There is no dividing line between her life as an activist and as a writer for Telugu feminist P. Lalita Kumari, better known by her pen name Olga.
“My activist life has always defined my writing and I am happy about it,” says Olga, who was in Bangalore recently to deliver a talk at the regional centre of the Central Sahitya Akademi.
“In fact, writing is also a form of activism and a very critical part of it,” says the author of novels, short stories and poems centred around bold feminist themes. Her writings, such as her 1987 novel Sweccha, have triggered important debates on feminist politics in Andhra Pradesh.
Olga’s writing career began during her college days, when she “wrote slogans on walls at night-time with her activist friends and came back home to write love poems.”
She never showed her poems to the friends for of being mocked over the choice of themes not “befitting” an activist.
“I did not tell my non-activist friends [either] because they would have asked me who I was writing for.”
Until the 1980s, it was activism that took centrestage in Olga’s life. Seventies was the time when she felt that she should “forget that she is a woman” and work hard in the Left organisations and writers’ groups she was part of.
“I soon realised that others will never forget that I am a woman, though I myself might,” says Olga.
That was when she felt that her identity as a woman could not be wished away.
“Though Left organisations have in recent years started talking about issues of gender and caste, ‘male domination’ was not a permissible word in the Seventies and early-Eighties because it was seen as distracting from the issue of class.”
More sure of herself
Once she identified herself with the feminist movement and started the organisation Asmita with other feminists in Hyderabad, she also became a more prolific writer. “I wrote a lot and believe that it is my experience as an activist that gave my writing authenticity.”
What pushed Olga to the limelight and the centre of a hot debate was Sweccha, which revolved around the life of a feminist activist. “I realised that when a woman writes, people read meanings beyond the text and draw parallels to her personal life, which never happens to a male writer.”
Such traumatic experiences, Olga believes, have made her stand more strongly on her ground and given courage to the next generation of women writers.
Olga agrees that feminist debates have grown more nuanced now, with younger women Dalit writers today questioning many of the stands taken by early feminists like herself.
“That is a good thing. Let their anger flow… We have to wash ourselves in their anger and grow more sensitive to their questions.”
She warns, however, that it is important for them to question patriarchy within the Dalit world with the same sharpness.
While identifying herself with the feminist movement, Olga is also keen to see herself as part of the activist-writer tradition in Andhra Pradesh inaugurated by the seminal work Kanya Sulkam by Gurujada Apparao in 1892.
She also believes that her early grounding in Marxism has given her the most important critical tools as an activist and writer.
“I could not have understood caste or gender without understanding Marxism. It gave me direction on how to understand contradictions and made my horizons winder.”