Tag Archives: Kanuparti Varalakshmamma

The Charm of a Cherished Story by Kanuparti Varalakshmamma

“Rajeswari, you keep asking what is special about my stories. Don’t you see the same stories are getting rave reviews in the newspapers and magazines every day,” Raghava Rao said to his wife. He just returned
from the town hall.
Rajeswari did not respond. She just smiled.
“I saw the Madhurabharati magazine at the town hall. Guess how long the critical essay on my anthology was in it. The critic pointed out with examples, the structure, beauty, and the charm inherent in my stories,
which even I was not aware of,” Raghava Rao said cheerfully.
“Who’s that critic? Your friend, right?” Rajeswari said, teasingly.
“No, not my friend.”
“All right. Is he a member of your friends circle?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Didn’t he sign his name?”
“Didn’t give the full name. It was signed with initials, Po.Su.”
“Can’t be one of your friends? Think carefully.”
“That’s cute. I haven’t become that forgetful yet. In all possibility, he is not my friend.”
“There! You’re saying ‘in all possibility.’ He is a distant friend, I suppose!”
Raghava Rao broke into a big laugh and said, “We’ve heard about relatives close or distant but never heard of ‘distant’ friends. I’m hearing it only from you.”
“He could be one of your classmates. Did you think about that?”
“What’s this inquiry? What does it matter who he is?”
“I think the people who write flattering critiques on your writings must be your friends.”
“Does one have to be a friend to write a critique? Any critic would call it a good work, if the work is of substance.”
“What if it is not?”
“Ha, that’s what you are wondering about. Among my friends, there are more people keen on looking for mistakes than the other way around. They would never call it a good work, if it’s not.”
“Maybe that’s true when critiquing others’ works, but not within your own group.”
“Don’t we critique each other?”
“People within your friends circle are very loyal to each other. Your friendship calls for support mutually.”
“You all are operating within a fixed formula. One of you will write a book, and another from your group writes a preface to that book, and yet another pays a glowing tribute to the book and sends it to a magazine. And if by some fluke, an outsider finds fault with your writing, one of your circle members reprimands him. That’s how you are managing your career. You are quite a giant in the industry. I am really charmed by the loyalty in your circle.”
“Are you saying that we’re promoting our works, even the bad ones, only through our publicity stunts?”
“You’ll love them, I am sure. If you don’t appreciate your own works, why would you go to all that trouble? You don’t care about the careful analysis and opinions of others. We’ve have been watching your friends’
books, prefaces, opinions, critiques and all that, aren’t we? Always the same familiar names but no new ones. Today they shower praise on your anthology, madhurakatha samputi, and tomorrow you’ll on their
kanneeti kerataalu … In short, yours is a mutual admiration society; that’s your style.”
“You’re making fun of us, the writers. But it’s only after we’ve picked up the pen, the royal road for the colloquial language, the free verse, the romantic lyrics, and the short story has been laid out. Today, can you
show me one daily, weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or annual magazine, which does not feature short stories and free verse? Don’t you agree that we, the new generation of writers that should take credit for it? Isn’t it
due to our hard work? Why shouldn’t we be proud of it?”
“There’s nothing in it to be proud of. The genres of short story and free verse are not new ornaments for the young damsel called Telugu language. For centuries, we have, in the form of written and oral literature,
stories of Bhatti Vikramarka, Kasi majili stories, Pancatantra stories, the stories of the Twelve kings, and so many others. And even you agree that the women’s songs like lullabies and dampulla patalu  are in no way
inferior to your free verse. Human beings always loved stories naturally. Look at our little baby; he is so fascinated by stories. He will stop crying the moment I mention ‘story’. Is it not strange! Such a tiny innocent
child, why is he so fond of stories? Not only children, even adults are fascinated by stories. In our “Home for Girls” when I tell a story, not only the little girls but even the adults listen with their ears and eyes wide open. That’s why I am saying all human beings are fascinated by stories naturally. Therefore, if you boast that only you and your friends are instrumental in making Telugu people getting interested in stories, I will not accept it. In fact, we are as much the mothers of fiction as mothers of children,” Rajeswari said proudly.
Raghava Rao was tickled by her comments. He laughed loud and said, “Now your secret is out. Obviously,
all your meandering twists and turns is to say that the credit should go to you, the women folks. Poor thing, your loyalty to your circle is second to none.”
“Are you saying that my logic is not tenable? You think again. In your childhood, your mother had instilled the interest for stories in you. My mother had done the same for me. It is not just you and me, but every mother in the world has been educating the child about the worldly ways through stories. So you may laugh all you want but the foundation for the building has been laid by us. We sowed the seeds for the tree to grow.”
“Yes, yes, I’ll accept that. Why should I deny you the pleasure? Apparently, you are struggling so hard to attribute the credit to your circle. It’s not just you. Nowadays, all the religious groups, all the castes, and
vocational groups are resorting to the same logic. They are digging up some old puranas and attempting to attribute some kind of recognition to their own groups. You are also like that.”
“You have a talent to confuse people like nobody else. You cannot accept the argument even when that is the truth.”
“Will you accept it when the entire world praises my stories as good stories?”
“Oh, I see. Is this the payback for disagreeing with you? I have no objection to admitting that your stories are good. You do have the skill at some level. But I do think your stories do not measure up when the
characteristics of quality fiction are taken into account. I cannot praise that a story is excellent by every measure when it lacks some of the essential qualities it should have possessed. Besides, if you have it
critiqued from every angle and learn what’s lacking it helps you, doesn’t it? What is the point of just forcing people to give only good reviews, you tell me?”
Subbamma, the cook, walked in and called her softly, “Amma garu!”
“Yes, I almost forgot. We need to finish supper early today. Subbamma said she would be going to a movie “Kanakatara” tonight. She came early, done cooking and waiting for you to come home. Unless we are done
early, she’d not be able to catch the second show,” said Rajeswari.
“What’s there in that movie Kanakatara? You pay your money and set yourself up for a cry. Hum, tell her to set the plates. I’m coming in a minute,” Raghava Rao said.
Rajeswari went into the backyard and brought water for her husband to wash his feet. And then she told Subbamma to set another plate for herself also. That way, Subbamma could be done with her work sooner.
Subbamma set two silver plates for both of them and two big glasses of water. Raghava Rao changed into freshly washed clothes, threw a towel on his shoulder, and went into the kitchen. Rajeswari followed him.
“Have the children eaten?” Raghava Rao asked.
“They have. I fed them as soon as the food was ready. I was hoping they’d go to bed early,” Rajeswari replied.
*Since they wanted to finish eating fast, Rajeswari and Raghava Rao did not get into a chat. After they were done eating, Rajeswari took care of the leftover foods while Raghava Rao was pacing up and down on the
verandah. Rajeswari then returned to the hallway with a plate of paan leaves and other ingredients for paan.
Raghava Rao stopped pacing and rested in the armchair in the hallway. Subbamma ate, put away the washed silver plates, put the milk pot in the hallway, washed the kitchen floors, closed the doors, and told
Rajeswari, “Amma garu, I’m leaving. The milk is still warm, and so I left it in the hallway to cool down. You may add the yogurt culture a little later.”
“I will. Here is a quarter for the ticket. Go, quick. It’s getting late,” Rajeswari said and sent her away.
After Subbamma left, Raghava Rao turned toward Rajeswari and said, “Earlier you’ve mentioned that you would point out the flaws in my stories. Let’s see, tell me what are they?”
“I was teasing. Why are you so particular?”
“No, I don’t think you were teasing. You’ve said that it is beneficial to invite criticism, which points out the flaws. Besides, you are my arthanga lakshmi . You offered it, why should I let go of that opportunity?”
“I didn’t mean just your stories. I made a general comment about all the stories we’ve been getting nowadays.”
“Oh, that’s even better. If you could say it without blaming me, that is good, right? Go on, quick, or else I will fall asleep.”
“If you’re sleepy, go to sleep. These discussions are not that urgent. If not today, we can continue tomorrow.”
“That’s not right. The adage is subhasya seeghram.  We must settle this now or I will lose even the little sleep I would have otherwise. Come on, start.”
“When we write a story, it should possess all the qualities that make the story appealing to the reader.”
“You will have to elaborate on that, madam.”
“This is the problem with you. Whenever I try to discuss with you, you make fun of each and every word I say.”
“Calm down. I will not say another word.”
“Take a rose. It is fascinating in so many ways—its shape, color, soft to touch, smell, and the honey it contains. So also a creative work. It must contain creativity, which is its form, description, which is its color,
rasa, the smell, and the message that’s the honey. Even if one of these elements is missed, the story fails as a good story. In modern day stories, some of the elements are missing invariably. Did you notice it?”
“You’re mistaken. The stories written now do possess all the qualities you’ve mentioned. Are you listening to me? Our modern day writers are unrivaled in creativity.”
“Yes, yes, they are the first in writing offensive stories.”
“Nature is our arena and we are devotees of nature. Therefore, nobody could beat us in describing the supreme nature.”
“In the name of nature, if you describe everything regardless of propriety, it turns into vulgarity. The reason the modern day stories are reprehensible is those descriptions. Description should not cross the line of propriety even if it were natural.”
“Tenderness is built into our Telugu language naturally like the sweetness in sugarcane, and for that reason, I think we don’t have to strain ourselves for it particularly.”
“Maybe it is built in. Still, it expresses itself harmoniously only if the user uses it skillfully. In our tender Telugu language, don’t we have several books with harsh wording? For instance, Vasucaritra has been
acclaimed a great work for its scholarship; yet, it is lacking in gentleness, and therefore it cannot be accepted as a work of delicate thoughts, don’t you think?”
“Let’s talk about rasa. There is plenty in every story. This is the ‘rasa yuga’, and all the writers in our times are kings of rasa across the world. So, your objection in regard to rasa is not acceptable.”
“Rasa should blend in with a sentence like the smell in a flower. Especially, in the case of hasya rasa (humor), the less obvious it is, the more fascinating it will be. The stories that are just intended to make the
reader laugh are insipid; they are more like tickling and coarse. Any rasa will be disgusting if it is forced. This is true not only of stories. Even in speeches, if humor is used too much, it will be gross. It is like adding
salt in a vegetable: Adding too much salt is just as bad as adding too little. Do you remember? A few days back, you took me to the town hall for a speech by a famous scholar. He had made us laugh every few
seconds. It was fine as long as the speech lasted. But after we had returned home, I tried to think about it, and couldn’t find a single point to reflect upon. It was quite disappointing.”
“That’s your foolishness. What is there to reflect or remember? He was a great scholar and fine speaker. He had recited the poems beautifully and narrated charming stories. The audience enjoyed listening to him.
Do they have to bring something home too?”
“That’s not it. Is that all we can expect from the speech of a great scholar? A momentary laughter? Shouldn’t it be also a speech, from which we could learn a little knowledge? The beauty, the smell, and the tenderness of a flower will be lost in one day. Do you know how long the honey gathered by the bee will last, and gets used in so many ways? It must be same with a story. Every story must include a truth of ethical or scientific value. It is only then the writer’s effort is rewarded. On the other hand, like your modern writers would say, if the purpose of a story is only to provide a temporary pleasure, if love is the only theme, if you cannot write any better than that, and if the readers cannot enjoy anything better than that, then, I would say that both the writers and the readers are self-indulgent.” Rajeswari expressed her views and stood up as if remembered something. She went into the other room in a hurry.
Raghava Rao felt as if he was cut short while enjoying a zesty meal. He sat there waiting curiously for Rajeswari to return and resume the dialogue. Rajeswari added the yogurt culture to the milk, put it away,
and returned. “Here we were lost in our discussion and I totally forgot about the milk. It has gone dead cold,” he said.

“That’s true in any matter, but we must act in a timely fashion. The same way with your elaborate analysis now. It will be worthless if it has gone cold. Continue while the subject is still hot,” Raghava Rao said.
“There are two kinds of stories—the best and the mediocre. The best stories are those, which contain style, freshness, clever descriptions, creativity, suitable rasa, and ethical values. Such stories will receive
permanent status in literature; readers receive them well. They never become old. Rabindranath Tagore’s stories belong in this category. He never verbalized any moral or dharma openly in his stories. Yet each one
of his stories illustrates an ideal.
“The mediocre stories will have all the elements but no moral values. These mediocre stories are also written in powerful and living language, do include fine descriptions, and the structure and characterization
are not bad either. They may not be lacking in rasa; yet, they do not attain a permanent place in literature for want of a compelling moral value. These stories have served their purpose just by providing a momentary
pleasure to the readers.
“And then the third rate stories are those which are written without any talent; and often written in some foolish way; probably the writer gets excited at the sight of a woman and writes about her. Most of the stories
now being published in Telugu magazines nowadays belong to this category. There is no advantage for the public or the language in promoting this kind of stories. The parents who are interested in the welfare of their children will not let the children read these stories. The teachers who wish the best for their students will not encourage them to read these stories. And then there are child widows. They may feel that reading those stories would put them in an awkward position; they are afraid of being perceived by the society as licentious, and so, are afraid even to touch them. Let’s set it aside for a second. I’m telling you, decent
people would hesitate to go out carrying those books in their hands. You tell me, is it fair to divert the genre of fiction, which our people have been cherishing so fondly for centuries, down the decadent path, and instill
fear in people?”
Raghava Rao listened to Rajeswari patiently and said, “Rajeswari, I’m very glad that you’ve stated your views on fiction so clearly. But I am sorry that you are so caught up in your passion for moral values that you’ve ignored the substance in our stories. A story could be a moral story like in Sumati satakam or Vemana poems. But it’s not smart to suggest that each and every story must fit into a paradigm of moral value. A story is like a flower. It must blossom freely and pleasurably or else it would lose its beauty and become insipid. To speak the truth, story writing is an artistic creation. And it is the duty of the connoisseurs of art to make sure that it serves a purpose.”
“It seems the writings of all you young writers are from the same mold. Recently I saw an article on the same lines by some writer. I too like art. I am aware that gold jewelry with subtle designs is more beautiful and valuable than a lump of raw gold. In fact, art does not mean writing recklessly. It should possess all the elements I’ve stated. It is not however appropriate to pop in a conversation, a description, or wantonness in
the name of art into one’s story. You can create fine designs on gold jewelry anyway you please but it is not right to mix brass or other base metal and thus turn it into an impure alloy.”
“That’s good. If you ride on a moral high horse, and create only allegories, I don’t have to tell you about the outcome. People will be happy without reading them.”
“I’m saying that only when you write stories with moral values, their worth heightens. And people will welcome them. Not only Telugu people but others also translate them into their languages and read them. Look at the stories of Tolstoy and Premchand. Aren’t they getting translated into Telugu? Why did they receive that kind of attention? You can say whatever you want. Only when a creative work, whether it is a story, epic, lyric, free verse, artwork, or sculpture, imbibes the quality that serves the purpose of ennobling human spirit …”
Before she finished her sentence, she noticed that the ropes of the swing moved. Rajeswari’s mouth was talking but her eyes were stuck on the swing. She said, “it seems baby is up,” and went quickly and got busy
feeding the baby.
Raghava Rao looked at the clock and said, “Vow, it is ten-thirty.” He got up, stretched, went into the bedroom, and lay down on the bed.

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi and published on thulika.net, January 2009.

Translator’s note: The story is significant for two reasons: 1) for the protagonist’s sophistication in expressing her views on the critics of her times, which is 1940’s. 2) the freedom with which the woman expresses her views to her husband even in the forties.

(The Telugu original, katha etlaa undaale?, was published in the 1940s, and later included in “Kanuparti Varalakshmamma sata jayanti Sanchika”, 1996.)

Kanuparthi Varalakshmamma by Nidadavolu Malathi

Varalakshmamma was an avid social activist, active participant in Gandhian movement, a social conscious writer and a great speaker. She was born on October 6th, 1886. Her parents were Palaparthi Seshayya and Hanumayamma. She had seven siblings—five brothers and two sisters. She was married in 1909 to Kanuparthi Hanumantha Rao, an educated and sophisticated gentleman and health inspector by profession. He supported Varalakshmamma’s activities wholeheartedly.

In the history of India, it was a crucial time. The country, inspired by Gandhi, was fighting for freedom from the British rule. The state of Andhra Pradesh was sizzling with the nationalist spirit and the social movements advocated by Veeresalingam. Varalakshmamma threw in her lot with these political and social movements at an early age. She worked towards not only improving the living conditions for women but also encouraging them actively to participate in these movements. She traveled around the country to promote the ideals she believed in.

Varalakshmamma’s father and brothers encouraged her to read ever since she was a child. One of the contributory factors in her writing was her neighbors. As the story goes, there were some illiterate older women in her neighborhood who migrated from Maharashtra. They used to ask Varalakshmamma to read the letters they had received from their relatives back home and then ask her to write replies to those letters. They
would often tell their thoughts in their own clumsy way and Varalakshmamma took it upon herself to think through and put them in a cogent manner. She was in 3rd grade at the time. This practice of reorganizing the thoughts helped her to develop a series column, sarada lekhalu, in her later years (which will be discussed later.).

Since her childhood, she was interested in reading. Her father and brothers played a significant role in developing her writing skills. She wrote her first story 1919 at the suggestion of her brother Anjaneyulu, who had read an English story to her and asked her to write it in Telugu. With great determination, she finished it. It was published in anasuya monthly under the pseudonym ‘Saudamini’. Although it was written after reading an English story, it read like a Telugu original.

After publishing her first story, she continued to write. Her next significant contribution was a feature column maa chettuneeda mucchatlu [Chitchat in the shade of our tree] in Andhra patrika weekly under the pseudonym Leelavati. In the column, Varalakshmamma discussed important issues such as education for women, traditions, politics, modern trends and many more.

The column ran for six years. In 1928, the same management started another magazine, gruhalakshmi, in which Varalakshmamma was invited to write regularly. She started another column, Sarada lekhalu [Letters from Sarada] under another pseudonym Sarada. The letters were addressed to an imaginary friend, Kalpalata. In these letters, Varalakshmamma discussed potent issues such as Sharda Act, divorce law, khadi movement, non-cooperation, erasing untouchability, unfounded customs, physical exercise, the changes implemented in measurements and weights, microphones and many more. The list is sufficient to show the diversity in the topics she was writing about. The Sarada lekhalu set a new standard in the genre of letter writing in Telugu literature.  It is a milestone.

Varalakshmamma wrote poetry, stories, novels, and plays. Her writings were broadcast on All India Radio and doordarshan (Indian TV). She participated in literary meets with high-ranking poets of our time and sometimes she was the only woman writer in a given meet. She was also a powerful orator. Because of her husband’s job as health inspector, they moved to several towns and that helped her to develop contacts in several places
and deliver inspiring speeches.

Some of her stories that received critical acclaim are penshanu puccukunna naati raatri [The night after retirement], katha etla undaale [How a story should be?], kuteeralakshmi [The Goddess in a Cottage], and aidu maasamula iruvadi dinamulu [Five months and twenty days].

In penshanu puccukunna naati raatri, the author describes the mental state of a couple after the husband retired. The author describes their mental state—a sense of despair, depression, apathy, and fear of future without income—in a manner that brings about empathy in the readers, says Polapragada Rajyalakshmi, a veteran writer and close friend of Varalakshmamma.

In kuteeralakshmi, Varalakshmamma depicts the ruination of cottage industries as a result of the economic devastation following the First World War. It was published in Andhra Patrika Ugadi issue, 1924.

The protagonist’s (Ramalakshmi’s) husband started a dyeing clothes business on a large scale and was successful until the Second World War caused the country to collapse economically. He lost everything and died. After his death, Ramalakshmi had to start all over again to feed her two little children. At first, she took several odd jobs and later, started working on the spinning wheel to make a living. The story ended with a sad note that the protagonist never got a chance at good living.

Sad as it sounds, that has been the reality in India. The small farmer, the small business, the mom-and-pop store round the corner took a downward turn and never recovered as India kept moving towards modernization.

Varalakshmamma’s first novel vasumati was published in 1925. In her preface, she stated that she was 14 when she heard a woman narrate her heartbreaking story to her (Varalakshmamma’s) mother. After a couple of years, she wrote it and threw it into a box. After eight years, she pulled it out in the hope of publishing it. However, she noticed that some of the pages were worn out, and some were stained by medicines and oils. Varalakshmamma decided to rewrite the missing pages and publish it. Thus, she would consider the novel a re-write of the original.

The novel illustrates the life of a young woman. Vasumati was only three when her father died leaving her mother a widow at the age of 25. The mother, Mahalakshmi shoulders the responsibility of arranging marriages for the two girls and educating a son, Ramachandra. She performs the marriage of her first daughter Rajyalakshmi with her husband’s sister’s son, per husband’s wishes. After that, she arranges Vasumati’s wedding with Ananda Rao, from a respectable family in Narasaraopet. Ananda Rao befriends Krishnamurthy, a wanton, and Nagamani, a prostitute.

Ananda Rao’s older brother and mother encourage him to bring Vasumati and set up a family. They hope that his wife’s presence would help him to come to his sense. In stead, Ananda Rao ill-treats her for a while, sends her back to her natal home, and moves to Rangoon along with Nagamani. In Rangoon, Nagamani turns cozy up to other men and plays Ananda Rao for a fool.

Ananda Rao, desperate for money, finds Sundara Rao, a Telugu publisher and a kindhearted man. He understands Ananda Rao’s situation and tries to persuade him to bring his wife to Rangoon but to avail. Eventually, Ananda Rao sees a novel, Haridasi, on Sundara Rao’s desk and takes it to his room. He finds the story gripping, since it reads very much like his wife’s story. He is moved by the story.

He realizes his mistakes and returns home. He brings Vasumati back to his home and they all live happily ever after. Unlike the ending in the Goddess in a Cottage, the story of Vasumati ends with a joyous note.

Into this story, the author weaves several contemporary issues such as women’s education, the dowry system, family values, especially those cherished by brothers towards their sisters. Her comments on women’s education are particularly important in the light of her being part of the Veeresalingam’s movement for educating women. There is however a marked difference in her approach. While Veeresalingam promoted education for women only to make them better wives and better mothers, Varalakshmamma takes it to a higher level. Her protagonist reads not only the books on women’s duties to her husband but also other subjects such as English literature, Telugu literature, prosody, history, geography, and math. Her brother Ramachandra helps her which again a practice in vogue (p.17). As I mentioned earlier, the author had received immense support from her brothers.

The author presents Vasumati’s brother, Ramachandra, as an ideal young man—a social reformer and patriot who is interested in women’s welfare, elimination of dowry and bride price systems; he is also interested in foreign travel. He shuns ancient practices but holds no grudge against them. He is the kind of person who would study both ancient and modern philosophies, examine them carefully and accept the good things from each one of them. He studies English yet does not take to their bad habits such as cigarettes and liquor.

Author’s keen awareness of the changes that had been taking place in the society was obvious in incorporating people’s migration to Rangoon in search of wealth. For instance, in Rangoon, Ananda Rao was caught in a dilemma. Nagamani, whom he trusted, was playing him, one day embracing him and another day rejecting him. He was totally at her mercy. Sundara Rao, his employer, sees Ananda Rao’s situation and tries to persuade him to bring his wife. He gives him books to read; tells him in so many ways to get his act together. Ananda Rao would not listen. However, one book, Haridasi, helps
him see the light. I liked this twist. Human nature being what it is the time has to come for anybody to see the light of day. It does not happen in just one stroke or move. In that, the author succeeded in presenting a situation authentically.

The author’s command of diction and imagery are superb. Varalakshmamma possessed a captivating style. The language is not colloquial by current standards but it was at the time it was written. It is narrated in semi-classical Telugu as was common in her time. The author had penchant for long-winding phrases on occasion. I was amused by her description of Vasumati’s beauty in one and a half pages. She gave almost the status of
a classical heroine to Vasumati.

For social historians, this makes an excellent reading. The author did an impressive job of presenting it for history. The book includes a preface by a noted language reformer, Gidugu Ramamurthi pantulu. He stated that, “nowadays, there are plenty of political, historical, fictitious and
critical novels but a social novel like this is rare.” We have to understand it within the context.

The book Viswamitra maharshi (1933) is a prose kavya. The author depicts Viswamitra as a highly disciplined rishi, a man of determination and strength, both physically and mentally, and a champion of human values. According to Varalakshmamma, Viswamitra believed in equality of all human beings. In the narrative, she included several contemporary issues such as the Brahmins and non-brahmins controversies, caste-related issues, and the social hierarchy.

The author meticulously highlights the demarcations in the hierarchy of the supreme status of man – rishi, rajarshi, brahmarishi. Viswamitra’s refusal to accept himself as brahmarishi unless the sage Vasishta called him so is significant.

Some of the observations made by the author through her protagonist, Viswamitra, are valid even today. Viswamitra states, “One may overcome external forces using money or physical strength but no one can win over the inner foes. One may defeat sexual desires but defeating anger is the hardest” (p.81). His realization that one would not be able to achieve the status of brahmarishi until and unless he had defeated his innate anger is a
message for all mankind. His name has been associated with the king Harischandra known for his truthfulness and for having his integrity tested by Viswamitra in the harshest way possible. The story, narrated to children, would usually present Viswamitra as ruthless and as an epitome of relentless anger. Varalakshmamma on the other hand attempts to depict him as a commendable character, commendable for his devotion, commitment, and fortitude. The author skillfully illustrates his innate strength and persistence in achieving the much coveted brahmarishi status.

According to the legend, Viswamitra was born in a royal family with Brahmin qualities because of a mishap. Thus his unique but mixed qualities forced him to deal with conflicting emotions. He is forced to play the role of a prince while consumed by a desire to become a rishi. He goes into severe penance three times and each time fails to consummate his penance. First time, he gives up his penance to save a king who is accursed to be a chandala [untouchable] and reinstate his royal life; second time, gives in to his physical desires, and third time to his own anger. Finally, he realizes that his
only way to salvation is to overcome anger. Eventually, he accomplishes his goal yet is not content until the highly revered sage Vasishta accepts it and addresses him as brahmarishi.

Additionally, the author argues aptly that Viswamitra’s story is enlightening regarding the arguments between the Brahmins and non-brahmins, the conflicts between the upper and lower classes, and the distinction between the physical and innate strength. According to Varalakshmamma, this story illustrates powerfully the fundamental philosophy that, despite one’s birth in a given caste, a person may attain the highest status in human life by following the righteous path.

Varalakshmamma was also against the irrational practices prevalent in our society. In Andhra Pradesh, it is common to burn a child on the forehead when he or she is afflicted with an ailment like tetanus. The author’s disapproval of such practice is illustrated in the Cottage Goddess, by making an old man offer an empirical solution.

I could not access all the books written by Varalakshmamma. Therefore, I shall take the liberty of quoting from Rajyalakshmi’s monograph, in which the author conceptualized Varalakshmamma’s writings.

“In each story, contemporary society is the dominant theme. The changing conditions, changing perceptions, the good and bad in them, to what extent the old should be adapted and how much of the new we should embrace,  to what extent the social reform is needed and in what fields—are some of the topics she chose for her stories. “During the period Varalakshmamma started writing, that is 1920-1940, the story elements such as diction, style, brevity, totality and unity had not yet fully developed. … Therefore, we should not be using today’s criteria to evaluate her stories.
“Varalakshmamma’s stories are long. In a book, each story takes twenty to twenty-five pages. … In some stories, one part of the story happens in one place and another part in another place.  …. The time—months and years—is also the same way. … In some stories, characters start out as children and end up as adults. The author interferes in the narration to express her opinions and analyze a given situation. “Each one of her stories is written with a purpose. Most of the time, she writes seriously, with a touch of humor occasionally. Her humor never crosses the line though. “Style comes naturally to her. That writer’s personality has a bearing on his/her style is true in her case. … Her views on how a story should be written are presented in her story, katha etlaa undaale (The Charm of a Cherished Story) and her stories reflect the same qualities.” (29-33)
Varalakshmamma, a woman of small build, barely 5-foot tall, possessed enormous courage, determination and integrity. She was a driving force behind the women’s and social movements in Andhra Pradesh. She founded stri hitaishini mandali [Women’s welfare consortium] and yuvati vidyalayam [College for young women] in Bapatla, her hometown. Utukuri Lakshmikantamma narrated an incident in her sahiti rudrama, highlighting
Varalakshmamma’s deep-rooted convictions. For an organization to run smoothly and successfully, it is important that rules are strictly adhered to. According to the story, one of the members failed to pay the dues on time and Varalakshmamma canceled her membership. Lakshmikantamma and a few others attempted to persuade Varalakshmamma to take the member back but to no avail. Varalakshmamma would rather risk losing a friend than allow indiscretion in running the organization. Her writings reflect her progressive views and insights unequivocally.

Varalakshmamma passed on August 13, 1978. Nevertheless her spirit lives on. Senior writers and the elite of Andhra Pradesh cherish her memory fondly. I hope the current generation will learn about her. Those who can learn Telugu may find the monograph written by Polapragada Rajyalakshmi, Kanuparthi Varalakshmamma (Sahitya Akademi publication) gratifying.

I had the honor of standing on the same stage with Varalakshmamma garu and Utukuri Lakshmikantamma garu in 1968 at the Andhra Women Writers Conference. That was a moment I would cherish forever.


Originally published on thulika.net, January 2009.

Rajyalakshmi, Polapragada. Kanuparthi Varalakshmamma. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi,


(© Malathi Nidadavolu,.January 2009)