Kondapalli Koteswaramma’s one-hundredth birthday – and her death barely a month later — was a cause for celebration by feminists and left groups in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. There was a large gathering at her birthday celebrations on August 5 at Visakhapatnam. People, both men and women, came from as far off as Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Tirupati. Feminists of all hues, from the CPI to the Naxalite groups as well as feminists outside the pale of the Left, as well as men from several walks of life attended. Dalits and Muslims were largely absent. It was an astonishing gathering for the Telugu states, which are usually marked by small, close-knit groups, each jealously guarding its space and snarling at anybody stepping over the invisible line that marks one from the other. This is true of identitarian groups as well.
Koteswaramma’s own personality and writings are only half the reason for this unique get-together. Everyone has slowly come to realise that we find ourselves in extraordinary circumstances today. We face a hydra-headed Hindu behemoth that has swept countless Indians into its fold. We sense that unless we unite and present a common front, there is little we can do to face it. Hyderabad was also the scene of a post-MeToo campaign. Actor Sri Reddy disrobed herself in protest against the sexual exploitation rampant in the film industry, and this gave rise to a resurgence of feminist interest in the issue. They began campaigning for the rights of junior film artists, who have been consistently exploited and sexually abused. It was in this campaign that feminists of all hues joined and a band of assertive feminists proclaimed their existence as a loose group.
It was in this context that Koteswaramma’s 100th birthday celebration happened — the initiative came not from her family, but from the larger group of well-wishers. The widow of Kondapalli Seetharamaiah, the founder of the People’s War Group, Koteswaramma participated in the Telangana movement as a member of the undivided CPI and later was associated with various reform and feminist movements in Andhra Pradesh. She began writing her memoir, Nirjana Vaaradhi, when she was 92 years old; the book was published in 2012 to become a runaway bestseller. Tragedy makes good literature, it is said, but readers sensed Koteswaramma’s empathy towards her fellow beings and her steady resolve behind the life full of tragic events.
Tragedy bereft of compassion and resolve alone does not make good literature. By writing her memoirs, Koteswaramma defined herself, her life, her emotions, on her own terms. A story of incredible grace, dignity and resilience, she was revealed not as a tragic figure, not as the wife who was abandoned for the lover, not as the mother who was rejected by her children for the father; she revealed herself as a powerful woman, a survivor with a strong core.
The tragedies in Koteswaramma’s life reflect both the problems of an age and of the communist movement. As we read her account, we find that the history of the Left movement is almost entirely that of upper-caste Hindu men. Women enter it largely as the cooks, den-keepers, stenographers, copiers, artistes; Dalits barely make an appearance and the sole entry of KG Satyamurthy in the book reveals the antagonism he faced in this world. Christians, Muslims, Adivasis and other minorities do not appear, though Andhra Pradesh has them in probably a higher proportion than other states. This upper-caste structure meshes easily into the freedom movement, and the culture of sharing of space reveals the close links between them as well as the vulnerability of the movement, which led it to be weakened later.
For a long time, Marxist orthodoxy would give no room to discussions or readings about caste and its influence on Indian life till pressure from below was built up. We also note that similar pressure from the debate on the issues of Muslims and Adivasis has led to the Left redefining its policies.
Koteswaramma’s memoirs found a home among the Leftists who appreciated her commitment to the goal of socialism. Feminists welcomed her memoir and saw them as an assertion of dignity, independence and resilience.
Speaking at the meeting, Koteswaramma said, “Isn’t all of life sorrow? We cannot wipe away all the tears; this is the story of women through so many generations.” Yet she was full of hope. “In a world where there is no hierarchy, where there is no heroism, where there is no subordination or hegemony, whether in parties or among individuals, where there is no dominant caste or marginalised caste, there is Karuna (compassion) in that socialist society.”
In a memorial meet organised in Hyderabad on October 1, Mallu Swarajyam, the grand old lady of Telangana communist politics declared that she would not say “Joharlu (pay homage as to a dead person)” for Koteswaramma. She declared that she would only say “Jai jai” to Koteswaramma who had brought about a revolution of sorts in literature by writing her memoirs.