Varalakshmamma was an avid social activist, active participant in Gandhian movement, a social conscious writer and a great speaker. She was born on October 6th, 1886. Her parents were Palaparthi Seshayya and Hanumayamma. She had seven siblings—five brothers and two sisters. She was married in 1909 to Kanuparthi Hanumantha Rao, an educated and sophisticated gentleman and health inspector by profession. He supported Varalakshmamma’s activities wholeheartedly.
In the history of India, it was a crucial time. The country, inspired by Gandhi, was fighting for freedom from the British rule. The state of Andhra Pradesh was sizzling with the nationalist spirit and the social movements advocated by Veeresalingam. Varalakshmamma threw in her lot with these political and social movements at an early age. She worked towards not only improving the living conditions for women but also encouraging them actively to participate in these movements. She traveled around the country to promote the ideals she believed in.
Varalakshmamma’s father and brothers encouraged her to read ever since she was a child. One of the contributory factors in her writing was her neighbors. As the story goes, there were some illiterate older women in her neighborhood who migrated from Maharashtra. They used to ask Varalakshmamma to read the letters they had received from their relatives back home and then ask her to write replies to those letters. They
would often tell their thoughts in their own clumsy way and Varalakshmamma took it upon herself to think through and put them in a cogent manner. She was in 3rd grade at the time. This practice of reorganizing the thoughts helped her to develop a series column, sarada lekhalu, in her later years (which will be discussed later.).
Since her childhood, she was interested in reading. Her father and brothers played a significant role in developing her writing skills. She wrote her first story 1919 at the suggestion of her brother Anjaneyulu, who had read an English story to her and asked her to write it in Telugu. With great determination, she finished it. It was published in anasuya monthly under the pseudonym ‘Saudamini’. Although it was written after reading an English story, it read like a Telugu original.
After publishing her first story, she continued to write. Her next significant contribution was a feature column maa chettuneeda mucchatlu [Chitchat in the shade of our tree] in Andhra patrika weekly under the pseudonym Leelavati. In the column, Varalakshmamma discussed important issues such as education for women, traditions, politics, modern trends and many more.
The column ran for six years. In 1928, the same management started another magazine, gruhalakshmi, in which Varalakshmamma was invited to write regularly. She started another column, Sarada lekhalu [Letters from Sarada] under another pseudonym Sarada. The letters were addressed to an imaginary friend, Kalpalata. In these letters, Varalakshmamma discussed potent issues such as Sharda Act, divorce law, khadi movement, non-cooperation, erasing untouchability, unfounded customs, physical exercise, the changes implemented in measurements and weights, microphones and many more. The list is sufficient to show the diversity in the topics she was writing about. The Sarada lekhalu set a new standard in the genre of letter writing in Telugu literature. It is a milestone.
Varalakshmamma wrote poetry, stories, novels, and plays. Her writings were broadcast on All India Radio and doordarshan (Indian TV). She participated in literary meets with high-ranking poets of our time and sometimes she was the only woman writer in a given meet. She was also a powerful orator. Because of her husband’s job as health inspector, they moved to several towns and that helped her to develop contacts in several places
and deliver inspiring speeches.
Some of her stories that received critical acclaim are penshanu puccukunna naati raatri [The night after retirement], katha etla undaale [How a story should be?], kuteeralakshmi [The Goddess in a Cottage], and aidu maasamula iruvadi dinamulu [Five months and twenty days].
In penshanu puccukunna naati raatri, the author describes the mental state of a couple after the husband retired. The author describes their mental state—a sense of despair, depression, apathy, and fear of future without income—in a manner that brings about empathy in the readers, says Polapragada Rajyalakshmi, a veteran writer and close friend of Varalakshmamma.
In kuteeralakshmi, Varalakshmamma depicts the ruination of cottage industries as a result of the economic devastation following the First World War. It was published in Andhra Patrika Ugadi issue, 1924.
The protagonist’s (Ramalakshmi’s) husband started a dyeing clothes business on a large scale and was successful until the Second World War caused the country to collapse economically. He lost everything and died. After his death, Ramalakshmi had to start all over again to feed her two little children. At first, she took several odd jobs and later, started working on the spinning wheel to make a living. The story ended with a sad note that the protagonist never got a chance at good living.
Sad as it sounds, that has been the reality in India. The small farmer, the small business, the mom-and-pop store round the corner took a downward turn and never recovered as India kept moving towards modernization.
Varalakshmamma’s first novel vasumati was published in 1925. In her preface, she stated that she was 14 when she heard a woman narrate her heartbreaking story to her (Varalakshmamma’s) mother. After a couple of years, she wrote it and threw it into a box. After eight years, she pulled it out in the hope of publishing it. However, she noticed that some of the pages were worn out, and some were stained by medicines and oils. Varalakshmamma decided to rewrite the missing pages and publish it. Thus, she would consider the novel a re-write of the original.
The novel illustrates the life of a young woman. Vasumati was only three when her father died leaving her mother a widow at the age of 25. The mother, Mahalakshmi shoulders the responsibility of arranging marriages for the two girls and educating a son, Ramachandra. She performs the marriage of her first daughter Rajyalakshmi with her husband’s sister’s son, per husband’s wishes. After that, she arranges Vasumati’s wedding with Ananda Rao, from a respectable family in Narasaraopet. Ananda Rao befriends Krishnamurthy, a wanton, and Nagamani, a prostitute.
Ananda Rao’s older brother and mother encourage him to bring Vasumati and set up a family. They hope that his wife’s presence would help him to come to his sense. In stead, Ananda Rao ill-treats her for a while, sends her back to her natal home, and moves to Rangoon along with Nagamani. In Rangoon, Nagamani turns cozy up to other men and plays Ananda Rao for a fool.
Ananda Rao, desperate for money, finds Sundara Rao, a Telugu publisher and a kindhearted man. He understands Ananda Rao’s situation and tries to persuade him to bring his wife to Rangoon but to avail. Eventually, Ananda Rao sees a novel, Haridasi, on Sundara Rao’s desk and takes it to his room. He finds the story gripping, since it reads very much like his wife’s story. He is moved by the story.
He realizes his mistakes and returns home. He brings Vasumati back to his home and they all live happily ever after. Unlike the ending in the Goddess in a Cottage, the story of Vasumati ends with a joyous note.
Into this story, the author weaves several contemporary issues such as women’s education, the dowry system, family values, especially those cherished by brothers towards their sisters. Her comments on women’s education are particularly important in the light of her being part of the Veeresalingam’s movement for educating women. There is however a marked difference in her approach. While Veeresalingam promoted education for women only to make them better wives and better mothers, Varalakshmamma takes it to a higher level. Her protagonist reads not only the books on women’s duties to her husband but also other subjects such as English literature, Telugu literature, prosody, history, geography, and math. Her brother Ramachandra helps her which again a practice in vogue (p.17). As I mentioned earlier, the author had received immense support from her brothers.
The author presents Vasumati’s brother, Ramachandra, as an ideal young man—a social reformer and patriot who is interested in women’s welfare, elimination of dowry and bride price systems; he is also interested in foreign travel. He shuns ancient practices but holds no grudge against them. He is the kind of person who would study both ancient and modern philosophies, examine them carefully and accept the good things from each one of them. He studies English yet does not take to their bad habits such as cigarettes and liquor.
Author’s keen awareness of the changes that had been taking place in the society was obvious in incorporating people’s migration to Rangoon in search of wealth. For instance, in Rangoon, Ananda Rao was caught in a dilemma. Nagamani, whom he trusted, was playing him, one day embracing him and another day rejecting him. He was totally at her mercy. Sundara Rao, his employer, sees Ananda Rao’s situation and tries to persuade him to bring his wife. He gives him books to read; tells him in so many ways to get his act together. Ananda Rao would not listen. However, one book, Haridasi, helps
him see the light. I liked this twist. Human nature being what it is the time has to come for anybody to see the light of day. It does not happen in just one stroke or move. In that, the author succeeded in presenting a situation authentically.
The author’s command of diction and imagery are superb. Varalakshmamma possessed a captivating style. The language is not colloquial by current standards but it was at the time it was written. It is narrated in semi-classical Telugu as was common in her time. The author had penchant for long-winding phrases on occasion. I was amused by her description of Vasumati’s beauty in one and a half pages. She gave almost the status of
a classical heroine to Vasumati.
For social historians, this makes an excellent reading. The author did an impressive job of presenting it for history. The book includes a preface by a noted language reformer, Gidugu Ramamurthi pantulu. He stated that, “nowadays, there are plenty of political, historical, fictitious and
critical novels but a social novel like this is rare.” We have to understand it within the context.
The book Viswamitra maharshi (1933) is a prose kavya. The author depicts Viswamitra as a highly disciplined rishi, a man of determination and strength, both physically and mentally, and a champion of human values. According to Varalakshmamma, Viswamitra believed in equality of all human beings. In the narrative, she included several contemporary issues such as the Brahmins and non-brahmins controversies, caste-related issues, and the social hierarchy.
The author meticulously highlights the demarcations in the hierarchy of the supreme status of man – rishi, rajarshi, brahmarishi. Viswamitra’s refusal to accept himself as brahmarishi unless the sage Vasishta called him so is significant.
Some of the observations made by the author through her protagonist, Viswamitra, are valid even today. Viswamitra states, “One may overcome external forces using money or physical strength but no one can win over the inner foes. One may defeat sexual desires but defeating anger is the hardest” (p.81). His realization that one would not be able to achieve the status of brahmarishi until and unless he had defeated his innate anger is a
message for all mankind. His name has been associated with the king Harischandra known for his truthfulness and for having his integrity tested by Viswamitra in the harshest way possible. The story, narrated to children, would usually present Viswamitra as ruthless and as an epitome of relentless anger. Varalakshmamma on the other hand attempts to depict him as a commendable character, commendable for his devotion, commitment, and fortitude. The author skillfully illustrates his innate strength and persistence in achieving the much coveted brahmarishi status.
According to the legend, Viswamitra was born in a royal family with Brahmin qualities because of a mishap. Thus his unique but mixed qualities forced him to deal with conflicting emotions. He is forced to play the role of a prince while consumed by a desire to become a rishi. He goes into severe penance three times and each time fails to consummate his penance. First time, he gives up his penance to save a king who is accursed to be a chandala [untouchable] and reinstate his royal life; second time, gives in to his physical desires, and third time to his own anger. Finally, he realizes that his
only way to salvation is to overcome anger. Eventually, he accomplishes his goal yet is not content until the highly revered sage Vasishta accepts it and addresses him as brahmarishi.
Additionally, the author argues aptly that Viswamitra’s story is enlightening regarding the arguments between the Brahmins and non-brahmins, the conflicts between the upper and lower classes, and the distinction between the physical and innate strength. According to Varalakshmamma, this story illustrates powerfully the fundamental philosophy that, despite one’s birth in a given caste, a person may attain the highest status in human life by following the righteous path.
Varalakshmamma was also against the irrational practices prevalent in our society. In Andhra Pradesh, it is common to burn a child on the forehead when he or she is afflicted with an ailment like tetanus. The author’s disapproval of such practice is illustrated in the Cottage Goddess, by making an old man offer an empirical solution.
I could not access all the books written by Varalakshmamma. Therefore, I shall take the liberty of quoting from Rajyalakshmi’s monograph, in which the author conceptualized Varalakshmamma’s writings.
“In each story, contemporary society is the dominant theme. The changing conditions, changing perceptions, the good and bad in them, to what extent the old should be adapted and how much of the new we should embrace, to what extent the social reform is needed and in what fields—are some of the topics she chose for her stories. “During the period Varalakshmamma started writing, that is 1920-1940, the story elements such as diction, style, brevity, totality and unity had not yet fully developed. … Therefore, we should not be using today’s criteria to evaluate her stories.
“Varalakshmamma’s stories are long. In a book, each story takes twenty to twenty-five pages. … In some stories, one part of the story happens in one place and another part in another place. …. The time—months and years—is also the same way. … In some stories, characters start out as children and end up as adults. The author interferes in the narration to express her opinions and analyze a given situation. “Each one of her stories is written with a purpose. Most of the time, she writes seriously, with a touch of humor occasionally. Her humor never crosses the line though. “Style comes naturally to her. That writer’s personality has a bearing on his/her style is true in her case. … Her views on how a story should be written are presented in her story, katha etlaa undaale (The Charm of a Cherished Story) and her stories reflect the same qualities.” (29-33)
Varalakshmamma, a woman of small build, barely 5-foot tall, possessed enormous courage, determination and integrity. She was a driving force behind the women’s and social movements in Andhra Pradesh. She founded stri hitaishini mandali [Women’s welfare consortium] and yuvati vidyalayam [College for young women] in Bapatla, her hometown. Utukuri Lakshmikantamma narrated an incident in her sahiti rudrama, highlighting
Varalakshmamma’s deep-rooted convictions. For an organization to run smoothly and successfully, it is important that rules are strictly adhered to. According to the story, one of the members failed to pay the dues on time and Varalakshmamma canceled her membership. Lakshmikantamma and a few others attempted to persuade Varalakshmamma to take the member back but to no avail. Varalakshmamma would rather risk losing a friend than allow indiscretion in running the organization. Her writings reflect her progressive views and insights unequivocally.
Varalakshmamma passed on August 13, 1978. Nevertheless her spirit lives on. Senior writers and the elite of Andhra Pradesh cherish her memory fondly. I hope the current generation will learn about her. Those who can learn Telugu may find the monograph written by Polapragada Rajyalakshmi, Kanuparthi Varalakshmamma (Sahitya Akademi publication) gratifying.
I had the honor of standing on the same stage with Varalakshmamma garu and Utukuri Lakshmikantamma garu in 1968 at the Andhra Women Writers Conference. That was a moment I would cherish forever.
Originally published on thulika.net, January 2009.
Rajyalakshmi, Polapragada. Kanuparthi Varalakshmamma. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi,
(© Malathi Nidadavolu,.January 2009)