeeded in highlighting those angles which are usually not noticed or noticed but ignored. Visalakshi possesses a remarkable skill in crafting her stories. Her narrative oozes the native flavor.
She has traveled Malasia, America, Britain, and Switzerland. She has working knowledge of Hindi and English.
To her credit, she has 13 novels, 4 anthologies of short stories, and an anthology of essays, Malasia: then and now. Some of her novels have been translated into Kannada.
She has reviewed about 200 books, under the pseudonym, Sumana. Her works have been subjects for several Ph.D.s and M.Phil. degrees.
Visalakshi has received the prestigious Gruhalakshmi Swarnakankanam award in 1966, Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Akademi award in 1982, and honorary D. Litt. from Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University in 1998 among several other awards.
I met her in August, 2009. She was willing to meet with me but no interviews she said. She further explained her reasons for not giving interviews. “These days, I am unable to recall the details. It would not be right on my part to give wrong information. Therefore, I decided not to give interviews”
I asked for permission to translate her stories. She said, “I can say I have no objection. However, it is not appropriate for me to do so, since I have donated all my books with full rights to Visakhapatnam public library. You should contact Bhamidipati Ramagopalam and Varahala Chetty, members of the board of trustees of the public library and obtain permission from them. I am sure they will have no objection but you should contact them.”
Accordingly, I met with Bhamidipati Ramagopalam and Varahala Chetty in the next two days. Both of them assured me it was not a problem. Mr. Varahala Chetty jotted a line on a piece of paper, which said “With the kind permission of the copyright holders, Visakhapatnam public library” and gave it to me.
After I returned home, I translated the story kadalika and mailed a copy to the author as a matter of courtesy. She wrote back to me that the story in question was not her choice for translation and that I must not publish it. Probably it was one of those instances of memory lapse. Regardless the copyright holders have given me the necessary permission, I discarded the translation.
Published on thulika.net, June 2010
 This novel is discussed at length in my book, Telugu Women Writers: 1950-1975 (a critical study). Author, 2008. (Available at Amazon.com.)