Kodagina Gowramma, she of the tiny province of Kodagu (formerly Coorg), would have turned 111 today.
I first ‘met’ her when she had just turned a century old, through her tiny corpus of 21 short stories written in Kannada. Which is a tad shameful, because being from the same tiny town and milieu as her, I ought to have known about her before that article in a newspaper that came from far away.
Then again, who in this world allows a woman to be adequately remembered? Especially a disruptor, a fierce critic of patriarchal norms, an independent, thinking woman!
A writing career at the age of 19
The particulars of her life have remained as fascinating to me (if not more) as the sensitive and insightful stories she wrote about the complex lives of women. There was much she did and said and lived before she began to cultivate a writing career at the age of 19.
Kodagina Gowramma belonged to the privileged class, at a time in the 1920s and 30s when the Coorg Province had already become fairly cosmopolitan for those like her.
Born upper caste and into a liberal family on 5 March 1912, she was the youngest daughter of NS Ramaiah, a lawyer, and Nanjakka.
She was educated, wrote, spoke English, was well-read (going by one of her photos in profile, where she is with a book and looking rather Virginia Woolf-ish, it is likely she was reading the easily available British literature of the time), allowed to indulge in a multitude of hobbies that included swimming and tennis, and take an active interest in the Yakshagana and Talamaddale forms of Karnataka folk theatre.
Amongst the novels she loved best were those by Venkatesh Tirako Kulkarni, who wrote under the pseudonym Galaganatha.
Her socially active life continued after her wedding to BT Gopalakrishna in 1925, despite the couple moving from busy Madikeri to the remote outpost of Hardur near Suntikoppa village.
Kodagina Gowramma’s trip to Kashi
A monograph on Kodagina Gowramma by the writer H Nagaveni offers many anecdotes.
One such relates how, at age six, she insisted on accompanying her parents to Kashi (present-day Varanasi); how her mother fell severely ill and passed away during the journey; and how little Gowramma got lost in the bustling crowd of Kashi before being reunited with her father at the local police station.
Perhaps her father indulged her every whim thereafter; for Gowramma insisted on studying only in a convent, then was resolute about moving into her husband’s house only after she finished her matriculation.
It was while studying in the 5th Form at Madikeri’s Central High School that she is said to have begun to develop her world view.
A cousin, speaking about her decades later, remembered Gowramma’s love of books and of fashion. Her sophistication was also well remembered, even though this cousin sadly remarked, “I have even forgotten how her voice sounded now.”
Towards Gandhian ideas and politics
Kodagina Gowramma would go on to be deeply inspired by Gandhian ideas and take to wearing only khadi from her mid-teens onwards.
She also became famous for insisting, when MK Gandhi came to Kodagu in 1934 and stayed at the Gundukutti mansion (where Gowramma’s husband worked as the manager of the Gundukutti family’s Hardur estate), that Gandhi visit her house too.
Stubbornly, she went on a fast until Gandhi came and got her to break her fast by giving her an orange, after which Gowramma donated all her gold to the nationalist cause.
She had started writing stories in 1931, just after the birth of her only son, ‘Baby’ Vasantha. After Gandhi’s visit, Gowramma began to actively cultivate a political life as well. She travelled across what was then Coorg, encouraging the young people she met at every stop to join the Indian National Congress.
Tragedy would strike in the summer of 1939
Here was a young woman doing it all: enjoying a roaring social life, playing tennis with the neighbours, donning a swimsuit for a dip in the local river every other day, raising a child, working for the national cause, corresponding with and seeking advice from senior writers (both male and female), travelling to literary meets in other towns (often alone), and shaping her voice as a writer.
But tragedy would strike one summer’s day in 1939 when Kodagina Gowramma died in an accident while swimming. Some accounts say she got caught in a whirlpool and drowned, others that she was practising her diving skills and hit her head accidentally.
She had turned 27 only a month before she drowned. Too brief a life, by all counts.
It is tempting to speculate how her life would have unfolded if she had had the chance to continue the careers she seemed to have been preparing for.
Would she have been a politician — a minister even — in independent India? Would she have been a writer of immense prominence, a household name like MK Indira, Triveni, and others who started writing decades after her?
One obviously cannot know which side of Gowramma’s multifaceted personality would have shone brightest.
‘What struck me were her male characters’
But we have her stories. And what fantastic stories they are!
Hers are some of the earliest feminist writings in contemporary Kannada literature.
The women she wrote are fierce, rebellious, of independent mind. They are not always enabled with the agency to shape their own lives — such were the times Kodagina Gowramma wrote these short stories in, after all — but neither are they the sort to go down without a fight.
When I began translating Gowramma’s stories, what struck me were the male characters she created.
In keeping with her feminist sensibilities, her men are rarely intimidating, usually fallible, and utterly human. They are sensitive at times and prone to treating their wives and sisters with respect, kindness, and a sense of equality, but they are never “heroes” in the sense the term is usually understood in fiction. They don’t rescue a damsel in distress or save the day.
Kodagina Gowramma needs to be read more widely
Naturally, some of the stories in the collection now feel dated. The writing in the original is also often clunky, meandering, and out of step with contemporary reading sensibilities.
But Gowramma remains important for the same reason the classics of any language remain important to understand a particular time period, a particular milieu, a particular sensibility. She is a very important part of Kannada literary history.
For that reason alone, Gowramma needs to be read more widely. Like every woman writer fighting against erasure from cultural memory, she deserves all the attention we can give her.
(The author wishes to note that the 20th century short-story writer used the spelling “Gouramma” in her available correspondence, but the editor chose to spell it as Gowramma for SEO purposes)
(Deepa Bhasthi is a writer and translator based in Kodagu. Her most recent book is ‘Fate’s Game and Other Stories’, a translation of Kodagina Gowramma’s short stories. She is currently working on translating Banu Mushtaq’s short stories, for which she was one of the winners of the inaugural PEN Presents grants given by EnglishPEN.
Her essays, columns and features on culture, art and literature have been published in over 40 national and international publications. She occasionally works on visual art projects. Her recent works are available here)