Originally written and published in 2012 in the Telugu language, Nirjana Vaaradhi, is a memoir by Kondapalli Koteswaramma. Sowmya V.B. translated this book in English, and ‘The Sharp Knife of Memory’ was published and released in 2015 by Zubaan books, to reach a much wider circle of readers, beyond the boundaries of the two Telugu speaking states of India.
Koteswaramma left her school education at a very young age on her own terms, despite her mother’s protests, to work as a nationalist freedom fighter. Over the years, she also became a part of the Telangana movement and the Communist movement, which shaped her life in many ways, all of which has been beautifully laid down in this memoir. Social activist and author, Gita Ramaswamy, in a detailed introduction of the book tells us how the book shook the very foundation of the Telugu literary circles. People ordered for several copies, many wanted to speak to Koteswaramma desperately after reading this book, and many even had episodes of break down while reading it. Gita also gives brief accounts of the challenges faced by political activists, especially women, in various stages of their lives. The introduction promises readers, a journey filled with memories they will cherish in the pages ahead.
The ‘memoir’ as a genre often gives the author the freedom to choose memories, from which some can be exempted while others retained, in the process of narration. The genre is categorically significant as it need not follow a linear way of narrating events. However, Koteswaramma’s memoir is very detailed, and hardly has any gaps or ruptures. Her tone unsettles the readers deeply. It is neither dry nor plain, but it is simultaneously bereft of any strong emotion, especially resentment. She speaks to us as if ‘things just happened’.
One of the first instances of this can be encountered when she gives birth to a boy, but loses him within a few months. She puts the entirety of this event in a single line – “Perhaps he felt that I did not know how to raise him.” Since this happens in the initial pages, the reader may assume that in the long and rich life lived by her, this may be a small incident and that is why she looks past it, without much emphasis. But as she unfolds her life more, we realise soon enough, that her tone is generally detached, and yet somehow succeeds in shaking the readers from within. She narrates memories of women comrades playing an additional role in the household and in the kitchen, with lack of proper sanitation, and physical turmoil they experience in times of pregnancy. At one point, after the then undivided Communist Party of India is banned by the government and the revolutionaries have to go ‘underground’, she gets pregnant once again. An abortion is ordered by party mandate as it deems a ‘pregnant comrade’ burdensome and unfit for work. The members administer a herbal abortion on her, which terminates the foetus but results in severe blood loss leading to extreme weakness that prevails for some days. Even after the end of this episode, Koteswaramma does not blame the party, its ethics, the silence and absence of her husband from this event, and does not particularly vocalise her consent/non-consent on this abortion. In fact, she juxtaposes this episode with the individual roles played by a handful of her comrades, in restoring her health. She is more expressive about the gratitude and affection she felt from such comrades, than the pain she faced by certain others, or the party itself. The reader is left shaken by the calmness of her tone across a horrid and physically jarring event of this nature.
Her life begins to witness a serious downfall after the party gives up armed struggle, and the revolutionaries emerge out of exile. Her mother, who till the very end stands by her daughter – raising Koteswaramma’s children and supporting them, by the end, painfully remarks on her life being severely drenched with sorrow alone. When her husband, Kondapalli Seetharamayya (a senior member of CPI) deserts her, she once again expresses this incident as – “His words hit me hard,” without stretching it any further. There is a very brief, almost negligible mention about Seetharamayya’s extramarital affair with another person, who the reader does not know anything about till the end. Koteswaramma is not only mindful about how much the ‘other woman’ should appear in the tale of her memories, but also ethical to not give away her identity in any way. The readers are just told that she was also a reason behind her husband leaving her. Koteswaramma resumes her education and soon takes up a post as a hostel warden, creating bonds with students who remember her till the very end of her life. The pages dedicated to memories of Karuna, Koteswaramma’s only daughter, are particularly vivid, and depict a shift in her tone. Despite her otherwise detached tone, she has not hidden the pride she feels for Karuna, as Karuna completes her medical education, becomes a mother, earns the good will of people, and is also vocal about societal issues.
Soon, Koteswaramma loses everyone, almost as if there was a period in her life in which people she deemed close dropped dead one after the other. The reader is left as lost as Koteswaramma herself is, during and after these incidents. But in all these sorrowful events, the individual Koteswaramma or even the dead individual’s corpse is always surrounded by people. She is always recalling things people have said, things people have done, and is surrounded by people as the events are unfolding. In this book, the individual is always subsumed by the presence of some kind of a collective.
The most striking of these individual absences is that of her husband. Seetharamayya does not feature in the memories of her political life much. He is mentioned only when his actions have marked the course of her life severely. She is majorly surrounded by her comrades and friends collectively, even though there is always an acknowledgement that it is her alliance with her husband that made her a communist. When the Communist Party of India (ML) (People’s War) denounces Seetharamayya and he is ailing, she refuses to meet him or accept him, despite pressures from various quarters – including close ones, because of his actions from the past. She feels pity for him when she goes to pay her respects to his dead body, and realizes that none of his ex-comrades are present for his last rites. His party had rejected him, just as he had rejected her. Despite the past that Koteswaramma shared with her husband, looking at his corpse, she empathetically and respectfully expresses,
“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?”
This book speaks volumes about the lives of female activists, and tells the readers that Koteswaramma was a dedicated communist activist. Despite her protesting the division of the Communist Party of India in 1964, she sent membership fees to both the thereby split parties. She valued human relationships, old camaraderie, and the significance of unity between parties and people for the success of the movement. But alongside being loyally dedicated, she was always deeply critical of the venomous partisanship portrayed by the communist parties she was a part of, at the cost of basic human ethics and love for people.
Kondapalli Koteswaramma is lovingly addressed as ‘Ammamma’ by the people who know and remember her closely, even today. She passed away on September 19, 2018, having lived for a 100 years and leaving a treasure of memories and lessons from her life,
“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.”
Just like her mother, she was also hailed, remembered and honoured as a communist revolutionary on the death of her mortal self. Koteswaramma’s works in literature, of which this book remains a landmark, must be read and spoken about, as widely as possible.
(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: [email protected]