(Ex-Editor, ‘Sind Observer’, Karachi)
To the present generation the name of Kandukuri Veeresalingam Pantulu may be a faded memory, but to us of the older generation he is a living reality. He was and continues to be the hero of my life. Time has in no way diminished the veneration, love and affection I had for him as the greatest social and religious reformer of Andhradesh. He was a master of Telugu prose and a great literary man of his time. He was a dogged fighter all his life in the cause of the Hindu widow, Indian womanhood, and the underdog. He dedicated all the faculties of his mind and spirit, and the strength of his body to the regeneration of his Andhradesh, and was also known outside his Province as a giant amongst men. Frail of body and a chronic sufferer from asthma his indomitable will prevailed against bodily infirmity, and he led a most strenuous and purposeful life till his last days.
Veeresalingam Pantulu died at the age of over seventy years, full of honour and glory. His bitter opponents for fifty years amongst Hindu orthodoxy bemoaned his death and garnished his sepulchre. He was a philanthropist of a high order. He created a trust called the Hithakarini Samaj to which he entrusted the management of his property (including the royalty from his books) and which was to maintain the famous Widows’ Home built in his own gardens at Rajahmundry and conduct the several institutions founded by him.
I devoured all his books in Telugu; and even before I saw him in 1902 at Guntur in connection with the celebration of a widow marriage, which at that time convulsed the whole district, I was thoroughly imbued with the spirit of his reformist writings and liberal thought. I went to Guntur during the Dasara holidays like a young pilgrim of seventeen years to worship his deity. Physically he was not an attractive man; he was already advanced in age; but mentally he was as alert and pugnacious as ever.
My pilgrimage to Guntur was a decisive turning-point in my own personal history. I drew water from a deep well of Guntur for the occasion, and partook of the marriage feast. The couple were both Brahmins. The orthodox Brahmins of Bapatla excommunicated me and did not readmit me to the caste until I was administered a big dose of Prayaschit. As the barber was shaving my head, I inwardly resolved never to be a Brahmin but only a Brahmo, never to marry within the so-called sacerdotal caste but to go outside it, thereby becoming a casteless non-idolatrous Indian. In later years I practised my principles without molestation, thanks to the revolutionary spirit instilled in me and several of my contemporaries by the life and teachings of Veeresalingam Pantulu.
Readers of his Autobiography in Telugu and the volumes containing vivid and graphic descriptions of the earlier widow marriages at Rajahmundry, are thrilled by the superb courage, unconquerable will, and supreme tenacity of purpose of the greatest man that Andhra had produced for a hundred years. Every day he was in danger of his life. Every day calumny and abuse were his portion in life. Every day he went about his noble mission of saving the young Hindu widow from a loveless, cheerless and, not unoften, degrading life. He gave to these sisters his full measure of devotion; he gathered them in his Ashrama at Rajahmundry as a hen gathers chickens, spent all his money on their protection and education, and, himself a childless man, he was the father of numerous remarried women; and the grandfather, and great-grandfather of a few battalions of children left by his adopted daughters.
Today we are living in more spacious times. Hindu orthodoxy is dying, though a slow death. Women have come into their own, and widow marriages have become common amongst all castes. Post-puberty marriages are the order of the day among the higher classes, as amongst the lower castes. The rigidity of caste has considerably relaxed. Inter-caste marriages and inter-dining are common features of our social life. Even an excommunicated person like myself and my Brahmo friends in Andhradesh are not treated today as outside the pale of society. We are shown grace by being invited to dinners (even by Brahmins) and we are no longer social outcastes. Veeresalingam blazed the trail of social and religious reform, and many like me have followed him, and the harvest has not altogether been disappointing. It is claimed that the Andhras are in the forefront of social reform and women’s emancipation in the South, and that they are the faithful followers of Mahatma Gandhi. I should permit myself to say that Mahatma Gandhi’s work itself would have been impossible either in Andhra or any other part of the country, but for the earlier labours of the pioneers of social, religious and educational reform like Veeresalingam. Gandhiji watered the ground prepared by the toil and sweat of the earlier generation of reformers. This applies even to the uplift of Harijans.
Social reform was only one side–though a very important side–of Pantulu’s activities. He was a pioneer in the field of journalism, a profession to which I have the honour to belong. Journalism was to him a mission–a powerful weapon to fight social evils and to elevate society. He never espoused a cause for which he did not fight with all the fervour of his soul, whether successful or unsuccessful, and when he entered a fight his opponents knew that he would not take or give quarter. He was said to be a relentless, unforgiving and obstinate man. Circumstances might have made him so. Nevertheless, it must be said in extenuation that he would never have achieved his life’s great mission if he had been a boneless and spiritless person–all things to all men–without high aims, great ideals, and a firm determination to achieve them. Veeresalingam was a hero of action and one who gave and took blows without a whimper. He was a Karma Yogi.
As a journalist he was dreaded by evil doers and was a special terror to corrupt officials. In his days it was the fashion among the Indian officers of Government and wealthy persons to keep concubines and to gloat over the fact. It was a shameless exhibition of immorality. This social reformer waged a war against such immoralities and greatly contributed to purify society and to bring peace and happiness to many homes. Veeresalingam Pantulu was an unequalled master of satire and his trenchant writings in the Viveka Vardhani, his weekly Telugu paper, exposed to shame and ridicule these immoral practices. Never was satire used with such good effect in the cause of social reform and purity of personal character. No officer or rich person dared to visit his keep’s house as openly as before, and some could do so only after midnight. Housewives thanked and prayed for Pantulu Garu in their hearts.
Veeresalingam was no less merciless in dealing with corrupt officialdom. He tackled them, from the village official to the head of the district, and exposed their corrupt ways and exactions. There is a beautiful satire on ‘Vasoollu’ or illegal exactions to meet the expenses of touring officials. Nobody can improve upon it. Since Pantulu’s death I do not think Andhra has produced another satirist of such power and purpose. Combining a fine intellect with an iron will, he had also a very sensitive soul and a heart flowing with the milk of human kindness and sympathy. He was deeply moved by oppression and injustice from whatever source it came, and fought against them with all his characteristic energy. It is only just to mention here that, like most men of fifty or sixty years ago, he was loyal to the British Government and cultivated good relations with the top-ranking district officials, for he needed their help in his social reform activities, specially during the early days of the widow-marriage movement. He was proud of being made a Rao Bahadur and I heard him complaining to a Guntur reformer about the latter not addressing him as ‘Rao Bahadur’ on the envelope of his letters to him. He was equally proud of being an F.M.U. or Fellow of the Madras University, and this fact was inscribed on the front page of all his volumes. Such are the foibles of great minds.
In Rajahmundry there was a corrupt Hindu Magistrate whose bribe taking became a scandal. In one case he wrote a judgment different from the one he had actually delivered in the court after receiving a bribe, and the copies of the first judgment were torn and thrown out of the window of the Magistrate’s house. The Rao Bahadur had them picked up, pieced them together, and he started a crusade. The corrupt Magistrate eventually committed suicide.
There was another corrupt official. Veeresahngam produced a satire against him, and remarked significantly that “a new bull has come to graze in Rajahmundry’s pasture-land, and the quantity of grass he has been consuming beats all previous record.” After this appeared in the Viveka Vardhani the officer was transferred. On one occasion he wrote that a retiring District Judge had been distributing sanads to budding legal practitioners so freely that Pantulu Garu’s barber only half shaved him one morning and ran to the Judge’s house to obtain a sanad for himself–those were days when there were no law examinations for practitioners in the lower law courts–lest he (the barber) should be late in obtaining his promised sanad. Thereafter the system was abolished and the power taken away from District Judges.
Present day journalists write on all things under the sun except on the affairs of their own town, city, taluka or district. Veeresalingam made journalism a vehicle for the ventilation of local grievances and thereby directly appealed to the heart of the sufferers, created sympathy for them, and built up popularity for the paper by fearless advocacy and criticism. People may deride Parish Pump politics but in future these are going to sway the elections in India as in all countries.
No Andhra has done as much as Veeresalingam to enrich Telugu literature. He used this sweet and sonorous language to the best literary advantage and was the first to exploit its possibilities in innumerable ways. In fact, he blazed a trail for generations to follow. He was rightly called ‘Gadya Tikkana’ i.e., the greatest prose-writer. He combined simplicity and charm of style with the power of lucid expression. He would tell a tale with magical effect. He wrote books for the bairns. He translated or adapted into Telugu some of the best English books. He introduced the novel. He wrote the history of the Telugu poets after much labour and research. His translation of Sakuntala from Sanskrit into Telugu is still the best and has not been equaled by other poets. He made the leading article the instrument of his high purpose. His idiomatic and chaste expression is even today the envy of many writers.
In his later days Pantulu Garu became an anushthanic Brahmo. No man could have achieved his noble ends without deep piety, and the Prarthana Samaj at Rajahmundry is his gift to fellow-believers. Veeresalingam hated to parade his piety and religion. He kept his religious light under bushel. His religion expressed itself in action and the service of humanity. A born fighter, and not unoften a cynic, he did not expect much of human nature. The older he grew the more numerous became the objects of his compassion; and in ripe old age he mellowed much.
Every year on his way to Bangalore to spend the summer he would visit the ‘Andhrapatrika’ office at Madras to see Sri Nageswara Rao and my humble self too. In his later days he was among the advocates of a separate Province for the Andhras.
Veeresalingam was blunt, straight, and outspoken in his speech and made more enemies than friends. His was not the soft answer that turneth away wrath. He never suffered fools gladly. He was very liberal with his money but did not waste it. It may be said that he was a good businessman and a careful manager of his affairs and estate.
This sketch will not be complete without paying my humble tribute to the noble lady who, through good report and evil, stood by her husband in all the vicissitudes of his life. It is only just to say that Rajyalakshmamma Garu did not sympathise with her husband in the early days of his social reform activities, as they brought much trouble to the family and odium and excommunication. But like a good Hindu wife, she followed him though she did not understand him. She bore her heavy burden heroically and was of much help to him when both grew to middle age, as she then realised what great and noble causes her husband was espousing. She had joined him as a girl in her early teens and lived long enough to see honour and public esteem showered on her husband. She became herself the mother and the guardian of the Widows’ Home and saw many unhappy young widows resettled in life enjoying the happiness of a married life.
None in the Andhra country did greater service to his fellows than Veeresalingam Pantulu during a period of fifty years of social and literary activity. We are celebrating the centenary of his birth this month (April 1948), He was an Andhra to the core. He lashed his people because he loved them and served them too for the same reason. He gave his tan, man and dhan–his body, mind and wealth–to the cause of Andhra regeneration. He was one of the greatest social reformers of India, and one of Andhra’s literary geniuses; a pioneer who cut out for himself and others new paths; a humanitarian, a philanthropist, a friend of the oppressed and the downtrodden. And a tale of woe or injustice turned him at once into a flame of indignation.
May his spirit continue to animate Andhra life!