`About women's lives and tears... '

Print edition : January 13, 2006

BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Interview with Volga or Popuri Lalitha Kumari, Telugu writer.

Volga.... The name reflects her mind and its leanings. It was not her name to begin with - it was her sister's, which she adopted as a pen name after the latter died tragically. However, it is the name by which the soft-spoken but fiery artist Popuri Lalitha Kumari is known today.

Volga was born in Guntur is 1950. She took her Master's degree in Telugu literature from Andhra University. She had her share of political action as a member of the Students Federation of India (SFI) and also the naxalite movement. But her passion was always literature and she was a member of the Revolutionary Writers' Association. Increasingly drawn into the question of the woman writer's place in society and in literature, she began exploring the feminine experience in her work and became part of women's movements.

Her novel Svecha sold over 50,000 copies and created a wave in favour of women writers. It was a controversial book and Volga found that her personal life was dissected along with the contents of the book. But she fought on bravely and is a name to reckon with today in Telugu literature. The book won her the prestigious Chatura Award in 1987.

Volga has published an anthology of stories called Rajakiya Kathalu. She edited the first volume of Maku Godalu Levu, a collection of feminist essays and Neeli Meghalu, an anthology of poems, co-edited Sarihaddulu and Lani Sandhyalu; and co-authored Saramsam and Mahilavaranam. Her efforts have gone a long way in changing the focus of what women writers write and how they write. G. Thilakavathi, writer and Indian Police Service officer, spoke to her in Chennai about her life and works. Excerpts from the conversation:

You said `Volga' was your sister's name and that she died in a fire. Did you write your first poem on that, after assuming her name?

I assumed her name and began writing poems. But my first poem was not to say something about that.

You have mentioned often that the writer Chalam influenced you greatly. Can you say something about that?

Chalam. An incomparable writer. He started writing in 1920, when his first novel was published. You can imagine what the condition of society would have been at that point of time. But Chalam spoke about women's lives, their miseries, their sexuality, the house-work they do, the degraded lives they live, and such other revolutionary things. Unfortunately, his writings have not been able to reach people of other languages as they were not translated. I went to Thiruvannamalai [in Tamil Nadu] 30 years ago to meet him... .

Andhra could not accommodate such a revolutionary and he became disenchanted with Andhra. A friend suggested Thiruvannamalai. Chalam's daughter Souri, who was religiously inclined, lived there. He moved to Thiruvannamalai.

I hope the people of Andhra Pradesh have understood his greatness at last. Have statues been erected in his memory?

No. In 1994 we celebrated his centenary in a big way. It was not a government function. Some friends got together to celebrate the event. The government, the communists and the other parties did not accept his ideas. Some friends got together to set up a statue in just one place in Andhra Pradesh.

What were your expectations when you started the feminist study circle?

I started this after I lost faith in Marxist philosophy and revolutionary politics. I wanted to make women understand their rights. I thought I must create awareness among women. There were not many people then even to write about feminism. So I wrote a lot. I spoke about women's lives, their tears, their unequal status, crimes against women and so on in the various places I travelled to. I worked really hard. I toured Andhra Pradesh. I tried hard to propagate the idea of female equality. I was involved in this work intensely during 1981-85. In 1985, I resigned my college lecturer job and shifted to Hyderabad, as Kutumba Rao and I had decided to live together in Hyderabad.

How did your feminist study circle get started at a time when women were not willing to join such organisations?

There was already a women's group doing this kind of work. It joined us and gave a helping hand in our endeavour. There were great writers like Varavara Rao in literary circles. Though they were a friendly lot, I felt lonely. I think you will understand this feeling. Vasantha Kannabiran and Sri Sakthi Sanghatra were already working along similar lines, and so I joined them. I wrote three works during that period. One was on Marxism and the institution of family. The other was a translation of an autobiographical novel by Agnes Smedley. She was a native American woman who had great interest in the Chinese revolution. She lived in China for some time and wrote about how women did not enjoy equality in political organisations. This translation created a storm when it was published. I also published Neeli Meghalu, a collection of feminist poems. Then I teamed up with Vasanth Kannabiran and published a collection of articles, Twilight Without Boundaries.

Your Mahila Varanam is also a unique work, is it not?

It is a compendium of the history of women who created 150 years of Andhra history. There is no history of women. There is no place for women in history. History forgets them even if they have done important and unique deeds. It denies their existence.

You were a member of the SFI in your student days. Even later, you have been a part of Leftist organisations. What is the reason for this?

My father K.V. Subbha Rao was the district secretary of the Communist Party.

If your father had been in a different party, would you have joined that party?

No. My father quit the Communist Party when he was 40, when the Communist Party broke up into the CPI [Communist Party of India] and the CPI-M [Communist Party of India-Marxist]. Though he had faith in communism till the end and was a sympathiser of the party, he gave up his party membership. He was actively involved in farming whatever little land he had. He used to read a lot; our house was filled with books. My father used to read the best of world literature and also encouraged us to read. We got introduced to writers such as [Maxim] Gorky, [Feodor] Dostoyevski, Somerset Maugham, Pearl S. Buck and [Anton] Chekov. I started reading Gorky and [Leo] Tolstoy when I was 10 years old. My parents, sisters and brothers admired their writings and held extensive discussions on them. The days of my youth were wonderful.

Would your mother take part in these discussions?

Yes. She was a remarkable woman. She used to read a lot. She would participate in the discussions on these books. More important than that, she gave us a lot of freedom. That is because she had immense faith in her children. She would not question me when I was involved in active political work like pasting posters and writing on walls, and came home in the small hours of the night. Neither did she object to my male friends from college or the party visiting me at home. I would like to mention another thing. My father used to take the whole family to see movies, even `commercial' films. We would have healthy discussions about every bit of the film once we got back home. Those were wonderful days.

Why did you quit the SFI? Was it because you ceased to be a student?

In 1969, the CPI(M) again split into the CPI(M) and the CPI(ML) [Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist]. Many of my friends joined the Naxalbari movement of the `ML' group and worked in Srikakulam. So I too joined the movement. Then in 1970, I joined the Revolutionary Writers Association.

Was there any reason why you quit the CPI(ML) and joined the Revolutionary Writers Association?

The Revolutionary Writers Association is a branch of the `ML' group. There were several organisations that were part of the `ML' group. It was for this reason that I joined the Revolutionary Writers Association. But I left the `ML' group in 1980 in great bitterness. That was because women were not given their rightful place in such organisations. They did not respect them for their intellect. From 1975 to 1980, I tried to change the system of women merely serving tea and giving shelter and protection to male comrades, but I could achieve nothing. So I resigned from the party and left the group.

I am surprised that you were not able to influence their thinking on the relation between the sexes.

Their idea was - revolution first and gender equality only after that.

Did you start the feminist study circle immediately after that?

No. That was two or three years later.

You were also a college lecturer while all this was happening?

Yes. From 1973 to 1985, I worked in S.V.R. College in Thenali in the Telugu Literature department. I treasure that experience.

Why did you give up the job? I wanted to do something better than that.

There is a pattern here. You joined various organisations with a lot of enthusiasm, but later left them. You do not stick to an organisation just because you have joined it. So these were varied experiences in your life, right?

Yes. Especially in the 1980s. I had come out of the party. I had nothing on hand. My marriage had broken. I had a job. I had two sons...

Your novel Svecha created a wave of protests in Andhra Pradesh and you were subjected to attacks because of it. Was there any violence against you?

No. All the attacks were verbal. This was because Svecha was the first novel that saw woman as a citizen of this country. It shows the heroine Aruna fighting for her personal and political space. All this was revolutionary when the book was published in 1987.

Your father wanted you to pursue a career in medicine but you chose to study literature. Did you not want to become a doctor?

I felt literature was better than that.

Many doctors, such as Chekhov, Somerset Maugham and Che Guevera, also made a mark as writers.

Right. But, we respect Chekhov and Somerset Maugham for their literary works, and not because they were doctors. There was a reason for my choosing literature after school - it was poet Karunashri. A popular poet in Telugu, he was then the Telugu Literature Professor in S.V. College. I wanted to learn Shakespeare and Mahabharatam from him. I joined the college especially for that. When I was studying these, four of my friends and I started an organisation called Phaigambarakavilu and brought out two anthologies of poetry. Two of the group were Muslims. We started this organisation as this was the time of the Digambarakavis, who caused quite a sensation in that period. Phaigambara means Prophet. But then we broke up and went our ways. Only two of them still write.

Tell me something about your experiences with films. You have scripted and co-directed films like Thodu, Patha Nagaram to Pasiyodu. You have been a screenplay writer and script-writer. You also translated the screenplay of Richard Attenborough's Gandhi into Telugu.

I have always been interested in films. In 1986, I took a short-term course in films at the Pune Film Institute [Film and Television Institute of India]. It was my dream to shoot a film. I took up a position in Usha Kiron Movies in 1986. In the 10 years I worked there, we produced several hits such as Prathighatna, Aswini, Mayuri and Mauna Porattam. I also got an opportunity to attend a lot of film festivals. Reading, writing, watching films - I was doing the things I loved most.

Why did you give up a job that you liked so much?

In 1991, we started an organisation called Asmita and I was the president. I juggled the Usha Kiron job and work at Asmita for about four years. Then Usha Kiron started ETV. I worked for some time in that also. By then, Asmita had grown into a big organisation and demanded my full attention. In 1991, we produced a film on child labour called Badram Kodukku (Beware Son), which won two national awards and two State awards.

You have mentioned that awards tend to distract the writer and cause a loss of enthusiasm.

I did not say that about all awards. It was only after the attacks on me and my novel Svecha, which won the prestigious Chatura Award, that I began to feel that way. At that time my personal life, my private matters... everything was debated. After this bitter experience, though I wrote novels and won awards, it did not give me any satisfaction. It just made me think, `Okay, another novel. Okay, another award'.

What was your first novel Sahaja about?

It was about four friends who go in different ways. I wrote many novels after that. One of them is Akasamlo Sagam (Half the Sky), a famous phrase of Mao Zedong. It was about the lives of Dalit women in villages. Gulabilu (Roses) was about anti-liquor and anti-globalisation protests. Another novella, which, like Svecha, raised a storm, was Prayogam.

You have written songs for ballets, haven't you?

Yes. The first one was on `War and Peace'. Though that sounds like Tolstoy's work, it was generally about wars - starting from mythological wars up to the Iraq war. I next wrote for the ' Lakshmana Rekha ballet - I created a scene where Surpanaka and Sita dance together as friends. They dance knowing that they have been made the scapegoats in the Arya-Dravida war. The third one was on Draupaudi's life.

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