Several events were narrated to me about ‘the left political spectrum’ before I became a member, and worked with a couple of political organisations within this spectrum in Kolkata. Before Kolkata, in Pune, I was a part of college protest events at BMCC and ILS both, after the tragic murder of the rationalist, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar in 2013, and had participated in local protests as a part of the Rights for manual scavengers in Pune in 2014. Since these were autonomous events, they were hardly associated with the left spectrum in Pune, even if the left showed its footprint and support. My introduction to anything remotely ‘left’ happened via the classroom space – through an amalgamation of many courses at the undergraduate level, which had works ranging from Karl Marx to the later critiques of old traditions of Marxism. Eventually, I was also introduced to works by Jyotiba Phule, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, women writers like Tarabai Shinde, Rukhmai including others, who have made significant historical contributions in caste and gender reform movements in India. I was always passionate about ‘doing’ politics, even though I did not know what it meant, but I was certain that there needs to be a world where all human beings are treated with respect and love. To a student like me, who is privileged from almost all socio-economic positionalities, unless and until she found the political avenues to practise politics through student organisations, university spaces, collectives or a political family background, it was difficult to understand politics in its practical aspects. Therefore, after my Masters, I decided to shift closer to a public university space, where there has been a tradition of ‘doing’ politics, and was introduced to some political organisations in Kolkata, which claimed to work towards the struggles for equality and power for minority communities.
Before arriving at Kolkata, I had heard that across the left-spectrum, women are hardly allowed to make important decisions, and are ‘used’ for their skills without being valued as human beings. I had heard of how the majority of the workload is dumped on women behind the guise of efficiency. As a person working with these organisations, not only did I witness all of this to be true, but also had terrible experiences of my own. I can indeed converse about major events and mishaps, but more than that, the everyday struggle of witnessing how women were treated affected me the most. Most importantly, cases of sexual harassment, abuse and assault have been rampant in these spaces historically, and continues to be so till date. These parties represent nothing more than the conservative and rigid ideals of the larger society, which is alright – until one sees that they simultaneously claim to struggle for equality in the realms of class, caste and gender. When I started exploring more, interacting with older women comrades, people and groups who have broken away from the left spectrum and formed autonomous groups, I realized that the left spectrum and especially the ‘radical and far left’ is historically known for forging and practising morphed human relationships. Of course contributions of the left spectrum in some important moments in history and even at present hold utmost significance. Many women have willingly served their work and/or ideology, but the problems I mentioned very much exist, unacknowledged. My experience with the left spectrum is arguably very limited, and I should not make universal claims.
Therefore, this essay is about me. It is about a time in my life where the struggle to ‘work’ personal relations was nothing close to ‘doing’ politics. In politics, there could not be any genuine human relations – fraught with longing and affection. While members of these political organisations and groups were cordial to each other in official interactions, in times of distress or in informal settings, the horrors of their opinions about other kinds of political mobilisations which differ from them got portrayed clearly. Any such mobilization that disagreed with them was torn apart without reason or logic. And any person who disagreed with them faced character assassination and personal attacks. To be witnessing such events among circles of young people between 18-22 seemed like a disaster to me. With more familiarity came direct interpretations of how human relations are built and maintained in these circles. Any difference of opinion implied the end to all personal and political relationships. It is at this point, that I was introduced to ‘The Sharp Knife of Memory,’ a memoir by Kondapalli Koteswaramma, by a close friend. Both my friend (who is Telugu) and the back cover of the book itself, expressed how this book shook the Telugu literary circles when it was read in its original Telugu edition in 2012. As I read it in its English translation published in 2015 by Zubaan Books, I could see the reasons for it clearly.
Political practice was a new venture, and the bitterness and everyday humility was overwhelming. In Koteswaramma, I found a very experienced foremother who could explain what was happening with me. She lived a long and rich life of 100 years in which she participated in the Indian nationalist struggle, the Telangana movement, and the Communist movement of India. She also lived in exile after the Communist Party was banned by the government for a couple of years. Being a memoir, the book contains memories. It does not actively philosophize or reflect on the memories at all. Koteswaramma never told me how I should navigate through my personal and political relations. She simply spoke about how she did it in her life ‘as a matter of fact’. I felt I could look up to her because beyond the realm of party politics and ideology, human beings mattered to her. She believed that difference of opinions and values should never become a matter of bitter personal attacks. She recollects two distinct moments from her life in which this gets portrayed. Dr. Achhamamba was a medical specialist who was close to the party, took care of child deliveries for female comrades, and also advocated for the importance of women’s healthcare and nutrition. Due to her rift with the party, it was ensured that all her valuable contributions were forgotten and she was outed from the party circles. Members were told not to maintain any personal relations with her as well. However, Koteswaramma recounts an event from a few days after the party’s rift with Achhamamba, when party members were attacked by a third party, and Achhamamba came forward and publicly defended them, implying that they were ‘her very own,’ and she would do anything to protect them. Koteswaramma felt guilty at that point, remembering the party’s behavior towards her and how that could not change who Achhamamba was. Also, more than expressing her disappointment with the split of the Communist Party of India in 1964, Koteswaramma seemed to be more heart wrenched about how those, who once worked together as comrades, stopped looking eye to eye because of the same. It pained her to see the fragility that ‘universal’ ideologies push through personal relationships, and decided she would continue maintaining relationships and contacts with the heads and the members of both the thereby split parties. Even in times of extreme financial problems, alongside sending money to her children whenever possible, she ensured sending membership fees to both the split parties. She was as much a loyal worker to the party, as a loyal critic (detaching ‘work’ from ‘critique’ in this context, which should ideally go hand in hand). She was deeply critical of the venomous partisanship espoused by the party and its people, and chose to stand by the human relations she had built over the years. I as a reader was ecstatic to see that there have in fact been women in left politics, who were vocally critical of the party over morphed human relationships.
In living the everyday mundane life, we always have individuals who have been close with us, have been related to us by blood and have been family outside family. When such individuals hurt to an extent of disrupting ethics and dignity, how do we then work on human relationships? A very common response is to ‘adjust’. Women especially, are both conditioned and forced to accept many unforeseen circumstances as ‘luck’, or worst – as trouble that they themselves have invited. It is difficult to leave an abusive relationship, it is ‘easier’ to plead a continuation and carry on with a marriage that no longer exists, it is a matter of compulsion for most of us to experience harassment (sexually included) within our families, at workplaces and in educational institutions. I for once, honestly never fit in those seemingly radical circles who enact loud-mouthed boldness, as if they shall break societal barriers on gender, caste, religion, sexuality, class etc. the very next day. Despite being privileged in terms of class, caste and religion, in my family, women have not been allowed to work outside home, leaving a marriage has been next to impossible and character assassination for women who have managed to be financially independent is almost reactionary. So I could never be idealistic about a ‘just’ world in these matters. Koteswaramma told me I have been right in not being idealistic, but also told me that it is essential and possible to ‘struggle’. She told me that there can be an intricate balance between a calm acceptance of the dirty realities on one hand, and a passionate will to work towards a better world on another, simultaneously. Koteswaramma faced a lot of snide remarks and rumours when she was deserted by her husband, Kondapalli Seetharamayya. Years later, having deserted by his party, during his last days when Seetharamayya was ailing and alone, it was repeatedly insisted that she meet him because it was her duty as a wife, to which she responded,
Is it enough that he wants a meeting? Shouldn’t I too want to meet him? Since I don’t, I won’t come
Eventually, Koteswaramma’s granddaughter Sudha, brought Seetharamayya with her to their house in Vijaywada, where Koteswaramma was also living. She refused to live with him, and they lived on separate floors. However, she knew what he liked, so on days she happened to cook his favourite meals, she cooked for him too,
I had neither love not hatred for Seetharamayya by then. Earlier, I had felt he had been cruel towards me. Later, I realized he hadn’t been happy either. His politics was his and I had mine. I moved on, doing what I could…
Koteswaramma’s husband was a senior member of the undivided Communist Party of India and later became the founder member of the Communist Party of India (ML) (PW), popularly known as the ‘People’s War Group’ (PWG). Seetharamayya also faced disagreements with his party members and comrades throughout his political career due to which, on the death of his mortal self, not a single comrade went to pay his/her respects to his body. Among many other reasons, his supposed extra marital affair was also a reason for him deserting Koteswaramma. They had two young children, and the party had decided that each parent would take custody of a child. Seetharamayya forcefully made use of some material and financial resources Koteswaramma’s parents had given her during marriage, including a piece of land which was legally in the name of Koteswaramma and her mother. He had threatened that if they objected to his actions, he would leave the custody of both their children with Koteswaramma alone. She was worried about what she could feed her children when she herself was struggling to make ends meet, and due to her mother’s wise advice, did not engage with any quarrel with her husband. After all this, when Seetharamayya’s body was lying lifeless without the company of his comrades, Koteswaramma had gone to pay her respects to him. Despite everything, and the individual Koteswaramma actively participating and growing in her political life which I as a reader could see at every moment till the end of her memoir, she did not forget to acknowledge that she became a communist because of her marital alliance with her husband. She looked at his corpse and felt no resentment. She felt sympathetic to him and remembered the songs they sang as revolutionaries. Koteswaramma recollects,
He had spent so many years of his life for the movement, for people. In the eighty years of life, he had spent sixty as a revolutionary. When he was not in prison, or did not live in exile, he had perhaps led a normal life for about twenty years. Why, then, did none of his party colleagues come to see him? Should they abandon him because he differed with them? Long ago, Seetharamayya had abandoned me, saying that I did not suit him. Now, his party comrades had abandoned him. Is this what life is about?
I believe Koteswaramma’s balanced approach towards the complexity of human relations can even be extended from concrete individuals to general events and situations in her life. She faced very difficult moments, with her deteriorated health during life in political exile and loss of her three children – all unforeseen and untimely. She expresses hurt and pain, but it is somehow subdued by her memories of people who stood beside her in such moments. She mentions stressful and lonely days, but they are mostly said ‘in passing’. Even while mentioning the most difficult and/or bitter moments, her tone has no resentment or anger. Koteswaramma does not show the tendency to ‘move on’ with life by forgetting or suppressing difficult memories and feelings, but believes in reflecting, remembering, learning and coming to terms with them. One is shaken by the serenity of her voice amidst all her terrible memories, and wonders what causes a person to suffer so much and continue to love. She magnifies amidst these moments, the goodness and love in people, the power of collectivities, the strength of her mother and the will to live and work,
Yet my loneliness does not wish to stay alone in a corner.
It weeps like the river Godavari when it hears of tragic events.
It gets emotional when I think about my revolutionary past.
It wants to preserve our past ideals for future generations.
It gets satisfaction in writing about our past so that the present generation can read it.
Kondapalli Koteswaramma passed away on September 19, 2018, and is still addressed as ‘Ammamma’ by the people who hold her close. I was proud that I lived for some years, while she was alive as well, but am deeply heartbroken to realise I could not meet her ever. I wish I could tell her that she destroyed me – I believe, for the better. I can no longer shy away from saying that ‘working’ towards human relationships is also political, and perhaps that is my politics.
(This essay was originally published in KITAAB.org)
Anamika Das is currently pursuing her MPhil in Social Sciences from the Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Email id: firstname.lastname@example.org