Interview in Gamanam (April 2001)
Q. (1) An obligatory question that we first put to any writer as a custom. How did your literary life begin? What was the inspiration?
To put it briefly, reading books from a very young age I think was the inspiration for writing in later years. I read story books starting from a very young age. In my childhood, we lived in Tadepalligudem, a small town in Andhra Pradesh. There, at some distance from my home, was a library for women and still further away, was a general library. I don’t remember how I started visiting these libraries. But, when I was about 7 or 8 years old, I used to borrow books from those libraries. I remember reading more of Kovvali’s novels in the women’s library. In the general library, there used to be several translated books. Among them, now I remember the name of only one author, “Vanaphool”. At that time, I did not know the names of Sarath, Premchand, Tolstoy et cetera. In those days, there was a small printing press at our house. My father used to publish a caste-related magazine, Padmanayaka Ptrika from this press. In that magazine, there used to be news related to marriages of the caste people and pilgrimages, and poems which the caste people wrote. As I was an ardent reader of books, my father used to persuade me to write something for that magazine although I was very young. I penned stories of the kind of a demon abducting a princess and a prince on a horse-back springing from nowhere to save the princess. My father published those silly stories very happily in that magazine. Those days, there appeared weekly magazines like Andhra Prabha and Andhra Patrika which my father bought regularly. In Andhra Patrika, there used to be serials of translated English novels. I remember Maddipatla Suri among translators, and Turaga Janakirani among writers. I wanted to write like them. During my childhood, we had had a Gramophone record player and Tamil music records at home. During my early days, I tried to learn music on a harmonium under the tutelage of a teacher for a few days. The music stopped abruptly after the teacher stopped coming or something else happened. My education ended with a ‘School Final’. There was no college in Tadepalligudem. Our financial condition would not support my education in a different town. By this time, my family already shifted from Tadepalligudem to Bommidi which was our ancestral village. There, while preparing for Hindi examinations all by myself, with the help of dictionaries and without a teacher, I used to scribble things and send them to weekly magazines. Editors of the magazines generously published whatever I wrote. I think it was when I was eighteen that I wrote a sort of big story called Palletuuru (The Village). The main theme of the story was to oppose consanguineous marriages and to advocate alliance only with perfect and mutual liking for each other. Later, in my nineteenth year, I wrote the novel, Krishnaveni. Love, suffering, wrong decisions, misunderstandings, absurd arguments, superstitions, et cetera were all there in that novel. I always aspired to write something or the other. On inspiration, I cannot explain more than this.
Q. (2) How was the financial condition of your family during your childhood? What was the source of income?
There was a small printing press at our home. A couple of workers from outside worked in the press. One or two children of our relatives’ lived with us to learn work in the press. My father did only the proof-reading job. We did not know how much income was earned on the press. In a village Bommidi, near Tadepalligudem, my mother inherited a piece of land from her father (the transaction was not complete yet). The ‘rent’ earned from that land alone supported our family. A few days later, my grandfather unexpectedly died of sickness. His property became a right to his wife (my grandmother). Their family was in “Dachavaram” near Bhadrachalam. Our grandmother was addicted to drinking and was an inane person. My mother’s younger sister, after getting her mother drunk, made her write the entire land in Bommidi in her son’s name. We lost the entire land on which our family depended. My father’s press also disintegrated gradually. Poverty enwrapped our house of seven children like darkness. Our family shifted from Tadepalligudem to Bommidi where we managed somehow.
Q. (3) Themes like women’s ‘identity’ and ‘progress’ heard more frequently during the present days have been found in your writings from the beginning. Could you explain how this happened?
At that time, I was not familiar with words like ‘identity’ and ‘progress’. Life itself taught me those things. That thing every one encounters, that thing called, ‘marriage’, also happened to me when I was twenty year old. With that my life was topsy-turvy. That was a dark period. Actually, it is not proper to compare that period with darkness. In nature, darkness is natural, peaceful, serene, quiet, and tranquil. But darkness in life is not the same.
Though our childhood passed in poverty, we did not know what sorrow was those days. We never experienced the domination of father or brother on us. My mother was a hundred times more sensitive person than my father. She was a person who knew love, who knew responsibility. Although it was a village, although there was poverty and although we were six girls, we never heard a word of disdain in our house. Even in the houses of our neighbors, we never experienced belittling of girls. There were books, some music and a lot of pampering of children about our house all the time. Away from this kind of people, I suddenly fell into a hell. A bird that fell into the trap of a hunter would not grieve as much as I did at that time. My literature emerged from my grief. I began to realize that beasts could exist in the guise of human beings. I started formulating novel theories, consanguineous marriages are advisable, in one’s own village, strangers are untrustworthy etc. I longed that, like in the story of Avvayaar, I should age quickly, overnight, and my life should end rapidly. My own experiences and those of women in the neighborhood started appearing strange and new to me. I started writing stories like Pekamedalu (House of Cards) for my own solace. I defended marriages between cousins. Further, Bhanumathi committed suicide in that story. That way, my aim became to write against insults conferred up on the women. Let there be many an error, experiences of the life opened up my eyes.
Q. (4) Is there a basis for the characters in your stories? For some important characters like….Kamala, Krishnaveni, Bhanumathi, Rajeswari, Janaki and the like.
A. Almost for each of the main characters there was a basis. It was I, Bhanumathi in Pekamedalu. It was I, Vijaya in ‘Rachayitri’ (The Authoress). It was I, Kamala in Chaduvukunna Kamala (Educated Kamala). My own experiences and those of other women whom I knew are in many of the stories. However, it is not in any one’s grasp to recapitulate the real sorrow of lives into stories. Stories are merely the blurry images of lives and depict lives only in a faint fashion.
I am not Vimala in Sweet Home. During the days I was in Vizag, there was a woman called Malathi, in the colony I lived (her original name was Marudhwathi). She used to visit me frequently. Like Vimala, she used to recount about her husband in a jovial and humorous manner. After listening to her descriptions, I conceived the theme of the story Sweet Home. But, even in such stories, people in real life would not be as plain and as placid as the characters in the stories. In some situations characters, hybrids of facts and fiction would emerge. They become more ideal than the real people.
To talk on Balipeetham (The Sacrificial Altar), there is a strange basis for it. Once a person, called ‘Murthy’, came to me and asked, “I would tell you about the life of my friend. Will you write it as a story?” I said, "You tell me the story first. If I like it and if I feel that I can write, I will.” After some time, he brought me some documents. He narrated a few incidents. He said that a person belonging to a lower caste married a Brahmin woman, who had been a widow from childhood, for the sake of social reform, but subsequently she subjected him to great humiliations and they eventually separated after a court case. He showed court papers and some letters. Slyly he admitted that it was his own story, that he suffered a great lot and that they were separated. The documents matched the narration. I developed the theme of Balipeetham with an intention to proclaim that – if people of higher castes do not relinquish caste fanaticism, inter-caste marriages with such people would not lead to harmonious living. I named the novel as such to symbolize that the inter-caste marriage became a Balipeetham (The Sacrificial Altar) to Bhaskar who belonged to a lower caste. There were many changes and additions between the versions narrated by him and the story emerged. After the novel appeared as a serial, a couple of people told me that Balipeetham as a novel was good , but the person who was behind the story was an evil character, that he won the case with deception, that the wife was an honest person and that he made her suffer a lot. I fell in dilemma whether to believe it or not. Factually, however, I never asserted that the novel was a 'life history of a particular person'. I wrote the novel only to oppose the arrogance of the upper castes. Therefore, even if the person, who communicated these matters to me was an evil character, what I did was not wrong.
After some time, ‘Murthy’ got married for the second time and
visited me with his new wife, when I was in Vizag. He told me that she married
him with a lot of liking. But, later she confessed a lot on him– “I read your Balipeetham.
He told me that he is Bhaskar. I married him thinking where else would I get a
better husband than him. But he is a mean fellow. He would not allow me wear
new clothes, comb my hair. He suspects me for everything.” After saying all
this very quickly, she added, “I decided to leave him and go back to the place
where I work". By this time I
understood the real nature of Murthy completely. Her leaving him transpired
rather quickly. But, surprisingly, he got married for the third time also. Even
more surprisingly, the third wife too left him. In a different context, I
happened to meet the third wife. It was a different story. When I gave the
novel Balipeetham to make into a movie, Murthy chased the movie people
claiming that it was his own story, and demanded that his photograph be
exhibited on the screen. When asked I firmly told them to ignore him which they implemented. After
the movie was released, he filed a criminal case in
In the criminal case, the magistrate court ruled the case against us. Later, the Sessions Court and high court ruled the case in our favor.
He filed a civil case in
Subsequently, he got married for the fourth time also. Without enjoying
the fortune of getting married for a few more times, he died of ill health,
while the fourth marriage was still in progress. The appeals and cases in
On the basis for the novel Balipeetham, is there basis for this novel? It was certainly not his biography. But he narrated it. The story of his lies became the basis for it.
Regarding Andhakaramlo…, the novel has a very small basis. A reader wrote of a person whom he knew that got married to a ‘prostitute’ and then after some time, tried to drive her back into the same profession. That was all. That sentence in his letter paved way to the novel.
There was no such basis for Janaki Vimukti (Janaki’s Emancipation). The basis for this novel was the thought that women’s liberation would be possible only in a communist society where property rights are abolished on which male domination is based. However, even though there wasn’t a particular Janaki as a clear basis for the novel, aren't most of the women like Janaki? Likewise, for each story there is a basis. It is not possible to say everything here.
Q. (5) Readers think that you are typically serious in your ideas. How a person like you could create a good-natured and happy character like ‘Butchibabu’? One, however, cannot say that he is a simpleton without individuality. He is a person of broad convictions and progressive thinking. Is this character a personification of your aspirations? Or, did you intend to proclaim that such men could and do exist? Have you not ever considered that at times Vimala was a tad harsh?
A. First, the character of Butchibabu was born out of Malathi’s depictions. Subsequently, it matured through my own imagination and aspirations. Sensible women who are frustrated and dejected with the domination and humiliation meted out to them by men, conceive of men who are culturally refined. They would dream that their fathers, brothers, husbands and every one enmeshed with their own lives, should treat them sensitively, friendly, and lovingly. That is one reason for many women liking Butchibabu. Women whose husbands are somewhat softer and friendlier, would say, “My husband is like Butchibabu” while others would say, “My husband is not like Butchibabu.” Regardless of whether the husband is good or bad, he is invariably compared with Butchibabu If the husband is good he is like Butchibabu, if not, he is not like Butchibabu. Butchibabus must be existing in some houses. No doubt about it. If there exist women of self-respect, there must also exist men of cultural refinement. Right convictions would prosper in both sections. Progress cannot be unilateral. Did you feel that Vimala was ‘harsh’ at times? Some women too felt that Butchibabu was an ‘incapable’ person. I believe it would appear so when viewed with conservative convictions. This is not a context to discuss further on this topic.
Q. (6) Would you say something on the writings of authors you liked or disliked?
A. From Veeresalingam onwards till today, I have read almost every one. I still continue reading. Unless too reactionary, there would be something good in every writing. But, every writing will not influence everyone. The most influential (useful) authors for me have been Veeresalingam and Chalam. There are wonderful things in Chalam , in addition to some negative aspects. I did not appreciate those negative aspects any time. Likewise, other than his rational ideas, I did not value the notion of ‘worshipping one God’ (eekeeswaropaasana), in Veeresalingam. If existence of ‘one god’ is true, that ‘god’ could exist in any number of forms. If one god is accepted, then any number of gods could be accepted. All of them would be diverse forms. The doctrine of eekeeswaropaasana that only one god exists, not several, does not seem to be logical. Veeresalingam and Chalam both were believers of god. Other than the socially progressive ideas, I have not taken belief in god from them. I don’t mean to say that expect in these two writers, there isn’t anything in others to accept. These have been the two that influenced me the most.
Q. (7) Many people believe that among your novels, “Andhakaramlo…” (In the Darkness…) is exceptional. Your opinion?
A. I won’t call it ‘exceptional’. However, I too like that book very much.
Q. (8) Here too is a question which is asked customarily. Among your writings, which are the ones you like the most and Why?
A. A book that spreads good ideas is liked the most. After penning Krishnaveni, I thought it was written well. But, having realized that the ideas embedded in that novel were not appropriate for the self-respect of women, rather they even contain some superstitious notions, how could I not regret and exclaim, “Alas, did I write like that?”.
Bhanumathi committs suicide in Pekamedalu. In Rachayitri, Vijaya parts from her husband for some time, and compromises later without a reason. But Janaki in Janaki Vimukti emerged from all kinds of ignorance. She realized that she should have the ability to support her own self. She absolutely rejected the man who dominated her. This means that my knowledge has been transforming progressively thus from the level of Pekamedalu. After Janaki Vimukti was written, how could books like Pekamedalu or Rachayitri of inferior knowledge be more appealing than Janaki Vimukti itself? Books with better ideas must be more appealing, isn’t it?
Q. (9) By that time, while writing on women’s problems for more than 10 years, you were drawn towards Marxism. You started writing in that direction. Could you elaborate on this rare occurrence in Telugu literature? How were you drawn towards Marxism?
A. Even before knowing Marxism, I
emerged out of my dark life. Even my donkey patience by that time appears to
have been ashamed of such existence. From the life in Vizag, I left for my
village with my children, without a support. Alimony from ‘him’, share in
property and such things were not in my mind. I was not also concerned
about my own money. I left everything. I
went with an idea to tutor school children in our village or engage in some
such other occupation. But he came and deceptively took away the children.
After that, I came to
Reading books became the main activity of the day. All of them were
communist books. About this time, I happened to read a book depicting the
brutal murder of Allendy in
Q. (10) What is the reason for writing less fiction and undertaking analytical writing after you adapted to the path of Marxist Theory?
A. Because I considered that to be the priority. It is more convenient to present theoretical issues in the form of essays, rather than as fiction. The chapters in Capital could be presented in the form of essays, but could they be as fiction? A few things, where possible, could be portrayed in fiction, but not many.
Q. (11) Having written both fiction and non-fiction abundantly, how would you compare the differences and applications between these two forms?
A. Writing non-fiction is easier than fiction. As per application, each form has its own. Certain things would fit only in fiction. If portrayed as fiction, Sweet Home could contain characters and their conversations. Likewise, when written in the form of assays, Capital could be understood and appreciated more effectively. Depending on the content, both forms are necessary.
(12) Q. Do you like humor personally? Even while writing serious matters, you throw in humor (or satire). Is it to attract readers or do you think it is necessary?
A. Use of humor or satire does not depend on my personal likes and dislikes. Nor was it intended to attract the readers. Humor too constitutes critical appraisal of the context. In my opinion, humor and satire impart confidence on the readers and makes them fearlessly critical of the ‘God’ however great he may be or of a leader however famous he may be, if the latter are flawed. They will stop fearing the great and the famous. They will know how to think of what they read. Humor and satire are one form of the criticism and become an integral part of the writing since they are required. It is only to teach the readers, not to attract them.
Q. (13) Are you satisfied with the novels and stories that appeared during the post Vishavriksham stage?? Did the response of the readers remain the same as in the past? Did the readers express a feeling that your writings were mainly propagandistic?
A. Of my own books I would be content, won’t I? A crow’s chick is charming to the crow, isn’t it? It is therefore the readers, not I, who should evaluate the writings after Vishavriksham. Some readers still continue appreciating Krishnaveni and Balipeetham, and remain there only. They cannot find time to read my books that appeared subsequently. Many others read all the books: old and the new and find the later books to be more useful. This does not mean that all of them have turned into Atheists and Marxists. Only Puranam Subramanya Sharma (the then editor of Andhra Jyothy weekly) complained that Janaki Vimukti was didactic. None of the readers said so. He was critical because I was discussing Marxism in that serial which he disliked and stopped it using that pretext. I heard later that there was great pressure from the management to stop the serial. I do not know how far it was true. However, it is up to the readers, not me, to assess my work.
Q. (14) ‘Dialectics’ is a very crucial component of ‘Marxism’, isn't it? You often use the term ‘logic’ ('tarkam' in Telugu) as a substitute. There is a danger that pure logic could lead to empty critique or fruitless discussion, disconnected with time and context, do you agree?
A. Whenever I said ‘logic’, I meant ‘correct logic’. The term 'logic' itself implies that things must be viewed in their interconnection confined to specific space and context. All this is embedded right in that word. Without such connotation it cannot be logical. Although logic was differentiated into ‘pure logic’ and ‘dialectics’ historically, we can’t keep on saying ‘dialectical logic’ everywhere.
Your contention that the term ‘dialectics’ alone be used too cannot be accurate technically speaking. To be precise, we ought to use the term ‘materialistic dialectics’. Because, Marx himself claimed that Hegel's was ‘Idealist dialectics’ and his own was ‘materialistic dialectics’, didn't he? Then in that case, how can the term, ‘dialectics’ be appropriate? Whenever we talk of ‘logic’, must we keep saying ‘materialistic dialectics’ every time? If ‘dialectics’ could be used as a substitute for ‘materialist dialectics’, we can simply use the term ‘logic’ instead of ‘dialectics’. The word, ‘logic’ is quite appropriate. In the contexts where I said ‘logic’ or ‘logical’, it is important to see whether or not my discussion is connected to context and time, and to interconnections. In several contexts, Marx, Lenin and others too used the words, ‘logical’ and ‘rational’. They did not use the word, ‘dialectics’ every time.
Q. (15) For any writer, direct acquaintance with and direct observation of the society are necessary. Likewise, to know the views of the people is also imperative. What are the means by which you know certain things? Because, one senior authoress said that as a woman, she would not have the opportunity to learn certain things directly.
A. Studying books available on the topic
of our interest, and talking to people who are acquainted with such ways of
living – these are the means by which we gather relevant information. Any
writer will have to do this. Whenever it was necessary, I too did the same.
When I thought of writing Andhakaramlo, the theme of the story that I
wanted to present was ready. But, I needed certain details. For such details, I read some books
that depicted such lives. I talked to some women who were leading such life. I
heard from them how they began such life. Likewise, while writing Stree,
for some details on clinicians, I spoke to a few people. Some medical students,
my readers, used to visit me. With their
help, I visited an anatomy theater and other facilities in a medical college.
While writing Balipeetham, ‘I visited ‘Prema Samajam’ in Vizag and
learnt about their programs. For the same novel, I gathered information on
Literature revolves around familial and social relations. Nothing is impossible for women to know these things. Perhaps they might find it a bit more difficult than men.
Q. (16) In the current context of Globalization and the challenges of reactionary religious fundamentalism, in this backdrop, what in your view is the responsibility of the literati? What do you intend to do in this regard?
A. Whatever is happening in the name of
‘Globalization’, is to secure profits to countries like
Regarding religious fundamentalism, are its reactionary challenges really novel today? Leave alone the remote past, even if you consider the recent Indian history, is the present situation more serious than the communal killings during the period of partition? This kind of fanaticism always existed. Ever since the time it emerged as a second fiddler to the exploiting classes, religion has become a reactionary and fanatic force. People or organizations with progressive ideology, now or any time, have to understand the nature of society first and enlighten fellow human beings by which ever means possible. Understanding the nature of society and the actions of the ruling classes is possible only through Marxism that elucidates class exploitation. Intellectuals, since time immemorial, have been fighting against a multitude of problems. However, they fail to understand the ‘class nature’ of the society and its present capitalistic character. They do not try to understand the link between the issues they are fighting for and capitalism. Take ‘environmental pollution’ for instance. The intellectuals deliver lectures and yell at the top of their voices opposing pollution, but they do not utter a word against capitalism that is the root cause of pollution. Nor would they acknowledge that the problem of pollution cannot be averted without fighting the capitalism itself. Likewise, the reformers fighting against ‘communalism’, mega dams or any such other problems are not concerned about class exploitation existing in the form of capitalism. Those who fail to grasp the reality will not be able to show the correct path to the people through such struggles.
You asked me, “What do you intend to do in this regard?”, right? Ever since I attempted to understand Marxism and from the moment I was convinced by Marxism, I made it my duty to propagate this ideology. I have been striving to do only this. I will do the same even in the future.
Q. (17) What is your opinion on the current literary scene? That is, on various trends and discussions. More specifically, on the writings that represent these tendencies. Generalization is tough but, if you could to whatever extent….
A. Generalization is not difficult. On the contrary it is simple. Diverse trends and discussions existed not only today, but all the time. Since human beings exist as different classes, their approaches also remain different. Although you did not make it explicit, I believe you meant trends such as Feminism, ‘Dalitism’ and Post-modernist approaches, when you said, ‘current literary scene..’ The trends that have been emerging in the Telugu literature for some time in the name of ‘feminism’ have been nothing but a reactionary campaign funded by the capitalists against the class theory. Capitalist class in any country would invest a part of its revenue, a fraction of what has been appropriated as ‘surplus value’, on such campaigns. Individuals and organizations dedicated to serve the exploiting classes exist everywhere. It serves their purpose too. Outwardly they proclaim ‘women’s rights’ and fight against ‘male domination’. In reality what they do is to turn a blind eye to the property relations that fortify male domination. Thereby defending those very property relations and male domination. Likewise, the debates on dalits too fall into the same category ignoring the interests of the Dalits. They do not question the exploitative property relations and exploitative division of labour. Moreover, they grind their swords against the philosophy that encourages such questioning. Dalit intellectuals project entry to exploitative constitution as the solution for their liberation. They also preach for the emergence of Dalit Bourgeois. When materialized, how will Dalit Bourgeois earn their profits? Isn’t it by exploiting poor dalits? Those intellectuals are unconcerned about it. No campaign is more important for them than defending exploitation.
Regarding Post-modernists: they do not consider the society as an ensemble of mutual relations. According to them, all the problems exist in isolation, separated from one another. The distinction between the primary problem and the secondary problems that arise from the primary problem does not find place in their understanding. Such an understanding favors status quo of the exploiting society. Such tendencies betray the interests of women, Dalits and the minorities that you are mentioning. To counter a wrong trend, majority of the people must have the knowledge of the right approach. A philosophy when known to majority of the people would become a force. As long as the correct knowledge does not reach people, the wrong trends continue to reign and keep changing external forms. Literary landscape of any era must be understood only this way.
Q. (18) Your suggestions and guidelines to young writers and to those who are enthusiastic about writing.
A. I don’t like giving suggestions assuming that ‘I am in a position to give suggestions and guidelines to others’. Should it be mentioned categorically that whoever would like to try their hands at writing must first study the writings of their predecessors and learn from their experiences? One cannot sing without listening to others’ songs. Likewise, without reading others, one cannot write. If saying this amounts to giving a suggestion, then I have given a suggestion!
Q. (19) In your literary life, readers’ responses and your reactions, any memorable events
A. The most general and unanimously expressed opinion from the readers is that ‘your books are simple to understand.’ Almost all the people say this. The second opinion is that ‘we read that particular book of yours and we think that we learnt new things.’ Regarding negative responses, since the time of Pekamedalu, I was branded as anti-men. Gradually they relinquished that label. Some complained that I ‘abused Rama’, but eventually they also let it go. Some say, “why not simply speak out the essence of the matter? Why use satire?” Satire too is an essence of the matter. I would like to ask ‘if satire is not used when it is needed, how is it tantamount to conveying the essence of the matter?’ On the whole, ‘readers’ like every criticism that is logical and appreciate acquiring new knowledge. From the feedback I received from the readers after reading my works like Ramayana, the poisonous tree, Pathakula prasnaluu, ranganaayakamma jawaabuluu’ [Answers to the questions of the readers], An Introduction to Marx’s Capital, Vaaduka bhaashee raastunnamaa? [Are we writing colloquial language?], telugu neerpadam elaa? [How to teach Telugu?] and nidatoo yuddham [Fighting the shadow], the following has been the opinion I formulated: If writers could depict the problems of the life, readers will like to learn them very much.
They consider that they learnt several good things and that their logical acumen enhanced.
When I was writing on Ambedkar, some people used to say, ‘If you write on Ambedkar, Dalits will not keep quiet.’ ‘What will they do?’ I would ask. ‘We don’t know, but they won’t keep quiet’ they would add. After the book appeared, I met dalits who complained that ‘all that is distortion’ and also Dalits who said that ‘we liked the interpretation in the book’. Even now, male-chauvinist husbands do not like my books. This is what their wives tell me. This means that the wives like my books. Isn’t it?
[The original interview appeared in a literary volume titled
‘Gamanam’, published by Praja Sakti Book House,