The democratic space to disagree is shrinking in India: Telugu writer Volga
At JLF 2017, Telugu writer P Lalitha Kumari aka Volga tells HT about her Sahitya Akademi Award winning book The Liberation of Sita , the misconceptions about feminism, and the story behind her intriguing pseudonym.Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 Updated: Jan 20, 2017 20:22 IST
Telugu writer P Lalitha Kumari aka Volga’s novella of interconnected stories The Liberation of Sita narrates events from the Ramayana from the perspectives of its female characters — Sita, Ahalya, Renuka, Urmila and Surpanakha — as they outgrow their victimhood and take charge of their stories. At JLF 2017, the soft-spoken writer-feminist tells HT about her Sahitya Akademi Award winning book, the misconceptions about feminism, and the story behind her intriguing pseudonym.
Your Surpanakha is a nature-worshipper and friends with Sita. What inspired these stories about minor characters from the Ramayana like Ahalya, Renuka, Urmila?
I wrote a dance drama where I made Surpanakha and Sita friends who dance together. They saw themselves as pawns in the Arya-Dravida war. But when my show was telecast on Doordarshan, they couldn’t understand what the suffering of Surpanakha was about as she had lusted after a married man.
So they censored this bit and I was really angry and have been wanting to write about the violence she underwent since then. Ahalya’s story was magical in its inspiration, the way it almost came to me.
Renuka, the mother of Parsurama, punished for looking at another man, is ordered to be killed by her son by her husband, which makes her realise her motherhood and wifehood are fragile like a sand pot. The reality remains the same today. In any untoward incident, the onus is on the woman: she wasn’t dressed right, she was out too late at night, she was asking for it. This disciplining and punishment of women’s sexuality continues from the days of the Ramayana.
How was the book received when it came out in the original, as Vimukta Kadha Samputi, in 2010?
It was well received and has been in print since then. It received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2015. The ideas behind the stories were understood and appreciated by people.
You’ve taught Telugu literature at the graduate level, written scripts for films and are currently the president of a Telengana-based NGO that works on women’s issues. How has your work shaped your writing?
As a literature student, I read the Ramayana, Mahabharata, many kavyas I have a strong foundation in literature. I’m a radical person and I’ve read progressive and revolutionary literature and worked in similar organisations. This helped me write my own stories.
Working with women from Asmita made me understand the challenges that women at the grassroots face. Through scripts for films, I try to reach a greater audience to spread my ideas.
In your session, you referred to your short story about Mandodari how it got you feedback to not write such stories. What happened?
I got calls where people told me not to write these kind of stories that are harmful to society. The story was about how Mandodari dealt with her husband bringing another woman home and to her favourite garden Ashok Vatika.
She argues with Ravana about how he despite being a Dravidian king is imitating Aryan culture to dominate Aryans. And she refuses to dress like a widow, something that Rama insists on. So he says his pyre will keep on burning till she gives in. In popular culture, long standing problems are referred to as Ravana’s pyre.
What do you think has changed since 2010 when Vimukta Kadha Samputi was received sans controversy?
A lot has changed. There is intolerance in our country towards the ideas we don’t like. The democratic space to disagree is shrinking and intolerance is increasing.
A lot of Bollywood actors have distanced themselves from the term feminist in recent years though their achievements suggest otherwise. Why do you think it has become such a bad word?
People who equate feminism with man-hating don’t understand what the term means. Feminism is about equality, about fighting the discrimination not only between the men and women but against discrimination of caste, race, gender and against those with different sexual preferences. Men also can be feminists.
What is the story behind your pen name Volga?
This was the name of my elder sister who died when I was 16. I started writing poetry around the same time and took her name as a pseudonym. With my Leftist leanings, Volga (the river in Russia) was a perfect mix of the personal and political.
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