Kanuparthi Varalakshmamma by Nidadavolu Malathi

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)

Malapalli – revisiting a classic – 2 by Nidadavolu Malathi

Malapalli, chapters 13- 23

 13. Burning issues and the starving poor.

The following day, early in the morning, Sangadasu got down to work. Asked Venganna if Chowdarayya returned home. Venganna told him that Chowdarayya and the munsif of Palem were on their way to a meeting in the neighboring village.

The munsif and Chowdarayya were conspiring and finding ways to shortchange the laborers of their wages. One suggestion was to offer money instead of grains. Sangadasu also understood that Chowdarayya was keeping him under his control in his household. He thought of informing Rama Naidu but changed his mind, thought it might his feelings.

Rama Naidu learned from Sangadasu about his father’s plans to swindle the laborers and avowed his support to Sangadasu in his fight for worker’s rights.

Rama Naidu offered to go to the field to learn farming. At the field, Rama Naidu asked for food. Sangadasu said that, unlike the bosses, not everybody would have three meals a day and snacks in between to eat. Rama Naidu was even more determined to join hands with Sangadasu for improving the conditions of the poor.

14. Splinters

Sangadasu was pondering over Rama Naidu’s commitment and the possible consequences. Rama Naidu could offer plenty of help but that would create problems between him and his father. He might even lose his share of the family’s wealth.

On his way home, Sangadasu stopped by a small store selling daily necessities. There he saw the poorest of the poor buying the daily necessities with the smallest change they had and begging for a near handout. Sangadasu was devastated. “How could I ask them to go on strike?” he thought. He came home and the conditions at home appeared to be heavenly compared to the sight at the store.

During the chitchat, Malakshmi told him that Subbalakshmi was beaten and had fallen seriously ill due to lack of medical attention. Sangadasu went to see her. Subbalakshmi begged him to take care of her son, Appadu. She also told Appadu not to befriend bad people and stay with only Sangadasu.

Sangadasu promised her to take care of Appadu and also offered to admit her in a nearby hospital. She asked to let Appadu go with her. Sangadasu agreed.  Later he went to the courtyard by the neem tree and joined the group who had gathered to chat.  He asked them how they were doing, and plans to build roof over their heads, etc.

Veeradasu said he changed his mind about the house. He said his son was planning to buy a cart and transport stones. Sangadasu discussed the logistics of the business, and offered to help financially. He reminded them not to start drinking again.

Punnanna raised the question about the wages. Sangadasu told them that munsif was offering cash instead of grain but was not sure how much.

Muthadu told them that munsif was offering a quarter of a rupee, which was much less compared to the amount of grain they were receiving.

Veeradasu suggested strike. Rangadu said that would hurt the laborers more than the owners and it they should work but refuse the pay until the owners paid reasonably.

Sangadasu said both the arguments had merit. Rangadasu suggested the path of dharma and the owners might come around and seek the same dharma. Punnanna on the other hand suggested the hero’s path.

Veeradasu commented that the dharma path would not yield results in a short period of time and the hero’s path, strike, could get the owner’s attention quickly.

Sangadasu said that most of the workers were in favor of strike. He told some of them to go to Chowdarayya’s farm and the others to munsif’s farm. That way, they might force both the owners to come to an understanding.

15. Harvesting

 The next morning Sangadasu went to see Munsif and discuss the situation of the farm workers. Munsif asked Sangadasu whose side he was on. He was sympathetic to the workers’ issue but was not willing to disobey Chowdarayya.

Munsif and Sangadasu argued about the workers they had hired. Sangadasu said the workers were determined to go on strike.

Sangadasu went to Rama Naidu and told him and informed him of the latest developments in the workers’ situation. He also advised Naidu to eat before going to the fields. Rama Naidu said he would eat along with the other workers.

Rama Naidu asked why Sangadasu was not coming inside the house. Sangadasu said he would explain it to him later. As they all started going toward the fields, Naidu noticed that he could not keep up with even female workers.

Seshayya, one of the workers told Naidu that Munsif had paid four days’ wages in advance and some workers went to work for him. Sangadasu asked him how in what manner he should pay them. Seshayya replied that he would leave it to Sangadasu’s judgment. Sangadasu said he would follow Chowdarayya’s orders.  They all were aware that things would get rough.

The workers hung their food vessels to the tree branches and started reaping. Rama Naidu, being new to manual labor and to this type of work, was having hard time. Soon, he was tired. Akkalakshmi brought food for him in a silver dish. Sangadasu told the workers to eat their meals. Naidu wanted to take bath but changed his mind since he did not have towel with him. He watched as the workers ate with their right hand from the food placed in their left hands. To him, it was amusing. After finished eating, Rama Naidu fell asleep.

It was past midday by the time he woke up. He saw that the workers were already in the field reaping the grain. Sangadasu stopped reaping and came to Naidu and asked how was he. Naidu said it was totally new for him and asked if they would be eating light meal in the mid-afternoon. Sangadasu said there were no light meals in this world and offered to pick some fresh cucumber from the field.

Naidu ate the cucumbers and baby grains [uucabiyyam] and asked him to bring water. Sangadasu said Naidu should fetch the water himself, fearing that the workers might fuss about it. He also told him how his aunt, Subbalakshmi was beaten up.  He then explained to Naidu how the hunger debilitates the workers and it would not be in the best interest of the owners. They both decided to fight for the reinstatement of Dharma, even if it meant Naidu going against his father’s wishes.

16. The Sowkar.

This chapter provides a detailed account of the Nallamotu lineage. Chowdarayya’s father, Ramanna Chowdary had amassed wealth in the form of land and buildings in several ways. He had the workers under his leadership revolt against then the British government, refused to pay the taxes, and continued the strike for a very long time. By the time he died, he owned two hundred acres of low land and one hundred acres of high land. After his father, Chowdarayya expanded their affluence by buying land cheap and auctioned property, and through questionable lending practices. In his time, the land expanded to five hundred acres of low land, three hundred acres of high land and also three lakhs cash.

In their village, Mangalapuram, there used to be old type mansion with high-raised walls. He bought additionally the house across from his and owned by a powerless brahmin family. Chowdarayya wanted to build a separate shed in the place of that brahmin’s house but Lakshmamma argued that the cowshed should be part of the house they were living; that would bring good fortune.

Chowdarayya had a two-storey mansion built. But Lakshmamma always stayed in the old house. Rama Naidu was using the entire upstairs. Dowstairs, Chowdarayya was using the south room as his bedroom and the hallway for meeting friends. His older brother’s son, Venkatayya would sleep either in the mansion or the cowshed as needed.

Chowdarayya was a good businessman. He had learned to read and write. Pantulu was his right hand man. Sangadasu was in charge of the farming. He was getting 15 rupees per month and food.

Chowdarayya asked Lakshmamma about Rama Naidu. He was worried about his son’s friendship with Sangadasu and their visit with a brahmin guru. Lakshmamma said that the father brought him [Sangadasu] into the house and the son took him upstairs.

Chowdarayya asked her to send him away to find a job but Lakshmamma was not sure that Naidu would listen to her or anybody else for that matter. Chowdarayya was also not happy that Lakshmamma was generous to the poor.

In this chapter, I came to know for the first time the relationship of Venkatayya to Chowdarayya. Venkatayya was introduced earlier in chapter 10. There he addressed Lakshmamma as pinnamma which led me to believe that he was her stepson. It is however in this chapter the actual relationship, that Venkatayya was Chowdarayya’s brother’s son, was mentioned. This again brings us to the stylistic variations in Telugu narrative.

17. Wages

Chowdarayya was worried that his son was drifting away, and that his friendship with Sangadasu was to be blamed. Nevertheless he would have to ensure Sangadasu’s support since he had lost the support of the munsif.

Chowdarayya discussed the wages with Sangadasu. Sangadasu did not want to ruffle his boss, but did not want to shortchange the workers either. Sangadasu pointed out that the tradition of paying in the form of the grain on which the workers had worked had its value. It was a way of survival for the workers. Chowdarayya argued that he was willing to pay cash, saying it was not always possible to pay in kind. He cited the example of construction work. Sangadasu countered  saying the custom of paying in cash came into existence only because of that kind of labor but it did not apply to the farm work. He went on to elaborate the various types of ownership and wages.

Chowdarayya was adamant. He was not concerned so much about the subsistence of the workers as his own profits. Sangadasu argued that the workers would not be able work effectively on empty stomachs. He was able to convince Chowdarayya to pay as usual at least for now.

18. An old woman from Mutarachu.

The workers were waiting outside while Chowdarayya and Sangadasu negotiated in the hallway. At Chowdarayya’s suggestion, Sangadasu asked Seshayya, Veerayya and Rangadasu to come in for further talks.

Chowdarayya inquired what they would be doing on that day and told them the grain they would be receiving as their wages was stored in a silo. He would give them the following day. Seshayya insisted that the workers needed food for that night. Chowdarayya agreed.

Sangadasu assured other workers that the other landowners in the village also would come around since Chowdarayya agreed to their terms. The strike was stalled temporarily at least.

Rama Naidu admired Sangadasu for his strategy. Sangadasu quoted the four ways of strategy—sama [compromise], dana [bribe], bheda [divide] and danda [assault] and said there was a fifth way which was to ignore.

It was getting dark. Adam Sayibu was measuring and giving the grain to the workers.

Rama Naidu and Chowdarayya returned home. There Rama Naidu witnessed a scene that caused his heart to thaw out.

An old woman was begging his mother for food. Lakshmamma asked her why she had to beg for food, if she had no family. The old woman told her piteous story. Lakshmamma took pity on her and gave her some rice. Chowdarayya called the old woman a swindler. Rama Naidu was moved by the woman’s story and the conditions that drove her to near death situation.

19. (This chapter was not given a subtitle).

Rama Naidu went upstairs but could not sleep. He came downstairs and noticed that the light was still on in Sangadasu’s room. He invited Sangadasu into his room upstairs. Sangadasu replied he would not be comfortable going upstairs. But Naidu insisted and they both went upstairs.

Chowdarayya saw them and thought of waiting to see what would happen.

Rama Naidu told Sangadasu about the old woman who had fainted in their yard earlier. Sangadasu said he had seen it and continued to explain the hardships the poor had been suffering in the village. He also told about his aunt, Subbalakshmi who had beaten by a sowkar and died. Naidu asked why it was not reported.

The doctor had taken the statement from Subbalakshmi on her deathbed but the Naidu’s father paid five hundred rupees and had the doctor rewrite a statement that she died of pneumonia.

Rama Naidu said that he was being disheartened by the minute. Sangadasu talked at length about the loopholes in the system and possible solutions.  They both talked about the upcoming meeting by workers union to fight the landowners’ atrocities. Actually, Sangadasu explained in elaborate detail the entire system of land ownership, land tenure and agrarianism.  Chowdarayya had heard their decision to leave town the following day. He thought that it might actually help him to turn things around in his own favor.

In this chapter, we see the author going to great lengths to highlight. Sangadasu’s scholarship and Rama Naidu’s ignorance. Rama Naidu had received college education and in preparation for an administrative position in the government. (His mother said he was qualified to be a tahsildar and his father wanted him to take a job outside his village). That being the case, it is strange that he should learn the entire philosophy of agrarian system from Sangadasu.

20. Food polluted by madiga presence.

Sangadasu and Rama Naidu go to Vijayawada to attend the Adima Andhra Conference. The munsif saw them eating at the same table. The news reached the village and Chowdarayya was beside himself.

21. Caste distinctions

 At the conference, Sangadasu met with the organizer, Venkata Reddy and other prominent members of the party. Once again, Sangadasu explained in detail the origins of the caste-oriented vocations and the eventual distribution of wealth based on caste system. He then suggested the need for reform and the method of achieving it.

22. The Knowledge of the Aryans belongs to one and all.

 The president and Sangadasu sat down to draft a proposal summarizing the conclusions drawn at the meeting the day before. Chowdarayya joined them. Somayajulu was also expected. He joined them a little later.

Here I need to make a brief comment about names. This Chowdarayya might not be the same Chowdarayya, earlier identified as Rama Naidu’s father. Several variations of similar sounding [names also very common in this novel. For instance, Venkata Reddy, Venkatadasu (Ramadasu’s eldest son), Venganna (hired hand at Chowdarayya’s household), Venkatayya (Chowdarayya’s brother’s son)—seem to be taxing our memory from the perspective of today’s readers. And it gets worse as the initial syllable is used in conversations. The reader need to remember the individual participants in specific instances.

 23. Reconstruction of the society.

In nine pages, the president’s speech on the societies in the west, Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and the reforms in England and the evils in our society described exhaustively. And then the recommendations of the panel drafted by their hero, Sangadasu, were passed.


Let’s review from the perspective of the questions I had raised at the outset. The story is supposed to be about the lives and problems of the mala community and possibly of all the disadvantaged castes in a larger context. At first, the archetypal hero is supposed to be Ramadasu and not Sangadasu, and even he is a dasari, a brahmin of sorts within the community. He is very knowledgeable and yet humble enough to ask the guru for answers. Sangadasu, who is supposed to be the protagonist is killed in this first quarter of the novel. Assuming that his goals have been accomplished or the path to accomplish them has been identified, yet the question remains is: How much have I learned about the day to day lives of the mala people? I don’t feel I have learned to justify the title, “Malapalli.”

The language may be colloquial at the time of writing this novel, but now requires a lot of education. Possibly, the rewriting of Marupuri Kothandarama Reddy has filled that gap.

I am beginning to believe that there is some merit in Rajagopalachari’s comment the novel is a “long and tedious piece of literature”. To me, it looks more of the author’s idea and the ideal rather than the story of people living in the hamlet and facing the horrendous odds everyday. We see that in a small episode involving Ramadasu’s sister Subbalakshmi. She was beaten for just walking along the path next to the fields of a rich landowner and died of wounds and for want of proper medical care. That is a reality for most of the low class people. Not the lectures of Sangadasu nor the hardships of Ramadasu in his later years.

I am beginning to believe that there is some merit in Rajagopalachari’s comment that the novel is a “long and tedious piece of literature”. To me, it looks more of the author’s idea and the ideals rather than the story of people living in the hamlet and facing the horrendous odds everyday. We see that in a small episode involving Ramadasu’s sister Subbalakshmi. She was beaten for just walking along the path next to the fields of a rich landowner and died of the wounds and for want of proper medical care. That is a reality for most of the economically disadvantaged class people. Not the lectures of Sangadasu nor the hardships of Ramadasu in his later years matters in that context.


Resource list:

In English

Kesavakumar, P. Emergence of dalit novel. (posted on Internet)


V.V.B. Rama Rao. Unnava Lakshmi Narayana. Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2002.

In Telugu:

Bangore [psued.] Malapalli nishedhaalu. Vijayawada: Visalandhra, 1979.

Venkarasabbaiah, G.: Sangha samskarta Unnava. Hyderabad: Desi Book Distributors, 1977.

http://te.wikipedia.org. Unnava Lakshminarayana. (posted on Internet)
© Malathi Nidadavolu.


Malapalli – Revisiting a classic novel by Nidadavolu Malathi

Malapalli: A Milestone in the History of Telugu Fiction and What it means for today’s non-scholar reader. .

First, I would like make clear that this is not a translation or a critical review but a modest attempt to introduce the highly acclaimed novel to the readers who are  either unaware of its existence or unable to read the Telugu version. I have encountered several problems in drafting this “introduction”. Therefore I decided to publish my account of the novel in installments, possibly revising as I read more and reflect more.


Since inception of Thulika, I have come across the title Malapalli so frequently that it has become hard for me not to say something about it. I borrowed the novel from the library about five months back and started reading it.

The novel was proclaimed unilaterally a monumental work for depicting the socio-economic and political scene of Andhra Pradesh in the first half of the century.

The history of its publication is interesting in itself. The novel Malapalli, with an alternative title, sangavijayam, was written by Unnava Lakshminarayana (1877-1958) while he was in prison for his involvement in the freedom fight against the British government. It was first published in 1922 and immediately banned by the then Madras Presidency. In 1928, Ayyadevara Kaleswara Rao, a noted Member of the Legislative Assembly, countered the arguments for the ban and succeeded. The Madras Government lifted the ban and allowed Andhra University to publish the book with the objectionable pages removed and prescribe it as textbook. In 1936, Madras government banned it for a second time. The following year, the ban was lifted by C. Rajagopalachari, the governor of Madras presidency. In 1976, the Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, published a shorter version (416 pages) of the novel, abridged by Marupuri Kothandarama Reddy.

The copy I am reading now contains 792 pages. Desi Kavita Mandali, Vijayawada, published in 1957 and noted it as a reprint but there was no mention of the first imprint.

It took me almost four months to read, based on the three premises:

1. The novel is deemed to be a modern day epic on par with Mahabharata. It depicted the rural life much the same way as Mahabharata had done;

2. It is one of the earliest novels to be written in colloquial Telugu;

3. The author was a social reformer, freedom fighter and a champion for the cause of the downtrodden and the untouchables; he depicted their lives.

I tried to read the novel and read some of these claims into the book. I am going to record what I have understood as an average reader. I may revise the pages from time to time to reflect on my perceptions and insights, if any. I invite you to post your views and comments on discussion.

This is intended to be only a brief introduction to a massive work. I hope this encourages you to read the original and/or the critical studies written by scholars like Bangore, V.V.B. Rama Rao, and G. Venkatasubbaiah.

The first and third premises noted above encompass the entire novel. Therefore I will address them after I had finished the first round of perceptions.

A brief note on the second premise: Let us review the author’s dilemma as stated in his foreword which is whether he should choose the classical language as was common in his time or the colloquial style, which just started gaining ground at the time for his medium. He decided on the colloquial style. His dilemma and his arguments have roused my curiosity since the discussion is as legitimate today as it was in his day.

Lakshminarayana said:

This is my first attempt to write in colloquial Telugu. There are no books to model upon. Neither scholarship in Sanskrit nor familiarity with Telugu prabandhas is helpful to be able to write in everyday language. To be able to write in pure Telugu, one must have familiarity with the rural people, who had no knowledge of Sanskrit. The Sanskrit scholars in the beginning and now the English scholars have changed the character of Telugu language. We have pure Telugu words to express several thoughts yet borrowing words from English language has become common. Because of that, beautiful Telugu words are pushed out and the language became a blend of many languages. [Unlike those writers] I tried to write this book in step with the flow of Telugu.

Keeping in mind the conditions of Telugu today, I found it easier to write in classical language than everyday Telugu. Habit is the first reason for this. Secondly, my lack of complete knowledge of the native tongue. Only those Telugu pandits who had lived in villages and thus gotten used to  the real character of the native dialect are qualified to write in that dialect. Nevertheless, I thought it would be helpful if I laid the path. I am aware that even among the proponents of colloquial Telugu there are differences. I am sure there will be arguments from all sides. Yet I decided to write as it comes to me and publish it. I hope to make corrections if necessary after I have heard the arguments.

That was written about 75 years ago. During this period, the Telugu language has changed dramatically. Umpteen words from Hindi, Urdu and English have been fused into colloquial Telugu. Additionally, the rural terminology used in this novel, which is actually relevant to my discussion of Malapalli, and several regional dialects have found their way into the modern day colloquial style.

That became a huge hurdle for me. I barely finished the first fifty pages before I understood that most of it was beyond my comprehension. Despite the author’s claim that it was written in colloquial Telugu, (modern day critics agree with the author), I had to struggle in several places. I am beginning to wonder if there is such thing as “colloquial” style etched in stone.

Against this backdrop, let me present the a brief account of the original text. The novel opens with an account of a day in the life of Ramadasu, a maladasari, and his family. He had three sons and a daughter. His second son Sangadasu was the protagonist according to the alternative title, sangavijayam.

1. The fields

The novel opens with a description of the close interrelationship of man, especially of farmers, with nature and family.

Ramadasu stopped briefly and gazed at the sky and the fields. The rainy season had ended and the sky was clear. It was time for his midday meal. He wondered why she [his wife] had not come yet. Then he noticed somebody at a distance; it was his little daughter Jyoti. Suddenly he remembered that it was time for the train to arrive and was worried. Jyoti crossed the tracks before the train arrived and came running to father. She bypassed the danger. Ramadasu felt relief.

He kept pondering over the field, the yield and the family. Ramadasu was a tall man; the thick moustache on his lips was showing streaks of grey; his body was strong because of sweating and toiling in the fields. The white in his eye sparkled feasting on the crops as they danced to the breeze and ready to be harvested. The western breeze was blowing in full force. The crowns of corn stalks were swinging like waves. The ears of corn adorned with a tinge of gold and copper were delightful. He thought that, by the grace of god and hoping that the children were blessed, the eastern winds would remain calm, and the land could yield no less than two puttis of grain.

The full-grown crops thrilled him immensely. As he was basking in the thought, he heard foot steps.

Ramadasu gently removed the stewpot from the top of her head, wiped the beads of sweat from her face and asked her why her mother sent her instead of coming herself. Jyoti said mother went to give food to her brother and take care of other chores.

Jyoti was born after two sons. They all treated her as a beloved child. Although she was a mala child, she was not dark like her father but fair like her mother. She wore a dense, hand-woven saree and a blouse with mirrored trim, which her aunt got made for her. A red stone studded stem was sitting cozily on her cute nose. The mirrors on her blouse reflecting the silver chains in her neck were complimenting each other and enhancing her beauty.

She said, “Ayyaa, amma asked me to bring some raw rice kernels and tender cucumbers.” Ramadasu told her wait there and he went into the fields to pick those items for her. After he returned with the rice kernels and cucumbers, she crawled on to his lap and they both ate while she told him in her childlike tone how she was going to dole out the cucumbers to everybody in the family. “Don’t you have one for me?” Ramadasu asked teasingly. Jyoti said that he should pick one more for himself. After they had eaten, Jyoti started to leave with the empty pot hanging over her shoulder and with the cucumbers. Ramadasu saw her tender bare feet and told himself that he should buy sandals for her. Jyoti left.

Ramadasu fastened the plough to the bulls again and returned to his work in the field. He thought about Venkatadasu, his eldest son and his hard work. Ramadasu was working on the pepper farm occasionally to relieve Venkatadasu of his burden to some extent but it was getting hard. His second son, Sangadasu had been put in a local landlord’s household as a hired hand. Ramadasu thought he should probably bring him home to help Venkatadasu.

2. The Animal Shed

The sun was down. Ramadasu returned home from the fields. He went to the cowshed steering the bulls. Appadasu, the cowherd, was grinding grains for the bulls. Ramadasu inquired about fodder and water for the animals. Appadasu told him how much available and what else was needed.

Appadasu was a fourteen-year-old young man. He had not taken to the trendy ways yet. He was hard working and studious. After he started as a hired hand with Ramadasu, he developed a taste for literature. Ramadasu was paying him two varahas more than the other hired hands and made arrangements for his food and clothing as well.

Appadasu was attaching the water jugs to the yoke to make the kavadi ready for bringing water. Ramadasu untied the bulls from the plough, tied them to the rods, and started chopping hay. Venkatadasu came in big strides; his body was shaking along with the kavadi on his shoulder. He lifted the two water jugs with his steely arms effortlessly and emptied them into the troughs. Then he turned to his father. “Why you chop the hay? Aren’t we here to do that?” he said raising his voice.

Ramadasu said it was not a hard job and asked him how many more kavadis he would have to run. Venkatadasu said it might take two more at least. Ramadasu suggested taking Appadasu with him to bring one round for the shed and one for use at home. And he said he would help to bring water the next morning. Venkatadasu would not hear of it. He would rather have Appadasu put to work. Then they talked about the daily matters that needed to be done. Venkatadasu told him that the cow had given birth to a calf.

Appadasu fixed his kavadi and followed Venkatadasu awkwardly and watching him with admiration. The calves were mooing. Ramadasu was worried that the animals had not yet been given water. He finished chopping the hay and gave some to the cows.

His sister, Subbalakshmi came. She told him that a local landowner whacked her with his cane. She pushed her saree up her emaciated and skin-dangling arm and showed him the bruises. She wore no blouse.

Ramadasu asked her what had happened. Subbalakshmi said she had been walking on the ridge on the outskirts of the village with a bundle of fodder for her buffalo. Basivireddy, the landowner, claimed that she had stolen it from his land, which she said was not true, and beaten her. Subbalakshmi had tried to tell him that she’d gotten it from the wasteland farther down and it was not his but he would not hear of it. He seized the bundle and ran her out.

Ramadasu said sadly, “They’re used to ill-treating the mala and madiga people.”

Subbalakshmi narrated a few more similar incidents and said she would not be able to

keep the buffalo anymore. She was thinking of selling it. Ramadasu gave her two bunches of hay and reminded her not to start chewing tobacco again. Subbalakshmi said that she had given up the habit and that Sangadasu was watching her. After she had left, Ramadasu looked around the shed, pulled the door shut, inserted the metal rod across the door, and went home.

3. Home

Ramadasu belonged to maladasari caste. Long ago [in the 11th century], Ramanujacharya, being a kind-hearted man, had established the Vaishnava tradition and made the religious preachings available to all, scholars and non-scholars alike irrespective of their caste. He had founded 72 pithams to disseminate his philosophy. In Andhra Pradesh, Addanki pitham was famous; it belonged to Telanga branch. Brahmins were acting as priests for all the four castes at first. Eventually, they instituted Satani positions for sudras and maladasari positions for the untouchables to act as priests respectively. Probably because they wanted to be equally fair to people of all castes, or because there were not enough Brahmins for all of them, or Brahmins were unwilling to be associated with the untouchables. Another reason could be that the fourth and the fifth castes rebelled and insisted on being given equal status. Nevertheless, all these organizations worked together towards improving physical and mental wellbeing of the pubic. In the process, they had succeeded in making the untouchables and other tribal people accept the Vaishnava tradition. From this, it is understandable that many people in those days worked hard to rebuild the society. Saivites also seemed to have made similar effort. In recent times however most of these structures have crumbled for want of royal patronage and made it impossible even to identify which structure was erected for what purpose.

Some of the satanis and maladaris were literate and continued to treat patients and oversee the religious rituals, indicating that former practices were still in force. In some places, jangamas ousted the Brahmins and occupied the chairs. Had these colossal attempts continued as before, the caste distinctions prevalent today would have been eradicated long ago and the society would not have been in the current powerless position.

Ramadasu’s ancestors had been Vaishnava preachers. They would still wear the niluvubottu. For three generations now they had courted achala bodha and followed the jnana tradition. Thenceforth, the central qualities like religious equality, independent thinking, devotion to serving the society, cleanliness, and seeking eternal truth had become common in his family.

Ramadasu had received his initiation from a guru and had been working towards detachment. However, until recently he had to continue his familial obligations since his sons were not old enough to undertake the responsibilities. About four years back, his eldest son Venkatadasu started working on the farm and that provided a respite for Ramadasu. Out of habit however, Ramadasu continued to step in occasionally. He had been spending most of his  time in religious matters though.

It is not correct to say that Ramadasu’s ancestors had been wealthy but they had been able to manage with one plough and four or five animals. There had never been an occasion for them to say they had not had enough food to eat.

Ramadasu had sold part of the land to a local landlord Nallamotu Chowdaramma and bought fertile land on the west side and added a few other improvements as well. He had had the cowshed built in his own backyard but his second son Sangadasu argued that it was unhygienic and had it moved to a place away from the house.

Ramadasu finished his work in the cowshed, locked the door and came into the house. Jyoti jubilantly announced to mother that father came home. She ran to father, held his hand and told him that she had given half of the cucumbers from the farm to mother to make chutney. Father said she was a good girl, and that made her happy. He sat down on the cot, and Jyoti crept into his lap and continued her chatter, “I made balls of the raw rice kernels and ate them all up. I didn’t give even a bit to anybody.”

Malakshmi came in a slow gait holding a high stool in one hand and a milk jug in the other. She came with a smile defying the moonbeams on a full moon day on the eastern horizon and noticed that her husband was tired. She said to Jyoti, “Dear child, let your father rest. You go, sit on the baby’s cot and watch so he may not smother under the sheet.” Jyoti went away into the verandah on the south side. Malakshmi let the calf go to the cow, have milk, and then started milking.

The full moon was pale by comparison to Malakshmi’s face. Ramadasu gazed at the moon and slipped into a reverie.

The captivating sounds of the baby ‘umm’ in mother’s lap and the streams of milk from the cow’s udder together resonated the daharakaasam and the mahadaakaasam producing a distinctive sound of OMKARA. He recalled the moment when he had received the mantra from Peerayya yogi and had been submerged in the celestial bliss at the vision of the goddess Mukti [Salvation]. In that moment he had attained the ecstasy unattainable even to the emperors sitting on the throne studded with the nine precious stones and wearing the bejeweled crowns. …

Malakshmi finished milking, let the calf go to the cow, and went in with the milk pot. Then she returned to speak to her husband; she was going to suggest to him to take a bath, it would be refreshing. But she stopped; she saw that he was in a meditative state. Tears sprang to her eyes. She thought she was blessed to have been wedded to this punyapurusha [the chaste/blessed man] and that she was blessed with this unique image of him in that state only because of her good deeds in previous birth. She fanned his feet with her palloo and offered her obeisance to his feet without actually touching them lest she should wake him . …

Jyoti came back from the kitchen, sat down with the remaining cucumbers after Malakshmi had taken some for chutney, and started making little piles of cucumber pieces, one for each, ‘this is for anna, this is for ayya  and so on.

Chapters 4 to 6 give us a peek into a day in the life of Ramadasu and his family. The author had apparently gone to great lengths to record the details. Each of the characters are shown to be  in transition one way or another, symbolizing some the views prevalent in society at the time.

Ramadasu is moving from the third [gruhastha] to fourth [vanaprastha] stage of Hindu dharma. In his language and reflections, he is philosophical, and compassionate in his actions. His wife, Malakshmi, is a beautiful, intelligent woman who follows her husband in his footsteps per the principles of wedded life. She also is kind and compassionate conciliatory in nature and practical.

Venkatadasu, their eldest son is in prime of life, brawny and feisty. He just started getting involved in farming duties and trying to relieve father of his responsibilities.

Ramadasu’s second son, Sangadasu, probably in his late teens, is working as a hired hand in the household of a local landlord, Chowdarayya and befriends his son Ramanayudu.

Jyoti, probably six or seven years old, is a lively and inquisitive child and loved dearly by everyone in the family.

They also have newborn son, Rangadu.

Appadasu, Ramadasu’s sister’son, is a 14-year old young man. Ramadasu takes him under his wing, pays higher wages than usual and gives him education as well.

Following is a brief outline of the chapters, illustrating some of the arguments to follow.

4. Family

 Malakshmi put the baby to sleep and returned to the front porch. Ramadas was awake and back into the “illusion” of family life.

Malakshmi asked him whether she should bring water for him to bathe or would he go to the yard. Ramadasu told her to bring the water to the front and went out.

The area is surrounded by three hills. There is also a lake, a Siva temple and two railway stations—one on the northeast side and another on the southeast side of the village. On the northwest side the madiga village; to the west of his house, a few other villages, hills and a strip of wasteland; on the eastside a stream which provides water to the fields, and on its banks a temple for the local goddess.

Theirs is a flat roofed house with double beams across from each other. There are tiled porches on the east and south sides of the house, a huge a yard in front and next to the street, a thatched hut along the compound wall. On the west side a huge yard and on the south the animal shed. Encompassing all these, a tiled compound wall was built. The animal shed and the house have doors leading to the open fields on the west side. On the east side, there is the main entrance and sprawling wasteland.

A wall is put up dividing the western room but the eastside room is not divided. To the easts, there are barns for storing grains and the produce.

On the west there is some arid land where his father had planted a neem tree, which had grown huge. At the foot of the tree trunk, they had constructed a platform and put up a saffron colored flag in honor of  Veerabrahmam. Sangadasu applied to the government for land to build a library and a Rama temple under the tree. It  is not sanctioned yet.

Venkatadasu and Appadasu came with pots of water and teasing each other playfully. Ramadasu asked them why they were late. Appadasu said they had filled all the troughs and vessels in the shed with water. He also said that bava [Venkatadasu] was bantering him. Ramadasu told Venkatadasu that it is not nice to tease the little boy. Venkatadasu replied Appadasu is not a little boy.

While the three men were bathing, Malakshmi scrubbed her husband’s and son’s back, and Jyoti scrubbed Appadasu’s back, which was “narrow at the waist and broad at the shoulders”.

While eating, Jyoti kept interrupting: She wanted a plate with broad rim, rice for all the three meals, and cucumber slices to share with brothers and so on.

Venkatadasu said that there was not enough yield in fields for them to eat rice in each meal. He asked if they would be growing tobacco upcoming year. Ramadasu pointed out that Sangadasu was against tobacco usage and for that reason they must not grow tobacco. Nevertheless Venkatadasu wanted to sell the stock on hand at least.

Mahalakshmi said that she was giving the leftover rice from the night to Jyoti. She was worried about the baby while she ran errands and took food to her husband and son. Until recently Ramadasu’s mother had been taking care of the child but now she passed away. Ramadasu commented that everybody would have to go when the time came, there was no escape from that.

That set off a brief conversation about god, whom he would favor and why; why the upper caste people would not allow the mala people into temples.

Malakshmi tried to explain it away. It was their [the upper classes] problem, not ours. Sangadasu was working towards having a temple built for them. Ramadasu as usual threw in a couple of quotes from books and proverbs. “If rocks were gods, won’t they swallow the funds?” and “Like coconut milk, riches come and  go, and nobody knows how.” God is present in everybody; why worry about the gods carved in stone. …

I find these comments from Ramadasu out of character and even shallow. He is supposed to be a dasari, to be in a position to preach and guide others. Speaking sensibly is one of the virtues of being a good preacher.

 Venkatadasu’s response that if everybody thinks on those lines, they would have nothing to eat is apt. He was concerned only with the work in the fields and bring produce to home so they all could eat three meals a day.

Jyoti asked for yogurt. It was not enough milk to make yogurt and serve to all in the family. It was getting hard to maintain even the two buffaloes they had.. The rich landowners would allow the untouchables pick it for their animals; they would rather let the grass in their fields wither and die. It would nice if Subbalakshmi could collect the hay for them. But Subbalakshmi was having problems of her own. She was struggling to maintain even the one buffalo she had.

Malakshmi said she would like to see Venkatadasu married and brought the bride home. At the mention of marriage, Venkatadasu’s face lit with smiles.

After they finished eating, they all went into the east room. Malakshmi sat down to eat.

Jyoti asked her about the cucumber slices she was saving to share with her brothers.

Ramadasu looked for his book, bhaktiyogam by Srirama Sastrulu but could not find it.

Malakshmi told him that Sangadas and Tungadurti Bucchayya had come earlier and they might

have taken the book.

Ramadasu was sorry that he missed them and decided to visit them the next morning.

Appadasu alerted them that the buffalo was about to give birth to the calf. It was an exciting event for them all.

5. Buffalo

They all watched as the baby was born and got busy.

Here we have a detailed description of the entire process of the birth of a calf and the subsequent nurturing them. I have to skip this part since there are several words I am not familiar with. But the care and concern each one of them displayed for the two animals is touching. The buffalo and the calf are part of the family.

Amidst all that excitement, each one of them was busy either washing, cleaning, clipping the toenails etc. or telling others to do this or that. Ramadasu kept relegating the birth and nurturing to the human experience with his metaphysical comments.

Jyoti’ was looking forward to junnu, the first round milk, cooked with sugar and spices. Malakshmi assured her that they would have it the following day. The first day milk would go into the kuditi [water mixed with washings of rice, etc.].

Appadasu gave fodder to the buffalo. He squated by the animal, daydreaming about his trip to the pastures the next morning along with other cowherds. He asked Malakshmi to pack yogurt and rice for his afternoon meal.

They would have to pay pullari [levy]—a half-rupee per animal and a quarter per calf. Ramadasu asked if they had to pay right away. Appadasu said they could pay later; the clerk would make a note of it in his books.

Ramadasu was thinking about Bucchayya garu. He moved closer to the lamp, and started humming the lyrics of his guru.  He noticed the placenta and asked Appadasu to throw it away before the animal ate it.

He dozed briefly and started pondering over the affection or the attachment the animals seemed to illustrate:

The calf forgets the affiliation to its mother after it has grown up. Probably the desire for wife and children is less of a concern in the animal world. In fact, the attraction between a male and a female may not be called a vice. The animals do not care for each other except in time copulation. Venkatadasu was tickled when his mother talked about marriage. His face glowed. He was so childlike until yesterday. Probably each person changes thus when he comes of age. It looked like a unique tidal wave of experience rose in his mind. Some people refer to them as ‘base pleasures’, and call them ‘vicious’. These two visions I had seen—are they just desires? Illusory? Illusion has several meanings. Let it be. Sangadasu says god’s love manifests in various ways. Then they also must be everlasting since the god is everlasting. Is illusion not everlasting then? People say these are immoral and to be shunned. Following this logic, we must label the love of Yasoda and the cowherdesses also as “desires”. If they are to be considered mundane desires, how can they be instrumental for attaining salvation? In addition, they say anger also is a means to achieve salvation. On the whole, it appears that the mundane life is the path leading to celestial life. It depends on the way the path is made use of. We can use a ladder to go up or down. Based on the stages in the creation, we humans have went up considerably. I like to call them instruments for salvation rather than desires. This animal with has climbed one step up with this delivery. That is the reason, rajayogam  is considered the best of all. Rajayogam means climbing up the ladder. For humans it is not possible to jump to the next higher level but must walk up the ladder one step at a time.

Sangadasu has learned to value good qualities due to his good deeds in his previous birth. He is still raw but can cross over the obstacles in good company. I hope Bucchayya garu will take him under his wing. Maybe I can mention it to him tomorrow.

All these thoughts came to his mind effortlessly. He did not initiate them. At first, he tried to discard them. Then he got lost in a flood of reflections. Finally, he came to his senses and collected himself. His thoughts were running amuck. He remembered his guru, still struggling to stay focused.

A vision of lord Krishna rose in his mind. He saw himself as a gopika who was trying to recall the enchanting music of Krishna’s flute and failed, like a silly brahmin who wandered in the nigama forest to find the Ultimate Brahman and failed. Ramadasu stood there heaving a sigh and tears brimming in his eyes. Then he saw suddenly the lord:

Krishna with peacock feathers on his head, the eyes floating on his face like two white lotuses in the lake, the locks playing with the kasturi dot on his forehead, charming smiles spreading to his delicate cheeks, … playing on the flute with his fingers like tender shoots, … surrounded by a group of cowherdesses. It is a superb picture of unparalleled love and oozing the nine rasas.

Ramadasu thought, “This vision is also a manifestation of the Lord’s love even as the river Krishna rolls over boulders in one place, plays hide and seek in a forest bursting with trees, and yet another place, squalls forth in a fit of rage and washes out the creation.

… The same love that mother Yasoda displays at seeing little Krishna’s playful acts is reflected on the buffalo’s face on seeing the baby calf. The little smile that is dancing on Krishna’s countenance is the same as that on Venkatadasu’s face. Both are the paths of redemption for Venkatadasu and the buffalo no doubt.”

He fell asleep as the fascinating vision calmed down the agitation at his heart.

The description of this vision is one and a half page long and is narrated in classical Telugu. Readers may attribute the experience to Ramadasu but the language is clearly that of the narrator. This is one of the few places where the author overlooked his preference to tell the story in colloquial Telugu I guess.

6. Cowherds

 Malakshmi woke up early, washed up,  and sent Appadu [Appadasu] to the shed and started churning buttermilk. Jyoti came and sat down with the leftover rice and chunky yogurt. Ramadasu woke up to the sounds of the churner, gave fodder to the animals and went out.

The place was filled with the sounds of churners; a young boy who guarded the fields all night was singing beautifully. Men were transporting water with their kaavillu (two pots hung on either end of a pole and carried on shoulders) noisily. Strong stench was spreading all over: the stench from the discarded bones, the leftover grunge after animals were butchered, and from the meat hung from rods. Although Ramadasu was accustomed to this stink since his childhood, it was still unbearable to him. He thought, “These people got the name candala because of this candalam [repugnant, base matter]. Most of them have no sense of cleanliness because of ignorance and poverty. Sangadasu is trying to set up schools and vocational training. That requires funds and regulation.”

Malakshmi massaged the baby with castor oil and bathed him and went to milk the buffalo. She invited Subbalakshmi to share junnu, since she was the eldest sister-in-law. Ramadasu asked her whether she would give some milk to the neighbors. Malakshmi said she would send them some milk in the evening.

Ramadasu inquired about Venkatadasu work for the day and then told them that he would visit Bucchayya later.

Subbalakshmi and Malashmi chatted about their children. Unlike Venkatadasu, Appadu was modest and unassuming. Sangadasu was getting close to Chowdarayya’s son, Ramanayudu  which spread some gossip in town. From what she had heard, Sangadasu and Ramanayudu were sitting at the same table to eat. Chowdarayya was upset about it but was not ready to fire Sangadasu since he needed him in the fields.    

Subbalakshmi suggested Appadu’s marriage with Jyoti. Appadu chuckled and Jyoti was bashful Ramadasu noticed it, could not make sense of it though.

Malakshmi asked whether Subbalakshmi would consider another mala girl for her son. Subbalakshmi replied, “I would but aren’t we dasaris, the brahmins among the mala people?”.

Malakshmi said that the question underscored the real issue—discrimination exists in all groups, not just in the upper classes alone. Then she alerted Appadu that it was getting late for him to steer the animals to the pastures.

Appadu propped the food bag to the stick and went to the shed to let loose the cows and buffaloes and proceed to the pastures. Other cowherds join him at the pastures. The bookkeeper Subbarayudu sat next to the statues of heroes and noted down the count of the grazing herd. Women were jostling around for the dung.

The cows went up hill into the open fields. The buffaloes were thrilled to see water, went into the lake. The cowherds almost one hundred in all gathered there. They hung their food bags to the tree branches and started playing games. They argued for sometime regarding what games to play. Some of them were playing flute.

They played for until noon and they all were tired. Then they jumped into the water, swam; some of them showed others the new strokes they had learned.

The took the food bags from the branches and sat down to eat. Venkadu offered his rice to Sayibu in exchange for his bread. Sayibu said how could he accept the food from a mala boy. Venkadu asked what did Appadu bring. Appadu said he had sajja meal and pepper.

After they finished eating, Appadu asked somebody to sing. Venkadu said Narisigadu was the best for singing. They all dragged Narisigadu into the center and prodded him on to sing. He said he could sing bawdy songs. Narisigadu finished his performance with a popular song:

I put kaatuka on my eyes

Held the pot on my waist

And came to the lake;

I filled the pot with my tears.

Appadu was moved by the song, he could not explain his reasons for it though.

The description of a day in the lives of cowherds—the games they would play, the songs they would sing and the chitchat they would conduct—is interesting. To me, it is interesting to read about these nearly extinct practices.

7. Worthy Guru

In this chapter, Ramadasu’s religious inclinations are made explored. We also learn a little more about his second son Sangadasu and his character.

Ramadasu left Malapalli and started walking toward the village. He could not get over the scene lord Krishna he had witnessed the night before. He remembered his quote that if gods were rocks, wouldn’t they swallow the wealth, and thought it might not be a correct statement, and that there seemed to be an advantage in worshiping a tangible form [sagunopasana]. He decided to find out Bucchayya’s opinion on the subject.

A young man approached him on the way. He was a little dark, had cut his hair, and worn a hat.  He was wearing a white dhoti, pleated and a coat. The smallpox scars were not visible from distance. He was looking intellectual, feeble though. It was Sangadasu.

I was a little confused about the short conversation that followed. Ramadasu asked the young man if Bucchayya was in town. Sangadasu replied that he was also on his way to meet Bucchayya garu, and that he had heard that Bucchayya was a great jnani. However, in the earlier chapter it was mentioned that Sangadasu brought Bucchayya to their home in Malapalli and even gave a book on Bhaktiyogam.

Sangadasu also told his father that he was a cowherdess, he was devoted to the lord the same way a cowherdess would dedicate her life to Him.

They both went in and made their obeisance.

Bucchayya told them that Peerayya, Ramadasu’s guru, was his older brother and invited them in. Ramadasu commented that even if Bucchayya had no problem, he [Ramadasu] was still concerned about the ways of the world, apparently referring his caste proscriptions.

Bucchayya dismissed it that even Sangadasu would not accept it

Ramadasu asked Bucchayya how one could find a worthy guru. Bucchayya replied the guru himself would reach for the disciple when the disciple had attained the appropriate status.

Bucchayya asked about Rama Naidu, son of Chowdarayya and a friend of Sangadasu. He also asked about their friendship, is it true that Sangadasu was coaching Rama Naidu? Ramadasu defended the two young men. He said they had never misbehaved.

Bucchayya wanted to wait for Rama Naidu, so he could address both of them simultaneously.

8. Karma yoga [Action as a way of life]

Rama Naidu came and asked the servant Venkatasubbayya if Bucchayya garu was home. Venkatasubbayya invited him in politely and showed him a mat to sit on.

Ramadasu and Sangadasu stood up. Rama Naidu acknowledged their respectful gesture. He was holding a cane, with silver trim at either  end, and was wearing weathered, tin-lined sandals, highlighting the kindly look on this face.

Bucchayya finished bath, wore freshly washed clothes and came into the room. He watched with amazement the features on Rama Naidu’s face—the well-defined naamam on his forehead, yellow powder, ruby-studded earrings—which enhanced his demeanor.

Bucchayya was not sure how to start the conversation. He stared at Naidu for a few seconds and then praised his lineage. Naidu was not comfortable with this praise.

Bucchayya had heard rumors that Sangadasu was misleading Naidu and to his downfall. Earlier, while talking with Sangadasu, he had noticed Sangadasu’s acumen and wondered if the rumors were true. But, he changed his opinion after seeing Naidu in person. He noted that the two young men were self-contained individuals each in his own right.

Ramadasu opened the discussion with a question on Action without desire for reward:

Is it necessary for a man to keep performing good deeds? If one has to continue to act without desire for reward, does it make a difference for the performer whether he does a good deed or an evil deed? Is it possible that the actions of the rishis who performed vedic rituals and the demons who threw rocks at them should be considered on par since both acted without thinking of consequences? Would the results of actions not affect those who act without desire for reward?

Bucchayya said that if the two classes of people were acting without desire for reward and because of the qualities inherent in them, issues related to salvation would not affect them. He also makes a distinction between the discussion of action without desire for reward, which appears to be voluntary, and the life which takes its own course. For instance, the sancitam [the results of one’s actions from previous birth] gets dissolved through suffering and in this, the individual has no control or choice.

The results of actions in the previous birth will be expunged by going through experience or living them through. An individual is absolved after the product of his actions has been lived through. Additionally, action without desire for reward results in gathering no additional sancitam. If not, the results from actions add to the earlier sancitam and become his prarabdham, meaning preordains the life on earth according those actions, which, in turn, results in birth-death-rebirth cycle until the prarabdham has been exhausted. We may say that these two—the good and bad deeds and absolution run parallel to each other.

The individuals who had done good deeds would enjoy the fruits of their actions in heaven and the remaining portion on earth. They may enjoy the material pleasures in this world, realize them as deplorable, reject them and turn to a virtuous life. They may even attain the status of Indra or Brahma. The evil doers pay for their sins in hell and the residual portion in life on earth. A few individuals such as Valmiki may take to righteous path but majority of them do not act selflessly. Then there are also a few others who practice hostile devotion. They dwell on god endlessly even in a spirit of hostility like the demon king Kamsa. They also will go to heaven eventually.

To put it another way, selfless action creates no attachment, which in itself is plausible.

Bucchayya suggested they continue the conversation the following day. As they left, Bucchayya looked at Naidu and thought that the young man could be around 25, fairly tall and skinny, but not feeble, had gentle countenance. Bucchayya thought that it was his blessing to obtain these two young men as his disciples.

9. Worship

 The following day, they all gathered again at Bucchayya’s house. The discussion was focused on worship.

Ramadasu asked which one between the form and formless preferable to worship? What does “meditating with one’s soul” [atmeeyopaasana] mean? Is there a form at all? How does the formless become the form? Who can be called a yogi?

Bucchayya replied that the form or formless is not as important as the worship itself. Whatever helps an individual is the best for that individual. All meditation is soul-based. Worship is in itself a way of an individual soul surrendering to the supreme soul.

Great sages had discussed at length the question of form and formless but never had arrived at any conclusions definitively. They just named it “inscrutable ways of god’ [bhagavalleela].

Every individual is a yogi. Each time the soul comes into contact with the supreme soul, the person becomes a yogi. It takes a long time to concentrate; one has to keep trying it. All the writers, sculptors and painters have created their works as props to divert constantly on to the mystique of god. Isn’t it preferable to let the mind play in the enchanting circuit of Krishna rather than leave it freely to material things?

Sangadasu told them of his fascination to be a gopika and be lost in the meditation of Krishna. Bucchayya said that his devotion was similar to that of Sabari, a tribal woman, who worshipped Rama with unparalleled and selfless love.

Bucchayya’s description in two pages of the vision of Sabari waiting for Rama and getting immersed in his worship, reminds us of the vision Ramadasu had of Krishna in a previous chapter. In both cases, the author takes the reader to a different plane with the elaborate descriptions.

Ramadasu asked Bucchayya what he would wish as gurudakshina [Rewarding guru] from them. Bucchayya asked them to leave their sancitam with him. Possibly, he was suggesting to them to become detached toward material possessions.

Ramadasu wanted to visit with Bucchayya again. But Bucchayya told them that his time had come for his samaadhi [burying a body alive]. They would not be able to see him again

Up until now, the readers are introduced to the philosophical tendencies of Ramadasu, Sangadasu and Rama Naidu. And also the friendship of Sangadasu with Rama Naidu.

One angle that confused me a little is that in the first or second chapter Sangadasu was introduced more as a man of worldly matters, a social reformer.

10. Authority

This chapter details Sangadasu’s position in Chowdarayya’s household. In a supervisory capacity, he not only assigned jobs to the other hired hands but also actively participates in other family matters. He was suggesting who would take Lakshmamma, Chowdarayya’s wife, to the temple, who sold what and for how much and so on.

Ramadasu was keen on seeing Bucchayya one more time but by the time they had reached here, Bucchayya was gone.

Ramadasu asked Sangadasu to come home for a visit. Rama Naidu said that the family had gone to the neighbor town and it is better Sangadasu went with him.

Rama Naidu and Sangadasu came home. Sangadasu went to the cowshed and asked Adam Sahebu about the stock of grains for the animals. Adam Sahebu told him that the stock would last a couple of days at most.

Sangadasu suggested bringing in workers to work on looms and produce their own cottonseeds. Adam Sahebu wondered if Chowdarayya would go along with the suggestion. Sangadasu was sure that ayya garu would have no objection since it was to his advantage. Then they talked about a place to set up the looms. Sangadasu learned that ayya garu and karanam had conspired and rid families of their homes in a questionable manner. The people were helpless and had no choice but leave searching for a new place to live.

Sangadasu and Venkatayya, Chowdarayya’s eldest son, talked about the work on the fields the . Sangadasu told Venkanna, a hired hand, to arrange for two horse-drawn carts—one to bring Chowdarayya from the railway station and one take Lakshmamma to take to the temple on a hill in a nearby village.

A sowkar came from the city to purchase the Blue pigment.  He and Sangadasu discussed the details—the rate and the quality of the merchandise and arrived at terms acceptable to both the parties. At the end, however Sangadasu suggested that he might want to wait until Chowdarayya came home. Sowkar did not think it was necessary, Sangadasu’s word was as good as that of Ayya garu.

Sangadasu went in, bathed, ate and went to his room to sleep.

It is interesting that Chowdarayya’s son Venkatayya was not part of these negotiations. He was an active participant in the work on the fields though. The chapter clearly illustrates the status Sangadasu was commanding in that household. He was more than a hired hand.

11. The Temple

 Next morning Sangadasu and Venkatayya woke up, went into the shed and told each of the hired hands what to do on that day.

Lakshmamma had two sons. Venkatayya her stepson and Rama Naidu own son. Venkatayya expressed his concern regarding Lakshmamma’s trip to the temple. She was not in good health; the journey could be tiresome, and could be hard for her to climb the steps up the hill.

Lakshmamma said she had made a vow to give a saree to the goddess at the time Venkatayya’s wife had come home as new bride. His wife and Rama Naidu would accompany her to the temple.

Lakshmamma was a woman from old times, ingenuous, heavy set, short, and commanding  respect from the people around her. She wore several pieces of customary jewelry.

The horse-drawn cart came. Rama Naidu, Venkatayya’s wife and Lakshmamma set out to the temple.

Sangadasu waited until the cart turned round the corner and went about his job.

In the cart, Lakshmamma mentioned Sangadasu; she was pleased with his prudence. She also commented that Chowdarayya was not appreciating Sangadasu’s request not to beat the hired hands and added that without Sangadasu, they could get nothing done.

Rama Naidu offered to learn the farming skills but Lakshmamma had heard that he could become tahsildar but would not want him to take the job. Rama Naidu was also not interested in government jobs.

At the temple, Appayya, the priest was waiting for them. He mentioned in jest that it had been thirty years since she had settled in their town and never paid a visit to the goddess once. She replied that she was too wrapped up in family matters.

Appayya led them explaining the history and legends of the temple.

There was an edifice at the foot of the temple. In the 15th century, Nawab had sent Ameen Mulk to win over Golconda. Ameen Mulk had won the war, and to mark his victory, he had a lake dug in his name and ordered to build an edifice. As the workers started breaking the rocks, Ameen Mulk’s horse vomited blood and died instantaneously. Then he got the rocks for his edifice from elsewhere.

This is an instance how the religious differences between Hindus and Muslims had been resolved or handled over centuries.

There was no verifiable evidence to show when the Sakti temple was built. On the west side of the hill, there was a worn out proclamation etched in stone probably from the times of the Reddy rulers

Appayya described the legend of Rukmini worshipping Gowri in this temple and Krishna carried her away on his chariot. He even showed the marks of the wheels. Author included a lengthy discussion of the veracity of this legend, quoting from Pothana’s Bhagavatam.

Another interesting comment here is the parallel drawn between the customs of Indians and the Westerners. There was a vast open area on the hill. Westerners would have vacation homes built, and our ancestors, in step with their aspirations, had temples built and made it sanctimonious.

Then follows an elaborate description of the beauty of the temple and the sculpture on the walls of the temple.

12. Amma varu [The Goddess]

 Appayya said that the worship in the temple was carried out superbly in the past. In course of time, the chowltries [shelters] were neglected and the jewelry of the goddess’s was stolen. As Appayya narrated the downfall of the temple, Rama Naidu was upset, his blood boiled. He asked why the villagers did nothing. Appayya said some people tried but to no avail.

Rama Naidu seemed to be under a spell as he started singing in praise of the goddess. Lakshmamma was scared. Appayya suggested making a vow to the goddess that she would offer 5 pots of panakam [sweetened water]. Lakshmamma offered ten pots.

Rama Naidu came to and asked what happened. Lakshmamma told him of his trance and her vow. Rama Naidu said he would make it twenty pots.

Inside the temple, Appayya said that the goddess would show herself as of the same height to each devotee as he or she. Nobody would question it considering the circumstances.

They returned home by mealtime.


(© Nidadavolu Malathi)

The Escaped Parrot by Achanta Saradadevi

Big chunks of clouds are scurrying around in the sky as if they are in a hurry. A small white fleck of cloud slithers one way and another baby cloud another way. Then the two chunks stop in the middle and merge in to one piece. In a split second, they break up and each goes its own way. They are taking over the sky and changing into different shapes … like scattered cotton balls, or jasmine buds that slipped through the fingers.

Kamakshamma sat by the back door, watching the floating clouds. She is depressed. How quickly the clouds are changing shapes! … Even before one has gotten used to one shape, it is changing into another! They all are slithering away so beautifully! Embracing each other snugly and breaking away the next moment! Momentary attachment, she told herself.

The Sun is going down. There is no telling how much quiet this house and this garden become by dusk. Of the two servants in the house, for one, it is to start cooking, and for the other, it is time out. The rest of it is just absolute silence, but for the leaves rustled by the wind!

The schedule for Kamakshamma is just to sit there everyday by the door facing the garden, lost in meaningless thoughts, and watch the clouds, the trees and all around. There is no change in this ever.

This house is located on the outskirts of the town, with three mango groves on the three sides of it. Green leaves and green parrots happily chirping come and go freely, as they please. The gardener works in the garden during the day and goes away in the evening.

Kamakshamma’s husband Sundara Rao inherited this garden from his father. He acquired the house himself. He has some business in the adjoining city. Kamakshamma never asked what kind of business he is in. He will not tell, even if she asked. He believes it is not necessary for women to know such things. There is no need to mention separately, that like playing cards and roaming around with friends are parts of his business.

Everyday, one train comes in the morning and goes in the evening sluggishly. There is no specific time, it arrives sometime after seven in the morning and goes to the neighboring city. It returns in the evening sometime after seven. Sundara Rao travels everyday by the same train. He leaves in the morning and returns home at night. The station is two miles away from his home. In the morning he eats his breakfast and walks to the train station. If he has something to carry, Sankaram, the servant, takes it and goes with him. The train is very much used to Sundara Rao’s travel. No matter how late it is, the train will not leave the station until he got on it. Sankaram goes to the station again in the evening and returns along with Sundara Rao. That is the way it is every day.

Fourteen years back, Sundara Rao felt like having a house built in the midst of this garden and live a life of solitude. He told himself, “What is there in the cities but for the dirt and murk. On the other hand, it is so peaceful. The city is close by. I can go there each day and take care of business.” He had the house built here. However, only Kamakshamma is experiencing that solitude presently. She did not ask for that solitude yet she got it. That is how the life is. One person wishes for it. Another person gets it without asking for it. They do not need it yet it becomes unavoidable.

When Kamakshamma came to this home first, she used to say to her husband, “Your business is in the city day in and day out. Why live here?” Sundara Rao did not listen.

He would reply, “How can you get this solitude and peace in that city?” He leaves home while it is still dark returns after the Sun is down. Only he should know what kind of solitude and peace he is enjoying. Kamakshamma does not understand it yet she says nothing about.

At first, when Sundara Rao had the house built, there were only he and the two servants, the cook and Sankaram. Even then, his schedule has been the same—leaving the morning and returning in the evening. After two years, a thought occurred to him. He thought it would be nice a thing called wife was in this house. As soon as he got the idea, one of his friends suggested Kamakshamma to hi, He agreed.

Kamakshamma’s parents are ordinary folks. Her father’s income was enough for food. There was no desire to put aside, no hope there would be some to put aside. Kamakshamma was their only daughter. They had an unruly son. He ran away from home. The parents did not buy jewelry for Kamakshamma but raised her fondly. They put her through school up to eighth class.

In her younger days, the one wish that had not been fulfilled was wearing jewelry. Nancaramma, who lived across from them, was Kamakshamma’s friend. Nancaramma had jewelry head to foot. She used to be jealous of Kamakshamma’s golden complexion. Kamakshamma would look at the jewelry on the dark skin of Nancaramma and wished she had them—a wish she could never control. She would pester her mother for jewelry. Her mother would reply, “How can we get jewelry for you? You may get them after you grow up, get married. Maybe your in-laws will have ornaments made for you.”

Therefore, in Kamakshamma’s mind, an uncanny relationship between marriage and jewelry developed ever since she was a child. For that reason, she had no other choice but to wait for that moment.

After Sundara Rao had decided to marry Kamakshamma, mother said, “He looks fine, has good property too. They say he has mango groves, fertile land, and some business. However, you are fifteen and he is thirty. What do you think?”

Kamakshamma did not pay attention to anything her mother had said. She asked, “Will they give me all the jewelry head to foot?”

Mother was surprised. “I don’t know. We did not ask. If we look for another groom, we will have to pay dowry. You know we don’t have it” mother murmured.

Kamakshamma was down. She was tense for three days. She had been waiting all these days for what, marriage or ornaments? On the third day, the mediator-friend brought the news. He said Sundara Rao had in his possession lots of his mother’s ornaments. They all would be transferred to Kamakshamma, no doubt. Kamakshamma’s face lit up. Mother suppressed all her suspicions and smiled. The wedding was performed.

Kamakshamma did not think it odd as she stepped for the first time into this solitary home where the parents-in-law and brothers were absent. Whatever environment we walk into feels right. We get used to it. Kamakshamma has gotten used to solitary life. Except on rare occasions, she is not bothered by that loneliness.

At home, she has no work. Servants take care of everything. After she came here for the first time, she used to dress up every evening, comb her hair, and put on all the jewelry of her mother-in-law. She would look at herself in the mirror again and again and feel good about it. She would walk around in the garden, wait for her husband. The day passed by.

It has been twelve years now. Still it is the same. The difference however is the jewelry is not giving the same pleasure now. She puts them on as a matter habit but they feel heavy now. She does not feel like taking them off though. The attachments we invite into our lives become heavy in course of time. Yet we cannot severe those tries since we have gotten used to them.

In the evening Sundara Rao brings a magazine as he comes home. After he is done with bathing and eating, he hides his head in the paper for an hour, sitting on the porch facing the garden. Kamakshamma rolls the pan leaves into parrot-shapes and stacks them up. Sundara Rao takes some. Kamakshamma sits there idly shredding the rest of the pan leaves and glancing around. Nothing comes to mind for either of them to talk about. At the end, Kamakshamma asks the same question as a matter of habit, “What is new in the city?”

He continues to read the paper as he replies, “What is there to say? The same as always.”

That’s it. Silence prevails again. Kamakshamma says something again. She keeps talking without expecting a response.

“The jasmine vine has two sprouts.”

“The red rose may bloom tomorrow.”

“The mango buds are falling to the ground, I wonder why.”

“Ghosh! It rained so hard earlier in the evening. The garden was nearly submerged. They say untimely rain is not good.”

She keeps talking this or that. He keeps saying “ha” and “ho” heedlessly. From the tone, we cannot tell whether he is listening or not. At the end, he says, “Maybe there is some good program on the radio. Why don’t you listen to that?”

That is the end of it. She gets up and goes in. In the bedroom close by there is a battery-operated radio. Kamakshamma turns it on. Sixty varieties of sounds burst forth. Amidst of those sounds, she hears a low-toned song. The terrible silence is broken in one big stroke. She finds comfort in the thought that there is somebody. She falls asleep while thinking the same thing. He turns off the radio when he comes into the room.

Yes, that is how the time passed by. In her life there is hope and no disappointment. No overwhelming pleasure, no drowning grief. Her life has been barely moving boat in a serene river.

Only once the boat rocked. She a taste of the cool breeze. The withered branch sprouted. She became alive. Kamakshamma laughed.

That day the Sun was hot. It was about one o’clock in the afternoon. Kamakshamma was taking a nap in the bedroom facing the garden. Kamakshamma, half-asleep, heard a flutter in the front porch was scared at first. Then she assumed that some bird might have come from the garden into the verandah. She closed her eyes. There was the flutter of the wings again from the verandah. She decided to go and see what it was.

She saw a parrot in five hues, snuck on the railings in the verandah. It was looking at Kamakshamma furtively. It was gorgeous displaying several hues of red and yellow on its body between its wings and red nose. Kamakshamma had never seen such a beautiful bird before. She kept gazing the bird, enthralled by its beauty. The parrot tried to escape. It flapped the wings a little and remained in the same place, looking at Kamakshamma pitiably.

The bird’s leg was broken. It could not move. She was worried thinking, “Oh, no. What could have happened if a dog or a cat had jumped on her?’ She called Sankaram, the gardener. He picked up the bird easily. The bird did not object.

Kamakshamma closed all the doors in her room and kept the bird caringly. The wound on the bird’s leg healed in three days. In the meantime, Kamakshamma had a cage brought in from the city. The bird became a prisoner permanently. Kamakshamma got plenty now to spend her time on. Unwittingly, a bonding happened.

Now she is busy, has no time for anything else. Each minute she is worried what the bird might be doing. Is the cage clean for it? Hope no cat entered the room? Did it eat the fruit chunks I put in the cage?—the same thoughts and concerns all the time. She named it Chinnari. She is under the illusion that some day the bird will learn how to talk and speak sweet chirping words. Fantasizing that, she kept chirping herself in front of the bird for hours on end. She was not even aware how the time passed by. In the evenings, she used to walk around the garden, holding the bird carefully so it would not fly away.

Now she has plenty to talk about with her husband also. She waits anxiously for her husband to come home. As soon as he is home, she reports in a hurry all the day’s happenings:

“Chinnari did not take milk, not even one mouthful.”

“Ate only two chunks of fruit.”

“It escaped from the cage and went around the room twice. Luckily, the window panes were closed, or else.”

“Chinnari is learning to speak. It is learning fast from me. This morning I said, ‘akka’ and it said ‘akka’ too.”

Like this, she keeps saying, some sadly and others with great enthusiasm. Sundara Rao also listens curiously. Some kind of passion has swept her away. A shade of it has crept on him too. So also to the servants. The entire environment at home has changed totally.

Kamakshamma’s heart has experienced the bliss for six months. Chinnari’s heart has agonized, being imprisoned in the cage. Smiles danced on Kamakshamma’s face. Chinnari’s wings beat up on the cage wires, got tired and let go of it.

That day, it rained heavily all afternoon. The rain water seeped through the window sills and filled the room. The rain stopped in the evening. The sun-rays glimmered through the wet leaves.

Kamakshamma has the room wiped clean and opens the window panes to dry the room. She talks to the bird. Opens the cage door and puts fruit chunks. She finishes eating and lies down on the bed, waiting for her husband. Sundara Rao has not arrived for a very long time. While thinking, she dozes off. Sundara Rao comes late and decides not to wake her up.

The next morning, Kamakshamma looks lazily at the bed next to hers. Sundara Rao is asleep. Turns to the cage. Chinnari is not there. The cage is empty. Kamakshamma jumps out of the bed and looks again. The cage door is open. The window panes, opened last night, are open.

Grief overtakes Kamakshamma. What happened to the parrot? Probably, after opening the door last night, forgot to close? Is it possible the bird flew away? Or, the cat came through the window and took it away? She shivered head to foot with panic.

She calls the servants and asks them. They know nothing. They are also surprised to see the empty cage. Worried, they search the entire garden and do not find it. Not knowing what else they can do, they give up. They tell Sundara Rao as soon as he woke up. He says, “ayyo” and leave it at that.

Six months back there was no parrot. There is no telling where it came from and why. Now again, we do not know where it went. There is no way of knowing it.

Kamakshamma stares at the empty cage and goes into a fit of sobs. Sundara Rao says, “Are you crazy?” Sankaram put away the cage. That is all. After that each gets busy with his or her own chores. The cook starts cooking. The gardener gives water to the plants. Sundara Rao gets busy so he will not miss his train. That is all. There is no sign of another life existing in that house, none whatsoever.

Kamakshamma sits there staring into the emptiness for a long time. Nobody understands the bond she has developed with the parrot, or what she has gained and lost in the process.

“I lost the buttons for my coat. Do you mind fixing them? It is getting late for my train,” Sundara Rao says.

Kamakshamma takes the coat without a word. That is it. After that, she never mentions the Chinnari’s name again.

Several days pass by. The bare trees start sprouting. With the arrival of spring, even without invitation, birds arrive chirping noisily into the garden. The aroma from the mango sprouts pervades the entire garden. Kamakshamma’s heart once again wakes up.

She feels peaceful as she watches the birds chirping and flying all around in the garden.

The gardener notices that Kamakshamma is watching the garden zealously again after a very long time.

He approaches her and says, “See amma! So many birds came as soon as the mango tree started sprouting. See how beautiful they are! If we hang the cage in the garden just for a day, we will be able to catch a parrot. We can raise it.”

Kamakshamma shudders. She says, “No, no. Do not do that. See how happy and free they are! Let them live happily like that. They come and go as they please. That makes me happy. I can sit for any length of time, watching them. Aren’t they all ours? Why capture one bird, lock it up in a cage and in the process invite trouble for ourselves? Needless bonding.”

The gardener does not understand her comment.

The birds in the garden chirped merrily at once.



Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, September 2008..

(The Telugu original, paaripoyina chilaka, was originally published in the early 1960s.)


The Color of Skin by Nidadavolu Malathi

It is Sunday. Neelaveni is bored. Color of skin—a play being shown in town, she recalls.

“Let’s go to the play,” she says to her husband, Sundaram.

He looks up. “Play? Um. That’d be nice. But I need to finish this paper and mail it tonight,” he says, nothing new.

She decides to go alone. Sundaram offers a ride to the theater but she says no, not necessary, just a twenty-minute walk and she enjoys walking. Sundaram promises to pick her up after the show though. He insists. “Wait for me at the door. Don’t walk in the dark. It’s not safe, you know,” he tells her one more time before she left.

Neelaveni nods, assures him that she would wait for him, grabs her purse and leaves.

The lobby is crowded. The tickets are sold out, almost. Neelaveni has lucked out, she got the last one. She takes the ticket and moves to a side, by the wall and stands there watching the crowd. She does not want to go into the theater until the curtain time. She notices that somebody is signaling with his eyes towards something. Her eyes turn to that direction. “It” is actually a person—a little girl—standing in a corner and crying.

The little child, probably four-years old, is standing there crying, holding a ticket in one hand and a little doll in the other. Neelaveni looks at her. The girl is wearing a frock with big flower prints and worn out shoes, possibly bought in a goodwill store; her dark curly hair is tied with a red ribbon. The hair fanned out like a hibiscus in full bloom.

A compassionate gentle lady is trying to calm down the child the best she could, while keeping a safe distance from her to avoid any physical contact and possible contraction of some horrible disease. The little girl is not calmed down, would not say who she is, probably does not know what to say. She continues to say “I want mommy” in a refrain and in between spasms of sobs.

A few others, also standing at a comfortable distance, keep asking questions, which apparently made no sense to the little one. A middle-aged man casts meaningful looks at Neelaveni. He looks at the girl and Neelaveni, rolling his eyeballs like tennis ball from side to side. It seems he is expressing his disapproval for neglecting the child.

Neelaveni understands. Huh! He thought the little one is hers, because? Because the color of skin color of both, Neelaveni and the child, is dark.

She is annoyed, just for a second. Then she is sorry for the little child. She goes closer to her. The child jumps and wraps both her arms around Neelaveni’s legs. Neelaveni is speechless. She looks around. Everybody around seems to be enjoying the free show. It took only a second for her to understand why the girl came running to her—for the same reason as the gentleman, who assumed they are related—the color of her skin!

The man winks at her again. His look speaks volumes. “Glad I’d noticed it and made you realize too. Somebody else would have called the child services, you know!” “You should be careful.” “You should take care of your child.”…

Neelaveni does not know much about the system yet has gained some knowledge by watching court TV. She can easily imagine the child’s fate, had she got caught in it. Neelaveni is in no mood to explain that it is not her fault, and she is not related to her. She knows that those who have enormous faith in “system” are blind to the realities of it.

The curtain is raised in the theater; it is time to go in. The audience is settled in their seats. Neelaveni is still in the lobby with the little girl. The girl stays put, clinging to her coattails and sucking on her thumb, it is as though she feels safe and has no reason to cry. She is comfy like a baby duck under mother duck’s wing.

Neelaveni waits for five more minutes. Nobody in sight to claim the child. On the stage, the emcee starts with his first joke.

Neelaveni goes into the theater and finds a place from where she can keep an eye on the entrance. She hopes the mother would show up and picks up the child.

The show starts. Characters come on the stage, one after another. Fifteen minutes go by. A woman comes on to the stage. “Mommy,” the child shouts. People around are annoyed, “Hush”.

Neelaveni apologizes to them and whispers to the child, “Is that your mom?”

The child nods, yeah. It is clear the woman on the stage is the child’s mother. Neelaveni is relieved. She will hand over the child to her mother after the show and be done with it.

The moment has come at last. The show ends, and the mother comes running to Neelaveni. She apologizes and thanks Neelaveni profusely on and on. Eventually she gets to the explaining part.

The woman, Jennifer, is an aspiring actress. After a long struggle, she got a small part in this play. She has no financial means to hire a babysitter. Therefore, she asked her cousin to keep an eye on the child in return for a free ticket to the show. The cousin, Camilla, agreed to the arrangement but she had another errand to run before coming to the theater, and so suggested she’d meet the mother and the child at the theater. That was the arrangement. For some uncanny reason Camilla did not show up. It was getting late for the actress. She, hoping Camilla would show up eventually, told the child to wait at the gate and went into the green room.

The woman thanks Neelaveni again. Neelaveni listens accepts her gratitude and tells her she needs to move on, her husband will be waiting outside. She rushes to the curb only to find that he has not arrived yet. She waits and waits, yet no sign of her husband. Probably he came, looked for her and left, thinking she got a ride from somebody else. Or, maybe, he just forgot. She was so absorbed by the actress’s heartbreaking story, she lost track of time.

She starts walking towards home, still ruminating over the events and the little girl, stops for a second. Amusing, she is not thinking about the play she just watched! The little girl and her mother whom she hardly knew have got to her. Well, that’s understandable in a way. Here is a real life story that is no less creative than any supposedly real story presented on the stage.

The street is pretty much desolate but for a bike or car whizzing by. This is one more thing, which is so different from her hometown. Back home, she never came across a street looked so deserted. She thinks of that child and the mother, feels sorry for her. In this country, they say all people are equal yet some people have to struggle that much harder! It is like all are equal but some are a little more equal. Actually, she had her first lesson in this aspect, soon after she has arrived in this country.

A month or so after she came to America, she went to the grocery store round the corner for vegetables, just two blocks away from her home. She thought she could walk to the store and finish her daily walk too along with shopping. As it turned out, she went to the store smiling and returned very annoyed.

Sundaram was busy with his paper for upcoming conference. He looked up, saw that his wife was not happy and asked, “What happened?”

Neelaveni took a glass of water and narrated the incident at the store.

As usual, she picked up a few items at the store, and rolled shopping cart to the checking counter. She noticed that a white woman in front of her had a cartful of items, wrote the check and the checker accepted it without batting an eyelid. Well, that is how it looked for Neelaveni. And then it was her turn. She had the items checked out, and wrote a check for $16.95 and gave it to the checker.

The checker asked her for driver’s license. Neelaveni had no license. Usually, she and Sundaram would go together and so she never had to produce a driver’s license. For the first time, she ventured into a shop alone and, look, what happened. Anyway, the fact that the checker would question her integrity annoyed her highly. Neelaveni told the checker that she had no license to show. Then the checker gave her a form to fill in and get the manager approve it. The form asked for her name, address, place of work, if she does not have a job, her spouse’s job, color of eyes, hair and umpteen other details about her.

Neelaveni was ticked off. She pushed the cart to the side and said, “You keep the stuff to yourself. I don’t want them,” and hurried to the door.

The manager came and said to Neelaveni, “its okay, ma’am. Take the items. Sorry for the misunderstanding.” He told the checker to accept the check.

Sundaram listened to the story and said, “Don’t you worry. People are weird in their own ways.”

Neelaveni looked at him, curiously. True her color had never been a problem for him. He did not care for it at the time of their wedding either.

In those days, she does not remember how many times she stared at her shining dark skin—her hands, feet, face in the mirror, each and every place she could lay eyes on—the color of dark clouds on a spring day, the color of the dark-skinned Lord Krishna, the color of dark-lined lotus …

And then all those comforting words from everybody: Don’t you know what they say about lord Krishna? We call him the Dark lord but not the white lord for a reason, right? says grandmother; White is not even a color but a blend of seven colors, brother comments; crow is dark, koyil is dark, however when the spring arrives, you’ll know who’s who, her Sanskrit teacher quotes the well-known adage.

Neelaveni did not find peace in any of those words.

“Who’s going to come forward to marry this black girl,” she heard her mother whisper to a neighbor, wiping her tears. Neelaveni saw that and felt crushed. Strangely though, her marriage had been fixed very easily. Sundaram, her neighbor Kamamma auntie’s son, expressed his desire to marry Neelaveni. At first, Kamamma auntie objected quoting a popular proverb, dark daughter-in-law begets dark progeny. Sundaram however said in no uncertain terms that he would not marry any other woman. Then Kamamma auntie changed her position and started saying to everybody, “I’ve known the girl (Neelaveni) since she was a little child. She has been part of our family for so long. Besides, where is the guarantee that a girl from a family of strangers would conform to our traditions so comfortably? What if she makes my life miserable? Look at that Kotamma’s daughter-in-law. She is white all right, like a doll made of white flour, but talk about her attitude, that’s another story?” Kamamma came to terms with Sundaram’s proposal soon enough and the dust settled down pretty quickly.

The fact that Sundaram chose Neelaveni of his own free will helped her to ignore her skin color and gain confidence in herself. For her parents, it was a shower of milk, as the saying goes. The days of their fears that they might never be able to marry her were a thing of the past. The marriage was performed and the couple arrived in America.

After coming to America, Neelaveni learned a few other things about color. In India, the color of skin is a matter of appearance and beauty. In America, it is a matter of race and a whole lot of other things, a gamut of several emotions.



Often, she is mistaken for an African American. Neelaveni understood that only after she stopped wearing saris and switched to western clothes. In the beginning she wore nothing but saris. She even attempted to convince several others about the comfort the sari is capable of. Eventually, she changed into pants and shirts and then she found them just as comfortable if not more. For the first time, she understood that we can always find convincing arguments for what we really want to do. In course of time, she also removed bangles and other jewelry too.

Then she stopped wearing the red dot. She stopped wearing the red dot because she is tired of explaining what it meant. There is no end to people’s curiosity about that one dot. In her mind, there are so many issues about a culture. What is the big deal about the dot? She never asked why they are making eye make up or lipstick. How is the dot different? For her, it did not mean much. It was just as easy not to put it on. But, that is when the new problem shot up. Often, people mistake her for an African American.

Neelaveni is not insulted for being mistaken for an African American. However, the ensuing stereotype images are hard to swallow. The way some smile, some pity, and few others even express how they are ashamed of their thoughts about skin color. That is something she resented. Hog wash, she told herself, grinding her teeth.

A stand up comic once said, “Why do they call us black. All we have is one color and that is black. Look at them; they show all kinds of colors. They are red in the face when angry, turn pale when lost, black and blue if beaten, yellow with jealousy—they are the colored; actually, multicolored I’d say.”

She also understood that there are lots of people in America who did not even know that Telugu is a language and Telugu people are a race. On a rare occasion, somebody shows a tiny bit of their knowledge by asking an uncanny question, pulled out of the blue, and say, “So, has the situation for the Harijans improved yet?” with pitiful eyes. Ever so often she would feel annoyed and amused at the same time for their naivete and shallowness.

Neelaveni kept ruminating over the incident at the theater, on her way home. She could not figure out why that cousin did not show up at the theater as promised? Was she caught in the traffic, or even worse, in an accident? Got pulled over for speeding? Neelaveni even thought if she made a mistake by taking the little girl into the theater instead of waiting outside? … In that moment, she felt shoved and tripped; almost … Somebody grabbed her shoulder bag… “Hey,” she shouted holding on to her bag … then she looked up. Not one but three young boys surrounded her … She is shivering … shivering like a tender branch in a blast of wind …chills creep down her spine, she lets go of the bag. The boys run with her bag, pushing her. She falls to the ground, screaming help, help, somebody help.

She fell and hit a rock; bloods starts oozing from the gash on her forehead. She continues to scream help, help, somebody help … Oh, God, help me

After that, everything is hazy. She is losing consciousness, does not understand what followed. She vaguely sees somebody by her side. Who’s her? It’s so hard to open eyes… is he trying to help me?

With much effort, she opens her eyes and looks around. Next to her, there is a man, looks quite big; streaks of blood flowing down his dark cheeks, she could barely see in the light from the lamp post on the street.

Neelaveni’s eyes move on to his neck, shirt, sleeves, and arms; the sight is horrendous, she is shivering, her heart races with super speed.

In that moment, the man turns toward her, gathers all the strength in his body and asks her, “You okay?” His voice is so weak; he could be miles away as he spoke.

She whispers, “Yes, I am. You?” She is not sure whether he heard her or not. He is unconscious, his eyes are shut.

She wonders who this man is. He was willing to trade his life for mine or so it seems. Why? Did he think I was one of them?

A car stops. The driver comes to the two persons on the ground and asks if they need help. He calls 911 and gives them the location.

Within a few minutes, two squad cars and one ambulance arrive. Paramedics jump out of the ambulance and attend to the man and the woman. One of the paramedics asks Neelaveni if she is okay.

“I am fine. How’s he?”

“Are you related?”

“No. I don’t even know who he is. Just a good man who came to my rescue. Is he okay?”

“He’ll be okay. Unconscious but he will be alright.”

Neelaveni turns her head towards the kind man rescued her.

The gash on his forehead flowing down the side of his face slowly like a caterpillar. He has blood all over, streaks of blood all over his face, and arms, his white shirt and dark arms, splash, splash, splash.

She stares at him again. Streaks of blood is trickling from his nose, left ear and the corner of his mouth and drying up. Blood squirts on the shirt, glides to the street and sinks into the dirt.

For the first time, the thought of her skin color is erased. In its place, a warm, crimson ray sprang, spreading to the horizon like a gush of spring at the top of the Tala Kaveri river.


This translation has been published originally on thulika.net, September 2010.
The Telugu original,

  • rangu tolu
  • has been included in the syllabus for the course on “Introduction to Diaspora Literature” in the Hyderabad University, Andhra Pradesh, India, in 2016.

    (© Nidadavolu Malathi. The Telugu original, rangu tolu, was published in www.eemaata.com, 2006)



    Bhandaru Acchamamba

    Bhandaru Acchamamba’s stories: Review by Nidadavolu Malathi

    For a decade or so, Telugu scholars started discussing the works of Bhandaru Acchamamba’s works, primarily in an attempt to show that she is the first writer among males and females to write a well-developed Telugu story in the mdoern sense. However, the purpose of this article is only review an anthology of her stories, compiled by Sangisetti Srinivas. He collected ten of twelve stories written by Acchamamba, and published it under the banner Kavile, Telangana research and referral center. The two prefaces written by Srinivas and Dr. Sujatha Reddy to this book are packed with valuable information.

    Basically, we need to set ourselves in Acchamamba’s time, which is late nineteenth century, to appreciate her stories. She has used effectively I might add the language and the technique prevalent in her day to tell her stories. We can identify the social milieu and the literary experiments of her times in these stories. In that sense, Acchamamba is a pioneer in the history of Telugu short stories.

    The themes in these stories include social issues, women’s education, good parenting, and economic issues in middle class families.

    Here follows brief summaries of the stories:

    1. Gunavathi yagu stri” [Virtuous woman] is not her original story but retelling of an episode from a famous epic, Dasakumara charitra. The message in it is an adept woman will know how to run the household on a shoestring budget. “There is nothing remarkable in managing the household when husband is rich. When he is poor however it is hard for a woman to run the household with whatever little means they have and make him happy,” the narrator comments at the outset.

    Saktikumarudu, a young man from business community, sets out with a small bag of paddy to find a suitable bride for him. His plan is to test young girls and find the one who could cook a sumptuous meal for him with that small bag of paddy. Eventually he finds a girl who proved herself and served him a meal to his satisfaction. He marries her. However, the story does not end there. He keeps testing her by hurting her in numerous ways, even bringing another woman to home. She puts up with his vagaries, passes all tests and proves herself a “Gunavathi”, virtuous woman at the end.

    As stated earlier, the thought that one should be able to manage the household in times of economic hardships is a plausible quality in a person in any period. The value of prudence is timeless. The author might have chosen the episode from a purana because of the strong hold the puranas wielded on people in her day. However, the second part in this story is somewhat confusing and untenable in our day—which is the husband continuing to test wife’s capabilities after their marriage. There is no justification for that unless we fall back on the puranas and accept that the story is not Acchamamba’s original story. Possibly, Acchamamba had not weaned away completely from that kind of Puranic clutch. Or, we may find consolation in the fact that that we’ve come so far away from that point in time.

    1. “Lalithaa, Saradalu” is a children’s story.  The story is based on the basic principle, “Doing ‘good’ to that person who had harmed you is the best policy”. The line reminds us of a popular Sataka poem “upakaariki nupakaaram seyuvaade nerpari sumati.” [A man who helps him that has harmed him is competent man]

    Lalitha is daughter of Tahsildar, a respectable government official. She constantly bullies other children. Sarada is a poor, well-mannered girl and well-liked girl.

    One day, Sarada was in the rose garden, holding a rose and wondering why a beautiful flower like rose should have thorns also. Lalitha came there and for no obvious reason lifts her hand to hit Sarada, misses her aim, the hand falls on the rose bush next to her, and a thorn pricks her hand.

    He lays hand on one of the roses and gets pricked by a thorn.  Blood oozes from the wound and she starts crying. Sarada, despite Lalitha’s evil act, nurses her wound and consoles her. Then on, they become friends. Eventually they get married and move away. After a few years, both come back to their maternal homes and meet in the same garden where Lalitha had been wounded by a thorn. Sarada asks Lalitha, “Now we both have children. How do you suggest we should raise them to be well-behaved adults?” Lalitha replies, “What can I tell you, who is so much more mature? Maybe you are testing me so I will tell you. I told my children the incident of our childhood and told them to remember that constantly. I told them that a good person always forgives the others’ mistakes but never bears a grudge against them..”

    Apparently the moral goes beyond forgiveness and includes a comment on parenting skills as well. Children taught early will learn to control the negative feels such as vengeance and anger in their adulthood seems to be the primary message in this story.

    1. Janakamma” is the only daughter of a poor man Ranga Raju. Despite his pecuniary circumstances, Ranga Raju invites newcomers to town and feeds them as befitting a good host. Janakamma grows to be a young well-mannered girl and father is worried he might not be able to bring a suitable husband for her. Thanks to Ranga Raju’s generosity in the past, a rich man offers to marry Janakamma to his son and without dowry.

    The story is simple and straightforward. The author seems to promote the thought that children raised by well-mannered parents will have good life later in life. Her description of the village in this story is particularly poetic and charming.

    1. Dampatula prathama kalahamu” [A Couple’s first fight] depicts the view “that woman is not man’s servant”. Apparently, the idea, what we consider modern, has actually started more than a century ago. The story opens with Lalitha, a young woman, telling her grandmother that “This is not your times. We are not servants to our husbands.” She tells her the circumstances under which she returned to grandmother’s home. Her reason appears to be trivial.

    Her husband Narayana Rao told her that he had bought tickets for a play. Lalitha was upset since he had bought the tickets without consulting her first and also she had planned a trip to grandmother’s house previously.

    The grandmother tells Lalitha a story (as it turns out it was her own story). There was a woman who had been quarreling with her husband constantly. The husband had gotten tired of the quarrels and left her for good.

    Lalitha is moved by the story and returns to her husband. In the meantime, Narayana Rao also feels remorse for his action, and being unable to enjoy the play returns home, repentant.

    The grandmother’s lessons to Lalitha are consistent with the traditional mode of thinking. First, the problem that had triggered the disagreement appears to be trivial. Secondly, the fact that her husband regretted his action appears to be modern. In the final analysis, the resolution carries the message that both husband and wife should accept responsibility for their actions. Acchamamba succeeded in showing the two sides of the issue.

    1. Satpaatradaanam” [Donating to the deserving] also carries a fresh note. A young boy called Kesavudu asks his mother to give money to a poor old beggar on the street. Mother talks to the beggar and learns that he has sons in his village who make little money but refuse to move to a more rewarding place to improve their lot. The old man apparently helps them by giving them the money he has earned as a beggar. Mother says giving money to the old man means supporting the sons who are reluctant to help themselves and that it means donating to the undeserving. The narrator’s comment, “Some animals keep digging for grass where there is none and they had hit the dirt but do not go to explore green pastures” reflects the author’s strong belief in hard work and self-reliance, which again are considered modern views.
    2. In “Strividya” [Education for women] dialogue is used as a narrative technique, which is a major departure from traditional narration. The story takes place on the eve of husband’s departure to jail as a political prisoner. He suggests she should learn how to write in order to communicate with him while he is prison. Wife is reluctant at first, giving all sorts of excuses; she can seek’s her younger brother’s help, no need for learning since she is not going to office, and so on. At the end however she is convinced of the importance of education and decides to learn how to read and write. The story includes all the arguments of those who feel that education is not necessary for women. I would say this story is worth reading at least to understand how the minds of such people work. For a translation of this story, click here.

    3. Dhanatrayodasi” [Lakshmi puja day] is a well-written story with all the elements of a good story by current standards.

    The story depicts a proud woman who converts her husband to the righteous path, after he had gone amiss. The story made me think of another story, often praised as the first modern story, entitled diddubatu by highly acclaimed writer Gurajada Appa Rao.

    Appa Rao depicts a man accustomed to brothel homes and his wife who pretends to leave him to teach him a lesson. It is narrated in just one incident, two pages, and we are given to understand that the man changes his ways as soon as he learns his wife left him (actually she hides under the bed and gives him that impression). In my opinion, chasing women is much bigger problem and is not that easy to quit. In that sense, I believe, Acchamamba’s story is a better story in terms of making a man alters his ways.

    My point is in terms of technique, addressing an issue in a story should be consistent with the size of the issue. Bigger problems require stronger scenes to establish the extent of its impact and consequences. Smaller issues such as stealing one hundred rupees, even that to help the family, are easily resolved as in the case of Dhanatrayodasi. In terms of technique, Acchamamba has done much better job in handling it at a level appropriate for the seriousness of the issue. In the opening, in developing the theme, establishing the crux of the problem and offering solution, Acchamamba has succeeded. On the other hand, Appa Rao’s story takes a humungous issue—womanizing—and treats flippantly.

    1. Bharyaa bharthala samvaadam” [A discussion between husband and wife] is the weakest of the ten stories. The story is presented in the form of a dialogue and centers round the issue of women’s education. Wife is interested in jewelry and husband tells her that she has jewelry, which are: Modesty, humility, humbleness, good behavior, composure, integrity, kindness and helping others. These qualities are desirable in men too yet appear to be more desirable in women. As I read the list, I was reminded of sati dharma as maintained by Veeresalingam.

    In this narrative, there is no really story, no development of an issue except a casual dialogue. Acchamamba wrote this story in 1903, one of her last two stories. She had written much better stories earlier. I am not sure why she did not develope this theme. One possible explanation that occurs to me is that she it might be a commissioned artilce. Hindusundari magazine, in which the story is published, might have requested her to write on this theme, being of topical interest at the time, and she quickly jotted something. I am not saying this is the reason. I am just guessing.

    1. Addamunu Satyavathiyunu” [Mirror and Satyavathi] is a story about a little girl, Sathyavathi, barely three-years-old. She who looks at her reflection in the mirror, mistakes it to be another girl and makes faces at her. To her surprise, the girl in the mirror also makes faces, which annoys Satyavathi. She complains to her grandmother, who understands the problem and tells her to smile at the little girl in the mirror. Sathyavathi smiles and finds the reflection also smiling. After she has grown up, Sathyavathi remembers this incident, and combines with her other experiences, and concludes that, “This entire world is a mirror. If we look at it angrily it looks back at us angrily and if we look at it joyously, the reflection also shows joy.” She not only cherishes this lesson but keeps telling others to do the same. Once again, the idea is so close to personality development lessons in modern times.
  • Beeda kutumbamu” [Poor family] is about a poor woman who makes living by grinding wheat, corn and maize and making flour in the rich households. At the outset, the author says this is a true story, told by one of her friends.

  • A woman, after her husband with little means died, starts working in the homes of wealthy women grinding flour day and night and raises her six children. Eventually the children grow up, take respectable jobs and live happily.

    The author might have written this story to reiterate the values of self-respect and hard work. She also stresses the need to imbibe these values in children.

    Regarding these stories, the first thing one would comment on is language. For current generation readers, reading them could pose a problem. Nevertheless, these stories are valuable and need to be read within the context of social and literary milieu of Acchamamba’s time, which is late nineteenth century. In these stories, we find pioneering and progressive views we value immensely today.

    Acchamamba depicted women as strong characters possessing plausible qualities such as self-respect and individualistic views. Today’s views on women’s education, acquiring knowledge, and personality development are present in Acchamamba’s stories written well over a century ago.

    Acchamamba, who had been inspired by Veeresalingam’s writings, did not hesitate to move away from his views on women’s dharma. While Veeresalingam professed that “women need education to be good housewives and good mothers,” Acchamamba went one step ahead and showed that education for women is necessary for their personal development.

    Her descriptions are poetic and powerful. For example, her descriptions—the village in ‘Janakamma”, the deepavali festivities in Mumbai, the wife’s thought process and husband’s dilemma in “Dhanatrayodasi” etc. are depicted with flair. In “Sugunavathi yagu stri”, she compares the face of a woman to crescent moon, implying a person feels the same pleasure when he sees her face as he when a crescent moon. In our literature it is common to compare beautiful face to full moon. In that Acchamamba’s metaphor is original.

    In her preface to the book, Dr. Sujatha Reddy commented that Acchamamba should be considered a Telangana writer since she was born in the area, lived there for sometime and also used some of the words prevalent in Telangana. To my knowledge, some of the words quoted by Sujatha Reddy are prevalent in other areas as well. Besides, limiting a writer to a particular area is not called for unless the author specifically makes a point of wanting to be named so for his or her own beliefs or pride of place. I did not find such penchant in Acchamamba.

    The compiler of this anthology, Sangisetti Srinivas, commented that “We cannot restrict her to any one area.” I tend to agree with Srinivas.

    Acchamamba’s style beats all boundaries. She is endorsing values that go beyond time and geography.

    Finally, I must extend my compliments to the compiler, Sangisetti Srinivas for collecting the stories, and making them available to the public.


    (Published on thulika.net, March 2011.)

    The picture of Acchamamba, courtesy of te.wikipedia.org.

    (February 24, 2011)

    Bhandaru Acchamamba

    Bhandaru Acchamamba: Outstanding life & Work by Nidadavolu Malathi

    Bhandaru Acchamamba

    In the past, we have featured an analytical review of Bhandaru Acchamamba’s contribution to Telugu literature (written by Kondaveeti Satyavati) and two stories written by Acchamamba.

    Recently, I have come across Acchamamba’s monumental work, abalaa saccharitra ratnamala [Biographies of Laudable Women], volumes 1 and 2. These two volumes however are not available for purchase. Only digital copies are made available to the public by the Digital Library of India, maintained by Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India. I gratefully acknowledge their service.

    The first volume included detailed account of Acchamamba’s life story which is no less interesting than her monumental work, abalaa saccharitra ratnamala [Biographies of Laudable Women]. Following is the gist of her biography as given by the publishers and her introduction as appeared in the first volume:

    Acchamamba was born to Komarraju Venkatappayya and Gangamamba in 1874 in a small village called Nandigama in Krishna district, Andhra Pradesh. She had a younger brother, Komarraju Lakshmana Rao, who was a prominent scholar, literary historian, social reformer, and more importantly, significant figure in Acchamamba’s education and literary pursuits.

    Acchamamba’s father strongly believed that woman’s place was at home and refused to let her receive education. After his death, mother moved with her two children to live with her step son Sankara Rao. Per custom at the time, Acchamamba was married at the age of six to her maternal uncle and widower, Bhandaru Madhava Rao. At seventeen, she was sent to live with him. Like her father, Madhava Rao was also against education for women. And Acchamamba, respecting his wishes, observed traditional sati dharma [the tenets prescribed for dutiful wife by Sastras] and the ghoshaa system [covering her face and staying out of sight of men]. Yet, she was equally determined to educate herself. She achieved her goal, after bringing her brother to her home for his education. She learned how to read and write Telugu and Hindi, sitting next to her brother while he studied. After Lakshmana Rao left for Nagpur for further studies, she continued to study on her own. She learned the local language Marathi in the same manner, by her own effort. Additionally, her brother used to visit her whenever he had vacation and helped her improve her language skills in five languages – Telugu, Hindi, Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati. She also learned Sanskrit, minimally though.

    Regarding English texts, Acchamamba stated that she had no knowledge of English and therefore relied heavily on the Marathi translations of major English works like Mill, Spenser and Lubbock. She commended the Marathi scholars’ fervor to producing translations of the English originals and wished that our Telugu scholars would follow their example and undertake translations from English.

    Acchamamba was a meticulous writer. She would take great pains not only to find material for her work but also double check her sources for authenticity. Sometimes, she would have to wait months and even years to find her sources and confirm she got it right. The publishers pointed out that it took four years for her to put together the second volume because of her diligence. For instance, 1903, she set out to visit her friends in Krishna and Godavari areas and then she went to Benares where she met with Sanskrit scholars and studied the Vedas in order to verify her stories of women in Vedic literature. On another occasion, she wanted to quote a sloka from Rutu samhita. She went to great lengths and found a copy of the Rutu Samhita [Vedic text] to borrow from Hyderabad.

    She had a clear notion of her project. Her brother helped her to define her goals and create the layout for her project, she added. She described her objectives as follows:

    1. Some people allege that “women are weak, dim-witted and lack commonsense. My first objective is to disprove those allegations and prove that women have been courageous, remarkably knowledgeable, highly educated; they love their country, and are politically astute, and several of them live meritorious lives. Not only that. It is also my intent to postulate that women are naturally predisposed to follow the path or virtue but not bad ways.
    2.  Second, Some gentlemen opine that, if women are educated, and given freedom, they would take to bad ways, humiliate their husbands and destroy the pleasure of family life. My aim is to establish with examples that these accusations are meaningless, and that the education would actually help them to stay away from evil paths, not turn them into bad people. The country would only benefit from the freedom women would obtain through learning, not suffer loss. Education for women is extremely important.

    3. My third objective is to write a book that is enlightening and interesting to my sisters in Andhra Pradesh. Everybody knows that real life stories yield better results than fictitious narratives. Therefore, I wish to convey the importance of pativratyam [unconditional devotion to husband], love of country, women’s education and other virtues to our Andhra sisters through these biographies.

    Acchamamba further elaborated on her methodology. According to her plan, volume 1 would cover women in the history of India. By history, she meant the period from 1000 A.D. to the present, she added. This part would include women like Padmavathi and Samyukta, and righteous women like Anandibai. (While working on this volume however she discovered some stories of women who lived in the age of Gautama Buddha, putting the date a few hundred years back to B.C.  Then, she realized that history meant the period as far back as we could unearth the stories reliably.). Volume 2 would cover the stories of women in the Vedas (Gargi, Maitreyi), Puranas (Parvati, Sita, Tara, Damayanti, Draupadi and others), and Buddhist women (no examples were given). Volume 3 would cover women from other countries like England.

    True to her convictions, Acchamamba narrates the stories with equal fervor whether it is an out of the ordinary situation (e.g. in the case of Vengamamba, regrowing hair instantaneously after her head was shaved by traditionalists), or the unusual bravado of women in royal families to save their husbands from rival kings (e.g. Vimala pretends to be a man and helps her husband escape from prison in the enemy’s palace) or simply the remarkable tolerance for suffering in the hands of husbands (e.g. Komarraju Jogamamba). For her, the ancient tenets of pativratyam were as important as the modern notion of education for women. She proved that both the standpoints are not contradictory each other but complementary.

    She stated that she had researched to the best of her ability to find women in each state and found a few in Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Bengal, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Had she left any names, it was only due to her ignorance, she added and asked the readers to forward the information to her so she could incorporate them in her work.

    Acchamamba also stated that her main sources were the old bakharies [documents?], prevalent stories, history books and several monthly and weekly magazines in Hindi and Marathi.

    “When I said history, I had in mind the period from 1000 A.D. to the present. As the work progressed, I found stories of some Buddhist women existing in 300 to 400 years B. C. Secondly, although I was not knowledgeable in English, I gathered several narratives from the Marathi translations of English works. Marathi scholars are proficient in enriching their language. To me, English writers like Mill, Spencer and Lubbock appear in Maharashtra attire. Telugu people need to emulate their example. Because of the texts in Marathi language, I was able to write this book without learning the English language and I commend them for their service.”

    Some of these accounts were published in women’s magazines such as Savitri, Hindusundari, and Anasuya, all popular at the time. Acchamamba also mentioned that her first volume was published in Chintamani, women’s magazine run by prominent social reformer, Kandukuri Veeresalingam.

    Acchamamba added that, chronologically speaking, the entries in the second volume should go first but she could not do so. The availability or lack thereof, made her proceed with whatever she had on hand. She said she hoped her readers would condone this minor inaccuracy on her part.

    Acchamamba also has written two books on knitting, one on crochet and the second wool, one satakam (a book of one hundred verses) and short stories. Except the short stories, the other works are not available now.

    She traveled extensively not only to gather data for her work but also to meet with prominent women scholars and discuss women’s issues. At the end of her introduction, she suggested that these elite women should get together once a year and work towards educating other women. To that end, she provided a list of contemporary women working as journalists, educationists, and social reformers with the hope that they would at least get to know each other and keep in touch with each other.

    I have mentioned at the outset that Acchamamba’s personal life is equally fascinating. The biography included in the first volume provides us with some interesting anecdotes.[i] As stated by the biographer, Acchamamba observed ghoshaa in step with her husband’s beliefs, and would not speak with men unless it was absolutely necessary and even then she would say as little as possible and leave quickly.

    Following example is given to highlight Acchamamba’s strong belief in sati dharma [Prescribed tenets for a dutiful wife]. While the she, her husband and step daughter, Meenakshamma, came for a brief visit with the author. One evening, they all finished eating supper and sat in the front room, chatting and eating paan. He was rolling the paan leaves with betel nut and handing them over to her. Acchamamba took them but would not eat. He asked her why she was not eating the paan but got no reply. Then, Meenakshamma went to the partially opened door, returned and told him, “My father has not eaten his paan yet. Until he has eaten, she would not eat.”

    In this story, what struck me as peculiar is the manner in which she managed her relationship with her husband and still achieved her goals in life. She was able to change her mind and stance on women’s education and her public activities. She educated herself, and pursued her literary and humanitarian activities, while living the life of a dutiful wife according prescribed tenets. Compromise is a great cultural value for Indian women. Several stories in the abalaa Saccharitra Ratnamala vouch for this tenet. Acchamamba followed what she preached by narrating these stories.

    Another anecdote was about her ability to be calm in the face of pain and suffering. It seems at the age of five or six she was stung by a scorpion. Unlike other children who would throw a tantrum, the little girl remained calm and quiet until a family member found out about it and treated her! Even in her childhood, she was kind, generous and adroit. Whenever her parents gave her money, she would give it to the poor, but never spent it on herself. She never thought of her own needs or suffering.

    In short, it would appear Bhandaru Acchamamba’s life and work epitomizes the Indian womanhood. She cherished traditional values, lived the life of a righteous woman and succeeded in making a difference in the lives of innumerable women remarkably.

    Bhandaru Acchamamba passed on January 18, 1905, leaving behind her grieving husband, mother, stepdaughter, several friends and ardent supporters.

    Relevant articles available on this site (s00n):

    Bhandaru Acchamamba: First story writer in Telugu

    Stories written by Acchamamba: A Review

    Women’s Education (story) by Acchamamba

    Lakshmi puja day (story) by Acchamamba



    Acchamamba, Bhandaru. Abalaa saccharitra ratnamala available at archive.org in Telugu

    Acchamamba’s picture couresy of te.wikipedia.org.

    [i] From the preface in the second volume, the author of her life history appears to be Gadicherla Harisarvottama Rao. He claimed he was responsible for publication of the two volumes and appended his name to the preface in the second volume.

    (© Nidadavolu Malathi)

    April 7, 2013