Though my brother-in-law persuaded me to stay back and continue with the studies, I didn’t listen. I told my brother-in-law that I would go back to my village and take up political work. Thereafter, I gave up my studies and decided to leave Bangalore. It was a very serious and a sudden decision. Once I take a firm stand on any issue there’s no question of anybody influencing or changing it. I left Bangalore for Madras to reach my village. As the train was about to move from the Madras central station Amir Hyder Khan appeared on the platform. Earlier, I had informed V K Narsimhan or somebody else that I had stopped studies and was going back to my native place. I also told them I would come to Madras in the month of May, meet all our friends and chalk out a future course of action. I gave all my travel details, including the date, route and trains. Probably, they might have passed on the information to Hyder Khan. So he came to see me. He suggested that I join the movement immediately and take up the party work actively. I told him that I was prepared to come along, but asked him to give four months time so as to sort out all the issues back home and convince the family members, especially my mother, of my decision to join politics in a big way. I also made it clear that there was no question of staying aloof from the movement and that I would work in whatever capacity they want me to and strengthen the movement.
My elder sister used to always complain about my ferocious behaviour when I was young, but later – after I joined the Communist Party – she recognised that there was a sea change in my outlook and attitude. In the later years, I became very calm and composed and used to converse with the family members in a convincing manner without trying to put across my views strongly. At least, that was what my sister noticed. However, I was very troublesome in my early childhood. I used to resist all the efforts of my parents to send me to school. If they forcefully took me I would create a scene in the class often threatening the teacher – Y Sitaramaiah – with repercussions. I would tell him that a devil has possessed me and that I would like to see what he can do. One day, it so happened that I pushed him to the wall. Of course, the teacher responded in his own style. He thrashed me up with the cane and made me sit to the wall. The fallout, as all can imagine, was that from that day onwards I started attending school regularly. Being a communist does not mean that you must be angry at all the times, but one must give primacy to discipline in personal as well as public life. I never got angry though such anger would have been justifiable under the given circumstances.
So, after promising Hyder Khan of my early return to Madras, I straight away went to my village. This time, my mother, brother and other family members did not employ their usual persuasive skills. At least, my mother was convinced that things might have gone wrong somewhere and somehow and there I was back in the village. She said: “Do whatever you like. We are not going to come in your way and object to your activities.” I felt very relieved that finally all the family members had understood me. Later, I took up an extensive study of the communist movement in the country as well as the socialist ideological doctrines. I used to get the related literature from Bombay secretively. By then, I started organising the local youths politically. We started a small library to take up further study of socialism. That was in May of 1932.
In the five months I was there in Alaganipadu to settle domestic issues and take up political work, many events unfolded one after the other. I came to learn from the newspapers that Amir Hyder Khan, V K Narasimhan and all other leading comrades had been arrested. A case of conspiracy was slapped against them and the investigation was on. So the question of my going to Madras and meeting all our associates and colleagues did not arise. Even though I was resolute on working for the communist movement secretively, going and meeting Amir Hyder in the prison openly would have unnecessarily exposed me to the police and they would have trailed my movements.
Meanwhile, the national movement for independence gained momentum what with the London Round Table Conference failing to make any headway. Gandhi returned empty handed and gave a call for a resurgent movement. What I did at that time was to gather more youths and organise the poor peasant-farm labourers’ movement in the village to highlight at least some of their immediate demands. I thought the organisational work could be carried out through the young people. Since I was firm on pursuing the path of revolutionary politics, I thought there was no sense in retaining personal property, including the lands. So by May 1932 I settled all those questions. I told my elder brother that since he had educated me and had a family and children to look after, he could retain my share of property and lands as well. I tried to convince him that I don’t need any property as I was going to get involved with politics for a lifetime. I made it clear that whatever share of property I get, he and Ram could share it equally while giving me some sort of an allowance to carry on my political work. I insisted that he take a major share because he was the one who had been looking after the family affairs all along and had many obligations. My sister-in-law was carrying then. She had been suffering from complications related to delivery since 1927. I had to take care of her, buy medicines and get her treated at the Nellore hospital once in a while. In those days, we had to rely on Nellore, which was some 16 miles away, for everything, including the urine tests. Though we were a landlord family – quite well off from that angle – spending of money was always difficult. For me, there was no limit on spending money. So I used to take a bicycle, go to Nellore and buy some medicines and fruits for my sister-in-law. That way, I was very friendly with her. I think she had a baby girl by then. She was Vidyullatha who passed away recently. My sister-in-law had another child later on.
My elder brother did not agree to my proposal initially. He said he had got his own property and I could take mine. As per the division, I was to get some 13 acres of land and a house. Ultimately, I persuaded him to give me 6.5 acres, a house that was lying vacant and Rs. 2,000 towards expenses. I turned that house into a library-cum-school-cum-office for carrying out the organisational work. There was a severe economic depression then. Prices of the land and the agricultural produce were very low. An acre of land was around Rs. 300 to 400 and a bag of paddy used to fetch a meagre Rs. 2.5. So it was very difficult to manage finances. My mother too got 13 acres as her share. I asked my elder brother to purchase my share of land since I was not going to cultivate it anyway and share the remaining land with Ram. That fetched me another Rs. 3,000 later. I thought instead of selling the land to somebody else, it would be better if I transferred it to my elder brother. Another reason behind that decision was that among the landlords in the village my brother was the only one who was actively working on his fields.
Later on, some persons made critical remarks on my decision. They said what was the great deal in Sundarayya selling his lands to his own brother and where had all his communist principles – on the distribution of land to the poor – gone in the whole affair. On that controversy, I said: “Who am I to give land to the poor. They have to fight and get it.” As regards my handing over of the lands to my elder brother, I said he had been managing the farms for a long time and would continue to do so. In that way, there would be no dispute in the division of property. My elder brother died sometime in 1948 after he underwent surgery for the third time. He had peptic ulcer and some other problems. So while the division of property was settled, some of my relatives and friends said I was stupid to have handed over the lands without any substantial gains in return. I told them the case was otherwise. Actually, my brother never refused to give me money right from my student days. And, for the land that I transferred to him, he gave me Rs. 6,000 later which was double the price that was agreed upon earlier. He would just give me money, be it Rs. 2,000 or Rs. 5,000 without ever bothering to ask on what I was spending it or whether I had been left with any money. In one way, he gave me quite a lot of money for my whole activities. I told my relatives and friends that it was not the question of money, but of maintaining harmonious relations within the family.
Later, a part of the land was given to my fourth sister. My mother wanted to see her in a high stature of a landlord family and be equal to others. So she gave some land to Ethimukkala Ramachandra Reddy who was her husband. He had some fantastic plans related to farming, but he failed in all those attempts. In the process, he got mired in debts. There was no question of my sister being treated equal because her husband was in the habit of spending a huge fortune on unproductive plans. However, Ramachandra Reddy was sober in his behaviour. He used to walk all the way from his village, which was some 15 miles away, to meet us. In fact, it was the easy way and a short route to reach our village. He would start in the morning and reach Alaganipadu by the evening. Communication and mobility between villages was not much then. People had to either take bullock cart or walk to the nearest railway station Talamanchi and then get down at Thettu. From there again they have set on foot or travel by bullock cart for 10 to 12 miles to reach our village. It was quite a risky affair and costly one too. Therefore, most of the people generally used to take the shortest route crisscrossing the fields and the deserted mud paths. Ramachandra Reddy was a hard worker too, but my sister had a problem with him. Naturally, it was the fallout of male dominance in landlord families. He used to abuse and quarrel with her on petty issues.
My mother used to always complain that he was not treating my sister properly. I would tell her that there was no use in taking the complaints to me and what would she want me to do. I also suggested that if sister was unable to bear the pangs and willing to leave her husband, she could come and stay with us. I would look after her for the rest of her life. By that time, division of property was yet to take place. My sister too would come at times and complain, but I used to scold her for sticking to her in-law’s house. Whenever I had a chance to go to my sister’s place, I would shout at Ramachandra Reddy and seek an explanation for abusing and beating his wife. I would seldom tell him that it was not a question of my sister’s life alone, but of every other housewife. Reddy would give vague replies saying that sometimes he might lose patience and resort to abuse and that it was not a common occurrence. However, one midnight, my mother came to me and said that my sister had been beaten up very badly by her husband and asked me to come over with her to settle the dispute. I again told her that if sister was not happy with her husband she could come and stay with us. I proposed that she could take 6.5 acre of land from my share and make out a livelihood. But when we went to my sister’s house, she refused to heed my advice and her husband too was adamant in his behaviour. When I asked her point blank on what was her final decision she started staring at my mother, who was signalling her not to come. Pitching in, her husband ordered her not to leave his house. She neither wants to leave her husband’s house nor was she able to put up with his torture and abuse. So there was nothing I could do to settle their marital discord. I was very upset with the whole drama and warned my mother not to bring her daughter’s sob story to me in future.
Same was the case with my third sister. Her husband was very rude towards her and wayward in his behaviour. But she had a great affection for me. She used to complain against her husband. I remember I used to confront my brother-in-law and question him. They were staying in another village called Ravuletipadu in Nellore district. On many an occasion, I advised him to change his habits which were not going to help him in anyway in future. He had the habit of smoking ganja and spending a lot of money on gambling and other useless things. More than that, he was running after other women. We reprimanded him on this issue alone many times, but he didn’t give up. So I told my sister to file for divorce and come back to us. I also asked her why was she so bothered about living with a person who refuses to change. And, if she was so afraid of societal infamy in the event of a divorce, was she ready to live under circumstances of constant abuse and torture? If her husband doesn’t respect her, why should she stay with him? I told her to give a damn to society and just walk out of her marriage. She was not ready for divorce; she invoked the principle that persons would gradually change their habits and become sane over a period of time. I said: “Alright. Do whatever you like. It’s your hell.” Despite such problems in their marriage, both my sister and brother-in-law used to give a lot of respect to me.
In the later years, my third sister presented the house at Shankara Agraharam which came as her share of property to Ram to start a hospital. In fact, Ram was not ready to take up the house initially. I persuaded him to accept it if not for his own but to honour her affection and give her the feeling of satisfaction. I told him that if he did not take up the house, eventually her husband would sell it away to invest in some worthless business. I suggested that we could later on settle the issue, but first he take over the house. That issue was somehow settled later. Another aspect was my mother’s complaint against my elder brother’s growing domination in the management of household affairs as well as farm lands. She used to confide all those matters in my elder sister. Her grudge was that her elder son was trying to eliminate her from the management position. She was fully accustomed to managing all the affairs and dictate things. If on any matter she had differences with my elder brother, she would create a hullabaloo. I used to tell her not to bother about the management issues and advise her to take rest. After all, she had been doing all the work for so many years. Now, she should let her elder son to manage the affairs. I used to play a mediator’s role between them. If they had argument on any issue, I would suggest something and my brother would heed it without much protest. However, he used to pick up a lengthy and heated argument with her until after my intervention. I also remember my mother had two sisters elder to her, one of whom was the paternal grandmother of Jakka Venkaiah. Dr Sesha Reddy’s mother was the daughter of the same aunt. She had two daughters and a son. Earlier, I mentioned about her elder daughter, whose husband died in our village of malaria. The second one was Sesha Reddy’s mother and her only son was the father of Jakka Venkaiah. After her husband’s death, the elder daughter was given some two puttis of paddy towards maintenance. Even now, she gets her share. She is 83-year-old and is bent at the hips. I saw her only the other day. My aunts’ families were quite well off and we had very cordial relations with them. In our early childhood, both I and Ram used to go to their houses to spend time in the holidays. Even before my father’s death, our families were very affectionate to each other and used to mix up quite freely. My second aunt had her house at Nidumusili village. Her husband was a rich peasant and a workaholic. They had two sons and half-a-dozen daughters. There was an intense faction rivalry in that village between Harijans and the landlords on one side and between the landlords and the weavers on the other. Each faction was trying to eliminate the other physically and in one such feud my uncle was killed. Till his death, he had accumulated a lot of liabilities. As long as the faction feuds continued he had to take huge loans to maintain his group.
So after his death, it was very difficult for the family to clear off the loans in cash. Wherever there were difficulties, I used to go and visit those families. By that time, my father too was killed in factional violence. One day the rival faction waylaid and killed him. I think it was in 1923 or 24. We took our aunt’s family into protection for a few months and settled their affairs and got them some means of livelihood. Though we helped them in every possible way, they themselves were very hard working. In the process I became very friendly with Balarami Reddy. Later, he became actively involved with social work organising inter-caste marriages. I used to go to their village quite often. That was the whole story of my extended family. However, the main aspect was that all the women had not had a happy life. They had to endure all kinds of difficulties. Those experiences made me sit up and think of ways to work for the emancipation of women in the later years. I thought if the fate of women belonging to the richer families was this horrible then what could be the life of others from the weaker and poorer sections.
I also remember another instance where discrimination was rampant. I was working along with the farm labourers on the fields in the village. My mother would send food to all the workers, but separately cooked food for me. I would tell her repeatedly not to send food separately for me; it would be better if she sent common food. I warned her that if she continued to discriminate against the workers I was not going to take the food. If necessary, I would share it with the workers and eat the food sent for them. Due to my pressure, things improved a little a bit, but did not change much. Naturally, she would not bother to prepare quality food for the labourers as she would do for me. From the beginning, my mother was very fond of me and used to feed me good food. I liked milk and curd a lot and she would ensure that enough quantities of them were kept aside for me. I had also a liking for curdled milk, which was tastier, at least for me. Whenever I used to go to my village during holidays, my mother would always complain that I was spoiling all the milk stored in the house. I would tell her to keep milk separately for me; otherwise I was going to curdle the milk and make cheese out of it. I quickly picked up all the skills related to farming operations. Seeing me work hard on the fields, the workers used to comment that I was quite like my father in carrying out the farm work. I would tell them that it was not a big deal. I was very healthy and eating a lot of food, so it was not very difficult for me to work hard physically on the fields. However, it was a hard task. I used to plough, sow, dig canals and do every other thing in the agricultural season, but for me, the most difficult task was harvesting where one has to bend at the hips and go on cutting the crop. Though it was painful, I still used to do the harvest work. My brother would watch me doing all those things. One day, he commented that I was equal to any other woman worker, but needed some more experience to match the skills of a professional male farm labourer. In fact, I used to do at least 3/4th of the work what the senior workers were capable of doing. There was one R Pitchaiah. He was the head servant. He was there with my father even before my birth. He was very affectionate towards me. One day, I asked him how those people were harvesting for a long time without ever complaining of back ache. I told him that I would get back pain even for the few hours’ work I put up in a day. He told me that it was the case with everybody; since I was new to farming I was expressing my grief, but all the workers put up with the pain for they have to work and work fetches them food and money.
There was one incident when I was working at the fields. A bullock which was brought for ploughing turned violent. I was guiding it. It turned back and started shoving me. I caught hold of its horns and tried to push it back lest it would injure me seriously. Then the workers cried out to take hold of its reigns and stretch them. I did that and it was very painful for the bullock; it could not resist any more. After the bullock was brought under control, the workers in a tone of amazement told me that it was a very bold act to have caught the bull by its horns. I laughed it away saying there was no way I could have saved myself other than holding its horns. Coming to work on the fields, I had the patience to work for four to six hours a day during the harvest. As a relief from the back pain, I would convince the workers to allow me to get food for them from home. There were at least 30 to 40 labourers working on the farms at any given time during the peak season. So they would naturally prevent me from carrying such a huge load of food on my head from home. For me, bringing food was somewhat a relief from the tremendous back pain I have to endure through harvest. I would insist on doing that and go home to get food. Carrying such a vast quantity of food was also not that easy unless you are accustomed to it, but not more difficult than harvesting.
Similarly, I had to face the problem of back pain during re-plantation. Putting back the seedlings in the wet ground was not a difficult task, but one has to bend at the hips for hours to do that. So it was a very painful work for me and to avoid it, I would take up the responsibility of carrying the seedlings thatched into bundles from one place to the other on the fields. Though all the bundles weighed between 20 to 25 kg, it was easy for me to carry them through the wet lands. By then, I was accustomed to carrying huge loads on my back, shoulders and head. All those experiences right from my student days to the four or five months’ period I was there in the village in 1931-32 helped me in drafting a charter of demands on behalf of the poor peasants and the agricultural labourers.
I recall another incident. It was during the summer vacation in 1927. The agricultural labourers went on a strike during the peak farming season in protest against what they termed as the inhuman attitude of the landlords. The rich peasants did not allow their cattle to the grazed on their fields. The workers had to feed not only their families, but also their cattle with grass and water to keep them alive, which was not forthcoming. So they boycotted the farm work as well as the domestic work at the landlords’ houses. Of course, I tried to persuade both the parties to give up their adamant positions. Meanwhile, the water had to be released into the tank to wash the cattle and quench their thirst. At the same time, the workers had to bring potable water from the well which was half-a-mile away from the centre of the village. It was a problem for both the sides. The household servants whom we engaged did not turn up for work as part of the boycott. So I started fetching drinking water from the well on my own. While doing so, one day I went to the village tank to swim and play with the cowherd boys. Normally, we used to chase each other in the tank which was shallow and in chasing a boy I went very deep into the tank – the depth was more than my height. I started drowning, but fortunately one of the grown-up shepherds pulled me to the shore and saved my life.
After I came back to my village and settled all the domestic and property issues I could not immediately go back to Madras to organise the underground movement. Amir Hyder Khan was arrested and sentenced to life. I had to stay back in Alaganipadu till I could establish full contacts with the comrades in Madras as well as Bombay. During that intervening time, I started a fair price shop in the village and took up multifarious activities. I would come to that period later. So while working on the fields, the farm servants used to narrate their living conditions and the deprivations they had to undergo at the hands of the landlords and the rich peasants of the village. They would explain how the landlords molest their women and, of course, their own exploits with the landlord ladies and other women. They used to boast about their sexual encounters with the ladies from the big families. It was not that landlords alone did such things, but also the workers. That was the understanding I got from the discussions with the labourers either in the village or in the journey to my sisters’ places. A whole lot of workers used to accompany me in my travel to various villages then.
I came to realise that the women from the weaker sections might have consented on their own to go with the landlords or the latter might have took them by force. Whatever the case, it was a very wayward trait that needed to be mended, if not altogether put an end to. Though I did not like all those conversations and narrations, I allowed the labourers to talk and express their feelings. I was very sympathetic to them. Generally, the boys and the youths from the landlord families had a very lecherous way of life. I did not go their way. However, those stories and exploits gave me a clear picture that sex was the most important and powerful factor in a person’s life. As long as a man and woman consent – even though it is a mistake – there’s no need to take it seriously and make a big scandal out of it, but it’s very unethical and immoral for man to possess a woman by force. I hate it. The sexual exploitation of women and the horrible torture and the abuses they have to put up with made me a firm believer in the concept of women’s equality and emancipation. By then, I had read about the strong women of India and their life sketches, including Bandaru Atchamamba’s Abala Sucharitra Ratnamala. I don’t think the book is available now. At that time, I read all those books. They were all published by Vignana Chandrika Mandali. Bandaru Atchamamba was the sister of Komarraju Lakshmana Rao. They were one of the foremost renaissance families and were very powerful in their impact on society. In fact, Lakshmana Rao was the first person who made a big effort to bring all the books related to sciences and history in Telugu. I think by 1935 or 36 I read plenty of books on marriage and morals. I can’t exactly remember the year, but before 1947 I read Bertrand Russell’s books. There was a Swedish author Elwin Kay who wrote a book on marriage ethics. I read that book. In all those processes, I became a champion of women’s rights and equality of sexes.
In 1932, when Amir Hyder Khan, V K Narasimhan and Raja Vadivelu were arrested and put in prison, I gave a deep thought to what should I do next. Ultimately, I decided to stay back in the village, take up diverse activities and start establishing contacts with all my old colleagues spread across the Madras Presidency. Once all such contacts were established, it would be far easy for us to organise an underground movement on a massive scale. As a first step towards organising the communist movement in the village, I started a library for the general readers and a primary school for children, especially belonging to the agricultural labourer families and the other weaker sections. In those days, their children were not allowed to study at the main village school nor was there any proper teaching. The merchants then used to collect surplus prices for various commodities. There were complaints all round, especially from the labourers about the exorbitant prices that the merchants were charging for essential goods. I gathered all the consumers and started a cooperative merchandise store. After a few weeks, I also mobilised the poor peasants and the agricultural labourers for a progressive movement. The cooperative store was a big hit with the rural masses. As long as I was there it made a good profit. We used to sell everything at the store – onions, chillies, tamarind, garlic, salt, sugar, jaggery and all other groceries. All those commodities were not available locally; I had to get them from Nellore on a bicycle. So I was the librarian, school teacher, manager of the cooperative store and the organiser of the agricultural labourers’ movement. I was also educating the cadre and at the same time taking up the further study of socialism. Those were the multifarious activities that I took up in the village from 1932 to 34 when I finally left the village. I also toured various parts in the state during the period between 1933 and 34 to try and establish contacts with my old pals who were there with me in various jails.
While organising the agricultural labourers at Alaganipadu, I established contacts with the nationalist revolutionaries based at Nellore, especially Duvvuri Balarami Reddy, Nayudu Pattabhirami Reddy and Chundi Jagannatham.
I also came into contact with many young Congress leaders who had been with me in the jails previously. As I mentioned before, there were a few individual nationalist revolutionaries and many more youths were getting attracted towards them. Though their ideology and ideals were noble, I had strong reservations over the path which they were pursuing to realise their ultimate goal. Time and again I used to persuade them to give up the violent approach and join the Marxist and Leninist movement which our group was planning to spearhead not only in the Madras Presidency, but also in the whole of the country. Now, our whole idea was to first strengthen the farm labourers’ movement in the rural areas under the leadership of the working class as a harbinger to the communist movement. So I started the agricultural workers union as early as 1932 and framed a constitution for it. The union activities were part of the multi-pronged strategy that I wanted to implement in my village. Even in the contemporary period, I consider such an approach as a model that would pay huge dividends for the organisation or the communist movement as a whole. The party could benefit immensely by undertaking multifarious activities at the village level.
As for the boys and the youths that I gathered in the village for organisational work, they were all enthusiasts and had zeal to work for the transformation of society. Our group mainly consisted of Pusapati Narasimharaju, Kotamreddy Ramana Reddy, Palicherla Shankaraiah, Ramanaiah and Ramaiah. They were all studying at the village school; some of them were younger to me and some elder. We all collectively revived the library. I contributed some books, purchased some and made the library functional. We also subscribed to Andhra Patrika. I used to conduct the primary school. The classes were held particularly in the evenings. In the mornings, we used to run a small dispensary, primarily to administer first aid. As I told you earlier, my cousin Dasaratharami Reddy was a doctor. I think he was in the final semester of MBBS then. I asked him to prepare a list of medicines and other utilities for various common diseases and a guideline on the mode of treatment. He did provide us with skaldic acid – to treat malaria, red oxide (mercury), plastic materials and other half-a-dozen varieties of medicines. So I started administering treatment at the dispensary in the mornings. At least 50 to 60 people used to visit the clinic daily since there was no other modern hospital in the periphery. There was no provision for even first-aid in the village. The only regional rural hospital was at Vidavaluru, five miles away from Alaganipadu. Some rural medical practitioners were there, but they were lacking in knowledge of modern medicine and the mode of treatment. There was no use of antiseptics then. In such circumstances, we did start the dispensary and it was of a great help to the local people.
As the next step, we started a cooperative store. I borrowed some Rs. 1,000 from my brother and purchased all kinds of groceries, including clothes, from Nellore. We decided to run the store on a no loss-no profit basis. We categorised the consumers into two types – those who contribute certain wages and join as a member of the cooperative could buy goods at a discount while the ordinary consumers would have to pay the general rates. However, even the general rates were far less than what the other merchants in the village were charging on all kinds of groceries.
Though our group was not a part of the Youth League, more or less it functioned on similar organisational lines. For instance, running a library and conducting classes for children as well as the adults in the evenings. But our group was the first to moot the idea of a cooperative store and put it into action. The local merchants were severely hit once we started the store. There was no doubt about it. The main point was I had to work for free and there was no huge expenditure on transportation of goods. I used to go to Nellore on a bicycle to purchase some emergency stocks and if the load was huge – especially kerosene cans and big gunny bags – I used to bring them in a bus. The nearest bus stop was two miles away from the village. Generally, the merchants employed bullock carts to transport their goods, but we did not waste money on hiring carts. I used to shift the kerosene cans and the huge bags from the bus stop on a cycle. Only because of this reason, the prices at our store were very less and the customers began to flock to us in dozens. The merchants were entirely professional and were dependent on the sale of goods for livelihood whereas I was not dependent on the store for income. I had other sources for sustenance.
The attitude of the village merchants was quite unique. They were very careful in dealing with the consumers from the landlord and the rich families. But when it came to people from the economically weaker sections, they would adopt all kinds of dubious means to cheat them, price wise and quality wise. Normally, it was the practice in the village to barter grain for other essential goods. The merchants would valuate the grain at less; at the same time, charging exorbitant prices for the goods. They would also cheat them on measurements and weights. That was not the case with our store. I used to fix the exact market price for their grain and exchange the goods in turn. In fact, one of the slogans of our group was: get rid of false measurements and weights. First, I started with my family and under pressure from our group most of the other families too gave up cheating on measurements. We had a strong movement by then. Ultimately, the merchants who were exploiting the poor came to me for a deal. They said they would reduce the prices and also run our cooperative store. “Why are you wasting your precious time in all these affairs? We will look after the business.” I told them that my giving up the management position meant employing them in the cooperative stores. And, if I did that, they would gradually ruin its business and eventually go back to their usual exploitative ways. So, I said: “Let the stores continue. If necessary, I will employ you. I will definitely consider it.”
My cousin Veera Reddy used to visit the stores quite often. He was very upset over the fact that I gave up studies. He was in the profound hope that I would study further and become a high profile man. But all his hopes were dashed to the ground with my one resolute decision. He would often tell me that I was wasting a lot of time in the village doing petty things like running the stores, the school and the library while in fact I should have been in the college. He was very sorry over my decision, but he would express his anguish in a lighter vein making humorous remarks now and then. I told him that I was not regretting my decision to quit studies since what I was doing in the village was some sort of a social service. I was in the firm belief that if all the oppressed people stand together they could change their lives sooner rather than later. They should not wait till the society transforms itself.
The cooperative store was a successful venture with the young boys providing useful services voluntarily. The people of the village, for the first time, felt relieved from all kinds of exploitation and cheating. There was also no cheating from the consumers’ side. They started bringing their grain without mixing stone pebbles and grass follicles. Those small changes in the village spread to other villages of the region. People began talking about a store being run by one Sundarayya and which was helping the poor a lot. There was a lot of talk on our other activities like library and school. So people from neighbouring villages started visiting our store to purchase goods. Young boys and the youths too began visiting our library and school to read and study instead of wasting their time in playing cards and marbles. That was a notable change. As I got very busy with various activities, I began to feel the pinch. I found it increasingly difficult to teach at the night school after toiling all the day. I thought of closing down the school unless different conditions came up. However, the peasant youth were firm on learning something or the other. So they started coming to me to discuss certain issues and also read books. That way, it was quite a learning experience for them. They got acquainted with progressive ideas, the Gandhian ideals, the biographies of great leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh. There was a sense of enlightenment though there was no high school and other centres of learning. The stage was set for gradually introducing social reforms in the village.
Coming to the health services, the small dispensary that we started mainly catered to the basic needs like administering of first-aid and provision of medicines for common diseases. I had sufficient medicine stocks at the dispensary. A lot of people used to visit the first-aid centre with all kinds of wounds. I would clean up their wounds with anti-septic and dress them. For those suffering with fever I used to give chloroquine tablets. However, I would never forget one case. One day, a woman came to me for treatment. She pulled out one of her breasts from the blouse and showed it to me. There was a big wound on it and a cloth was inserted deep into it. The puss was oozing from the wound. She wanted me to treat the wound. I told her that I was not that expert to treat such a deep wound and that I would send her to the regional medical centre at Vidavalur where there was a professional doctor to take care of all such cases. In fact, the doctor there used to take very good care of the patients whom I refer to him. He had great respect for me and also feared me since our group was a very powerful one, including the agricultural labourers union. He never rejected any patient nor did he show any indifference towards them. But the woman refused to go there saying she has come to me since my hand was good. I tried to persuade her that if her wound doesn’t get healed after treatment at the regional medical centre I would send her to Nellore hospital and bear whatever expenses that may arise out of it. We had many contacts in Nellore by then. I dressed her wound on her insistence, but I don’t know if she went to Vidavalur or Nellore later. She didn’t turn up the next day or any other day.
There was another such case. A patient came with a septic wound in her leg. She had applied mud and juice of leaves on it. I realised that she was feeling immense pain. I poured hydrogen peroxide and then slowly started cleaning the wound with hot water. The mud and the leaves were very sticky. It took about 15 to 20 minutes to carefully remove them without causing much pain to the patient. Later I tied a bandage and gave her an ointment with the suggestion that she should apply it on the wound from time to time after thoroughly cleaning it with hot water. I told her that if the wound doesn’t heal I would send her to Nellore. Generally, anti-tetanus injections have to be given for septic wounds, but unfortunately, we didn’t have them at that time. Though we referred the patients with serious ailments to Nellore or Vidavalur hospitals, the primary care that we offered at the dispensary had a very good impact on the poorer sections not only from the village, but also from the neighbouring villages spread in a radius of five miles.
As the days passed by, our activities attracted the attention of even the educated masses in Kovur and Nellore taluks. Both the taluks had a high percentage of educated people. They began talking about one Sundarayya, who was a strong follower of Gandhian principles, but most importantly a communist, and that he was providing all kinds of services to the poor. They also came to know about the other activities of our group and the agricultural labourers union. What our group used to do was go around in a batch of four or five carrying gunny bags on our back to house to house when the weekly wages – in the form of grain – were paid and ask the labourers to join our cooperative by donating a part of their wages. Though we could not mobilise many to join the cooperative, a lot of Harijans willingly agreed to become a part of the agricultural labourers union after we gave an elaborate explanation on what the union was going to do and what were its objectives. A sufficiently large number of workers joined the union, but not from every house. Similarly, we mobilised the cobblers. We did try to bring in the weavers and other sections. They did not join us since they had a running feud with the Reddys, but they were very sympathetic to our movement. They appreciated us a lot and also respected us. Whenever we intervened in the faction feuds, they would stop quarrelling. Later on, I began putting pressure on the landlords to give up factional rivalry and settle all the disputes with the weavers.
As our movement gained strength, small peasants too started coming to us. They would pour out their woes, especially their cattle not being allowed to graze on the farms of the big landlords and along the canal bunds and how the water was not being released into the village tanks to clean up the cattle and quench their thirst. The rich peasants had monopolised the grazing fields and the cattle tanks. There was also the issue of corruption right from the level of kalasi to that of an engineer. We had to intervene to set things right. Sometimes we used to go and shout at them, but nothing would come out of it. We had to strengthen our group further to be effective in resolving the problems. The diverse activities that we were carrying out brought us a kind of high stature in the entire village. During that period – 1932 – I decided not to join the Congress-led nationalist movement. My immediate job was to discourage the Congress workers from going to jail since that was not going to help the cause of independence in anyway. I started explaining to them patiently that it would be better if they took up activities just as we were carrying out in our village and help the poor. By that time, many young people were ready to plunge themselves into the national movement and go to jail. However, those people who went to jails earlier adopted the individual revolutionary path. One such person was Duvvuri Balarami Reddy from Mypadu. In fact, he was closely related to my second brother-in-law Jayabala. Later on, he married the sister of the first wife of my brother-in-law. He was very progressive and went to jail in Nellore in 1931.
Tsundi Jagannatham had just completed his studies and was ready to join the national movement. Nayudi Pattabhirami Reddy – I could not recall his name till recently – was involved in a bomb case. I learnt about his involvement when Kambhampati senior provided me with the case copies recently at Kakinada. Later, he was murdered by some landlords in Rebala village suspecting that he had an extra-marital relationship with a woman of their family. I don’t know the complete details. But he was one of the prominent members of the revolutionary group during the national movement. So I contacted all those people. They all agreed to form an extensive group and carry out our activities. But they started arguing that there was nothing wrong in attacking and looting the banks and the rich landlords in order to pool resources for our organisational work. They said their job was to secure money while our responsibility was to carry out the social service. I did not agree with their contention. I said if they wanted to collect money they could as well collect it from the people. I gave a number of instances wherein the revolutionaries with their individual exploits could not succeed in shaking the British Empire at the roots. I told them there was no use in pursuing a violent path and getting killed or hanged by the government. Obviously, mistakes were bound to occur when one carries out a terrorist operation and one small mistake was enough to put an end to their march. I told them that there was no use in gathering money forcefully which ultimately they would spend in defending themselves and procuring more arms. It was certainly a vicious circle and was not going to help in anyway. Whatever the personal sacrifices, there would be little or no results. So there was no question of accepting such a line.
While that was one part of the early debate, I introduced them to the Marxist and Leninist ideology and asked them to join the communist movement. They said they would consider the proposal, but I could not convince them totally. I said it was no problem for me, but I advised them not to toe the line of individual revolutionaries. I knew fully well that they would not change and were bent on carrying out their own activities. There were some youngsters with me, but they did not join the revolutionaries. My influence was very strong on them and our approach was much better. One day, all of a sudden, they came and told me that Kapirala Venkatachari was being hunted by the police and asked me whether I could provide shelter to him. I told them that though I don’t agree with their personal ideology I was ready to provide shelter to Venkatachari if he was really under threat. Obviously, I had to provide shelter to him in my own house since there would not be any suspicion. Our movement was not so strong so as to lodge him in other houses. Slowly, rumours began to spread across the villages that I was harbouring revolutionaries; and every now and then one or the other revolutionary was visiting my house. I was already on the list of persons whose movements have to be watched. So I used to shift Venkatachari to different houses of my relatives in the neighbouring villages as a precautionary measure.
Gradually, the conditions turned worse and there was a strict surveillance of the police. I could not keep Chari for a longer period in the surrounding villages. So I decided to hand him over to Duvvuri Balarami Reddy who was organising the underground movement in Nellore. He did not know cycling. I had to carry him on my back cycling all the way for 30 miles to reach Mypadu. As expected, after a few days, all those people were arrested by the police for their involvement in an attack case. Later on, Jagannatham told me that it was a mistake not to have informed me of their activities. I said I knew what they were doing and that despite being aware of the consequences I provided shelter to Venkatachari. I told him that they could have been useful to our movement instead of facing the prison sentence pursuing a wrong line of action and they must realise the futility in running a secret organisation. During the same period, they did not do much, but the Gooty conspiracy case came up for hearing in the Madras High Court. They were transporting the bombs and other weapons and at the Burma Shell storage one of the bombs fell down and exploded killing one or two and wounding all of them in the process. Prakasam Panthulu defended their case, but they were convicted for seven years. That was the part of my relationship with the revolutionaries.
We continued with our activities till 1932 or 33 in Alaganipadu. Gandhi called off the Satyagraha movement at that precise moment. I did not travel to other places expect trying to establish contacts with people who were colleagues to me in the jails. During the whole period, we were involved in further study of the Marxist and Leninist ideology and educating the cadres on political issues. As soon as the prisoners were released I started meeting them and inviting them to house for further discussions. Keeping contacts with all those people was crucial for coordination and strengthening our organisation. In the process, I translated the Communist Manifesto, State and Revolution, What is to be done, Wage Labour and Capital into Telugu primarily for guiding the youths of our own group in the village. I also translated Left-wing Communism. Prasad Rao also helped me in translating those works. Meanwhile, the statement of the Meerut Joint Declaration came out. By then, I was considered as a staunch supporter of the weaker sections and a crusader against untouchability. I was termed as a pro-communist. In fact, in the intervening period of my return to the village and my second meeting with Amir Hyder Khan, there was a proposal to send me to Moscow for the further study of Marxist and Leninist doctrines.
V K Narasimhan was given the charge of sending me to Moscow through his contacts in Bombay. Money was not difficult to secure. I could ask my family members, but the problem was they did not want me to go to Russia. So I met Dasaratharami Reddy’s brother and asked him to provide some money for my travel. I told him that I would repay him as early as possible. V K Narasimhan was out of jail by giving a certain undertaking, but was very sympathetic to the communist movement. He had contacts with the comrades in Bombay who were employed in some insurance company. I went and met him at his house. His father-in-law was delighted to meet me. He was aware of my jail background and my satyagraha in the jail over the issue of food. He appreciated me for the strong stomach I had got which could even digest ragi food. I went to Bombay with the letter from VK and met Prof Mishra. He was an associate of Hyder Khan. He was living in a small chawl and was very ordinary. From his appearance, I didn’t believe he was a real professor, but he was called as such. He was from the working class. He told me that he would certainly make arrangements for my visit to Moscow, but said it would take time till the international conflicts were settled. By then, Germany was making big strides and posing a threat to the world peace, in particular to the European countries and the Soviet Union. Though the movement was scattered in Bombay with the Youth League and others working on their own, they still had contacts with the Communist Party of Soviet Union. My trip to Bombay was towards the end of October 1932. The comrades told me that they would inform me after finalising all the arrangements for my journey to Russia. But that didn’t materialise. Hitler was surging ahead in Germany and the whole channel was cut off. So I had to stay back in my village and take up political and social work.
In 1933, after the Communal Award was promulgated, Gandhi took up a nationwide tour to enlighten the weaker sections and collect funds for Harijan welfare. Prior to that, he had gone on a fast challenging the award. As part of the tour, he was to visit Nellore. There was threat to his meeting from the Justice Party workers. So we were all drafted as volunteers for the meeting and defend the gathering against any attack by the JP hoodlums who were mainly from the landlord sections. I led a volunteer squad from my village and similarly Gandavarapu Hanuma Reddy had his own squad from Koruturu a village near Mypadu. In fact, he made me the overall in charge of the volunteers because he had full confidence in me. The squads had both Congress and Communist party supporters. I gave them necessary instructions and fielded them at crucial spots. The result was the landlords did not dare to attack the meeting. Then there was another problem. Gandhi was to accompany the Harijans into a temple at Gannavaram. It was the native village of the district Congress president Sesha Reddy. There they were anticipating much trouble in the village. Our squads were to provide security at Gannavaram also. We were asked to go ahead of Gandhi’s arrival. When we were heading towards the village a group of people opposed to Sesha Reddy stopped us. We said we were the volunteers who have come to arrange for the next day’s visit of Gandhi. They said Gandhi was coming to their village with the sole purpose of taking the Harijans into the temple and that they would not allow anyone to make arrangements for his meeting.
When they refused to allow us into the village we sat on a dharna. Just a couple of hours before Gandhi was to arrive in the village, Sesha Reddy came along with his supporters. He had a big faction and was a powerful landlord. Until such time his opponents were of the view that we were outsiders who had no support base among the locals. So as soon as Sesha Reddy arrived at the spot he shouted at his opponents and ordered them to get lost. We went along with his group and made tight security arrangements. Since I was the leader of all the squads I was given the credit for organising the meeting without giving room to any untoward incident. Sesha Reddy too appreciated me. Of course, I defeated him in the town council elections later. He is still alive and I met him recently. I had a long relationship with him and we used to recall our association during the national movement. Similarly in 1935 when Nehru was to address a meeting at Madras, the local Congress leaders requested me to supervise the arrangements with the help of our student group. Actually, when Nehru arrived on that day there was a big stampede at the railway station and with great difficulty he was escorted outside. The local leaders were apprehensive of making proper arrangements for the next day’s public meeting. So an advocate by name Lanka – he was a Congress leader – asked us to provide enough volunteers and ensure that the meeting passes off peacefully. I gathered my own group and Ram mobilised a large number of students. We were some 200 volunteers. Every care was to be taken to provide a safe passage to Nehru to reach the dais and again back to his car after the meeting concludes. So we asked everybody who attended the meet to sit down and prevented anyone from standing or walking out in the middle. The meeting passed off peacefully without any stampede and all were able to walk out of the venue freely. The Congress leaders were really happy that the meeting was successful in every respect and appreciated our effort. The local press too noticed the difference. They quoted that compared to yesterday’s fiasco at the railway station upon Nehru’s arrival, today’s meeting was much more organised. They mentioned that it was a group of students, trade unionists and the press workers who made it possible. By then, we were all noticed as strong supporters of the communist movement. Still, the Congress leaders, including Srinivasa Iyyengar, and the people lauded our efforts. I don’t remember if P Ramamurthy was there in the volunteer squad. From those experiences, I began to stress on the proper organisation of the volunteer squads drafted for overseeing the arrangements at any public meeting.
I remember when Gandhi visited the Pallepadu ashram in 1929 we were called upon by the local leaders to make necessary arrangements for his stay. Now, the ashram is in ruins. Later, I sent Pusapati Narasimha Raju and a few others to protect the ashram from encroachers. The village munsab and the big landlords were trying to occupy the ashram lands in bits and pieces. We had to stop them at any cost. So I started visiting the ashram quite often giving necessary instructions. There was a big well in the surroundings and we made good use of it. We laid irrigation canals to cultivate the barren land there with water drawn from the well through the lift system. We also fenced the whole area. One day the local landlords herded his cattle onto the crops. We caught all the cattle and transferred them to the cattle shed owned by a munsab of the neighbouring village. If we had put them at the local shed owned by the munsab he would have let the cattle free. The landlords went there and requested him to release the cattle, but the munsab asked them to take my approval. They said he would not listen to us. The munsab stuck to his stand and ultimately, the landlords came to see me. I told them to first apologise for their behaviour and give an undertaking that thereafter they would not try to encroach any part of the ashram. The row was thus settled once and for all.
What made us powerful and popular back in our village was our organising of the peasant labourers’ movement. The landlords were totally opposed to our activities from the very beginning. We were demanding adequate wages and respect for the rights of the farm labourers. The landlords said if we could demand higher wages now, we could as well demand a portion of their land in future, which we did ultimately. They wanted to put an end to our activities. They had lengthy arguments over our demand for more wages. I had to show them all the calculations and the profits they were making from cultivating the lands to tell them that they would not lose much if they raised the wages. Similarly, there was long running dispute between the Harijans and the landlords on the issue of drawing water from the wells. I met both the sections and convinced them that they should not object to each other on the question of drawing water. In that way, the issue of untouchability was resolved to some extent in the village. Our group had representation from all the sections and naturally, we had a wide support base.