Kovvali – The Author of 1001 novels

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It was with great reluctance that I took up speaking about a book of 18 short novels, written by the most prolific writer of modern Telugu; his name is Kovvali Lakshmi Narasimha Rao and he has written, and yes, I can give all the titles — 1,001 novels. One would rather call them novellas, they are not lengthy enough; but in treatment and intent they are novels. I wonder if, in any other language in India, a writer has crossed the 1,000 mark in fiction writing. He also wrote at a time when the Romantic movement was fading, the Progressive movement was on the rise and blank verse was the order of the day. It was a time when women were slowly gathering up the guts to read something. And his novels had the distinction of being banned from “respectable” households, because they gave “ugly and unhealthy ideas” to women on love and sexuality. From 1935 to 1975, he wrote with hardly any interval. It was said that he wrote one novel a week; some in just two days.

Kovvali’s novels were patronisingly called “railway literature”. You pick up a book on the platform, finish it in two or three hours and leave it in the compartment when you detrain. His novels were not considered “real literature”; they were not worthy of mention in literary criticism; in fact, his contemporaries (except for the most honest of them all, Chalam) hardly made his acquaintance, though he reached far more readers than they ever did. Very few admitted to have read him, though they did so, secretly. He had one mission; to write about the lives of common middle-class people with all their bigotry about tradition and culture; and to write it in the most attractive and simple language that even a person with meagre education would understand. As he often said, he wished to inculcate the “reading habit’ among Telugus, especially women and youth. That is exactly what he achieved.

And to my great surprise, I found he was a person of social awareness. He was a champion of women’s causes as early as the 1930s. He asked women to get educated, not cling to an unhappy marriage, get out of child marriage, not hesitate to marry for love. His female characters always know what they want; and fight to get it. His solutions for the problems of women may have been simplistic, sometimes even cinematic (he was also a successful filmwriter), but the intention and the sensibility were true and sincere.

When one looks at Kovvali once again, it is amazing that one person could write so many pages in his life; that even after writing the maximum number of novels, he failed to get any recognition from his contemporaries; that he was almost never read by a serious reader; that he is totally unknown to the present reader.

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