Author Archives: Nidadavolu Malathi

Tenneti Hemalata by Nidadavolu Malathi

In Andhra Pradesh, in nineteen fifties, Tenneti Hemalata, better known as Lata, entered the field of Telugu fiction with her novel, gaali padagalu, neeti budagalu. “I can proudly say I am the first sensational Woman Writer of the present age of Telugu literature,” she said in a letter addressed to me. (Personal correspondence, dated August 28, 1982).

Hemalata was born on November 15, 1935, in Vijayawada, to Nibhanupudi Visalakshi and Narayana Rao. In his book, Sahitilata, the author Anjaneya Sarma noted the year of birth as 1932 while Kondamudi Sriramachandra Murthy wrote in his article, chalaaniki Arunaaachalaaniki Madhya Lata noted it as 1935, which appeared in other sources as well. Her full given name was Janaki Rama Krishnaveni Hemalata.

She wrote about herself in Uhaagaanam 56, partly in jest, I suppose: “At the time God was making me, his hand must have needed rest. After resting for a while, probably he looked for clay to complete the form but did not find it and then he grabbed an aravinda flower and a bunch of flames available at hand, put them in me and turned the key on and let me to go to live the life I had received. But, Oh God, this flame is burning the delicacy of the flower.” (p.154).

Lata’s ancestors enjoyed a zamindari lifestyle, and Lata was raised as a favorite child in her family. Her father had inherited considerable wealth which he squandered on women, liquor and gambling. He also, it would appear, entertained literary gatherings at home. Lata spent most of her time with her father at these gatherings sporting liquor and literature. Her father used to offer her a sip from his drink occasionally, wrote Anjaneya Sarma. In her later years Lata was criticized by purists for her drinking habit, which she defended in her book, antarangachitram (1965). She wrote about liquor in her novels, not as a plausible habit, though. More on this subject later.

Her father died when she was 32. At the time, her mother was pregnant with her brother. Lata stated that, in deference to her father, she supported her little brother’s education with her income from writing. It is important to note that Lata was one of the few female writers to earn a substantial income from their writings in the sixties.

Lata lived an unusual lifestyle in many ways. At the age of nine, she was married to Tenneti Achyutaramayya, 16. Her husband’s incurable medical condition, two difficult deliveries, (first son in 1956 and the second in 1963, both cesarean) and financial troubles—all seemed to have given her rare insights into the perplexities and complexities of life. Against these insurmountable odds, it is no surprise that she had learned to take a good hard look at life and the meaning of life and develop a sardonic humor.

In her antarangacitram, [self-reflections], she talked about some of her struggles in life, which inspired her to write the stories. The book, antarangachitram itself  reads like a meandering stream of incoherent thoughts, confusing at times and profound at other, and records the pain she had suffered, and the questions she had been provoked to raise about life and god.

In this article, I will try to present my understanding of Lata and her writings against a backdrop of the little data available to me, and you may discern your own conclusions. Also, please note that I have not read the entire literature produced by Lata. That is beyond the scope of this article. I am recording only my impressions of her writings only from what I have read and/or known personally.

Lata studied extensively Telugu, Sanskrit and English classics at home. She started her career as an announcer at Vijayawada radio station in 1955 or 56. She took to acting while she was there, played notable roles in radio plays and on stage. She was also a singer and a staff writer of radio plays. In a letter addressed to me, Lata wrote “I have written 100 novels, 700 radio plays, 100 short stories, 10 stage dramas, 5 volumes of literary essays (Uhaagaanam), 2 volumes of literary criticism (Vishavruksha khandana, and Lata Ramayanam) and one volume of Lata vyasaalu, 25 charitra kandani chitra kathalu, poetry …”.  This letter was written in 1982. Possibly she had written a few more between 1982 and her death in 1997.

Her awards included: Gruhalakshmi Swarnakankanam in 1963, and an honorary doctorate [kalaaprapuurna] by Andhra University. She was honored as “Extraordinary woman” in 1981 by the Government of Andhra Pradesh. She was a member of Andhra Pradesh Sahitya Academy for over 20 years. She was “the only elected woman member to the academy”, She stated in her letter.

Ghatti Anjaneya Sarma, a mechanical engineer by profession and an avid reader of Lata’s writings, published a book, Sahitilata, in 1962, wherein he quoted profusely from letters she had received from highly reputable male writers and elite like Bucchibabu, Malladi Narasimha Sastry, Achanta Janakiram, B. Gopala Reddy and Toleti Kanakaraju.

Several writers and readers drew parallels between Lata’s characters and the characters in works by famous western writers like Hemingway, Shaw, Maugham, and C. Scott Fitzgerald. Whether one would be willing to accept these comparisons for what they are worth is beside the point. The fact remains renowned Telugu writers and critics noticed Lata’s talent and accepted her as a notable writer. And they wrote personal letters to her. An interesting factor worth mentioning here is she started receiving them within a decade since she started writing and publishing, which in itself is a tribute to her status as a writer.

Lata started her career as an announcer at the Vijayawada radio station. Soon after that, she started writing plays for the radio. Kondamudi Sriramachandra Murthy mentioned that her first radio play was silaahrudayam [stone heart] broadcast on Deccan Radio in 1952. Ghatti Anjaneya sarma stated that Lata’s first radio play was mahabhinishkramanam, [The Great Exodus], but did not give the date of broadcast. Regardless, the fact remains that Lata launched her literary career at a radio station.

By early nineteen thirties, Telugu fiction was gaining ground as a literary genre. The newly emerging story technique incorporated some elements of the earlier writing style; the stories were suffused with vestiges of Sanskrit poetic diction as well as the western story-writing technique. The Romantic poetry of the British writers like Robert Browning, Elizabeth Browning, Byron and Keats influenced Telugu fiction writers in the forties and fifties. And Lata, like several other writers, had read several books in English and was influenced by them. We see the effects of Lata’s avid reading in her writings.

Among other things, she also tried to write detective fiction, without success though. She admired Arudra and Kommuri Sambasiva Rao. She particularly wanted to write like Arudra. In her own words, her detective stories turned out more like propaganda material—the thief turned into a man of distinction and the detective into a thief by the time she finished it, as she put it.

Lata also tried to paint which again was not a success story. She realized fairly early that she had no talent for the brush. It is notable that later she compared writing to painting, and writer to a painter. She drew a clear distinction between photography and painting. In photography, you click the camera and it captures the scene as is. On the other hand, in painting, the artist adds with each stroke of his brush, a new meaning and a new perspective gradually.

Lata’s language is quixotic, awash with imagery and earthy at the same time, with heavy slang. It filled with metaphors, sensuous imagery, and even luxurious poetic verbosity at times. She was an admirer of famous singer and song-writer, Mangalampalli Balamurali Krishna. She wrote a few lyrics, for which Balamurali Krishna composed tunes. We find this musical quality in such books as antarangachitram and mohanavamsi, wherein separating the author from the work is impossible.

On another occasion, Lata lying on a hospital bed, while waiting for her second son to be born, she describes her thoughts as follows: “In this scanty life of mine, I have been through numerous experiences—hardships, tears, suffering, happiness, love, and duty; temptation and desire. While grappling with my life and financial problems—amidst all this—I would still travel in first class in airplanes, watching the beauty beyond description and ugliness beyond words—how many times I’ve seen it in this life? My life is small yet it is puffing up with my experiences, lightening and floating in the air like a balloon. Probably it will burst today.” (antarangachitram. p.13).

Her knack for imagery is amazing. Whether it is her sparkling enthusiasm for life or antipathy for the injustices in the society, it is always entrenched in a combination of sarcasm, sharp wit and uncanny humor.

Some of her convictions are a mix of tradition and innovation. Lata possesses a peculiar sense of the anomalies in life, which go beyond the bounds set by any single conviction. In some ways, she would fall right into the category of Telugu romantic/idealistic writers like Tallavajjhala Sivasankara Sastry, Devulapalli Krishnasastry, and Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry, to name but few. And in other instances, she is confrontational like Chalam and Ranganayakamma.

I believe that the anguish Lata had experienced in her personal life set her apart from many writers of her time. Her experiences or anguish defined her perception of life and her technique of storytelling. While other writers used the flowery language to describe their idealistic dreams, Lata used it to drive home the ruthless realities of life.

Lata believed in mystical somewhat platonic love. That is what we see in Mohanavamsi. She claimed that she was speaking in abstract terms in mohanavamsi; she was not Radha but the concept of Radha [p.106]. She further explained, “My Krishna is a human being. … My Krishna should not be an egotist … People may label me immoral, still I would have gone with him, defying all the familial ties. … I have made plenty of mistakes. Maybe I would stay away from these mistakes if my Krishna were human. … But my Krishna is anantanaariihrudayavarthi [One who wanders in the hearts of innumerable women]. … Extremely selfish… Am I jealous? No.. I am worried only about the selfishness incorporated with pain. … How can he be god if he knew only to take but not give? … He is good to be worshipped only without asking for returns. … Maybe I am worshipping him all the same. ..  The same thing happened for a second time. It was the fault of the circumstances. The same circumstances would call my love prostitution. … That is why I turned around and came home. ..But I set fire in that person’s heart before I returned. [antarangachitram. p.106].

Her usage of diction and metaphors are elusive even when she is speaking in a book, supposedly nonfiction, about herself. She barely draws a distinction between her fiction and her reality. An episode described in her antarangachitram, describes this ambiance in her perceptions. She wrote that a local businessman approached her for sex in a rather forthright and primitive fashion. At first, she was surprised; she teased him for a few minutes as was her wont, and then sent him away. She took the situation to make a categorical statement about the life on Vijayawada streets (which apparently was the reason for the man to approach her in that manner).

“In this Vijayawada city, this kind of requests and mediations is quite common. There is no evidence of any woman rejecting any man either. Underneath this scenario, money is dancing garishly. … In fact, that is the way the topography of Vijayawada—surrounded by the river and hills, and streams—they all make it a unique city in the entire state of Andhra Pradesh. I don’t think there is another city like this in the entire state. … And the people of Vijayawada are matchless in making the shorelines of these streams unbearably ugly. “The roads are always crowded. Most of the pillars of society in our town have amassed wealth by running brothel houses only. …. “The second problem in our city is the lorries. There are plenty of lorry drivers who stop them anywhere they please, crawl under the vehicles and fall asleep. … It is not an exaggeration to say that our roads are laid only for the purpose of those lorries and lorry drivers; they stop their lorries everywhere for repairs, and for others to die freely under those vehicles. …
On top of all this, there are brothel houses… in each corner of every street … They are referred to as “companies” respectfully. All these companies are invariably owned by women with rowdy protectors by their side. …”

I quoted this passage to highlight the fact that this account in her nonfiction book is a replica of her description of the Vijayawada streets in her novel, gaalipadagalu, neetibudagalu. This may be a simplistic example but I believe that it does point to the authenticity in her novels. She used the same setting and situations as she saw them in the life around her. She seemed to have put her heart and soul into her writings whether it is fiction or nonfiction.

Achanta Janakiram was one of her harshest critics to disapprove her style. Referring to his disapproval, Lata wrote, “He [Janakiram] was annoyed by my abrasive and candid language. But what I’ve written is the truth. He told me several times not to write like that. Probably he was repulsed by my gaalipadagalu, neetibudagalu [Kites and Water Bubbles]. I don’t think he has forgiven me for that even after I had published Mohanavamsi and  Umar Khayyam. I heard that his nonfiction books, naa smrutipathamlo [Down my memorylane] and saaguthunna yatra [Journey in Progress] contain more poetry than actuality. In my opinion, Authenticity is more beautiful than poetry.”(antrangachitram. p. 147).

Lata claimed that, contrary to the public opinion, she was not writing about sex and there was no discussion of sex in her books except gaalipadagalu, neetibudagalu. She added that, “Even in that book, it was meant to cause disgust in the readers but not fondness. Whatever it is, there is plenty of falsehood in his [Janakiram’s] theory of beauty. And I resent falsehood.” (antrangachitram. p 147).

Contrary to her statement however, Lata did write another novel, raktapankam [Quagmire of Blood], on the same subject as gaalipadagalu, neetibudagalu. The second book is a longer version of the same story. The difference lies only in the event that instigated her to write. The basis for gaalipadagalu, neetibudagalu was her observation of the brothel houses round the corner from her home in Vijayawada. For the second novel, raktapankam, the basis or inspiration was a stack of letters sent to her by a woman who actually lived the horrific life and requested Lata to write the story. The woman’s friend who brought the letters to Lata told her [Lata] that the friend (the main character in the story) was moved by Lata’s earlier novel, gaalipadagalu, neetibudagalu [Kites and Water Bubbles, 1953], wanted to meet the author personally but could not. For that reason, the woman wrote her story in the form of letters addressed to Lata. And Lata decided to write this novel, defying the angry reprimands of several writers and critics. In the preface to the book, Lata said she had written as it was told in the letters, and changed very little.

Several critics compared her to Chalam for writing these novels. From my perspective, the comparison is not tenable. While the writers dealt with sex in their novels, their approach and their perceptions are distinctly different. Chalam’s views were rooted in his ideology and in that sense his novels were mono-directional. His characters are two dimensional. Readers will know nothing about the characters beyond their engagement in sex. In Lata’s novels, on the other hand, sex is only part of a bigger picture. Her characters are alive; they eat, talk to each other, have children, and worry about other things in their daily lives. Her stories tell us stories we all know, and raise questions we are confronted with on a daily basis. Her stories are closer to the life her readers could relate to. A word of caution. Chalam’s novels may not be out of this world but they are monolithic at best.

About the same time as the two novels mentioned above were published, Lata also started writing a series of feature articles in Andhra Prabha weekly, under the running title, Uhaagaanam [musings] from 1958 to 1963. Its success was unbelievable. Lata became a household name and the readership for the weekly magazine escalated immensely. In a way, it could be her salvation for writing gaalipadagalu, neetibudagalu. Earlier, I mentioned about the umpteen letters she had received from prominent writers and readers. I believe that Uhaagaanam convinced them that she was a gifted writer.

The volume I used for this article is a single volume containing 197 articles in 600 pages, and published in 1978. The publishers stated at the beginning that the book covered umpteen topics such as the poetry and the style of Rabindranath Tagore, Shakespeare’s tragedies, Tolstoy’s humanism, Maupassant’s love scheme, Krishnasastry’s heartening lyrics, social philosophy of Chalam, maro prapancam [Another World] of Sri Sri, and several others. Her selection included Telugu, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, English, translations of Russian and Persian writers and Vedic texts. She also drew on her experience in the movie industry and contacts she had developed  as a writer and actress (I think she acted only in one or two movies). (See her comments on acting noted earlier). The publishers also added that this book included all the issues of the entire world abundantly, and potent questions like: What does “society” mean? In what way the society is related to you?

Each article runs from two to five pages. Basically, the format is: Take a quote from a well-known book or a popular axiom, explain, comment, and describe one or two occurrences from everyday life we all are familiar with, and finish it with a brief recap. In these articles, Lata comes out as humorous, caustic, santarangachitramastic, ponderous and rambling incoherently at times. They captured a wide range of readership for that very assortment of topics. I, for one, was fascinated by all those quotes from the great books I’d never heard of, the wisdom they contained and the manner in which she illuminated a view or a thought. For me, it was the second best thing for not being able to read the originals.

In this weekly feature, she proved her abilities to put two seemingly incoherent situations in juxtaposition and hold them up for the readers to see the underlying commonality. In the process, she could be impulsive, pondering, confounding, ridiculous, and santarangachitramastic all in one breath.

For instance, in Uhaagaanam 129, Lata opens with a popular poem from the great epic, Maha Bhagavatam [The Story of Krishna] and goes on with her mystifying questions about God. Then she shifts the somberness to levity as she describes an event from everyday life. It is about a husband trying to learn to cook while his wife was out of town. He turns the radio on for instructions and the next few lines are just hilarious. He is unaware that the radio is broken and it is broadcasting two stations simultaneously.

The result is,
1. Add water to the dal. After it is cooked, … put your hands on your waist and take two feet forward.
–He did so per instructions.
2. Put a pan on the stove, add oil, … stand on one foot, look sideways playfully.
–He did that too.
3. Walk three feet poised, lean forward, smile… drop little lumps of dough in the hot oil.
–He followed the instructions.
4. Hop back three times …

As expected, the outcome is a disaster and he writes to the radio station that the instructions were messed up. My [Lata’s] point is, our lives and the universe are comparable to the two broadcasts. That is why I want to tell god that, “Look Mister, your management is hopeless. Why don’t you stop creating for a while. Then we all can have peace for some time.” But He is not listening and letting the Judgment Day happen. He hides in a corner, and keeps broadcasting two shows simultaneously and tells us to live the best we can. What has he got to lose?

The Uhaagaanam articles featured her humor on one level. At another level, she was also capable of initiating challenging dialogues among the elite on topics such as god, traditional values, and religion. On one occasion, she received a letter from an avowed nonbeliever, Tarakam, in which he stated that Lata’s convictions about god in one of her Uhaagaanam articles was out of character for her. Lata responded saying that they both (Tarakam and Lata) were on the same page since their objective was the same except for the terminology. “You are calling it Truth and I am calling it God,” she said. Then, another prominent writer, Bucchibabu, wrote to Lata further elaborating on various conjectures of the same subject. The fact that Lata was able to involve the elite of her times in a dialogue on critical matters speaks for her strength as a writer.

Her novel pathaviheena.(1971?) is about the disparity between woman’s chastity [pativratyam] and humanism. In the novel she discusses her views on pativratyam [wife’s unflinching devotion to her husband] and claims that, unlike in other countries, pativratyam is overrated in India.  She said she had received 7000 letters during the time the novel was being serialized in Andhra Prabha weekly.

In the same preface, she talked about another famous writer, [late] P. Sridevi (of kalaateeta vyaktulu fame) and added that Sridevi died because of a mistake she had made. The next comment of Lata is noteworthy. She said, “many people expected me to make the same mistake. But I am a devotee of beauty. …  That is not the reason I did not make the same mistake. I also have soul. …  I have not sacrificed my soul … I have desires … and part of it is mischievous like everybody else’s  … I am a writer but that does not mean I am not a woman.” [antharangachitram  p. 105]. This passage seems to indicate that Lata had her share of heartbreaks in real life. Secondly, I am not sure if her comment on Sridevi is tenable but then probably it is irrelevant here.  In her preface to this book, antharangacitram, Lata said she spoke only good things about her friends and left out bad things on purpose. Should we give her credit for being discrete? What does it say about her character? And about her sense of propriety and by default her wits? Why did she mention Sridevi at all?

This style of speaking in conundrums is rare in her novels. Beating around the bush is not her style. She was not afraid to take on any writer, male or female. One notable episode involving two prominent writers was about their versions of the great epic Ramayanam. Ranganayakamma, a reputable Marxist writer, wrote her version of the epic, entitled Ramayana Vishavruksham [Ramayana, the poisonous tree] rewriting the characters in a different light. Then, Lata published her version, Ramayana Vishavruksha Khandana, [Rebuttal of Ramayana Vishavruksham]. The two books created a huge commotion in Andhra Pradesh in the eighties polarizing readers, male and female, around each of these writers. Further discussion of this literary event is beyond the scope of this article but would suffice to say that Lata never hesitated to jump into the fray if occasion called for it.

Lata held strong views about acting and actresses. “I am not used to suggest even in acting,” she commented. She said she had to struggle a little when she had to play the wife of another man in a radio play but managed to go through with it. She refused firmly when she had to cry for her (stage) son. “I cannot cry, even in the name of acting, for a child while I have a son in real life.” She would not tolerate doubletalk in the name of art either.

She later had come to realize that “the obstacles for actors and actresses to act are only their own sentiments but not their family life.” (antarangacitram.  p.30-31). Woman remembers her duty to the society and family only after her profession as actress. On the other hand, she who aches for fame and to show off her well-formed figure while grappling with her own insecurities may shroud with morals like sugar-coated pills but can never be an actor. (antarangacitram. p.31).  “Actors and actresses who cannot pronounce aspirated sounds come to participate. No matter how many times Banda garu told them the phrase was avinaabhaavasambandham, [inseparable connection] they still say avi naa baava sambandam [that is my relationship with my cousin], … [We announcers] will have to put up with unbearable sounds in the name of classical music,” she commented. (antarangacitram. p.79).

Regarding the relationship between the writer and the writing also, Lata held unambiguous views. She said, “Usually a novelist will be guided not only by the society in which he is living but also by his own insights and conscience [antharyam]. Yet, his experiences, memories and the conclusions drawn from his experiences—all come together and create a common ground of acumen for him and the readers. It will act as telepathy or a telephone wire. That telepathy is the connection between a first rate writer and a well-informed reader. Additionally. An artist’s imagination may change the proportions and the form of the incident he had seen, rework on the connotation and the display. … All novels and musings depend on reality to some extent.

I will not accept that a great writer would write for entertainment or fame. He also would aim at making the life and his goal as well broader in perspective. There is nothing wrong if he uses his book as a moral sword in his attempt to achieve his goal. … I believe that there is no writing, never will be one, which is free of the author’s agitation. … A writer without talent is worse than ordinary person. Nowadays the ordinary person is turning into a writer, which is one more problem.

Once a friend showed two pictures of elephants to a great artist. Both the elephants were the pictures of angry elephants. The artist said, “this is great art since the sculptor  carved it with not only the trunk but also the tusk raised. The second one as ordinary and so there is nothing peculiar about it. There is no display of one’s perception. … If some brainless man called it [the first] as lacking in realism, that is his problem [antarangachitram. p.93-94].

Look at any Telugu novel that is not successful, you would notice only a series of aspirations, love, a couple’s movie dialogue, an overbearing gentleman, struggles in a rental property like in a display of dolls …    Life might be like a novel but a novel is never like a grocery store.   [98]

She categorically disapproved the pretensions of women who would blame their family life for their failures on stage. She said only second rate women actors live under the delusion that acting was immoral, while in fact the problem was their own lack of talent.

Lata covered a wide range of topics in her novels—harmony at individual or social level, underlying principles of caste, marriage, traditions in other parts of India, beliefs such as ghosts and predictions based on horoscopes, and so on. Here is then the main question: Can we find a common philosophy of Lata from these novels?

Her themes ranged from to streetwalkers, to ghosts, to imaginary coup by gods, to philosophical or theological debate. Lata explained in her prefaces the incidents that lead to her writing the novels. Each novel was inspired by either her own observation, a book by a famous writer or a brief conversation with another writer of repute. For instance, the much needed changes in society in tiragabadina devatalu,[Gods that rebelled] was based faintly on Time Machine of H. G. Wells, whose characters defy time, distance, and dimensions of life. Brahmana pilla [A Brahmin girl] is about reverse discrimination. She stated that she was not advocating restoration of brahmin superiority but highlighting the negative impact of the eradication of caste system on poor brahmins who needed help. Niharika is about the institution of marriage; she questions the acceptance of man having two wives but not woman having two wives in our society..

At the risk of digressing for a moment, I would like to comment on writers in general. Often the writers who write to advocate their ideological perceptions, are deeply rooted in their ideology. (Like Chalam, for instance). All their writings point solely to that one view. And then there are writers like Lata who take each topic and stay focused on that topic, attempting to present several angles of that one topic, offer a more balanced view of the topic and pose potent questions for readers to think. Chalam appealed to the elite and maybe readers fascinated by his portrayal of women’s sexuality. Lata reached out a much wider audience with her technique (which included humor, santarangachitramasm and plain talk) as well as her points of view.  Here are some of topics in her novels. Closer to home: Jeevanasravanti. Her father’s financial problems, his use of morphine and his lifestyle were the basis for this novel, she stated in her Antarangachitram (p.34). Mohanavamsi: Her personal journey.

Stories inspired by her readings and per perception of cultural values: Bhagavantudi pancaayati [God’s court] was inspired by a novel by Somerset Maugham. She said she took some of the characters Maugham had created. She understood only after reading Maugham, that the human nature is not the same as usual at the time of war. Wherever and whenever war happens, the result is always the same—bloodshed and death. In this novel, she depicted the Tibetan traditions, and environment at the Himalaya mountains. She also apologized for any topographical errors she might have made in regard to the area.

Dayyaalu levu? – “In general, I don’t believe in ghosts. Premchand wrote in his novel, Nora, that he believed in the theory of rebirth. Tagore expressed his belief in ghosts in his Hungry stones. Chellapilla Venkatasastry wrote that he believed in the grahas and had personally suffered from their displeasure. … The reason I am saying all this is, we may assume to be real what we are calling baseless fantasies and unreal. We have gotten
used to think that the things we don’t know don’t exist.” (preface )

On Religion and philosophy Edi Nityam [What is Eternal]? Tried to establish that humaneness is more important that religion.  It was about a woman writer, Radhamma, who was labeled a “prostitute” regardless she lived righteously. “In reality, I am partial to men; I support women. In this novel, Rajamma’s life is heartbreaking.”  This is a confusing statement. Is the word “men” in the first part a typo? She did mention about the typographical errors in her books. She quoted her husband saying that she became famous only because of the typos in her books.

Saptaswaraalu [The Seven Musical Notes] “Once I heard a story that supposed to have happened in a sanitarium in Mangalagiri. Some of the characters in the story resembled the characters in a story, “Sanitarium” by Maugham. Similarly, some of the incidents in Shaw’s Man and Superman. … “
Prominent composer-singer, Balamurali Krishna often mentions that the seven notes are the foundation for one’s spine, lyrical composition and the harmony in life. I have come to understand that life also reorganizes the notes and sometime strikes a discord and life is a stream of dissonance and harmony. A novelist has no choice but surrender to his own creation: he needs to forget his own existence and become the character in the course of creating each creator. The characters he created turn him into a puppet in their hands. In that play, he will need the help of the seven musical notes. We can’t say whether dance of destruction or eternal bliss is but it continues to agitate him to the end. This saptaswaraalu reflects that agitation of mine.

About Tulasivanam, Lata said prominent writer Gopichand and she were sipping coffee at a local coffee shop and listened to the story from a woman. Gopichand asked if Lata were interested in writing the story and Lata said he should write it. Eventually, Gopichand died without ever writing the story. Lata’s story explores the belief that tulasivanam is present wherever a woman is present. She takes her cue from a mythological character, Tulasi, wife of Jalandhara, who was a cruel demon king. Gods tried to kill him but to no avail. He was shielded by Tulasi’s pativratyam and invincible. The only way he could be killed was to seduce Tulasi. Therefore, Vishnu, pretending to be her husband, deprived her of  her moral code [pativratyam]. Later Vishnu granted her a boon; and she became a plant to be worshipped by women seeking exemplary life eternally. Now the question , it is true that money matters but is it justifiable to grow marijuana in a tulasi patch? Marijuana sedates the senses, numbs the conscience. It may provide a temporary solace but no  healthy remedy. Tulasi on the other hand has medicinal value, it is wholesome.”

Her experimental writing: Love stories. By her own admission, she wrote some sort of love stories like vaitariniteeram in the beginning. Later she divested herself of the western influence. But she wrote Vaitariniteeram in response to a suggestion from younger generation readers, who had gotten used to reading the novels by other female writers, who were lifting stories from Herald Robbins, Barbara Cartland and Mills and Boon (Lata noted it as ‘Bouquet’ but I believe Boon is the correct word.). It was serialized in sowmya monthly. Lata said her characters lead her to the conclusion; they appear in her dreams and tell their stories. In the case of niharika [Mirage] it took a couple of months before the main character, Saradadevi told her the complete story. Within those two months, lying on bed in a nursing home, she had finished two more novels, bhagavantudi panchayati and Omar Khayam.

All the five novels carry the publication date of 1963. To me, writing five novels with a so wide range of themes is remarkable. Then the question is: In doing so, did she succeed in becoming an esteemed writer? I have no statistical data, but in view of her renown, I’d say yes, she remains an important writer of our times.

In a final note, I would like to quote Lata’s comments on contemporary female writers, that, “Many female writers are afraid that they’ll be forgotten if they don’t keep publishing but I don’t have any such fears,” she said. And to substantiate her belief in herself, I would like to quote a prolific, well-informed writer, J. K. Mohana Rao. After learning that she passed away, Mohana Rao wrote, “I am saddened to hear the demise of Tenneti HemaLATA. In the golden days, in the late fifties and early sixties, I was introduced to Lata through Andhra Prabha. She used to contribute a column called UhaagaanaM. It used to be down-to-earth and yet poetic. … I can call her a mix of Bucchi Babu and Chalam.

She fought for the one half of the oppressed in society, viz., the women. … She always used to write with a certain enchantment and elan that is not easy to surpass or imitate. Lata reminds me of my youth, my return to Telugu literature (particularly novels) after a break, and my rethinking about women, relationships and a sense of poetry in many activities of our daily lives.” I cannot think of a better tribute to a writer who took the world by the horns in the early nineteen fifties.


(Originally published on 9/23/2009 on Factual error corrected, 9/16/2013.)

Anjaneya Sarma, Ghatti. Sahitilata. Vijayawada: Sri Vani Prachuranaalayam. 1962.
Hemalata, Tenneti. antarangacitram. Vijayawada: Vamsi Prachuranalu, 1965.
Sriramachandra Murthy, Kondamudi. “Chalaaniki Arunaachalaaniki madhya Lata.” Andhrajyoti Sahitya vedika. Sunday
supplement. May 24, 1981.
Prefaces of the novels mentioned in the article.
Hemalata, Tenneti. Personal correspondence dated August 28, 1982.

Telugu women’s writing, 1950-1975 an analytical study by Nidadavolu Malathi.



Memories and Experiences by Battula Kamakshamma

[Translator’s note: Battula Kamakshamma garu (1886 – )was a young widow and avid reader who lived in the last two decades of Veeresalingam’s lifespan. In this autobiographical account, she presents to us rare insights into the times and women’s lives during that period. I was moved by her courage, determination and the strength of her character. This autobiographical account was probably written in late 1950s, at which time she might be in her late 60s. If any reader has any information about Kamakshamma garu and is willing to share with us, please send me an email. – Nidadavolu Malathi.]


    I was overwhelmed to hear that the Andhra Pradesh Government is having celebrations commemorating Sri Kandukuri Veeresalingam pantulu garu. He was the driving force behind the progress of our country in so many ways. I am mentioning this since the lifespan of Veeresalingam pantulu garu, from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century coincides with the time of major transformation of India. Think of those times in juxtaposition of the present generation. We cannot emphasize enough of the importance of his contribution to the progress of our nation, especially for us women folks.

Thanks to his undying efforts, our society has opened its eyes and started to free itself from the shackles of the centuries-old, irrational beliefs. Because he laid the path of reform, several females like me were able to participate in the women’s movement and were able to help ourselves. Prior to his movement we could not take the step forward, even though we had the intent, we did not have the courage.

So it is appropriate that we should have celebrations commemorating a person of such historical significance. In this context I thought it is my duty to ruminate on my experiences and memories relating to the social customs and traditions of those times. As a woman who grew up under those influences, I think I am in a good position to relate the social conditions of that era.

I was probably 15-years-old at the time. I was staying at the home my uncle (father’s younger brother), Udatthu Kamalanabham garu. During my childhood, around 1901-1902, women in the well-to-do families like ours were required to observe customs strictly. We couldn’t even show our faces in public. It was wrong to talk with male relatives, no matter how closely we were related. It was lot worse in the case of child widows like me. I cannot explain it and so I am leaving it to your imagination.

I am not sure why but the idea of service was deeply rooted in me from my early years. May be because of my kinds acts in my past life. I never liked wasting my time, not even a second. I was secretly entertaining a strong desire to read and share my knowledge with others but was not sure where I could find books to read. Although my uncle was very kind to me, I never had the courage to express my yearning for reading.

It was at this time, I came to know that Nalam Krishna Rao garu (a son of my mother’s brother) opened a library, in deference to his mentor Veeresalingam garu. I also heard that they were sending books to women at home, and conducting competitions to encourage reading by women. For me it was like a beggar stumbling on a goldmine. Then I got the women in the household of Krishna Rao garu convince him to send books for me at home. I was extremely happy that my deep-rooted desire for reading had finally come to be a reality.

I have not met Veeresalingam garu in person, but have heard a lot about his women’s movement, and developed a great interest in his activities. For that reason, if the library courier could not bring the books, I used to send our servant and get at least one book per day, mostly Veeresalingam’s books. I was reading them with great enthusiasm and determination. I was also gathering other women in our neighborhood and reading aloud for them. Most of the adults in our family were against women’s education. However they were kind to me because I was a child widow–they loved me dearly–and also because I was reading other epics like Bharatham and Bhagavatham and conducting religious discourses with other women.

Some of the members on the library committee, our relatives, noticed that I was showing interest in the writings of Veeresalingam garu on women’s reform movement, and tried to delve into my motivation, since I was a child widow, and started sending books on widow remarriage. That threw me off. If my family had come to know that I was getting books on widow remarriage, if my name was shown in the library register as the borrower, I could get into trouble. So I gave strict orders to the courier that he should bring only the titles I have asked for and made sure he understood it. The social conditions in those days were such.

Also during that period, some traditionalists like Kasibhatla Brahmayya Sastri garu opposed women’s education vehemently and were working against the movement of Veeresalingam garu. I used to get all the magazines in those days and was reading avidly.  Although I was reading all the magazines, my heart was leaning towards Pantulu gari reform movement only.

However, I could not do much since the times were not propitious for women to participate in such social movements. But at the same time the seeds were sown in my heart to become a free woman, participate in organizing women’s coalitions and help the needy in any way I can.

Kotikalapudi Sitamma, a disciple of Pantulu garu, heard about my procuring and reading library books. She was enthusiastic about meeting me and so came to my home. I have already read her excellent writings like Ahalyabai, and so my joy knew no bounds at seeing her at our door. She put her arm around my shoulders, drew me close to her, talked to me gently. She asked me to sing poems and sanskrit slokas for her and listened with pleasure. She was very anxious to take me to Veeresalingam pantulu garu and arrange a meeting with him, since he was working for the cause of women’s education. I had a feeling that she was trying to get me interested in widow remarriage.

I decided to go with Sitamma garu to the prayer hall and meet with Veeresalingam pantulu garu, because he was a great man, social reformer, and champion of women’s cause. I considered it a blessing to be able to see him. I was not sure though how our family would react if I went alone to meet Pantulu garu. So I encouraged other women from my religious discourses group. I told them that Pantulu garu has arranged to have gramaphone records played at the prayer hall and got them follow me there. Sitamma garu pressured me in to meeting with Pantulu garu. I was afraid that I might get into trouble with my family if they had come to know that I talked with Pantulu garu. So I told Sitamma garu that I was shy, paid my respects to Pantulu garu only from distance and quickly left the place. Thus I satisfied my curiosity to meet with him, only partially, but I was happy. I was eighteen at the time.

After that, I went to Madras and lived in the house of my uncle[1], Nalam Lakshmikantam garu for 14 years. There also I was able to continue my reading without interruption. I was becoming increasingly interested and was grappling with my desire to start a women’s organization and do public service in some way. Then I decided that the only way I could have my wish fulfilled was to move to Rajahmundry, the stronghold of women’s movement. At the same time, I was also afraid that if I express my intentions of service, I might face opposition from my family. So, under the pretext of wanting a holy dip in the river Godavari–the time being auspicious Kartika month–I went to Rajahmundry.

While in Rajahmundry, I went on a pilgrimage with Nalam Ramalingayya garu. On that trip, I heard about the home for widows in Pune founded by Karve. I wanted to stay in Pune and help the women in the widow’s home. Ramalingayya garu heard about my intention and dropped the idea of taking me to Pune, sent me home and he went alone to see the widow’s home in Pune.

After he returned home, Ramalingayya garu said that he was interested in opening a home for destitute women in Rajahmundry and asked me if I wanted to help him in his project. He assured me that he would start working on the project provided I would go along with the idea. I was so touched by the way the God Almighty has arranged to fulfill my long-time dream. I promised him my whole-hearted support. We have succeeded in opening a women’s home (Striseva sadanam) in Rajahmundry within a short period.

Thus by 1920, with the ideals of Pantulu garu inculcated in me, I was able to organize the Striseva sadanam. Pantulu garu passed away in 1918. At that time I was so disappointed that I did not get a chance to have him visit my Striseva sadanam and receive his blessings. Eventually I met Kandukuru Venkataratnam Pantulu garu, one of his close friends. He told me in great detail the kind of fierce struggle Veeresalingam Pantulu garu had to put up, in order to have widow remarriages performed, to eradicate the idiotic, centuries old customs, and the humiliations he had face in the process. I was amazed. My heart was filled with gratitude. After 10 or 12 years, I also had the privilege of becoming the administrator of Hitakarini samajam (orphanage), which Veeresalingam garu started. There was a time when the home could not provide food and education for even 16 women for lack of sufficient funds. At that time, Women’s Welfare Center (an organ of the government) approached us with a request for space in our building. They were going to start a cooperative for one hundred women. Hitkarinisamajam refused their request on the grounds that Pantulu garu was aiming at widow remarriage and only widow remarriage. Then I intervened and argued with our committee members that the goals of Pantulu garu included all kinds of help, and not limited only to widow remarrriage. I also mentioned that we were helping only 16 women whereas the Cooperative was offering to help one hundred women. The committee accepted my arguments and we let them work out of our building.

In this manner, thanks to that august person, numerous organizations were put in place and have been offering a great service to women ever since. We all know that the schools started out as separate schools for girls are still operating, known as Veeresalingam Schools to help all the children even today.

I am grateful to Avula Sambasiva Rao garu for giving me this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude through this special commemoration volume.

Excerpts from my editorial:

I came across the autobiographical essay of Battula Kamakshamma garu (b. 1886- ) while researching for another paper. I was moved in as much by her candid portrayal of herself and the social conditions of her time as her fortitude, determination and courage to bring about change. It is significant in that she represents the changing times during and immediately after Veeresalingam period. See my article on female writers in this issue for further explanation.

For those of you who are not familiar with the times here is a brief note: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Kandukuri Veeresalingam has launched several movements, and the women’s movement was the most significant one. With unprecedented dynamism, he set out to initiate programs for women’s education, widow remarriage, and eradication of prostitution. Battula Kamakshamma was a young teen widow during the last two decades of Veeresalingam’s life. In that sense, I could see her as a link representing the social changes that were taking place at the time. Her fortitude, determination and enthusiasm come through in this short, 4-page article against the backdrop of her seeming conformation to family values. I could visualize her as one definitive Telugu female character.

My comments from my article:

This account gives us some of the notable details as to how, during and after Veeresalingam period, women managed to process the information they had received and convert it to their advantage while keeping good relationship with their families. Wisdom lies in working things out. Kamakshamma was a good example. She decided not to remarry but had no problem in helping other widows who wished to remarry. The little hurdles from her family did not prevent her from following her heart—reading Veeresalingam’s writings and taking only whatever suited her mental disposition.

[1] Nalam Lakshmikantam was her mother’s brother and father of Nalam Krishna Rao.

Atukuri Molla by Nidadavolu Malathi

Atukuri Molla, author of Molla Ramayanam, has come to be known as Kummara (potter) Molla. Besides Muddupalani, author of Radhikasantvanam¸Molla is the only female poet from ancient times to receive so much attention from English-speaking scholars. The precise date is not known but scholars believe that she lived in the late fifteenth century.

From the avatarika [preamble] to her Ramayanam, we gather that Kesaya Setty was her father, she was a boon from the local deity, Srikantha Malleesa of Gopavaram, Nellore District, Andhra Pradesh, India. Kesaya Setty was a great devotee of Srikantha Malleesa, a notable scholar, and a highly regarded man of honor in his community.

Ramayanam appears to be the only extant text authored by Molla. There is no tangible evidence pointing to other works, if any, by her. Nevertheless, Molla has been noted by scholars outside Telugu-speaking community as well. My first encounter was with an article from a Bengali scholar, Naboneetha dev Sen, published in Manushi. After that, I found another reference to Molla in Women Writing, 600 B.C. to the Present by Lalita K, and Tharu, Susie. Apart from their comments on Molla’s work, the fact that they would mention the poems as slokas was odd to me for a couple of reasons. First, a sloka is a Sanskrit verse form. Telugu poem is referred to as padyam. Besides, Molla Ramayanam contains not only verses but also prose, which is referred to as gadya in Telugu. Since Molla specifically stated that she intended not to write in the highbrow language of the Sanskrit scholar,s but wished to write in mellifluous Telugu, it would only be appropriate to call her poems only as poems or verses but not as slokas. Possibly, the scholars called the poems as slokas to give a higher status to Molla as a scholar, which again she did not seek.

Apparently, there are several versions of Molla Ramayanam. Arudra, a well-known scholar and researcher, stated the text contained 871 poems and prose pieces altogether. (Samagra Andhra Sahityam, v.2.). In the text I have come across, the publishers counted both verse and prose pieces in one sequence and put the total at 880, spread over six kandas (sections). Among them, 208 items are prose pieces. Some of them contain only one or two words while others are one-page long.

Before I go further, I must admit that I am no scholar by any count, especially, when it comes to poetics. I just want to put in my two cents’ worth because Molla’s Ramayanam has been praised for its ease of diction and native flavor. Keeping that in mind, I have read the text and to my surprise, I was fascinated by its charming diction. In this article, I will only point out a few aspects that captured my imagination and raise a few questions that occurred to me.

First, let me explain the popular name of the poet as Kummara Molla, referring to her caste. To the best of my knowledge, no other writer, male or female, has come to be known by his or her caste or vocation. Molla herself did not state her caste in her work.

I am aware that it is common for authors in ancient times to state their caste, gotra[i] and lineage. Molla has stated in her preamble that she was the daughter of Kesaya Setty, who was “devoted to worshipping Guru Linga, the cohort of the devotees of Siva, and a good friend to all relatives.” There is no reference to his caste or vocation. In all, I would have to assume that the title Kummara has been given by the editors and publishers of Molla Ramayanam after the printing came into vogue.

The second question is about her caste per se. Some scholars, it seems, attempted to determine Molla’s caste based on her name. Andra Seshagiri Rao discussed this aspect extensively in his book Andhra Vidushimanulu (Telugu Female Scholars). The gist of it is, Molla is a flower belonging to the family of jasmine flowers, and in those days only prostitutes were named after flowers; therefore, Molla was considered a prostitute. Some scholars went so far as to say that Molla might have been one of the mistresses of Srikrishnadeva Rayalu. However, Seshagiri Rao and another prominent scholar, Kanuparti Varalakshmamma, established with certainty, that Molla was not a prostitute.

The preamble to her Ramayanam is also a concrete source for establishing the time Molla was alive. Deducing from the names of poets to whom she paid tribute in her preamble, and the poets she had not mentioned, her time was determined as the end of 15th century. I am not sure if any other poet in the post-Molla period had made any references to her work. Andra Seshagiri Rao quoted one instance but he also expressed his doubts about the reference.

Her scholarship is undoubtedly of superior quality despite her modest claim that she had no formal education except the blessings from the local deity, Srikantha Malleesa. Her scholarship is evident in her command of diction, figures of speech, and quotes from the other famous kavyas and prabandhas. In her preamble, she stated that she was not knowledgeable in native diction, grammatical forms, poetic peculiarities, phrases, inner meanings, distinctiveness in expression, idiosyncrasies in kavya tradition, etc. and that she learned to write poetry through the blessings of the Lord Malleesa in Gopavaram. The fact that she was able to give us such a large list of the characteristics of scholarly works vouches for her scholarship. The statement that she was no scholar, as I see it, must have come from her modesty, a cultural characteristic in our country.

Additionally, she stated that if a work was filled with words that reader could not understand right away, it would be like a dialogue between persons of hearing and speech impaired. In other words, poetry should be intelligible to the reader as he reads along, and without referring to dictionaries and/or consulting scholars. According to Molla, poetry should be like honey on the tongue—one should feel it as soon as the it hits tongue.

Several critics have attested to her claim as valid. Her Ramayanam has been quoted as a work filled with native flavor, ease of diction and appealing to ordinary readers. For instance, she describes the city Saketapuram in terms of what it is and what it is not. I sought the help of Bhairavabhatla Kameswara Rao, ( Telugupadyam blogger) to interpret this poem. He pointed out that the author used double entendres, to explain what is and what is not. I am grateful to Kameswara Rao for his explanation. (the Telugu original is given at the end of this article.)

The nagas in Saketapuram are magnificent elephants but not mean serpents;

The haris are the horses which returned from wars victoriously but not a gang of monkeys;

The syandanas are beautiful chariots, but not meager fountainheads;

The ganikas in Saketapuram are enlightened female entertainers, who could sing beautifull,y but not wild forest flowers;

The scholars are compassionate intellectuals with a sense of aesthetics, but not harsh, cruel demons;

Saketapuram is a city of superior order, which may be described by saying what it is not.

Molla’s poetry oozes with the native flavor of Telugu. We find metaphors like “Is this a bow or a mountain?” and people “ran into the side roads” (sandu gondulu) profusely through out the text.

One of the poems describing the beauty of the evening shows her keen sense of poetry in every day life. “The soft evening hue commingled with the onset of darkness parallels a view of rubies and blue stones set in the sky.”

A statement by a veteran research scholar, Arudra, summarizes Molla’s status in the history of Telugu literature. He comments, “While several Ramayanams written by male writers were lost in the folds of history, Molla Ramayanam remains popular even to this day.” (Samagra Andhra Sahityam, v. 2).

I have no knowledge of poetics, and barely enough to appreciate good poetry. However, I would not hesitate to admit I found this great work fascinating, as claimed by her in the avatarika.

Herein, I venture to note a few peculiarities that captivated my attention.

One such element is the way she repeats a word to drive a point home—a common usage in colloquial speech. In Aranya kanda (Canto 2. The Forest), while Rama was wandering in the forest searching for Sita, he asks and asks each animal if it has seen the lady (Sita), asks and asks every bird whether it has seen the lady in several ways, … having failed to find her, he swelters and swelters because of the separation from Sita. This kind of repetition is used even more effectively in the Yuddha kanda [Cantos 4, 5, and 6. The War] where warriors fight with each other, repeating the blows, naturally. While the entire Ramayanam was written in six cantos, the war section took three of them. And Molla shows unusual acumen in describing the war. As Prof. K. Malayavasini puts it, Molla must have either witnessed a war in person, or read extensively about it. These descriptions ascertain Molla’s scholarship despite her modest claim that she was not well-read.

Another instance where Molla shows her singular talent is when she describes Rama and Lakshmana for Sita in Lanka. Sita suspects Hanuman whether he is one more illusion of the demons in Lanka, and asks him to describe her husband and his brother for her. In response, Hanuman describes Rama in a poem that has become common knowledge in Telugu homes. It has been part of the grade school textbooks in Andhra Pradesh. Hanuman says,

His complexion is dark as cloud

His eyes are white as lotuses

His neck parallels the conch

His ankles are beautiful

The arms are straight and long*

His voice resonates like a drum

He has lotus lines in his feet*

He has beautiful chest

He knows no treachery but to speak the truth.

Lady! Rama possesses meritorious qualities.

Brother Saumitri possesses all these qualities

And he is of golden complexion.

[* befitting royal persona]

The poet, by thus summing up Lakshmana’s qualities in one line, has shown her skill in her ability to use words economically, comments Dr. Malayavasini.

To my knowledge, other poets during her times or immediately after might not have mentioned her as a poet of excellence. Nevertheless, in the modern period, there is no dearth of scholars, both male and female, for paying tribute to her poetic excellence.

A reputable scholar, Divakarla Venkatavadhani, states, “Although Molla has said she is not educated, we find no scholastic flaws in her kavya. Her descriptions are sophisticated and conform to the style.  Especially, in describing Saketapuram, Molla shows extraordinary flair in several ways with her use of double entendre and metaphors. Her style is fascinating to all readers because of the sweet resonating words and her imagination. … She is also highly skilled in maintaining propriety.” (Andhra Vanjmaya Charitra. p. 59-60).

Regarding poetic propriety, however, Andra Seshagiri Rao seems to hold a slightly different view. He comments that Molla has followed the tradition of male poets in not only describing women in her kavya but also referring to physical attrbutes in her metaphors. In a three-page-long comment, he quotes several instances where Molla has not maintained the kind of propriety befitting female writers.

As stated earlier, very little is known about Molla’s life. A fictional account of her life story has been written by Inturi Venkateswara Rao, under the title Kummara Molla, published in 1969. Based on this novel, another writer Sunkara Satyanarayana wrote a ballad, which has become popular and been sung all over Andhra Pradesh, he claims. The story has been made into a movie in 1971, under the title kathanayika Molla (Molla, the female hero).

Since most of the incidents both in the novel and the movie are fictional, there is very little I can say about them with reference to Molla Ramayanam, a literary masterpiece on its own merit.


Published on, September 2010.

Source list:

Arudra. Samagra Andhra sahityam. V.2. Hyderabad: Telugu Sahitya Academy, 2005.

Malayavasini, Kolavennu. Telugu kavayitrulu. Waltair: Andhra University, 1979.

Molla, Atukuri. Molla Ramayanam. Eluru: Rama & Co., 1937.

Lakshmikantamma, Utukuri. Andhra kavayitrulu. 2nd ed. 1980.

Venkateswara Rao, Inturi. Kummara Molla. Madras: Andhra Films Publications, 3rd imprint. 1969.

Satyanarayana, Sunkara. Kummari Molla. (Burra katha, ballad). Vijayawada: Visalandhra Prachuranaalayam, 1963. (Note: The author states that, although it was published in 1963, it had been written in 1951 and being performed in Andhra Pradesh ever since.)

Venkatavadhani, Divakarla. Andhra vanjmaya charitramu. Hyderabad: Andhra Saraswata parishattu, 1961.

Seshagiri Rao, Andra. Andhra vidushimanulu. Author, 1995.

Lalita, K. and Tharu, Susie. Eds. Women Writing in India. 600 B.C. to the Present. V.1. New York: The Feminist Press, 1991. pp. 95-96.

Si. madanaagayuudhasamagra desamu gaani

kutilavartanaseshakulamu gaadu

aahavorveejayaharinivaasamu gaani

keesasamutkaraankitamu gaadu

sundarasyandanamandiram bagugaani

santatamanjulaasrayamu gaadu

mohanaganikaasamoohageyamu gaani

yoodhikaanikarasamyutamu gaadu

 gi.  sarasa satpunyajananivaasamu gaani

      kathinanirdayadaityasanghammu gaadu

      kaadu kaadani koniyaada galiginatti

      puravaaragrammu Saketapuravarammu.

[i]  Name of a sage, identifying the family’s lineage.

Nidudavolu Venkatarao: A Walking Encyclopedia by Nidadavolu Malathi

Vidyaratna, Kalaprapoorna Nidudavolu Venkatarao  (3 January 1903 – 15 October 1982) was a poet, scholar, and a literary historian with extraordinary flair. His contemporaries called him jangama vijnana sarvaswamu, a moving encyclopedia because of his extensive knowledge of classics in several languages and exceptional memory power [dharana]. He was able to quote on the spot from any text anytime. He was born on 3 January 1903 in Vizianagaram. He was the fourth child and the first son, and as such, he was raised fondly by his parents, Sundaram Pantulu and Jogamma.

The Nidudavolu lineage was known for rich scholarly tradition. His father, Sundaram Pantulu was a staunch follower of Saivite traditions, avid reader, and collector of classics in Telugu and Sanskrit. Later the collection was donated to Madras University, which was later came to be known as the famous Madras Oriental Library. His mother Jogamma was eloquent storyteller. Anytime someone asked about something, she would go into a torrential narration of stories.

Early in life, Venkatarao had the ideal atmosphere to become well-versed in Telugu and Sanskrit classics. He never read a book just to claim he had read it, and never forgot what he had read. Additionally, he had the extraordinary capability to remember whatever he had read, which was useful in his scholastic pursuits. “There is no book he had not read, and no book he had not read totally immersed in it. He is the global torchlight that could show what is available in any corner (in literature),” commented Tirumala Ramachandra (as quoted by Nistala. Pariseelana. ). His zeal to gather information and record it for posterity set new standards in Telugu literature.

Even in his childhood days, Venkatarao used to compose poetry and sing at meetings and literary gatherings in his enchanting voice. In his later years, he continued to go to meetings, recite the invocation and read his poems. And he always recite the invocation in both Sanskrit and in Telugu. His language skills in English and other Indian languages were remarkable. His English was equally appreciated by the elite in his time.

Venkatarao attended high school and Intermediate (two-year, pre-degree course) in Visakhapatnam. Later he attended Maharaja College in Vizianagaram and obtained his Bachelor’s degree in 1925. Because of financial constraints, he could not pursue further studies. He joined the Imperial Bank (now State Bank of India) as a clerk in 1926, which he held until 1939.

He was married to Jogamma while he was in Kakinada and the couple had five sons and two daughters. His first son, Sundareswara Rao followed his father in scholastic pursuits became a well-respected scholar. Venkatarao’s wife passed away in 1949.

Venkatarao left his job at the Imperial bank in 1940 and went to Madras to obtain his master’s degree. In 1942, he returned to Kakinada where he worked as Telugu lecturer for one year and then went back to Madras University where he started as a junior lecturer at Madras University and continued until he retired as the Head of the Telugu department in 1964. “I had to retire, although I could work five more years,” said Venkatarao, which seems to imply he was forced to retire.

During this period, however, Venkatarao surprised his audience with his scholarship, critical insights, and his unequaled retention power. He was often referred to as ekasanthaagraahi, meaning he could remember anything he had heard just once. At one time, it seems, a friend asked him about a word in vijayavilasam by Chemakura Venkata kavi, and Venkatarao, standing under a tree, recited the entire text. C.S. Rao, writer, actor and movie director called his was a computer brain, and not without merit. ( letter dated 5 January 1985, as quoted by Dr. Nistala.).

Dr. Nistala Venkata Rao studied the works of Nidudavolu Venkatarao for his M.Phil. degree and later Ph.D. He discussed the monumental work of Nidudavolu Venkatarao and his massive contribution to Telugu literature in great detail in his book, Nidudavolu Venkatarao –A Pariseelana. [Nidudavolu Venkatarao – A Study]

A brief note is in order here. Since the names of the two authors—the subject of this article and the researcher are the same and even the initial letter in their surnames is the same, I am referring to the researcher, Dr. Nistala Venkata Rao as Nistala, and Nidudavolu Venkatarao as Venkatarao. And, Nistala’s book as Pariseelana.

Further, my surname is also Nidadavolu. Venkatarao garu and my father were first cousins (children of two brothers). There is however a small difference, a variation in the spellings of the surnames. Venkatarao garu always spelled his surname as Nidudavolu (with ‘u’ in the second syllable) whereas in my family it has always been Nidadavolu. In this article, I kept the spelling Venkatarao had used for his name.

During his job at the Imperial bank, he was invited to work on a dictionary project, which brought his retention skills to light. As the story goes, the Pithapuram Raja Suryarao Bahaddur was reading the Kumarasabhavam kavya and needed the help of a scholar knowledgeable in Saivite literature. Somebody suggested Venkatarao’s name and the Pithapuram Raja sent for him. Eventually, that led Venkatarao to become a compiler of a dictionary to be named after the Raja as Suryarayandhra Nighantuvu. Their friendship turned out to be a blessing for Venkatarao.

Speaking of his job at the bank, Venkatarao quipped, “I have moved from numbers to letters (literature) where as the people at the universities have shifted from letters to numbers [money]. (Pariseelana. Venkatarao in his response to the felicitation by Andhra Vijnana Samiti, Thyagaraja College, Chennai. p. 255).

In 1939, Venkatarao went to Madras, obtained his master’s degree, and returned to Kakinada to work as a lecturer in Kakinada College for a year, 1941-42. In the following year, he became a junior lecturer at Madras University. He got the job on a recommendation from the Pithapuram Raja. In 1947, Venkatarao became a senior lecturer, and later became a reader in 1959. Eventually, he became the Head of the Telugu department, and retired in 1964. Venkatarao stated that he could work for five more years but they made him retire. (Pariseelana. p. 257).

While working as a clerk at the bank, he produced an elaborate preface and annotations for the hitherto unknown book, Tripurantakodaharanam, and published it in 1935. The book won the Telugu Bhasha Samiti award. In his preface, Venkatarao had mentioned that he was instrumental in reviving the two-hundred year-old Udaaharana genre and introducing it to the Telugu people. After he moved to Madras, he wrote its complete, Udaaharana Vanjmaya Charitra [History of Udaaharana literature]. Several reputable scholars like Viswanatha Satyanarayana wrote verses in Udaaharana style after Venkatarao brought the genre to light.

From the very little I have understood, the Udaaharana poetry is a genre of poetry, written in praise of god, using all the seven cases of Telugu grammar. Since all verbs in Dravidian languages include case markings, it is only appropriate that all the case markings be included in praising the lord, Viswanatha Satyanarayana observed. By reviving the two-hundred year-old literary form, and discussing the genre elaborately in his book, Udaaharana vanjmayam, [Udaharana literature], Venkatarao rendered a notable service to Telugu literature in 1954.
He pursued his scholarly work in Saivite literature and produced two more works, which won a significant place in the history of Telugu literature. His major contribution in this volume is recognizing the authors of inscriptions as poets. Nistala commented that up until then, the authors of inscriptions were not taken into account in the annals of literary history. Venkatarao was the first literary historian to give them their due place in the history of Telugu literature (pariseelana. p. 69) and thus laid path to a new trend.

Venkatarao contributed to Telugu literature immensely by reviving, reinterpreting, and providing extensive commentaries on books in Saivaite literature. His major works in this area included editing Panditaraadhya Charitra by Mallikarjuna Panditaradhya, editing, providing elaborate annotations, and a commentary to Basava puranam, and sivatatthava saaram by Manchana. The amount of information he had given in each of these classics set a new record in the field of Telugu literature.

In his preface to his own work, Southern School of Telugu Literature, Venkatarao stated that the investigation of this subject was in itself new. Venkatarao noticed for the first that Telugu literature had flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries under the non-Telugu speaking Nayaka rulers in the South states of Tanjore, Madhurai, Pudukkotai, and Salem and also under Maratta rulers. It was even more interesting, since the people in these states did not speak Telugu. The rulers were obviously fascinated by the sweetness of the language and encouraged poets to write in Telugu. Venkatarao wrote his preface in English to this volume probably to facilitate reading, at least, the preface by the non-Telugu speaking readers. Not only literature but language also flourished during this period, he added. Some critics had commented on the non-standard usage of the language and said those poets were not knowledgeable in grammar. Venkatarao on the other hand, called it a natural development of the language, and commended those poets for their originality and usage of the native idiom. He also discussed the relationship of Telugu with other south Indian languages such as Kannada, Malayalam, and Tamil, and went on to prove that congenial atmosphere between the people in South India during this period.

Another significant work was his history of Telugu poets, Southern School of Telugu Literature. Previously, Manavalli Ramakrishna kavi and Chaganti Seshayya had produced two books on the same subject. However, unlike other historians, Venkatarao included several writers other historians had not taken note of. Among them, the poets who had composed inscriptions were acknowledged as poets for the first time. Additionally, Venkatarao went on to a great length to find all the data for each author—his time, works, different versions of each work, in different languages if any, the origins of the text, and the textual variations, etc.

His work on prose literature, Andhra Vachana Vanjmayam originated from his lectures on prose literature. Sivalenka Sambhuprasad, editor of Bharati monthly, and other friends encouraged Venkatarao to develop his lectures as a book. Sambhuprasad promised to publish it under Andhra granthamala, (a subsidiary company of Bharati monthly magazine) banner.

In this book, Venkatarao, as his wont, had covered all the extant literature in the form of prose from early times to the most recent novels, short stories in the weekly and monthly magazines, radio speeches, etc.

Regarding the short stories in Telugu, Venkatarao wrote: “In Sanskrit literature, stories have a special place. Everybody is familiar with the opening line in Maha Bharata, ‘that story-teller said to other sages such as Saunaka.’ Pancatantra stories belong to Bharatadesam [India]. … All these stories were originally in Sanskrit. There is one special feature here. In Sanskrit, these texts are in the poetic form. There is no equivalent in Sanskrit for the Telugu word vacanam [prose]. They all are in the form of slokas. … thus, the stories in the early days were translations from Sanskrit in the form of poetry (e.g. Harsha charitra, Pancatantram, Kadambari) and were viewed as kavya literature. In Telugu literature, until the advent of modern period, the short story remained poetic in nature,” he said. (Andhra Vacanavanjmayamu pp.127-8).

To give an example of the extent of data he would include, I was surprised to see an explanation as to how the word komma [branch] came to mean “woman”. He said the word referred to a game women used to play in which one woman would attempt to touch other women with a branch and others would try to dodge it. Eventually, the word came to be used as equivalent to woman.

Commenting on modern prose literature, Venkatarao said that women ranked first among writers of fiction in modern times. He named Pulugurta Lakshmi Narasamamba as the first woman writer of fiction. Her novel, yogiswari, was published in 1927 by Andhra Pracharini Granthamala. In this period, Kovvali Lakshmi Narasimha Rao (known as Kovvali) made history by producing a record one thousand novels. “I had the honor of writing preface to his 1000th novel,” said Venkatarao.

In his preface to his own book, Pothana, Venkatarao discussed not only Pothana’s life and times, but also the beauty of the Telugu language, the reasons it had become so popular even among the illiterate, and went on to refute the popular myth that the Saivaites hated Lord Vishnu. He established with apt illustrations that the Saivaites did not reject the existence of Vishnu but portrayed him in their literatures as a devotee of Siva (Pothana. Avatarika, pp. 1-27)

In explaining the progression in Pothana’s life, he said Pothana was a riddle for many as he [Pothana] followed the Vira Maheswara tradition, supported devotion to Lord Vishnu and, in the end, achieved non-dualism for himself.

Venkatarao argued that this confusion was a reflection of the social conditions of his time and, partly, due to its misrepresentation in literature.

He commented Pothana’s Bhagavatam was the most popular classic, and among the scholars as well as the illiterate, there was not a single Telugu person who would not know, at least, a few poems from Bhagavatam. In support of his observation, he recounted the following story:

In a small village, one day the Bhagavatar [narrator] failed to show up on the stage. Then one villager from the audience stood and recited a poem from the Bhagavatam, mispronouncing the words, which changed the meaning.

The original text read, “Manu was the fourth among the kings.”

The text as recited by the villager read, “The man had a tongue that weighed one manugu.”

After that, another villager stood and recited the next line, “Even Kundina king in Vidarbha would have a tongue weighing one manugu”, apparently, continuing the story from the preceding line.

The correct line was “In Vidarbha, there was a combatant named Kundina.”

This narrative captured my attention particularly because of the way it was narrated by Venkatarao. Despite his reputation for being highly critical of errors, in this narration, Venkatarao appeared to be tolerant of mispronunciations and misuse of words [Pothana. Preface. p.3].

A contemporary scholar and friend, Ganti Suryanarayana Sastry, said, “You reside in the town of prefaces”, (Nistala. Pariseelana. p. 242). His scrupulous attention to detail, his ardor to cover a topic from all angles was evident in his prefaces to all the books he had written.

Just to give one example, his book, Sivatatthavasaaramu is 104 pages and Venkatarao’s preface to the book is 91 pages. In his preface, he had discussed the author’s time, social conditions, the main features of Saivite literature, grammar, and prosody in detail.

In his preface to Basava puranam by Palkuriki Somanatha, and his meticulous editing of the preface to Panditaraadhya Charitra, Venkatarao showed as much of his love of Saivite literature as his scholarship in editing and writing information-packed commentaries.

Venkatarao undertook the story of Southern School in Telugu Literature as a research project. In his preface, he stated, “The subject itself is a new field of investigation. The literature, which developed in the southern parts where Tamil is the spoken language. .. … It is a peculiar phenomenon that even the Maratha rulers of Tanjore have patronised [sic.] Telugu, which was neither their mother tongue nor that of the people who were under his sway.” (The original in English. Preface, p.1.)

One of his innovations was to introduce the inscriptions as literature in this volume on Southern School. Second, he quotes the features peculiar to South Andhra Literature as 1. Royal poets and non-Brahmin poets flourished greatly; 2. Female poets obtained special place in literature; 3. dwipada and Yakshagaana performances thrived; 4. Prose literature developed systematically; 5. Lyrics comprised of music and literary qualities received a new impetus; 6. Flaunting of unfettered, promiscuous expression in Prabhandas; 7.
Santvana Kavya rachana
[Appeasing the incensed heroine], 8. Nyakaabhyudaya Rachana [Heroic in praise of the kings]; 9. Udaaharana and historical writings; and, 10. Literatures of scientific disciplines.

Venkatarao added that not only literature but language also flourished during this period. “Some believe that some of these writings included grammatically incorrect words and those writers were not grammarians. In reality, the language in these works has presented itself as dynamic and capable of normal metamorphosis the same way as in the period of Saivite poets. Additionally, the language reflected the subtleties, nuance, and the usage prevalent in those times.”

Venkatarao’s major contributions in Saivaite literature were his exhaustive preface to Basava Puranam by Palkuriki Somanatha, his preface and extensive commentaries to Panditaradhya Charitra. In both the volumes, he discussed at length the Saivaite philosophy, their authorship, textual variations, usage of words, and so on.  

Criticisms and comments on works by other contemporary writers

Venkatarao was passionate about his work as a scholar. In that, he would not hesitate to comment on others’ work, sometimes, harshly, much to the chagrin of those writers. At times, the others did not take his comments too well and retorted in the same tone.

One of the stories caught my attention was an episode involving Venkatarao’s comments on Samagra Andhra Sahityam by Arudra. Personally, I have great regard for both Venkatarao and Arudra.

Nistala mentioned that Venkatarao criticized samagra Andhra sahityam [Comprehensive History of Telugu Literature] by Arudra, but did not give the exact comment. He however added that, “Samagra Andhra Sahityam has been written in simple language for general readers with average knowledge. The author, Arudra, was originally a poet, and later became an ardent researcher. Therefore, it is natural for errors to seep in. Venkatarao was a great scholar from the start. … It would have been better if he (Venkatarao) had given constructive criticism and encouraged the author [Arudra].”

Nistala continued to add that Arudra visited Venkatarao at his home, and Venkatarao said, addressing him [Arudra] as nayanaa amicably, and said, “We old people are silly at times. We may say things. You young people never mind us; you continue your serrvice to literature.” (pariseelana. p. 48).

Venkatarao was harsh in his criticism of others’ works. Dr. Nistala also gave a few other examples of Venkatarao’s abrasive comments and thereby his alienation from his contemporary writers, especially younger generation writers. For instance, Venkatarao, while working on his book, Dakshinandhra Vanjmayam, criticized Radhikasantvanam by S. V. Joga Rao and even forwarded his comments to the Vice Chancellor. Joga Rao, in retaliation, called Venkatarao’s Telugu Kavula Charitra [History of Telugu Poets] as Akhanda Depaaraadhana Kavula Charitra [History of poets like the eternal lamps], referring to a ritual of keeping a lamp alit incessantly. Probably, Joga Rao implied the work was ritualistic rather than scholarly. Additionally, he questioned Venkatarao’s reputation as a scholar and called his work, Daskhinadhra Sahityam, nothing but a “catalogue scholarship”.

Venkatarao was equally abrasive of scholarly articles as well in his criticism. His comments on Korlapati Srirama Murthy angered Srirama Murthy. In return, Sri Rama Murthy remarked Venkatarao “was not qualified to be a Head of the Telugu department.”

Probably Viswanatha Satyanarayana put it aptly when he said at a meeting, “God gave him [Venkatarao] infinite scholarship, but not pleasurable speech.” Sundareswara Rao, Venkatarao’s son, was quoted as saying that his father, “stayed so converged on literature as his ultimate goal that he alienated himself from society with his argumentative language in his criticisms.” (pariseelana. p.47).

As Nistala pointed out, Venkatarao did not show the same kind of sophistication in his comments as writing the original prefaces. His comments were not to be dismissed as biased though. Several of his comments had been very useful in revising the texts at the time of reprint, Nistala said.

Venkatarao had written thousands of articles, numerous valuable forewords, and delivered hundreds of speeches both on the air and in person, according to Dr. Nistala.

Venkatarao’s another contribution was in the field of usage of words known as prayogam in literature. The scholars in his day were not always receptive to his theory. Venkatarao insisted that the usage of words by poets should take precedence over grammar rules since it reflected the language of the general population, and thus, deserved to be credited. This was consistent with the vyaavaharika bhashodyamam (Movement to promote colloquial style in writing) and portrayed Venkatarao as a traditionalist, and a modernist, nonetheless. His contributions to Telugu literature went beyond the pale of traditional scholarship and reached out to humanity. Another example of his universal outlook was his enthusiasm to work on Christian literature much the same way as Saivite works and other Hindu texts.

Due to his erudition and nonconforming views, Venkatarao collected an impressive line of titles, some conferred ceremoniously, and others came through casual conversations. (Nistala. p.75-77)

The Vidyaratna award was conferred on him by Andhra Saraswata Parishat, Narasaraopet (date was not given).

Andhra University conferred the prestigious Kalaprapoorna title on him in 1970. The title was created by Dr. C.R. Reddy, Vice Chancellor, in 1927, to honor the scholars who had no formal doctoral degrees, but excelled in scholarship acquired through traditional learning.

1n 1976, he became an honorary member on the Sahitya Akademi Advisory Board.

The title Jangama vijnana sarvasvam [Walking Encyclopedia] was a descriptive phrase used with reference to his scholarship. It seems the term was used in a speech at a small village called Pedapudi, in Tenali taluq, and came to be used as a title in course of time. Notably, the word jangama refers to a section among Saivaites and Venkatarao had been an authority on Saivaite traditions and literature.

Another such title fortuitously acquired by Venkatarao was Prayoga mooshika marjaala, drawing on the imagery of a cat pouncing on the mouse snuck in a corner. It was not clear who used the phrase or when, but it was an apt one for him because of his painstaking effort to find usage of words in the extant texts.

Viswanatha Satyanarayana had great respect for Venkatarao. After he had received the prestigious Jnanapeeth award, he wrote a book, Andhra Dhaatukriya Manideepika [Dictionary of cases in grammar]. In this connection, Viswanatha Satyanarayana said he tried, but could not find the usage for a word manasainadi [‘Setting one’s heart on something’]. Venkatarao said he could show one hundred instances of it. Satyanarayana asked him to show them. Venkatarao quoted a line, nee chakkadanambu chuuda manasainadi nanda nandanaa [my heart is set on watching your beauty], from a book of one hundred verses, entitled Nanda Nandana Satakamu. Satyanarayana was impressed with Venkatarao’s scholarship, and in later years, used to say that Venkatarao was the only qualified person to compile a dictionary. On another occasion, Satyanarayana said Venkatarao was Parisodhana parameswarulu [The Almighty Siva in Research], which came to be used as one of his titles. (pariseelana. p.75).

Dr. Nistala observed Venkatarao’s service to Telugu literature is comparable to the service of Sir C.P. Brown. Both were interested in reviving the literature ignored by other scholars in their day, both devoted themselves to bracing the Saivite literature, and both believed in altering the prevalent notion that Saivite literature was not worthy of scholars’ attention. Both understood that the social conditions and the lives of the ordinary people were reflected best in the Saivite literature. According to the two scholars, the Saivaites were staunch believers in bringing literature to the ordinary people. Ironically, in some instances, both Venkatarao and Brown adhered to the specifics, equally.

Venkatarao was a staunch devotee of Siva and Anjaneya. He started his day with a visit to the Anjaneya temple and performed Siva puja every Monday. Possibly, his rigorous religious practices gave him the discipline necessary to excel in his scholarly pursuits. Whatever he undertook, he completed with unusual zest and flair and with extraordinary success.

Despite his complex scholarship, life had been a struggle for him financially. After his retirement in 1964, he moved to Hyderabad, and was appointed as a professor at Osmania university, under a UGC project created for retired professors. Venkatarao held the position from 1964-1968.

In 1974, the government of Andhra Pradesh and the Sahitya Akademi granted him one hundred rupees per month each. The government of Andhra Pradesh raised their grant to five hundred rupees in 1982.

Referring to his financial conditions, Tirumala Ramachandra, a notable critic and scholar, said to Venkatarao, “Had you continued in your job at the Imperial Bank, you would have earned three thousand a month.” Venkatarao replied, “I know one of my colleagues at the bank is making two thousand and five hundred a month now. However, if I had continued in the bank and pursued my scholarly activities, I would not have had the same content as I am enjoying now by rendering service to literature.”

On October 15, 1982, he passed away at midnight on the Sivaratri day, which is a highly coveted form of death in the Saivaite tradition.

In summary, the enormous contributions of Nidudavolu Venkatarao to Telugu literature in terms of rewriting the literary history, acknowledging the hitherto little known or unknown poets, compiling dictionaries, reviving the Saivaite classics and reinterpreting them put him in the rank and file of eminent scholars. His work in Udaaharana literature, and acknowledging the composers of inscriptions [Sasana kavulu] as notable poets is considered remarkable.

Once again, I would like to acknowledge my gratitude to Dr. Nistala Venkatarao, whose work has been of immenset help in writing this article. For complete list of Nidudavolu Venkatarao’s works, please refer to Dr. Nistala Venkata Rao’s book, Nidudavolu Venkatarao Gari Rachanalu: Pariseelana, p. 190-225.


The article has been published on, December 2009.

 Partial List of the works by Nidudavolu Venkatarao.

Cinnayasuri jeevitamu: Paravastu Chinnayasuri krutha Hindu dhramasastra sangrahamu sahitamugaa, 1962

Dakshinadeseeyandhra vanjmayamu, The Southern School of Telugu Literature. (With preface in English) 1954

Kopparapu sodarakavula charitra. 1973.

Nannechodunu kavitaavaibhavamu: Nannechoduni padyaalaku ruchira vyakhyaanamu.. 1976.

Potana. 1962.

Telugu kavula charitra. 1956.

Udaaharana vanjmaya charitra. 1968

Vijayanagara samsthaanamu: Andhra vanjmaya poshana. 1965.

Andhra vachana vanjmayamu. 1977.

Andhra vachana vanjmayamu: pracheena kalamu nundi 1900 A.D. varaku. 1954

Bhamaakalaapamu, edited by P. Jayamma. 1999

 Prefaces and commentaries.

Sri Nachana Somanathuni hamsaadibakopakhyanamu (uttara harivamsamu, chaturtha aswaasamu. Commentary by Nidudavolu Venkatarao. 1972.

Editions and revisions by Nidudavolu Venkatarao.

Sivatatthva saaramu by Mallikarjuna Panditaaraadhyulu. Edited with extensive annotations by Nidudavolu Venkatarao, 1968.

Prabodha chandrodayamu by Nandi Mallaya. Edited by Nidudavolu Venkatarao, 1976.

Sabdaratnakaram by Bahujanapalli Sitaramacharyulu (1827-1891). Revised by Nidudavolu Venkatarao. 1969.


Sakalanitisaaramu, by Madiki Singana. Edited by Nidudavolu Venkatarao and Ponangi Srirama Apparao. 1970.

Manavalli rachanalu. Edited by Nidudavolu Venkatarao and Ponangi Srirama Apparao. 1972.

Telugu Kannadamula samskrutika sambandhaalu, by Nidudavolu Venkatarao, et. Al. 1974.

Telugu, Kannada, Tamila, Malayala bhashalalo saati samethalu, compiled by Nidudavolu Venkatarao, et. al., 1961.

On Nidudavolu Venkatarao and his works.

Nistala Venkata Rao. Nidudavolu Venkatarao: Pariseelana. 1984. Available on the internet. This book has provided complete list of all the works and speeches in 35 pages and organized according to topics.

(© Nidadavolu Malathi)

The Cottage Goddess by Kanuparti Varalakshmamma.

It was fourteen days since the kartika month began. The moon was waxing each day and his intensely chilling beams were making the whole world shiver.

For the rich who were living in their exquisite mansions it was not a big problem. They would close all the windows and doors tight, put on wool clothes, and enjoy deep sleep, curled up under warm rugs. However, for the poor who had no clothes to cover their bodies well in this severe cold and no well-built house to live in, the life was tormenting.

In that cold winter night, when the poor, the mendicants, and the wanderers were miserable, Ramalakshmi lay down on a palm leaf mat in a hut with her two children on either side of her. The roof was run down diminishing its value as roof.  She was crying and wiping tears with the tattered end of her saree. The tears were flowing endlessly. The children were complaining “mother, it is cold,” and she was trying to reassure them in a husky voice, “Hug me tight my children. In this world all you have is this wretched mother only.”

It was past three in the morning. The blistering winds were blowing horrendously. Ramalakshmi and the children rolled closer to the wall; they lay there facing the moon. The moonbeams crept on them. The blowing winds and the cool moonbeams together made the cold even more severe.

Ramalakshmi’s younger son, Rangadu, screamed, “Amma! I am cold.”

“Don’t cry, my child” Ramalakshmi said, pulling him closer. His body felt cold like a stick. Ramalakshmi became nervous and yelled, “Oh, no. He is like a stick, oh god, what happened?” She called out worriedly, “Ranga! Ranga!” a few times. Ranga did not respond.

Ramalakshmi was drained up. “Oh, my child, why don’t you talk to me?” she started crying loudly.

The eldest son was woken by mother’s cries and asked, “Mother, why are you crying?”

“Son, your little brother is stiff; he is not talking. It seems he is not alive,” she said, crying. What else is there to say? Mother and son kept crying loudly, calling “Ranga, Ranga”.

The neighbors were woken by their cries. “Poor Ramalakshmi, she is crying. We do not know the reason though,” they told each other and came running to her.

“Ramalakshmi, why are crying?” they asked.

“What can I say? My family has gone from riches to rags, my husband died, yet I am living only for the sake of these two babies. I thought that these two boys are my wealth. Today god pokes my eye, robs me of even this bit of luck. He set fire in my heart,” she said, showing Rangadu and wailing.

“Alas,” some said and approached the body and felt his pulse. What’s there? Just a stick.

Somebody suggested, “Maybe it is the baby syndrome[1]. He will come back to life if you burn his forehead.”

Somebody else dismissed it saying, “How can the baby syndrome afflict a seven-year-old?”

A few others defended the first argument, “Sure it will. The baby syndrome may afflict a child even at ten or twelve-year.”

“Alright. Let me burn him with my cigar,” one man came forward with his cigar lit up.

An old man stopped him and reprimanded all of them, “Have you all lost your minds? Why brand him? Look around. The cold blast is freezing our cheeks. See how the moon is spreading his cold beams; the boy is lying on a nippy mat with no sheets under or over him. Especially tonight it hopelessly cold! Poor child; he is freezing. No need to burn him. Make fire with dried palm leaves and give him some warmness. He will wake up.”

They all agreed that the old man’s words sounded right. Immediately, they made fire, and applied warmth to the child’s body using their palms as heating pads. After ten minutes, the boy’s body softened slightly. He moved a bit. People around felt relieved. They said to the mother, “Ramalakshmi! Your child has come to.”

After a few minutes, Ranga opened his eyes and said, “Amma, why is it hot in here?”

“Oh, my little child, you are alive,” Ramalakshmi said and hugged him with immeasurable joy.


For several generations, dyeing had been the family calling for Venkataswami, [Ramalakshmi’s husband]. In the past, it had been a small business in the times of his father and grandfather. His father and grandfather had never been to the coastal areas to do business. In their time, they dyed the yarn and the clothes given by the businessmen in their own village and returned to the same people after they had finished dyeing. Because they were pliant, they were able to make a little money; they never suffered huge losses. They had owned a little land and chattel, which earned them the title, “respectable family.”

Ramaswami was twenty-year-old young man when his father died. He was studying the Intermediate first year along with the other Vaisya boys in his village. After his father’s death, the family business became his responsibility. Venkataswami took up the family vocation. His friendship with the Vaisya boys helped him to develop an interest in business and his English education contributed to foster independent views.

After he started in business, Venkataswami did not appreciate the independent contract system, by which he bought the dyes from the local merchants and used them to dye clothes and returned them to the same merchants. He entertained another thought—he could buy the dyes and the clothes from merchants in Bombay, produce clothes in various colors, imprint several beautiful designs and borders with dots and vines, and not only sell them in the Telugu region but also export to other areas like Bombay, Hyderabad, Rangoon, and Simhalam [Sri Lanka]. At once, he took out several thousand rupees in loan and made arrangements to go to Bombay, with great enthusiasm and without knowing consequences—a trait so common in youth.

Several of his friends and relatives tried to dissuade him. They said, “You are young and unfamiliar with the tricks of the trade. These kinds of huge business dealings are befitting only to those merchants but not for us.” Venkataswami was so excited about his business prospects he would not listen to any of their pleas.

Venkataswami went to Bombay, made arrangements to have bundles of clothes and dyes delivered to his place, paid a sum in advance and returned home. After he returned from Bombay, his aspirations for business became even keener. He got carried away by the business acumen he had noticed in the merchants in Bombay. He decided that if he wanted to become rich, the only way was to do business on a large scale.

After he returned from Bombay, he set up huge stalls in the open area on the outskirts of the village. He went around to other cities like Bandar [Masulipatam], Nellore, Kakinada, and Madhurai and recruited workers highly skilled in dyeing beautifully, and creating fascinating dotted designs and borders.

By the end of the first year, the decorated clothes produced by Venkataswami became popular all over the country. Big advertisements in magazines such as, “Fast colors that stay even after the clothes are worn out; lightweight clothes; and, reasonable prices” made his name spread even more. Usually, things do not stack up to the ads in the papers and for the same reason people do not trust them. In the case of Venkataswami however it was different. His clothes were as good as the ads. There was no compromise in the colors or the prices. For that reason, merchants and the public trusted him.

Venkataswami was successful because of his integrity. The loan he had taken was paid off. His business grew like the waxing moon, and much to the dismay of those who had ridiculed him at the outset.


Ten years went by like this without fail. The dyed clothes of Venkataswami & Sons company were famous all over the world. His business started with a loan of five thousand rupees, and everybody said, as if their blessing for him was fail. “Sure to fail, sure to fail”, they said yet his business spread even to the remote villages in all regions. Venkataswami’s painted clothes adorned every gorgeous woman and every dandy man.

Where is the shortage for money when the business is booming? Venkataswami became a wealthy man with all the things he would wish to have. His old home with tiled roof turned into a three-storey mansion. It was filled with several modern fancy items such as silk sofas, full-length mirrors, tape cots, swings, tables, chairs, silverware, brought from big cities like Madras and Bombay. The beauty of the house was enhanced by several exuberant items. That being the case, no need to mention the ornaments the wife and children had on them!

Now Venkataswami was a prominent businessman. In the hallway of his house, you would always find two clerks sitting with two boxes in front of them and busy noting down the income and expenses related to his business. Venkataswami would sit in a chair in front of a desk, spending his time answering the business-related questions asked by the clerks, talking with the people who came to pay a visit to him, and giving donations to the people in a befitting manner. Recently, based on his wealth and influence, Venkataswami was also given some positions in local organization, although he never asked for them. He carried out his duties in those positions courteously and thus earned the respect of one and all.

Ramalakshmi was a befitting wife to Venkataswami. There was some resemblance between the two possibly because they were cousins. Ramalakshmi was just as honest as Venkataswami. She was as modest as her husband; and, was just as generous as he was.

The hungry might not get food anywhere else but they always received food in Ramalakshmi’s home. Babies might not be able to receive milk in other houses but their stomachs were always filled in Ramalakshmi’s home. There was no dearth for chattel in their house. She would pour buttermilk to every one that came to her door. Thus people from all castes were getting something or other every day from dawn to dusk when they came to her home. Thus the young couple had good life with limitless riches, and the good qualities untainted by pride or greed. Everybody in the village, young and old alike loved them.


Two more years passed.  It was the year …. [Sic.]. The horrendous war started in Europe. In India where the country was dependent on other countries for everything, even for a small thing like a pin, every thing became more expensive. Especially for the dyes made in Germany and the clothes made in Manchester and Lancaster, the prices went up exceedingly high. The Mull cloth, which was sold six yards for one rupee earlier, was now selling one yard for one rupee. The dye bottles which sold thirty rupees a piece were now three hundred rupees.

In big businesses, there are not many variations. If you make it you are a prince, if not, you are pauper. One must possess the quality needed to weather these two variants.

Venkataswami was flabbergasted by this unforeseen disaster in prices. He had guaranteed the same price for three years to the merchants in Bombay. The merchants had paid advances for the same. Therefore, regardless of the high prices he was forced to pay for the dyes, he was required to sell the clothes for the same price previously agreed upon. Venkataswami’s heart flustered as he mulled over of his situation. On the other side, he had made the same kind of arrangement with the people from whom he was buying clothes and so he would be able to pay the same cost for the clothes as well. He felt a little consolation in the thought that he might be able to break even if not earn profits. His business continued thus for a while.

In the face of unfavorable winds, the sail would not go as smoothly as one would hope for. He thought he would be paying high prices for the dyes only and would be buying clothes at the old rates. But when the prices for the dyes went up several times higher, how could the business be as usual? The boat called ‘business’ was caught up in the upsetting current of the capital and began encountering hurdles. As the heat from the battle became unbearable, how could the rivulet called ‘cash’ go on? When there was no enough water, how could the boat stay afloat? For a few months now, Venkataswami’s heart was sinking. He went on mulling over endlessly.

His rivals who could not relish his success reveled in the thought that he was nearly crushed to the netherworld.

His friends felt sorry for him and said, “Poor man! Sad he had to go through these hardships.”

When the Lord Siva was on his side, there was no reason to think of the other minor gods. But now Siva himself became his challenger.

Venkataswami was a smart man. One could even say that his business acumen was much better than that of any Vaisya boy. Venkataswami came up with an idea. He thought that this would be a good time to revive the locally grown blue pigment crops. The local pigments were neglected up until now because of the recent craze for the foreign dyes. Venkataswami decided that using the local blue pigment would help him in carrying on his business without break. He started using them, and also came up with a few other tricks but nothing helped him to regain the success he had enjoyed previously.


It was half-way through the Vaisakha month. The summer days were blistering hot. It was not letting people to show their faces outside even at four in the afternoon. The sun was spitting fire. The wind was sizzling hot.

On one such scorching hot day, Venkataswami lay on his expensive bed, fanning himself with a palm-leaf fan and sipping cold water from the clay water jug. A vetiver [khas] mat hung from the top of the window was kept wet by water sprinkled on it. He was enjoying the cool breeze coming from the mat and was lost deep in thought.

Ramalakshmi sat close by on a small mat. Her eldest son was sleeping next to her. The second son would not sleep. She sat him in her lap and was playing with him. She did not want him to run into the sun outside.

Suddenly they heard footsteps on the staircase. Ramalakshmi picked up her little child and stood up to see who was coming. Venkataswami, jolted out of his thoughts by the footsteps, sat up on the bed.

The man came in. He broke into sobs and said, “Ayya! Somebody set fire to our dyes sheds. The flames are overwhelming.”

“Ah, God! What is this? A ringworm clobbered by a pestle,” he said and collapsed on the bed.

“Oh god!” said Ramalakshmi and collapsed on the floor.

Ramalakshmi’s life was somehow saved after people sprinkled water on her face and fanned gently, but Venkataswami’s life ended.

The bundles of the Mull cloth stacked up to the roof, bundles of yarn and the dyed clothes—all were burned to ashes along with the pigment barrels. What a heartbreaking occurrence!

“Oh God! Both the life and the riches are gone in one stroke!” they all cried. Not only Ramalakshmi but the entire village, the young and the old alike, wept inconsolably. Venkataswami’s life spelled out the transient nature of wealth and breath. Those dim-witted people who pride themselves on their earthly possessions may take a good hard look at this occurrence and open their eyes!


There were debts to collect and the debts to pay. Some of them were given as hand-loans (unsecured loans) and others backed by promissory notes. Some of the down payments were paid while others yet to be paid. Venkataswami expanded his business to all corners of the country and breathed his last.

The woman was wailing miserably. She was helpless and vulnerable. Poor woman! What could Ramalakshmi do? Her sons were still babies. Who could protect Venkataswami’s property?

Bombay merchants were extremely shrewd. After Venkataswami died, within a week, they came and auctioned everything down to the pans. They dragged Ramalakshmi, who’d never been exposed to the sun, into the street along with her little kids. They seized the mansion, the gardens and the fields.

Amidst this horrific scene, there was not one person Ramalakshmi could count on. What a heartrending situation! Neither Venkataswami nor Ramalakshmi had parents or siblings. Ramalakshmi had a step-brother but he was a farmer; he had no knowledge of business dealings.

Ramalakshmi had given a few items to the neighbors for safekeeping and they disappeared on the spot. The pieces of jewelry left in the care of relatives were gone the same way. What happened to all those friends and relatives who had groveled for help in the past? Not one person came to her door and consoled her. In these frightening times, even the Brahmin accountants who had worked for Venkataswami grabbed as much as they could. Additionally, they gave away various details of his possessions to his creditors in exchange for gifts. Is it not what we call swamidroham [cheating the benefactor]?

In all, the ultimate result was, there was nothing left of Venkataswami but Ramalakshmi and her two sons. His riches were wrecked one hundred thousand times as fast as accumulated.

Thus the entire world of Ramalakshmi crumbled. While she was careworn thus, a man came to her door.

He said, “Amma! Your husband had a great heart. When I was struggling for money to perform my son’s wedding, he gave me five hundred rupees. He did not ask for a note but I accepted it as a loan only. I could not repay him while he was alive. Now your family is ruined. I feel comfort in the thought that I have repaid his debt if this money helps you any way.” So saying, he gave her the five hundred rupees and three hundred more in interest. Of all the debts Ramalakshmi was supposed to receive, this amount of eight-hundred was the only one repaid. Ramalakshmi received it not as a loan repaid but as a huge gift.

Out of the eight hundred rupees she had received, she spent one hundred rupees to buy a strip of land, and another hundred to build a small hut and buy the necessary pots, pan, rice, dal and other items for the home. She moved into her the hut. She found a man she could trust and handed over the rest of the money to him for safekeeping.


There is no way to describe the hardships the poor in India suffered because of the severe shortage of food and clothing caused by the European War. For those who could barely afford the grains at three sers [quantitative measurement] for a rupee, it became even harder to buy clothes. The poor people suffered unbearable pain; they wore tattered clothes, wrapped straw mats to cover themselves, even jute rags at times.

In these horrendous conditions, Ramalakshmi and her children who had enjoyed a wealthy life before had to anguish beyond words. They had a few rupees but how long that money would last for a mother and two children? The children had been raised with tender loving care up until now; they were still green. So they would bother the mother for this and that. Poor Ramalakshmi, she would try to tell them with tearful eyes that they could not afford those things anymore.

Ramalakshmi was a gentle woman who cherished her dignity. She was waited on by others but never waited on others herself. She had given things to others but never asked others for anything. It was so hard for such a woman of high self-esteem to go begging. Yet, bad times befell her. As the saying goes, stomach knows no bounds and poverty knows no shame. She had to do whatever it took to protect her children. She was able to manage for one and a half years with the six hundred rupees she had. After that, she had to accept whatever work she could get; it was like selling wood in the same town where she sold flowers. Now she was going door to door and beseeching housewives, “Amma, I will grind flour for you or sew blouses. Please, let me do whatever work you can and save my children.”

The women, who had seen Ramalakshmi in the best of times, were moved by her entreaties. They agreed to give her work and pay her accordingly.

Ramalakshmi’s and the children’s clothes were all falling apart. Where could she find the money to buy clothes? It was hard enough to eat, how could she buy clothes? On top of it, due to the gusty winds and the rains at the beginning of the kartika month, some of the palm leaves on the roof were damaged. Was Ramalakshmi in a position to have the roof repaired? Was it not the reason her child turned stiff? Oh readers! Do you remember the incident that had been described in the first chapter?


In the morning after her child had thus become stiff, Ramalakshmi woke up early, cooked food and gave it to the two children; she was constantly worried about their situation. She was grinding flour for money. She was deeply perturbed about her stressful circumstances, “I do not have a red paisa to buy a sheet to cover my kids. If I do not buy the sheets, how can I protect these little kids from this treacherous cold?”

For Ramalakshmi, to step outside seeking day-labor was humiliating but grinding flour was not an easy task and the money was not much either. Ramalakshmi being weak could not grind more than two sers of grain a day. For grinding one ser of the grains, the pay was one anaa. The pay was the same for sewing a blouse; for ordinary blouse the charge was one half of an anaa; for buttoned blouse one anaa; and, one anaa for a small shirt. Even if she worked day and night, she wound not be able to earn more than two anaas. She could not make even three anaas in all yet three stomachs were to be filled. See how terrible their situation was!

Ramalakshmi was grinding flour and brooding over her heartrending conditions. She heard the sounds of drums from outside. Lost in her own misery, Ramalakshmi did not pay attention to what the drummer was shouting about.

Her two children, each holding a piece of paper, came in running. Each was screaming jubilantly, “Amma, see, paper … paper … I got it from the drummer.”

However difficult the situation is, for mothers, seeing their children’s faces is always a relief from sorrow!

Ramalakshmi asked the little one gently, “Ranga! Am I not your mother? Won’t you show me your paper?”

Ranga held the paper to his chest tight and said with a pout, “Why can’t brother show you his paper?”

The older son showed the paper in his hand and said, “Here is my paper, read this first, Amma!”

Ranga who had said mother should read the brother’s paper first infterfered again.

Ramalakshmi was touched by Ranga’s mischief, pulled him to her bosom and said lovingly, “Ranga! You are such a naughty boy.”

Ramalakshmi was good at reading. She hoped that the paper brought in by her sons would provide some respite from her penury conditions.


That was … [Sic.] year. In Andhra Pradesh, the passive resistance movement was at its peak. Whichever way you turned, there was a khadi society! Wherever you laid eyes, there was a handloom industry set up; anti-liquor protests were everywhere; schools for nationalist education; village fairs for indigenous items, meetings; charka, spindles, and cotton yarn in every house— everywhere that was all one could hear about!

This movement which had spread through out the country reached naturally Ramalakshmi’s village also. A branch of nationalist movement was established in her village too. They started a nationalist school also. A khadi industry was set up. Flyers distributed all over the village. The flyers stated that they would supply the spinning wheels, yarn, and spindles; also promised to pay a quarter of a rupee per veesa [measurement by weight]; they would also pick up the finished products themselves. They also promised one more quarter if the if the whorls were wound, more if the yarn was fine; they also offered to teach those who were new at the wheel. They announced that the spinning wheel would be a golden opportunity, a wish-granting tree, for the poor women who preferred to stay home and make a living.

The papers Ramalakshmi’s sons brought into the home were the same flyers. Ramalakshmi read it and thought, “I work all day and yet cannot make two annaas. I may make that much by working on the wheel. Also, if I work on the spinning wheel, I will be spared the trouble of going from home to home, bringing the grains, grinding and again going back to those homes to deliver the flour. If I work at night and spin more yarn, maybe, I will have clothes for the children too. Therefore, let me try and see what happens!”

Ramalakshmi reflected on these lines and had a letter drafted by Ramu (the eldest son) saying, “I am willing to work on the spinning wheel. Kindly send me a spinning wheel, whorls, and a person to teach me how to use it.” She sent the letter with Ramu to the industry office.

The next day, Reddy Kotamma brought a spinning wheel and cotton whorls to Ramalakshmi’s house. Ramalakshmi learned how to use the wheel from that woman in ten days. Even the first day she laid hand on the wheel, she could spin the thread easily.

Ten days passed by. She became quite skilled at her work. The handloom officer noticed the very fine thread Ramalakshmi had produced, was very happy and sent word to Ramalakshmi, “We would display your yarn in the khadi exhibition at the national conference to be held in Ahmedabad in a couple of months. You use these two months to practice to produce very beautiful yarn.”

Ramalakshmi continued to work on the spinning wheel with great enthusiasm. The industry office started paying more money for Ramalakshmi’s yarn. Ramalakshmi put her children in the native school. Since she did not have to go around door to door collecting grain and grinding flour, she stayed home and kept spinning yarn continually.


It was Sankranti day, the festival day of all festivals. In our Telugu country, Sankranti is a joyous festival. This is the time when the farmer brings the produce, after a year-long hard work on the fields and sees the results of his labor; this is the time the poor who yearn for rice will have a good meal. This is the festival when the rich and the poor feel contented equally. During this festival, the walls are painted, the doors are decorated with turmeric and kumkum, and mango leaves are hung on door frames—each house is made to look a delightfully welcome place. This is the time people can watch the abounding riches and the unparalleled beauty of nature and revel in. The extent of this festival is seen more in the villages than in the cities.

All the houses were dazzlingly beautiful. Everybody was happy. The festive spirit was obvious all over the place. Yet, the hut of our Ramalakshmi remained the same. It was still the hut with tattered roof, and her clothes the same worn out rags. There was no difference.

It was nine o’clock in the morning. Ramalakshmi was at the spinning wheel. The little son was hanging on to her back and whimpering, “Amma, won’t you get me a new shirt? Won’t you celebrate the festival in our home?”

Ramalakshmi was trying to persuade him, “My child Ranga! Don’t interrupt my work on the spinning wheel.”

The little boy would not listen. “You won’t make sweets for any festival, and no new clothes either. All the others have new clothes,” he started crying aloud.

Poor Ramalakshmi could not control her grief. The thought of good times in the past came to her mind. Her heart anguished immensely, like the great ocean subjected to riotous, gusty winds. The sorrow within her rose like the waves in the sea. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she hugged her son and said, “Child, what can I do? By the time you are old enough to ask, my hands are like this, helpless. If your father was alive, he would have rewarded many Brahmins in the name of our forefathers, would have donated clothes to several people, food to the poor, and clothes to many more. Brahmins used to come to our home for gifts even from the neighboring villages. I don’t know what happened to all the blessings showered by all those Brahmins in his time. Where are the fruits of those charitable acts—those donations of clothes, foods and money. Today the children of that generous man are wanting for clothes and a piece of sweets. He was a born king; that is why his life went well. God took him away in a snap so he did not have to suffer poverty. They say that a man’s way of dying speaks for his good deeds. Your father’s death certainly vouches for his integrity. How can we, the wretched, receive that golden state? We barely have gruel to eat; how can we expect sumptuous meals and new clothes?” So saying, Ramalakshmi broke into huge sobs. Ranga also started crying along with his mother.

Poor mother! Where are the people who would comfort her?


Click here for informative article on Kanuparti Varalakshmamma garu.

(The Telugu original, kuteeralakshmi, was published in Andhra Patrika, ugaadi issue, 1924.)

Translated by

Nidadavolu Malathi

Nidadavolu Malathi


Nidadavolu Malathi and published on, January 2009.


[1] The Telugu word is chinna bidda gunam, an ailment similar to tetanus. In India, it is common practice to burn the child’s forehead with cigarette in an attempt to revive him.

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, 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. 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, 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, 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, 2006)