What we know of Maganti Annapurna Devi (1900-1927) is the fact that she gave away her ornaments, bangles and gold chain to Gandhi in support of the Independence Movement when she was twenty one and plunged into the movement.
What we also know from other sources, such as brief biographical notes, entries in compendiums of literature, is the fact that she enjoyed the freedom to go to Calcutta to study and to translate, among other things, Aurobindo’s letters to his wife from exile from the Bangla original. What has not been adequately discussed so far are a set of letters written by her to her husband, Maganti Bapineedu that were posthumously published by him.
The letters reveal the tension between Annapurna—a woman who had wanted to go to America much like her husband to pursue further studies—and her husband on the one hand, and on the other hand, her desire to serve the cause of her country, and her efforts to convince her husband to return to India to join the Freedom Movement.
That respectable compendium of Telugu Literature, Telugu Sahitya Kosamu: Adhunika Sahityamu (1851-1950) says this about Maganti Annapurnadevi:
A writer with nationalistic feelings; a patriot; wife of Maganti Bapineedu; a woman who participated in the Congress movement. The incident of her sacrificing all the jewellery on her person to the corpus fund of the Freedom Movement in the Streejana Mahasabha held in Vijayawada in 1921 influenced several people. Gandhiji praised her as his dear daughter. She dedicated her life to the nation by not accompanying her well-educated husband to America. [In her letters to her husband published posthumously] she urged that her husband “should not forget his country even if he forgets her and that she is not immortal.”
In the tributes paid in Triveni after her untimely death, Abburi Ramakrishna Rau praises Annapurnadevi’s translation of Aurobindo’s letters from exile to his wife. He adds that “[t]he translator must have been even more deeply impressed [than him about Aurobindo’s letters]. Now that she is dead, I realise how steadfastly and devoutly she must have cherished the great ideals held up in those letters of Aurobindo, which gave her the strength to dedicate herself to Gandhi and his great cause.”
Writing to Bapineedu after hearing of Annapurnadevi’s death, Mahatma Gandhi says: “If you have lost a dear wife, I have lost a dearer daughter… I do hope you will follow in her footsteps & carry out her many noble wishes.”
Annapurnadevi’s dedication to the cause of Indian Freedom Movement and her supreme sacrifice for the nation are unmistakably clear in all the above notes on her.
Commenting specifically on Annapurna’s Letters Ramakrishna Rau says:
Her letters to her husband while he was away in America, are a priceless possession for the Andhras. They are spiritual discourses of extreme ardour, whose monotony might be fatiguing, did we not feel in them apart from the beauty of the language, the yearnings, of a great spirit. Whether from the Golden Threshold at Hyderabad, or from her own simple Parisramalayam, we are conscious on reading these letters, of a good faith and a sincerity which evoke admiration and sympathy. Her death has taken away from us not merely an honest and energetic political worker, but a creative artist whose powers were in the process of unfoldment. Surely there is a curse upon Andhra genius. Do the gods love the Andhra youth, that they die so young?
We cannot but notice that even while Ramakrishna Rau writes about Annapoorna’s Letters, he cannot but mention “the honest and energetic political worker” in her.
Here it is not our intention to discount the greatness of Annapoorna’s patriotism and political activism. However, we would like to throw light on the issue of gender in Annapoorna’s letters that certainly impels us to question “the monotony” that Rau finds “fatiguing.”
In her own husband’s words in the “Preface” her Letters characterise the “psychological journey of a dedicated woman patriot.” He also says she is an example of how a woman could become great given the right kind of encouragement. Among the five reasons he gives for publishing his wife’s Letters posthumously Bapineedu mentions the following: “Embodied here are women’s rights, responsibilities of wife and husband, matters concerning other countries, the normal anger of a common Hindu [Indian] wife, jealousy, weaknesses, woman’s mind and human nature.”
When we read page after page of these Letters, the more mundane aspects of man-woman relationship compel our attention. Consider for instance, an extract from this early letter written on 14/8/1918 before Annapurnadevi’s marriage to Bapineedu. Annapurna happens to be Bapineedu’s own sister’s daughter:
Don’t try to accuse me in haste once again…. Think of the consequences of writing insultingly once again…. If I can earn money by any means, I will repay my debt. For now, you respect my wishes. These ornaments are not merely to enhance beauty. They will come in handy for you in your future. You don’t have to share all my thoughts with anyone. You don’t have to write to people like your father that I am goading you to get married soon.
Annapurnadevi is genuinely happy when Bapineedu earns a scholarship to go to America to study. She is pleased about his having gone to study agricultural sciences that would be useful to our country. She is equally keen to go abroad to study that would help her serve her own country better.
It is true that while both were keen to go abroad, it is Bapineedu who gets the opportunity, having earned a scholarship. She is disappointed when she finds that she does not get the same kind of encouragement from her husband. It is evident in the same letter of 14th August 1920 where she expresses her happiness at his studying agricultural sciences. She says: “You are not taking interest in my studies and encouraging me. Even if you thought encouragement was not necessary, you are not helping me economically either. Even if I have desires, how will they be fulfilled? I have no hopes of my getting any scholarship.”
She is acutely conscious of her low economic position that does not allow her to carry out her wishes to go abroad. Her restlessness is evident in the way she expresses herself:
You had not made any efforts while you were here to get me a scholarship…. Don’t worry about having upset me. You become successful and try to join me soon. I have no hope of getting any scholarship. I don’t know what to do. You have gone away leaving me behind, haven’t you! How many more hardships! How will I go to the foreign country? Would I have these problems if I were rich?
The above words exemplify the complex way Annapurna’s mind functions, expressing happiness, disappointment, ardent desire and an utmost sense of reality, all in the same breath.
Annapurna’s Letters make frequent references of her efforts to learn sufficient English before she prepares to go to America. She refers to her wishing to spend some time with Sarojini Naidu’s daughter, Padmaja. In this context, she mentions that her father is not too keen that she should move to Hyderabad for this. She says she is prepared to give up the whole world to do what she thinks is good and that she is prepared to sacrifice herself in the process of furthering her ideas and desires.
She is of the view that had Bapineedu made enough efforts before he had left for America, she too would have earned a scholarship to go with him. She expresses it in these words: “If you had tried in the past four months, maybe I would have got a scholarship! Why did you not allow me to go with you? Haven’t you thought about how if you yourself feel it is burdensome to make the attempts for my sake, how will others feel? She repeatedly mentions his having gone away without making sufficient efforts. Here is Annapurna once again:
Because you had left me and gone, I feel it extremely difficult. Had you not gone away, obtaining letters of recommendation etc., would not have been so hard. Who knows how many people I have to approach? Even if one were prepared to experience all such difficulties, will there be a positive result? How do we know?
Her Letters reveal not just a sense of disappointment, but a sense of being discriminated. In her letter of 17th November 1920 she says: “You are not putting in any effort for the improvement of my education. If I get educated on my own and earn respect, you too would feel honoured and feel happy. But you would not work hard even a little bit for it.”
She mentions her constant efforts through one Mr. Naidu (perhaps Raghpati Venkataratnam Naidu) to approach among others the Raja of Pithapuram, to seek help through Bapineedu’s friend Harischandrudu, and to obtain help through some friend in New York for her single-minded goal of studying in America. There are detailed references to the universities of Columbia and California where she prefers to go on her Doctor’s advice because of her delicate health. She even thinks of the courses she might like to take such as literature and media studies. We know from the Letters that she undergoes treatment probably for TB because there are references to sanatoria.
When she is totally exasperated that none of her efforts bear fruit, she tells her husband that he could at least help obtain personal loan from his friends by signing a promissory note. This is what she reveals in her letter of 20th October 1920:
The Circargaru and Nayudugaru will come to the Astika Mahasabha to be held on 23rd and 24th in Rajahmundry. The Circargaru has asked me to come there. He asked me to come there to discuss the matter concerning the scholarship. I am scared because I do not know how to speak to elders. Haven’t you gone away without experiencing any difficulties for my sake? You don’t on your own arrange for economic support. Nor do you send me to great people here so I can receive better education here. I don’t have any money now. You could at least sign a promissory note and get me the money. You write to Harischandrudu. If I can a scholarship I can pay for my education and come. Your father has not given me the money he was to have given.
What is remarkable is that even in such a helpless condition, Annapurna wants to maintain her self-respect and dignity. Of course, there are indications in some early letters that she is patriotic, that is being drawn towards the ideals of the national movement. She says that she would like to earn enough money so that she could contribute monetarily to the freedom struggle.
Thus the economic independence of herself, the freedom of the self and freedom of the country are so inextricable interwoven in the Letters that it is difficult to meaningfully talk about any one of these without reference to the others. And yet there are references within the body of small single letter anger at her husband’s going away to America without ensuring she too would follow to study with him, her feeling sorry for having admonished him and her attempt to make up with him.
We also learn from the frequent references to books she is translating, her efforts to get the best illustrations for her books meant for children, her attempts to obtain copyrights from the authors and her wishing to publish that she is totally dedicated to the task of learning and teaching. She is not tired of constantly reminding her husband of the different things he must arrange through his contacts in Calcutta to have these books published.
Almost every letter begins with her waiting for his response to her previous letter. She is not tired of reminding him that he must at least write to her once a week. There is an occasional letter that begins by expressing her happiness at having received a response to a previous letter. But there are moments too when she is totally irritated with him such as the following:
I am tired of waiting to receive your gracious response. Do you think it is a waste of time to reply to my letters? Good. If indeed you think so, why don’t you say so to me? I have decided not to write to you till I receive a reply from you. Your previous letter came on the 9th. Now twenty days have gone by. Maybe you think you have become great after going to America. It is difficult for great people like you to write to common people like me. What is it if it is not a decision not to write? You are a rich, self-respecting person living in America. I, a poor Hindu girl. Now there is a great difference between us. Even if I appear to be a poor Indian girl, I am proud of my homeland. Once upon a time, this Bharatmata stood grand among great nations. Because of her undeserving sons, her reputation has vanished.
Having used such strong words, she says she is unable to comprehend why he has stopped writing and wonder if he is unwell. She is even ready to comfort him with the words you would expect from the most dutiful of women to her dear husband. Consider the following words:
You are the light of my life. My life is useless if that light does not shine bright. Otherwise, it is better that the beautiful flower of my life burns out rather than attain its full flowering…. All my other desires are temporary. You represent the permanent happiness. It has not been possible for me even to hear that you are fine there. Once married, what does it matter if the wife and husband are poor? If you are around, I would consider it my fortune even to go and beg along with you. What other path is there for a wife other than that of the husband?
She gently chides him for not having written to her when he could write letters to his friends and to his niece. She admonishes him for sending photographs of nude white women to her. She even tells him that others have noticed his not writing to his wife and that she has to tell lies to keep up the pretence of having been in correspondence.
There is a clear indication of her wishing to reach her husband in America by a certain month. But at the same time there are clear signs of her not receiving any funding to go. There is an indication of the pressure building up on her to send him money for his studies. She accuses him of calling her as absolutely poverty stricken. Look at her response to him:
Did you expect wives to be rich? To think of leading a life on your wife’s money! Are you in love with your wife or with her money? Perhaps, men are happy with money, nothing but money!
True. Hindu wives ought to be rich. Because their husbands are useless…. I wonder if there has been any use in your going to America. You continue to belong to the class of ignorant men here who are narrow in their thinking and greedy…. How should it matter how my parents are…. Didn’t you know we were not rich? Have you discovered it but now? …. I never imagined you were so lacking in sense. If you had expressed your thoughts, some Kamma parents may have sold their daughter to you! It would have been possible for you to have lavishly spent that money in the foreign country.
Let us leave all such things for now. Do you consider me mean because you have not been able to get the money you expected from me?
Amidst all this, Annapurna does not lose sight of her strong desire to go abroad to pursue her studies. She talks about the possibility of obtaining a scholarship that J.Kuppuswamaiah was offering for a student from the Kamma community wishing to go abroad for further studies. In this context, she says that in case she is not eligible for such a scholarship, if her husband is in a position to arrange for the entire amount of money necessary for her education as loan without interest, she will be able to repay it after some time. Such is her keenness to pursue her education. It is in this letter of 26th January 1921 that she for the first time makes reference to the distaste her countrymen have started developing for the English language. She says:
People here have developed distaste towards English language. Non-cooperation movement has begun. The Non-cooperation movement has spread in the Andhra country. The desire for freedom has spread in the hearts of the Hindu people. They have started keeping charkhas in homes and spinning…. Because of Gandhi Mahatma the entire country is participating in the struggle.
Very interestingly, this letter ends with her asking her husband enquiring about what happened to the promised help for her education from the New York friend. Her next letter of 2nd February reiterates the promise of this New York friend, but also urges her husband to give away his five acres of property as contribution to the freedom struggle then. There is a clearer indication in her letter of 9th February that help from her husband’s friends for her education is not forthcoming. Simultaneously, from here on, there is a clear indication that she was getting more and more involved in the nation’s struggle for freedom. Reproduced below is her entire letter of 2nd March where she says:
My dean Needoo,
Received both your letters. Sorry I have not written to you last week. Don’t worry about my coming. I have decided to stay here this year. I have no desire to leave my homeland when it is experiencing such a wonderful struggle. I will go there only when I am able to go with my own money. Will write in more detail next week.
It is from this point that we see her glorifying Mahatma Gandhi’s role and hear of her supreme sacrifice of giving up all her jewellery and the clothes she had got ready for her visit to America.
Very little critical attention has been paid to an extremely complex and engaging narrative such as this. Whatever little we have found so far points to the glorification of Annapurnadevi’s role in the service of the nation. Here we tried to frame such a powerful narrative within the nationalist ideology and framework. It neatly fits into the frame of the supreme sacrifice a woman was expected to make for the sake of the country during the nationalist struggle. For, what else does the Mother expect when help from her sons is not forthcoming? There is a wish on the part of Bapineedu too when he attempts to publish her letters, to showcase her life as an example for other women to follow. For this sake, it borrows from the lavish encomiums Gandhi has showered on Annapurna in a separate note of appreciation that is printed before we start reading her narrative. Gandhi says: “I wish that many wives will acquire by their purity, single-minded devotion, the gentle but commanding influence, Annapurna Devi acquired over her husband.” We wish to argue that such a reading would be possible only if one were to completely ignore the feminist cause Annapurna’s Letters painstakingly portray.
Note: All translations from the Telugu text are by the authors.
Bapineedu, ed. Annapurnadevi Lekhalu.
Telugu Sahitya Kosamu: Adhunika Sahityamu (1851-1950). Hyderabad: Telugu Akademi, 1986. Rau, Abburi Ramakrishna and Others.