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. 
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 https://thulika.net. 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.